How Ideology Blocks Reality

One thing an ideology does is fill you full of pat answers. These are rolled out whenever something that threatens the ideology happens along. For instance, when a Marxist ideologue (there are people who study Marx who are not ideologues!) is presented with an extensive case justifying a return to capital, does he carefully consider the case, and see if he should alter his views? No, he tells the presenter that he is a mouthpiece for the capitalists, and thus the Marxist ideologue doesn't have to think about the argument at all.

This can take more subtle forms, one of which is to apparently address the argument being presented, while actually doing no such thing. But the ideologue and his junior followers can pull out this "response" whenever confronted by the original argument. For example, Rothbard apparently reviewed Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation, a very dangerous book for him, since Polanyi knew his Mises and Hayek fairly well. But Rothbard actually did no such thing: what he did do was to rant at length about "primitivism," something that has nothing to do with Polanyi. There is no evidence in the "review" that he did any more than skim the book, and certainly no engagement with its arguments. Engagement was not the purpose of the review; instead, it is a way to avoid engaging with Polanyi. You can bet the farm that if you bring up K. Polanyi on any libertarian discussion thread, within a few comments someone will post, "Karl Polanyi? Haven't you read Rothbard destroying him?" Rothbard's piece serves as a bit of ideological rip-rap: the people who read it (and who swallowed it) have not come to understand Polanyi: their ideological abutments have been protected from his influence.

Here is another way of accomplishing the same thing: Upon encountering an objection to one's ideology, divert the discussion into something that is related to the objection but actually does not respond to it at all. Make a valid point about that side-topic. From then on, whenever someone raises that objection, note the valid point made on the side-topic, and then say, "So that is handled in the literature: I can't believe you don't know that!"

Let us consider the case against libertarians absolute view of property rights. The libertarian argument for them runs (yes, I'm am presenting the short version!) "So long as property has been justly acquired, anyone interfering with the owner's absolute and unfettered control of that property (except uses of it that violate the property rights of others) is committing a criminal act."

The non-libertarian responds (let us call this response DPT, for 'dirty property titles'), "Well, even suppose I grant you that? So what? Essentially no property today has absolutely pristine title; in fact, most of it is very dirty. If it wasn't outright stolen from someone in the past, it was acquired using the profits from something that was stolen, or profits from slave labor, or profits from things acquired with slave labor: almost all titles today are very dirty, in fact."

The libertarian answers: "This is dealt with in so many places in the literature that it's hard to know whether you are joking or trying to be a pot-shot pedant without a point."

"As Rothbard wrote: 'Overthrow of existing property title only becomes legitimate if the victims or their heirs can present an authenticated, demonstrable, and specific claim to the property. Failing such conditions, existing landowners possess a fully moral right to their property.'"

What the non-libertarian probably should do here is just walk away. But some of us are stubborn, and we might respond: "That's all very nice, but what you've done is simply changed the subject. We were not talking about Grandpa Smith and Uncle Ned disputing who owns the apple orchard. Instead, you predicated your entire defense of absolute property rights on pristine original acquisition. But we noted that, in the real world, we can never really be sure of pristine original acquisition, and overwhelmingly we know it was not pristine at all. So perhaps in a world where it was, we ought to be anarcho-capitalists, but why in this world ought we to be?"

Libertarian: "Don't you understand that that is thoroughly handled in the literature?!"

Non-libertarian jumps off of cliff.

Rothbard has "handled" this topic by ignoring it and taking up a tangential one: how should disputes about true ownership be resolved? Perhaps Rothbard is right in his answer to that question: I'm not sure. But he certainly has not handled the DPT argument at all. Instead, he gives his followers some boilerplate to quote so that they can avoid listening to the DPT argument, and can call those who introduce it names.


  1. Anonymous1:23 PM

    "Here is another way of accomplishing the same thing: Upon encountering an objection to one's ideology, divert the discussion into something that is related to the objection but actually does not respond to it at all."

    Very interesting. Daniel Kahneman's new book summarizing his research, Thinking, Fast and Slow, introduces a similar 'mental shortcut' or heuristic called answering an easier question.

    I propose a simple account of how we generate intuitive opinions on complex matters If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 will find a related question that is easier, and will answer it.

    first edition, p. 97


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