Ideology, pragmatism and sacred values

Ezra Klein had a post this week titled “Obama’s budget is policy, not ideology” that contained this bit:

Obama’s budget is not philosophy…it is the product of a negotiation process, as opposed to an opening bid. It is, in other words, policy. You could argue that this is a philosophy, and that philosophy is pragmatism, but I think that’s getting too cute. This is the sort of policy that night pass and might work.

Ryan’s budget is purer, but it is also more fantastical. It posits the government it wishes were possible, and the policies it wishes would work. It is an opening bid so ideological that it leaves little room for a process of negotiation.

Krugman took issue with this general framing (not just by Ezra) in a post titled “Everyone Has An Ideology.” His basic point:

But I’d also like to register a philosophical protest. There’s an old joke to the effect that you’re an ideologue; I’m just being sensible. The point is that everyone has an ideology — which is another way of saying that everyone has (a) values and (b) some view about how the world works. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

As a philosophical matter I believe Krugman is correct. There is no policy without ideology/philosophy. Yet Ezra offers a relevant distinction between ideology and policy: the former ignores the prospects of an idea becoming law while the latter takes that into account.

Ezra’s distinction is potentially useful, and shows that we tend to define “ideology” and “ideological” in ways other than its purely philosophical designation. I want to offer my own definition of “ideological” in the context of modern politics and then tie it back to a previous post on how we identify values in political arguments.

How I think about ideology in modern politics

To me, a person is “ideological” to the extent that they place value on government’s role in a certain sphere of policy, on one side or another. For instance, if you place value on government not involving itself in the provision of healthcare, that makes you ideological. It may still be that once the facts are considered, you end up supporting a role for government, but your starting point places initial value on finding a solution that doesn’t require government. Your scales for considering the issue come pre-weighted against government involvement.

Or take the issue of taxation. If you place strong value on private property, you might approach taxation with the scales pre-weighted against raising rates; arguments in favor of more taxation thus have a higher bar to overcome. These values are perfectly legitimate; but I call them “ideological” because they approach one of the major questions of modern American politics, the appropriate role and scope of government, as at least partially a question of values. (This can occur on both left and right, though I tend to think the right is more likely to apply values to this particular question.)

It is in that sense that I believe Obama is truly a pragmatist. On the question of the scope of government he is likely to ask “what does the government do well, and what does it do poorly, relative to our other goals”, whereas a more ideological figure would ask “does government do x well enough/poorly enough to overcome our presumptive value for/against its involvement in this sphere”.

Identifying ideology

So what’s the point of all this? I wrote a post a while back on Exposing sacred arguments that touched on something similar. As I wrote then:

I see the identification of sacredness as a crucial challenge in the public sphere, and therefore a crucial challenge within media.

I want to use the definition of ideology that I’ve laid out to give a semi-concrete example of what I mean. Let’s assume that when it comes to healthcare, Obama is a pragmatist in the sense I’ve discussed. He’s worried about welfare, equality, etc. but approaches the question of the role of government in healthcare pragmatically. But does Paul Ryan approach that question in the same manner? Or is it possible that when considering the appropriate role of government in healthcare, Ryan’s scale comes pre-weighted, perhaps even just slightly, against government involvement. Perhaps limited government is a “sacred value”, in a Haidtian sense, to him and to his supporters.

If so, that’s something we, the public, should know. So how do we find out? One way is simply to get the facts straight. If we weigh the arguments on the unweighted scale, find the argument for government involvement compelling in that context, and then see Ryan still favoring less government, that might suggest the existence of a sacred value. So classic fact-checking and analysis can help us back into the identification of values.

But I wonder if we might also do some work on the opposite end, by identifying the values first. And I wonder whether that might help us back into our analysis of the issue. If we can identify up front that Ryan places inherent value on limited government (what I’m calling an ideological approach) then we can treat his arguments about the pragmatic merits a bit differently. Perhaps it means we are less likely to trust certain arguments of his. Perhaps we just bear in mind that in his view arguments against government involvement have a lower bar to clear. In any case, it’s something we want to know and something we may be able to use media to help uncover.


The epistemology of Wikipedia

The Atlantic tech has a great feature for Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary, featuring thoughts from a number of excellent contributors, including Shirky, Benkler, Zuckerman, Rosen and more.  Check it out.

One point of interest for me was a contrast in epistemologies offered by novelist Jonathan Lethem and Clay Shirky.  Lethem:

Question: hadn’t we more or less come to understand that no piece of extended description of reality is free of agendas or ideologies? This lie, which any Encyclopedia implicitly tells, is cubed by the infinite regress of Wikepedia tinkering-unto-mediocrity. The generation of an infinite number of bogusly ‘objective’ sentences in an English of agonizing patchwork mediocrity is no cause for celebration

Now compare that to Shirky:

A common complaint about Wikipedia during its first decade is that it is “not authoritative,” as if authority was a thing which Encyclopedia Britannica had and Wikipedia doesn’t. This view, though, hides the awful truth — authority is a social characteristic, not a brute fact.

So far, that’s basically the same critique that Lethem offers.  But unlike Lethem, Shirky offers a pragmatic version of epistemology:

Authoritativeness adheres to persons or institutions who, we jointly agree, have enough of a process for getting things right that we trust them. This bit of epistemological appraisal seems awfully abstract, but it can show up in some pretty concrete cases.DARPA, the Pentagon’s famous R&D lab, launched something in late 2009 called “The Red Balloon Challenge.” They put up ten red weather balloons around the country, and  said to contestants “If you can tell us the latitude and longitude of these balloons, within a mile of their actual positions, we’ll give you $40,000.” However, because the Earth is curved, DARPA also had to explain the Haversine forumla, which converts latitude and longitude to distance.

Now, did DARPA want to write up a long, technical description of the Haversine formula?  No, they did not; they had better things to do. So they did what you or I would have done: They pointed to Wikipedia. DARPA, in essence, told contestants “If you want to compete for this $40,000, you should understand the this formula, and if you don’t, go look at this Wikipedia article.”

Shirky’s account strikes me as the kind of pragmatism advocated by Richard Rorty, of whom I’m a big fan.  What makes something true in a post-metaphysical world?  Well, how about whether or not it helps you track down the balloons and win $40K?  Hurray, pragmatism!

I recognize all of the above is less about Wikipedia and more about philosophy…so thanks for indulging me this post. But do go read The Atlantic’s package.  Particularly Benkler’s response.  I’ll leave you with this Benkler nugget:

That, to me, is the biggest gift Wikipedia has given us; a way of looking at the world around us and seeing the possibility of effective human cooperation, on really complex, large projects, without relying on either market or government processes.