Tag: ideology

Farcical Concept of the Day

The tip-off that this item from the LSE review of books was not going to go well was in the introductory matter:

But what are think tanks? Who funds them?

The book under review is Think Tanks In America, by Thomas Medvetz. I don’t know that it shares the flaws of its LSE review.

It would be preferable, I suppose, for people to look into the funding of think tanks, given the commonly exercised alternative: assuming wrongly how many think tanks are funded. But whatever the case, funding information is only useful in ad hominem, that is, the illogical argumentation practice of attacking the speaker rather than the speaker’s point. It works adequately well in popular media.

But I found comedy gold in the write-up where it observed how think tanks have “helped undermine the relevance of autonomously produced social scientific knowledge.” That’s right. Social scientific knowledge not developed in think tanks produces itself! Universities, apparently, are empty vessels into which social science pours itself the way a rain gauge catches water.

Of course, there is no such neutrality in universities or any other source of social science research and commentary. If a person in such an institution believes him- or herself to be on terra firma, that is fine. But if you think the university, or any other single type of institution, has things locked up—well, Ptolemy, meet Copernicus. We all circle the truth in different orbits.

I have this in mind because I spoke with students this weekend at the International Students for Liberty Conference about the role of think tanks, including my own. Unlike universities, which often falsely claim neutrality, we have an ideology that we apply to the problems of the day. It’s important to examine and re-examine whether your ideology is valid and whether you are applying it well. But people who deny using ideology are unclear about their premises and underlying philosophy–or hiding them.

At least I thought so until I learned about the existence of “autonomously produced social scientific knowledge”!

Addendum: After I’d written, but prior to publication of, this post, Professor Medvetz emailed me responding to the Tweet I expanded on here.

“Please understand that the term autonomy has a precise and specific technical meaning in this context (one that I did not invent), and that it’s quite distinct from the everyday meaning you’re attributing to it. Next time, consider looking up the term’s meaning.”

For good measure, he counseled me, “if you ever hear a mathematician refer to an irrational number, be aware that he’s not suggesting that the number in question is lacking in good sense or sound judgment.”

I have looked for a meaning of “autonomously” that makes the phrase non-farcical and haven’t found one, even in sources that cite the distinct meaning of “irrational” in mathematics. But clearly Professor Medvetz intends something different than what the word means in plain English. Take this post as “Farcical Expression of the Day” rather than “Farcical Concept of the Day.” Perhaps this illustrates another dimension of the academy’s insularity–in language instead of ideology.

A Cautionary Tale

Somewhat belatedly, I’ve come upon this essay in which a “libertarian economist retracts a swipe at the left—after discovering that our political leanings leave us more biased than we think.” It presents a problem for anyone trying to communicate ideas that lack popular support: we are all “my-side biased,” tending to block out arguments and evidence that we know (or even suspect) will threaten any of our cherished convictions. How to overcome humanity’s natural ideological defense mechanisms?

Plato’s Socrates tried to do it by taking his interlocutors by surprise. First, get them to acknowledge all the key facts of a particular matter in isolation, in a way that does not present an obvious ideological threat, and only then tie them logically together so that the interlocutor cannot help but realize that his original presumption must be wrong. Hard to do.

An even tougher challenge is trying to minimize our own my-side bias so that we are not so thick-headed when one of our own convictions is contradicted by reality. Reading articles like the above from time to time no doubt helps.

China Old and New

The developing scandal and opaque power struggle surrounding fall princeling Bo Xiali, once thought to be a shoe-in for a top party position, reminds us of the old China. The fate of a nation of 1.3 billion people has been decided by relatively few men in Zhongnanhai, Beijing’s leadership compound. Bo’s ouster appears more likely to strengthen those dedicated to maintaining a system of stable authoritarianism than those hoping to promote political liberalism, but the outcome may still be better than the alternative.

Although in this way the “new” China doesn’t look very different from the perpetual back room machinations under Mao Zedong, the communist Humpty Dumpty really has fallen off the wall, never to be put back together again. After all, during the Cultural Revolution no one looked to citizens of the People’s Republic of China to enhance the profits of upscale New York City retailers. Today, Chinese travelers are spending some of their country’s expansive export earnings in America.

Reports the New York Times:

Over five days in January, a group of visitors to New York was treated to a private concert with the pianist Lang Lang at the Montblanc store, cocktails and a fashion show attended by the designers Oscar de la Renta and Diane Von Furstenberg, and a tour of Estée Lauder’s original office.

They were not celebrities. They were not government officials. They were Chinese tourists with a lot of money.

The most important relationship of the 21st century is likely to be that between the United States and China. Both countries have a big stake in emphasizing cooperation over confrontation. But a prosperous, even democratic PRC still could pose a significant geopolitical challenge to America. After all, nationalism knows no ideological bounds, wealth enhances military potential, and vote-seeking politicians have been known to harness the whirlwind of demagoguery to win. Nevertheless, a China where the majority of citizens are still desperate to climb the income ladder and the elite are enjoying their privileges is far less likely to intentionally blow up the international system that has moved their nation from poverty to prosperity.

Whether out of ideological conviction or political convenience, Bo was seen as pushing for a return to Maoist values. However, most Chinese seem to believe “Been there, done that” during the not so Great Leap Forward and the catastrophic Cultural Revolution. For a lucky few in the new China, it’s now even time to shop at Bergdorf Goodman!

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Public Isn’t Buying

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Angry Left Obama’s bête noir?

My response:

Would the president help himself by making a clearer ideological declaration – as many on the “professional left” are asking him to do? Hardly. POLITICO tells us this morning that those “professionals” lament “the president’s reluctance to be a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan, who spoke without apology about his vaulting ideological ambitions.” One of those professionals, Robert Reich, urges Obama to present “a clear and convincing narrative into which all the various initiatives neatly fit, so that the public can make sense of everything that’s done.”

The public is quite capable of making sense of everything that’s been done. It’s doing it, and it doesn’t like what it sees. Reagan spoke boldly about his vision because it arose directly from fundamental American principles – individual liberty, free markets, and limited constitutional government. Obama avoids presenting “a clear and convincing narrative” because if he stated his vision more clearly it would be even less convincing than it already is.

Thus, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was right to complain about the criticism’s coming from members of the professional left, who spend their lives cloistered in academia, the mainstream media, and other such redoubts, talking to each other. But Gibbs’s problem is deeper: It’s the product, not the pitch.

Well-Worn Ideological Grooves II

The Consumerist relates the story of a potential Verizon customer who grew frustrated with his inability to get its high-speed FiOS Internet service. After resorting to emailing the CEO of the company, his service was promptly installed.

“Verizon is a corporation who cares about their customers and not only about the bottom line,” wrote the newly happy customer.

Now ask yourself: Just how separable are “caring for customers” and “the bottom line”?

It’s interesting that many people’s ideological grooves have these concepts in opposition. But business owners know how much time they spend slavishly trying to please customers—because that affects their bottom lines. When big businesses do it badly, that affects their bottom lines and invites competition.

(Needless to say, the telecommunications area needs more competition, to bring customer service and bottom lines closer together).

See also: Well-Worn Ideological Grooves I

Libertarians, Independents, and Tea Parties

David Kirby and I have an op-ed in today’s Politico on libertarians as the “leading edge” of the independent vote:

Who are these centrist, independent-minded voters who swung the elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts to Republican candidates and are likely to be crucial in races this fall?…

Libertarians seem to be a leading indicator of this trend in centrist, independent-minded voters, based on an analysis of many years of polling data. We estimate that libertarians compose from 14 percent to 23 percent of voters nationally. They are among the few real swing voters in U.S. politics.

We note that libertarian voters started to swing against the Republicans in 2004, before most Republicans did. Then independents swung hard to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008. By 2008, though, libertarian voters had apparently recoiled against the prospect of an Obama-Pelosi-Reid government at a time of financial crisis. By November 2009 and January 2010, a majority of independents had followed the libertarians in turning against the Democrats’ big-government agenda. We go on to say:

So, if many of these centrist, independent voters are indeed libertarians, why aren’t libertarians better recognized?

First, the word “libertarian” is still unfamiliar — even to many who hold “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” views. Pollsters rarely use it….

Second, libertarian voters have traditionally been less likely to organize.

In the past three years, however, libertarians have become a more visible, organized force in politics — particularly as campaigns move online. Ron Paul’s campaign demonstrated that libertarians can organize and raise large sums of money on the Internet.

Meanwhile, tea party protests showed that libertarian-inspired anger can boil over into spontaneous, nationwide rallies. On Sept. 12, 2009, more than 100,000 people marched on Washington to protest federal spending and the growth of government — many carrying nerdy, libertarian-inspired signs such as “I Am John Galt,” referring to the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

Libertarians are emerging as a force within U.S. politics. While political leaders such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee and media stars like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are icons to a “conservative base,” it is not yet clear what political leaders might represent these libertarian voters.

But with candidates working to capitalize on voter angst in the 2010 midterms, there are sure to be many politicians angling to lead this libertarian vote.

Meanwhile, a new Politico/TargetPoint poll of people who attended the April 15 Tea Party in Washington found “two camps” there: “one that’s libertarian-minded and largely indifferent to hot-button values issues and another that’s culturally conservative and equally concerned about social and fiscal issues.” They also found a difference in intensity: “Asked to rate their level of anger about 22 issues on a scale of one (not angry at all) to five (extremely angry), the issue that drew the most anger: the growing national debt. The least: courts granting same-sex couples the right to marry. Twenty-four percent said they’re ‘not at all’ upset about gay marriage.”

A recent CBS/New York Times poll found “Tea Party supporters” more conservative than Americans in general on gay marriage. We may be seeing a difference between people who say they like the Tea Parties and those who actually turn out for Tea Party rallies, or possibly Tea Partiers in the Washington area are more socially liberal than they are in other regions.

In particular, the Politico/TargetPoint poll used some of the same questions, drawn from the Gallup Poll and other surveys, that Kirby and I have used to identify libertarians in our “libertarian vote” studies. Here’s the analysis from TargetPoint (emphases added):

IDEOLOGY

The Tea Party is, unsurprisingly, for small-government and cuts to taxes and spending; but there is a clear split when it comes to government promotion of moral values.

  • Overwhelming majorities of 88% and 81% say government is trying to do too many things best left to individuals and businesses, and that government should cut taxes and spending, respectively. But in terms of values, Tea Party attendees are split right down the middle. A slim majority of 51% say “Government should not promote any particular set of values”, versus 46% that say “Government should promote traditional family values in our society.”
  • We can compare these to Gallup data collected in September of 2009: nationally, 57% said government was doing too much (among Republicans it was 80%), while 53% said government should promote traditional values (among Republicans it was 67%). So the Tea Party is actually more conservative than national Republicans when it comes to the size and role of government, but less conservative than national Republicans in terms of government promotion of traditional values.
  • Indeed, combining the responses to some of these questions is a revealing ideological exercise: 43% of attendees said government is doing too much AND that government should promote traditional values, a distinctly conservative view; 42% said government is doing too much AND that government should NOT promote any particular set of values, an ideological view used by the Cato Institute as an indicator of libertarianism (currently 23% of all Americans fit into this category).
  • This split between a libertarian Tea Party and a socially conservative Tea Party is reinforced when we consider the combination of all three ideological questions we asked, questions on the size and role of government, the role of traditional values, and the dynamic between taxes and spending. If we count the number of times a respondent gave the “conservative” answer (government should do less, it should promote traditional values, and cut taxes and spending), 40% of Tea Party attendees gave the conservative answer all three times, and 42% gave the conservative answer only two times. Those that gave only two conservative responses were most likely to defect on the role of traditional values.

Anticipating criticisms, let me note that no survey is definitive, and few survey questions are definitive. It’s possible that some respondents would say “government should do more to solve our country’s problems” meaning that it should be cutting waste and reducing the national debt. And some people might understand “government should promote traditional values” to mean traditional values like self-reliance, thrift, and standing on your own too feet. But overall, I think these questions help us to separate broadly libertarian responses from conservatives and (social-democratic) liberals. And this poll suggests that Tea Partiers are not just conservative Republicans. At least some of them are more libertarian. Politicians trying to appeal to them should keep that in mind.