Thursday, March 7, 2013

What’s so wrong with being an ideologue?

Politicians are sometimes labeled as “ideological.”  It is a label intended to damn.  But being labeled an ideologue usually does not put the person on the defensive.  On the contrary, “ideologue” is worn as a badge of honor, particularly for many Republicans.  It says, “we stand by our principles no matter what.”

This label lacks sting because people think that it simply means being constant in one’s beliefs. Others might think it’s the same as being conservative because the label is used mainly against conservatives.  They don’t generally focus on the fatal flaw of the ideological approach.  

The fatal flaw of the ideologue is the pursuit of a particular policy prescription even when the context of that policy guarantees that it will fail.  The most common example in the political realm today is ideology in tax policy:  taxes can only be cut, and can never be raised.  This ideological stance has its clearest expression in the pledge (promoted by anti-tax lobbyist, Grover Norquist) that elected officials have signed never to raise taxes, regardless of the circumstances. 

But what are the prospects of success of a tax cut or even avoiding a tax increase:  (i) If the country has a serious debt problem?  (ii) If the debt increase is, in substantial measure, because of a drop in revenue?  (iii) If the income tax share of GDP is historically low, much lower than during high economic growth periods?  (iv) If the recipients of most of the tax cut are relatively wealthy and, therefore, are highly unlikely to spend a significant portion of it?  These are the circumstances today.  We learned previously from George W. Bush’s tax cuts, which were implemented under conditions that were more favorable to tax cuts than they are today, that they were more costly than beneficial.

To some people, it is ok if you are an ideologue.  You press on with the ideological position.  The country suffers and its national security is damaged through fiscal weakness, but you dismiss it with a slogan or a false claim about the free market.  In reality, labeling someone an ideologue is a condemnation, tantamount to calling someone ignorant or delusional.  The label is not meant as an innocuous acknowledgement that someone has strongly held beliefs. 

Next post—The crux of the conservative ideology and its fatal flaw.

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