Self-interest vs. ideology

Is it better in the realm of politics to stand on principle or to pursue self-interest?  Most of us would probably say the former.  But Robert J. Samuelson argues that self-interest is superior, even morally, to following an ideology, which breeds conflict, governmental paralysis, and the demonization of opponents.

Mr. Samuelson shows that the left and the right are both fixated on ideology and that their rhetoric and tactics are pretty much identical to each other.  After the jump, you can see how he makes his case.

From Robert Samuelson: The shutdown is a triumph of ideology – The Washington Post:

The curse of U.S. politics is that it’s become less about interests and more about ideologies — and ideologies breed moral absolutes, rigid agendas and strong emotions.

To be sure, interest-group politics can involve huge stakes and fierce disputes: farmers seeking subsidies, multinational companies plugging tax breaks, Social Security recipients protecting benefits. Sometimes compromises satisfy everyone, but even when they don’t, spillovers are usually modest. Although adversaries may detest each other, their ill will tends to focus on narrow disagreements.

By contrast, ideological differences are expansive and explosive. To me, “ideology” extends beyond an explicit political philosophy. It includes broad differences in lifestyles and basic assumptions about America’s best interests. In recent decades, ideological issues have occupied more of the political stage for both left and right. The argument over the size of government is a proxy for a deep divide. The left sees bigger government as a tool for social justice; the right fears it’s a threat to freedom. Moral crusades abound. “Saving the planet” (global warming) is one. Preventing “murder” is another: that’s gun control for the left and outlawing abortion for the right. The left’s campaign for “gay rights” is the right’s quest to save the “traditional family.”

Just why partisan differences have widened is controversial, but they clearly have. “[B]asic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” said a 2012 Pew opinion study. One question asked about the need for “stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.” Among Democrats, 93 percent agreed, the same as in 1992; for Republicans, agreement was 47 percent, down from 86 percent in 1992. Large gaps have also opened on the social safety net, minority preferences and immigration. Some centrists are alienated; more count themselves as “independents.”

A crucial difference between interest-group and ideological politics is what motivates people to join. For interest-group politics, the reason is simple — self-interest. People enjoy directly the fruits of their political involvement. Farmers get subsidies; Social Security recipients, checks. By contrast, the foot soldiers of ideological causes don’t usually enlist for tangible benefits for themselves but for a sense that they’re making the world a better place. Their reward is feeling good about themselves.

I’ve called this “the politics of self-esteem” — and it profoundly alters politics. For starters, it suggests that you don’t just disagree with your adversaries; you also look down on them as morally inferior. It’s harder to compromise when differences involve powerful moral convictions. Indeed, if politics’ subconscious payoff is higher self-esteem, it makes sense not to cooperate at all. Consorting with the devil will make you feel worse, not better. What’s more satisfying is to prove your superiority by depicting your opponents as dangerous, thoughtless and morally bankrupt. Cable TV and the Internet feast on such outbursts.

The triumph of ideology is one of the great political upheavals of recent decades. It is, of course, partial; it coexists with interest-group politics and always will. It’s also full of paradoxes. On both the left and right, many activists are intelligent, sincere and hardworking. But the addition of so many high-minded people — usually “true believers” in some cause — to the political system has made it work worse. It increasingly fails to conciliate or, on many major issues, to decide.

Now I don’t think it’s valid to reduce deeply held convictions to “self-esteem.”  But I suspect there are some Two Kingdoms issues here, about how the earthly kingdom and the spiritual kingdom have to operate differently.  Ideology of either the left or the right can easily become a One Kingdom substitute for true religious faith, though I don’t think it needs to.  And there are moral issues in society–such as the pro-life issues–that cannot be reduced to just politics.  Still, do you see Mr. Samuelson’s point?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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