Thursday, December 15, 2011

How to Create an Ideology

Let's say you and I coach a football team. Over the years, you have developed a number of ideas about football, ideas like "Try to avoid third-and-10 by gaining at least a couple of yards on your first two downs. Don't give up big plays on defense. Fundamentals like tackling and blocking are the most crucial aspects of the game." These ideas are rules-of-thumb that have worked out pretty well in the past. Of course, we have been flexible applying them: if they give us the long ball on first down, we'll take it. If an outstanding, fast receiver comes along who can't block, well, we figure we have ten other guys who can, and his big gains more than make up for his weakness.

But we are not happy with the situation. We have heard that many theorists of football strategy find our approach an incoherent muddle, and tell us what we really need is a sound, rationally based football ideology. So, to answer a question suggested by our friend Marris*, how can we go about turning our grab bag of ideas into an ideology?

To begin with, we will stop considering these to be rules of thumb, and cease to balance what following them might achieve against other, competing goods (as Aristotle would refer to them, the "admitted goods"). Instead, we must turn them into "truths," which cannot possibly be in any tension with other such "truths," as though we were doing geometry exercises instead of playing football. To prudentially take anything other than these truths into consideration, to balance them against anything, we declare to be both irrational and immoral. So if the other team keeps gaining four yards by running the ball up the middle every time, and thus scores on every possession, we don't even consider paying a little less attention to stopping big plays and a little more to runs up the middle. No, that would be a "fatal weakening of principle with the base alloy of 'prudential' heresy." Let them score every time! At least we stuck to our principles! Should the defense pile up at the line of scrimmage, knowing we always go for short gains on first and second down, so what? We don't want to become prudential heretics and throw a long pass on first-and-10.

Next, it will be very helpful, in order to set up our truths in some sort of hierarchy, and shut out rules of thumb that might compete with them, to declare some idea to be a self-evident axiom, or a principle of historical necessity, or something of the sort. It really doesn't matter what we choose, so long as it has an air of plausibility about it. Let's try "Success in football should only come if earned by hard work." This allows us to name our ideology: Effortarianism! Then, we will pretend to "derive" the ideas we already had from this "axiom," e.g., "Blocking and tackling should always take precedence over speed and size, since they stem from hard work." When picking players, we will choose hard-working, lame midgets over lazy, 6'5" speedsters. Principle, you know!

A really helpful idea will be to label anyone who doesn't buy into our system, in a way that makes it clear they are morally inferior to those of us who are Effortarians. Words like "reactionary" or "natural-talentist" might do the trick here. "Oh, you 'natural-talentists'! You think just because you keep beating us 150-0 that makes you right! I suppose you think that if you steal and get away with it, that makes it OK, too?"

A good way to keep up the spirits of those sold on our ideology, despite our repeated drubbings, is to point to the aforementioned historical necessity, and proclaim that these defeats are only potholes on the road to our ultimate triumph. Sure, over the last ten years, since we turned our rules-of-thumb into an ideology, we are 0-125, and have lost by an average of 138 points, but don't despair: The Old Order of football is dead or moribund; and the reactionary attempts to run a modern football team by various throwbacks to the Old Order are doomed to total failure (just not right yet). And if anyone uses some of our ideas, but prudentially, so that they occasionally win a game, we deride them as "sell-outs," and perhaps give them a pejorative label, such as "inside-the-20-yard-line Effortarians" (since they sometimes actually get the ball inside the other team's 20).

And if we are really high on the rarefied air of our ideology, we may even attempt a maneuver such as declaring that anyone who ever so much as touches a football, but does not accept our system, is guilty of self-contradiction: "He risked giving up a big play to stop his opponent on 3rd-and-1: he's irrational!"

Marris, we may never win a game by doing the above, but I bet you we could get a few thousand rabid fans on the Internet, who will donate to us to help "spread the glorious ideas of Effortarianism." What do you say? Up for some easy cash?

* He whose comments are exalted and become like unto posts themselves.


  1. Great post Gene! You are a gifted writer!

    However, I'm not sure that this prudence over principle approach is as awesome as you think it is.

    For example, can you write a bit about how to apply this approach to a really bad thing like genocide? Suppose I am the ruler of Switzerland and a lot of Nazis at my border want me to hand over my Jewish citizens. I look around and see that neighboring countries who resisted were invaded, and their Jewish inhabitants were shipped to death camps anyway. Further, the invasion caused a lot of misery for the rest of the population. How should you act?

    I think the key difference between the football example and the Switzerland one is that the in football, the actions seems more "instrumental" (to the end of winning games).

    For moral theory, I think there is a case that "following moral principles" is a constitutive part of pursuing the good. So we must deal with cases were it may be better to stick to your guns (figuratively!) and apply your principles as best as you can, even if this increases the chances that your theory is not accepted, or you are wiped out, or your theory dies with you. The reason to do these things is not to make bold statements against the injustices of the world [as the rapid followers you reference want to do], but to do the "right thing," even when it's not easy.

    [My Switzerland example is not meant to be historically accurate. I'm just wondering what you think should be done in these scenarios.]

  2. And then Gene will write a book on Effortarianism, and a few years later he will denounce all Effortarians as merciless idiots.

  3. No, no, Bob, it would take very bright folks employing a great deal of cleverness to create Effortarianism! Marx, for instance, was a genius: but a genius who spun his whole system from misguided premises. He was certainly no idiot!

  4. Thanks, Marris. But here is the thing: I am not recommending being unprincipled. I am noting that we live in a world where we have to balance competing principles against each other.

  5. Just to round out the analogy Gene (I'm not being sarcastic now), how have the libertarians been losing football games over the decades? Their principle obviously isn't, "Winning elections." So by what criterion are they clearly losing the game? (Or what game are they playing, I guess I should say.)

  6. "Just to round out the analogy Gene (I'm not being sarcastic now), how have the libertarians been losing football games over the decades?"

    Government keeps getting larger.

    Two lengthy foreign wars have been fought.

    The Patriot Act passed.

    Habeas Corpus has now been abolished.

    Banks are given trillions in bailouts.

    Medicine is being socialized.

    Need I go on?

  7. This seems to just be a general criticism of "being an idiot". Of course, few actually make the error you're describing. Rather, they come in with some well-tested prior belief (per a heretofore reasonable mode of inference), and require a certain threshold amount of counterevidence before rejecting it. We can MMQB about how sooner they should have updated, but it is not a trivial problem to identify the right point for abandoning a previous model.


    In other news, I just thought it was striking the similarity between what you've written are, and the work of a self-described rationalist and reductionist (thougth not necessarily in the sense that you use the terms). This is from Eliezer Yudkowsky's Newcomb's problem and regret of rationality. Excerpt after the asterisks (some formatting and spacing edited).
    First, foremost, fundamentally, above all else: Rational agents should WIN. ... Don't lose reasonably, WIN.

    Now there are defenders of causal decision theory [an ideology per Gene's usage] who argue that the two-boxers [i.e., decision implied by that ideology] are doing their best to win, and cannot help it if they have been cursed by a Predictor who favors irrationalists. ... I want to draw a distinction between [those] who believe that two-boxers are genuinely doing their best to win; versus someone who thinks that two-boxing is the reasonable or the rational thing to do, but that the reasonable move just happens to predictably lose, in this case. ...

    It is precisely the notion that Nature does not care about our algorithm, which frees us up to pursue the winning Way ... . Every rule is up for grabs, except the rule of winning. ...

    Rather than starting with a concept of what is the reasonable decision, and then asking whether "reasonable" agents leave with a lot of money, start by looking at the agents who leave with a lot of money, develop a theory of which agents tend to leave with the most money, and from this theory, try to figure out what is "reasonable". ...

    You shouldn't claim to be more rational than someone and simultaneously envy them their choice - only their choice. Just do the act you envy.

    I keep trying to say that rationality is the winning-Way, but causal decision theorists insist that taking both boxes is what really wins, because you can't possibly do better by leaving $1000 on the table... even though the single-boxers leave the experiment with more money. Be careful of this sort of argument, any time you find yourself defining the "winner" as someone other than the agent who is currently smiling from on top of a giant heap of utility.
    *** [end excerpt]

  8. "Now there are defenders of causal decision theory [an ideology per Gene's usage]..."

    A theory by itself is not an ideology. A theory becomes an ideology when it is misapprehended as a universal guide to practice.

  9. In the context of that article and the surrounding philosophical discussion of causal decision theory, it matches your usage of "ideology" -- particularly when CDTers knowingly, predictably tolerate huge losses on the grounds that CDT must necessarily be rational.

    I certainly wasn't claiming it to be such an "ideology" merely on the basis of it having "theory" in the name.

  10. "particularly when CDTers knowingly, predictably tolerate huge losses on the grounds that CDT must necessarily be rational."

    OK, then I agree.

  11. Gene, I think two different concepts got mixed up in this discussion.

    The way I understand your article, it says it's not possible to find a set of rules that encompass every possible situation so that by always adhering to them one will always win games. That's why rules about how to play football are rules of thumb. The point is that rules about how to organize society -let's call them "social rules"- are no different, and the error of ideological thinking is ignoring this fact.

    If the rules for playing football worked, they would lead to winning games. If a given set of social rules worked, they would lead to a good functioning of society. So, losing games, in this context, is analogous to having social rules failing in organizing society for it to function well.

    I think Bob is trying to say that libertarians are not "losing games" in the sense that their rules are being applied and are not working (as an aside, I think this is about Rothbardian libertarians; not all libertarians have this axiomatic approach). The success of the Patriot Act, the abolition of Habeas Corpus and the other examples you cite are not analogous to "losing games". They would be analogous to "the coach didn't manage to have the players play by his set of rules".

    Of course, a point could be made that as a strategy to convince the majority, ideological thinking doesn't work. But I was under the impression that this wasn't the subject of your post and of this discussion.

  12. Well, Pedro, the ideological fixation on "purity" usually is a major factor keeping the purist ideologues out of office.

  13. I agree, Gene. I think that a libertarian who doesn't use an axiomatic approach will be more successful in convincing others he is right than a "pure ideologue".

    But I thought your article was about the purpose of the rules, not about the strategy to convince others to accept these rules.

    Bob asks how libertarians are losing the game, i.e. how their principles are failing to achieve their ends. In other words, the game he's talking about is not the "Convince Others Game", it's the "Make Society Work Game".

    To put it differently, many people tell socialists: "Socialism doesn't work. All socialist countries failed", and ideologues will answer "These weren't real socialist countries" (this could be considered as analogous to the adversary scoring countless times while the team refuses to change how to play because it's principles haven't been proved wrong). I think Bob is asking whether there is something like this regarding libertarianism.

  14. Pedro, how can you separate those factors? Let's say you ask me, "So, you're not a libertarian: what, then, is *your* strategy for fixing things?"

    "That everyone should behave perfectly all the time," I answer.

    "What? That can't work!"

    "It just hasn't been tried."

    The issues are distinct, but not divisible.

  15. Yes. Obviously, a set of rules won't work unless people adopt them. But in your analogy the players did adopt the rules, the rules are not working, and the players refuse to accept this fact.

    So, if this analogy is intended to describe the attitude of Rothbardians, I would expect to find a real-world example of Rothbardians applying Rothbardian rules, seeing them fail and refusing to see reality.

    I think that what Bob is pointing out is that since there is no such an example, the analogy does not apply fully to Rothbardians. In other words, they may be wrong, but they are not stubborn in the same way the players in the analogy are.

  16. Pedro, it's an analogy. The Rothbardians also aren't trying to gain yardage, or score touchdowns.

  17. I wonder what part of what I wrote led you to believe that I didn't understand the analogy. Maybe I didn't interpret it the way you intended, but it seems I'm not the only one, since Bob asked the question he asked.

    In the analogy we have a group of people that insist in defending inflexible adherence to a set of rules even when these rules prove to fail all the time.

    That does not really describe Rothbardians. They do insist in defending inflexible adherence to a set of rules, but these rules are not proving to fail all the time. They haven't even been adopted. So, the way I see it, there's a part of the analogy that doesn't work.

    I think the part of your post about turning rules of thumb into self-evident axioms is right, and it's a valid criticism of Rothbardians. But it's not true that their rules have been adopted and are proving wrong and they stubbornly cling to them anyway.

    Still, they do claim they don't defend their principles because they work, but because they are morally right. That is, were their principles not to work, they say they would defend them anyway. In this sense, what you say in the analogy is right.

  18. One way a set of political rules can fail is to be so obviously contrary to common sense that people will never adopt them. Ok?

  19. Yes. I don't think that answers my objections, though. But we're starting to repeat ourselves, so let's leave it at that.

  20. Pedro, did you notice the title of my post? It was about ideology in general. What you have been doing is carping on the fact that my metaphor is not *exactly* like the case of libertarianism.

    Right. It isn't:
    1) It is a metaphor, and no metaphor is exactly like what it is supposed to be analogous to, or it wouldn't be a metaphor.
    2) The metaphor was not designed with libertarianism in mind, but ideology in general. So, libertarians never got to actually coach a team. So what?

  21. Gene, Bob asked how a part of the analogy applied to libertarianism. You could have said "It doesn't. This hasn't occurred to Rothbardians, but it has to many ideologues". I wouldn't have started this discussion in that case. But your answer was "Patriot Act, etc" which I think doesn't match the analogy.

    So, if you're telling me this part of the analogy doesn't apply to Rothbardians, but it does to most ideologues, fine. But please don't tell me I'm carping with the fact that the analogy doesn't fully match Rothbardianism, because you did attempt to make it match it in your answer to Bob. The discussion is about that answer, and I think we might have been losing sight of that.

    So, let's agree that the analogy doesn't fully apply to Rothbardians, but it's a fairly good explanation of what ideology in general is.


Current review queue

Pearce: British Journal for the History of Philosophy Deneen: The American Conservative Chao-Reiss: Computing Reviews