Defending Ideology
By Tibor Machan - December 06, 2012

It is very common among intellectuals in our time to demean ideology. Thus if one supports, say, free trade with foreign firms, one is belittled for doing so on grounds of one's conviction that free trade is generally better than trade that is regimented by government. A "free-market ideologue" is what one is snidely called in such circumstances.

What is the alternative? How is one supposed to defend a policy one thinks is a good idea for a country to follow?

The first candidate that jumps to mind is pragmatism. If it is pragmatically warranted, then it is okay to support it, or so many vocal and well-positioned public figures claim. And what does that come to?

Pragmatic justifications usually focus on whether a policy works, whether it is practical. But how is that ascertained? How do we know whether a policy works? Well, is there sufficient evidence that it achieves the goal or purpose for which it is proposed?

In the case of international free trade that goal or purpose would be mutual wealth creation. If through such trade the parties gain more wealth than by some other means, like government planning – setting quotas, protectionism, etc. – then free trade will have been pragmatically justified or vindicated; it will have been found the practical, workable policy to follow.

Of course, wealth creation could be achieved by way of a policy of invasion, of confiscating the wealth of some country. It used to be the most prominent approach countries deployed so as to gain wealth in the international arena. That is one reason wars had been started. It had been the reason for imperialism in many instances.

Yet, such approaches are often deemed to be unjustified because they involve the aggression by one country's government against another. One might even compare this to sex where if it is uninvited and involves assault or rape, it is understood to be unjustified. Peacefully pursued, however, it would be quite acceptable but when it involves aggression it is wrong and may be forcibly resisted.

But why? Well, here is where pragmatism doesn't help very much. That's because whether one ought to attempt to obtain wealth (or sexual satisfaction) peacefully isn't just a practical matter. Certainly attempting to do so before one has learned of the consequences would contradict pragmatism (which is based on practice and history, not on moral theory or ideology). Even if aggression turned out to be effective – so that raping someone gave the rapist great satisfaction – it would be unjustified yet not on pragmatic grounds but on moral or ideological ones.

Granted, most immoral, unethical conduct is also impractical. It rarely achieves goals the best possible way, most efficiently. But that's irrelevant. Moreover, certain objectives or goals are also vile and thus impermissible. Pursuing them is wrong and may often be banned whether or not they are practical.

Then, of course, pragmatism is itself an ideology or theory of action wherein what is workable, practical, is preferred as against what isn't. Why should people proceed only when their objectives are feasible? Pursuing the impossible dream could well be a good policy for purposes of gaining stamina, for honing one's tenacity and grit.

There is really no hope in resting proper public or even private policies on nothing more than that they are practical. Human beings need also to be sure that their choices, including those pertaining to public or political policies, are worthy, have overall merit, square with a proper moral outlook. Belittling that goal by labeling it ideology is a cheap shot. The issue should be which ideology makes the best sense not whether something is ideological.

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