For about twenty years it seemed as though life was simpler. The European continent largely avoided any major wars, prosperity recovered after a series of economic challenges, the world become more multicultural, and technological innovations flourished. However, even then the signs of future challenges were clear. New ideas about how society should function were gaining popularity and nation states worried that their culture and identity were under threat by malign foreign influences.
If any of this sounds familiar, it shouldn’t. This was 1820-1840.
As human beings, we can be wonderfully contradictory. We praise tolerance and openness, yet criticize those whose views are widely divergent from our own. We talk about the need for businesses and governments to act on climate change, poverty and to promote fairness, yet criticise them when they raise taxes to do so. But perhaps the most interesting contradiction comes in how people react to the word ‘ideology’.
If you mention ideology today, the connotations are overwhelmingly negative. Those of a politically left wing orientation think of Fascism, Thatcherism and Capitalism. Those of a right-wing orientation think of Socialism, Communism and Protectionism. One thing both agree on however is that our society today is different. From the 90’s, people have professed that ideology is dead. From the famous “End of History” by Francis Fukiyama to the creation of “Third way” parties across the developed world, the impression our society has given is that the world is no longer governed by a fundamentalist set of ideas. Instead, people believe that our societies our governed by a scientific method.
According to this belief, the western world is governed by “what makes sense”, by “what is rational”, and by decisions based on “evidence”, not “emotion”. An alternative definition would be to say that our society is governed by pragmatism. The idea that decisions are (generally) made based on careful consideration of the evidence, accumulated by subject matter experts, reviewed against other considerations (such as budgets and the environment), before being implemented, often after an initial pilot project.
Against this backdrop its easy to see why China’s foreign policy, the election of Trump, the Brexit vote, the popularity of Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Putin all seems so scary to western societies. We have grown up thinking that decisions are only rational and therefore only plausible, if they pass a carefully assessed cost-benefit analysis. In this capacity, economists are the rock stars. As individuals who profess to quantify human behaviour into predictable patterns, the word of an economist is all-powerful. Uncertainty is the enemy of a rational, pragmatic based system of governance. It affects long term planning and it is difficult to respond to.
But while the intentions behind pragmatism are often noble, what the political leaders of today have forgotten is that belief in the scientific method, as a strategy for governance, is an ideology in and of itself. Even worse than that, it is a fundamentalist ideology that cannot answer the questions that fundamentally matter to society. To provide one good example, let’s look at international trade.
Free Trade is the perfect example of the strengths and limitation of the “Pragmatism” ideology. It is universally agreed by economists that free trade makes everyone better off. Free trade expands the combined economic pie, by allowing people to specialise and therefore work in the areas they are most efficient in relative to others. Moreover, the evidence proves that free trade expands a country’s economic pie over time. Seemingly therefore this is a clear win for pragmatism. Yet all over the world, hostility to free trade is fierce. For people of the Pragmatist ideology, the answer to why people are upset is easy: most people simply do not understand economics, they cannot get the bigger picture and they are easily misled by people with their own agendas. Safe behind these rhetorical defences, the pragmatists wistfully think of multilateral organisations that remove control over these policies from governments and some even muse about voting restrictions so that “only educated people can vote”. But they are wrong. It is not that the average voter is against free trade per se, or that they do not understand free trade. Rather, their opposition is rooted in the issue of who is benefiting from trade and who is not. It is these questions: of equity, of who should gain, of who should lose, and what compensation people should get, that pragmatism and the scientific method is totally unable to answer.
If you want to understand why seemingly “populist” parties are back in vogue today, then look no further than this. In a world which is rapidly changing, where new innovations and dynamic population shifts increasingly create new classes of winners and losers, the scientific method is painfully slow at providing the solutions people need. Pragmatism requires decision makers to be able to find the answers to problems, through studying a phenomenon and carefully analysing it. But that isn’t possible in a fast-changing world. Ironically enough, it’s not just voters who have realised that governance by pragmatic ideology is ineffective; it’s businesses too. It is no coincidence that companies like Facebook, Tesla, Amazon and Uber are riding high in the stock market and catching the interest of people across the world. It isn’t because they have all the answers, that they understand all the trends, or even that they have the best technology. Rather, they are run by people who have a clear vision of how they think the future should look. In short, they are run by people who have ideologies of their own.
Ideologies are an essential part of the human condition. Before the rise of literacy in the European middle classes, governance was driven by “pragmatic” considerations among the educated classes that subscribed to a set of beliefs prioritising stability and certainty over dynamism and volatility. The result was peace, but at the cost of dramatic human misery. It was the inability to govern according to an equitable set of ideas that led to the rise of socialism, liberalism, communism and nationalism. Without these four ideologies, the world would never have introduced basic human rights concepts into law, such as the right to a free trial, freedom of speech, basic workers’ rights, the right to healthcare, and education. The list goes on. Moreover, in contrast to a popular understanding of ideology, many nations would never have escaped serfdom and feudalist systems without nationalism. Nationalism was the driving force which allowed people to cross vast geographical and social divides, and to unite behind a common set of ideas. Without nationalism, it would have been impossible to break down many of the divides that existed between communities, even those separated by only a river.
None of this is to say that ideologies cannot cause immense human suffering. Clearly they can and have. However, ideologies are vital to our way of living precisely because they can answer the only questions in governance that really matter: is it equitable, is it fair, is it just and does it make people happy? The current obsession with governing by a pragmatic ideology is not only wrong, it’s dangerous. Dismissing people’s concerns simply because, in a purely rational world, the economic outcome of a policy is net positive, is not a credible way to govern. It was precisely this hubris that lost the remain campaign vote last year and which lost Hillary Clinton her presidential campaign. If those who define themselves as being politically centrist want to keep the world as it is and prevent the changes they see taking place around them, they need to understand this lesson. People are not machines; they are beings of emotion. If you cannot explain to someone why your system of governance is fair, why it is just and why it will make them happier, then you will not be able to govern.
Ideologies are back on the world stage. It is about time too.