Endogenize ideology

Paul Krugman has a nice column on how moral issues now constrain and complicate economic policymaking [italics mine in both quotes]:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

There’s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.

This deep divide in American political morality — for that’s what it amounts to — is a relatively recent development.

I think he’s right about this. Here’s where I think he is wrong:

But the question for now is what we can agree on given this deep national divide.

I am going to put things into econogeek terms, because it is technocratic economists like Krugman, whom I admire and respect, that I am trying to persuade.

Krugman is treating morality as a problem of comparative statics. In the 1990s and before, there was one ideological environment, an environment under which decent economic ideas (from Krugman’s perspective and from my own) had a reasonable shot of being enacted into policy. In 2010, we have a different environment. An ideology that treats all taxation as theft — as illegitimate, coercive, perhaps even morally equivalent to violence — is now sufficiently prominent that it effectively renders policy ideas that involve use of resources by government and potentially even redistribution impractical. In both cases, we treat the ideological environment as exogenous and try to characterize the space of feasible policy options. We then choose the best available.

That’s the wrong approach, I think. Rather than treating ideology as fixed and given, we should treat it as dynamic, as a consequence rather than a constraint of policy choices. Choosing the apparent best available policy in 2008, given prevailing views of mainstream technocrats, helped generate an ideological environment much more challenging to those who support activist government than might otherwise have ensued, because the “least-bad” policies involved deploying taxpayer resources in a manner widely viewed as corrupt and illegitimate. At the margin, people (like me) who had previously accepted that the beneficial actions of government more than justify the costs and coercion of taxation shifted towards viewing taxation as theft on behalf of well-connected insiders. (Ironically, that shift may be helpful to many of those same insiders, who, having already “got theirs”, now have more to lose than to gain from government activism.) Going forward, we oughtn’t confine ourselves to making the best of a terrible ideological environment. We should be considering how we might alter that environment to be more conducive of good policy.

Paul Krugman understands this stuff. He is in general very sensitive to the political and ideological ramifications of policy choices. Throughout the Bush administration, he highlighted some of the dynamic that brought us from prickly consensus to nasty division. For example, there was the fabulously successful strategy of governing incompetently while using each failure as evidence that government action cannot help but be corrupt and inept. Heckuva job, Brownie!

However, many of Krugman’s professional colleagues really do treat ideology or “political constraints” as given, and perform the exercise that economists perform reflexively, starting with their first grad school exam: constrained optimization. Constrained optimization is a mechanical procedure. The outcome is fully determined by the objective function and the constraints. A party that understands the objective function and can shape constraints controls the outcome.

Let’s play a game. There are two players, a space of hypothetical moves, and a set of constraints that limits acceptable moves in each round. The two players in general have different objectives: high payoff states for Player 1 are sometimes (though not always) low payoff states for Player 2. Player 1 assumes the constraint set is exogenous. Player 1 knows that the constraint set is not fixed — she has observed changes over time — but her working hypothesis is that the constraints form a martingale, which is a fancy way of saying that her best guess with respect to the shape of future constraints are present constraints. Importantly, Player 1 does not believe that future constraints are a function of present moves. Player 2, on the other hand, correctly understands the distribution of future constraints to be a function of present moves, and is also aware that Player 1 erroneously believes constraints to be exogenous. Both players choose strategies to optimize an intertemporal payoff function. How will this game work out? The answer is obvious: Given any initial conditions, Player 2 always performs better than Player 1 would have under the same conditions (in expectation). Further, Player 1 may frequently observe Player 2 acting in ways that seem irrational, sometimes mutually destructive, when Player 2 chooses a strategy that yields jointly low payoffs when strategies with jointly high payoffs are available, holding the constraint set fixed in expectation. Player 1 will compute strategies that yield an acceptable Nash equilibrium, only to watch that equilibrium fail to hold as Player 2 makes choices that are apparently suboptimal given Player 1’s available responses. Meanwhile, Player 2 will not be surprised by Player 1’s choices and will correctly optimize her unilateral welfare in a manner that is potentially costly to Player 1.

So this is a dumb example, right? We have allowed Player 2 rational expectations (unconditional and conditional), but left Player 1 ill-informed. We have stacked the deck. And so we have, in my example and in the real world. It does only a little injustice christen Player 1 “Team Obama” and Player 2 “Team Bush”. The technocratic team, the people who are constantly exasperated about the perfidy and sheer irrationality of the other side, is the team that is in fact ill-informed. Team Obama diligently and correctly optimizes at each point in time, making use of the best expertise available subject to existing political constraints, not interested “scoring points” but instead focused on “getting things done”. Meanwhile Team Bush makes choices that seem bizarre and blatantly ill-conceived, if we take the constraint set as given. Yet the ecosystem of constraints, the ideology, moves ineluctably in Team Bush’s favor.

I do not think I have been unfair in my description of Team Obama. But I have been overgenerous in my description of Team Bush. In our hypothetical game, Player 2 strictly dominates Player 1. Player 2 simultaneously optimizes the future constraint set and choice under expected future constraints, while Player 1 only performs the latter optimization. I don’t think Team Bush, or “the Right”, or whatever moniker you choose, has been very attentive or skilled in technocratic terms given any moment’s set of constraints. Rather than two optimizers one of which has strictly less information than the other, in the real world we’ve seen two satisficers, one of which has adopted the strategy of optimizing subject to fixed constraints and the other of which has neglected pursuit of optimal present policy in favor of action intended to reshape the constraint set. [*] A priori, we would not be able state with certainty which of the satisficers would outperform the other. If the constraint set were, in fact, strongly resistant to change Team Obama’s strategy would dominate. But if the constraint set is malleable (and constraints frequently bind), then Team Bush outperforms.

We are not a priori. In the course of my lifetime, we have gone from a polity in which President Nixon publicly flirted with guaranteed income proposals to a polity in which there is a bipartisan tidal wave to bail out bankers but redistribution is beyond the pale. Throughout the period, every Democratic presidency has been technocratically superior to any Republican presidency, in terms of its reliance on expertise rather than, um, ideology in policymaking. Yet both parties have moved inexorably rightward, so that the center right of 1970 would be viewed as Communist today. The empirical evidence is clear. Ideology is malleable, over years and decades rather than generations and centuries. If you have to choose one — smart policy and indifference to ideology or sloppy policy and careful ideological work — you are better off choosing the latter.

Obviously, there’s a reductio ad absurdum here: If your policy is so bad we blow up the planet, your ideological work will be for naught. And one might argue we will experience something like that, extrapolating trends of the last 40 years. But that doesn’t counter the point that ideologues are more successful in shaping policy than wonks, and that therefore smart wonks will become ideologues too if they want to actually prevent the planet from exploding.

Note that, at least ideally, ideological work and technocratic policy are complements, not substitutes. That is to say, ideally we want to be Player 2, who simultaneously optimizes both the expected future constraint set and policy under current and expected constraints, rather than a Team Bush that largely ignores the quality of policy. (Hey, democracy is messy.) Although it’s difficult to know (given that ideological concerns sometimes can justify apparently bizarre policy), I think in practice we’ve had (since the late 1970s) two political groups in the United States that have pursued one strategy to the exclusion of the other, so it feels natural to imagine we have to choose either ideology or technocracy. We don’t. We want smart technocrats, but we want technocrats who treat ideology as endogenous, who assign a very high value to the dynamism of moral ideas and political constraints when considering alternatives.

Further, we want critical ideologues. Shifting the polity towards an idée fixe, some ideology chosen a priori from first principles, or from reading the Bible, Mises, or Marx, is likely to be unwise. We ought to do our best to explore the full space of potentially achievable ideologies and consider which are likely to promote good outcomes, especially given the “trembling hand” of policymakers. That is, we want to choose an ideologies under which the polity is unlikely to make terrible choices even when it makes erroneous choices. But ideology is path-dependent, and ideological change is never instantaneous. Not all collections of constraints and biases, heuristics and intuitions, can “take” as ideology on human wetware. In choosing ideologies, individually and collectively, we face a lot of constraints and trade-offs. But one way or another, we will choose ideologies. Ideologies are consequential. To whatever degree we can affect ideological change, we should do so with great care.

I expect this essay will arouse objections. We have all been made allergic to terms like “ideological work” for the very good reason that we associate that sort of thing with propaganda by evil and repressive regimes. But that we don’t use the words doesn’t mean the work isn’t done. It just means ideological work isn’t done as overtly, that the people who do it don’t think about it in such explicit terms. The ickiness of “ideological work” is consequential, for sociological reasons. People who are verbal, broadly educated, and self-critical notice when what they are doing is, in some sense, ideological work, and (under the prevailing ideology about ideology) shy away from it. But that just cedes the practice to those who think they are doing “God’s work”, or who are so suffused in their own ideology that the pursuit of its enlargement is second nature to them. There is more ideological work done in the United States than ever was done in Mao’s China. But most of the workers are smart enough not to call it that, or usually even to perceive it in those terms. Economists in particular are disdainful of ideology, on the theory that ideology implies bias and constraint, while optimality requires unconstrained choice. But that is misguided on multiple levels: 1) Supposing the economist could (counterfactually) be non-ideological, the human agents that she studies are subject to ideological biases and constraints, and our non-ideological economist will fail to be a good scientist if she fails to take those into account; 2) The economist is human, and ought to grapple explicitly with her own biases and instinctual constraints, if she is to have any hope of countering them and approximating “unconstrained” choice among available hypotheses and policies; 3) Despite an economist’s best efforts, the true, unconstrained space of models and hypotheses plausibly consistent with evidence is always too large to be exhaustively searched and sorted. Ideology, individual and institutional, will always shape economic conclusions to some extent, and economists ought take responsibility for that and think critically about the effect of their ideology on the polity whose choices they help to shape.

It is childish, and wrong, to imagine that acknowledging the ideological aspects of ones work and self makes one less trustworthy or more dangerous than those whose work is equally ideological, but who mistake their ideology for objectivity or truth and who therefore deny any role for ideology. Many of history’s most dangerous ideologues have been “true believers”, and others have pretended a “scientific” perspective while advancing claims we now recognize as ideological. Being acted upon by, and acting upon, prevailing ideology are part of what it means to be human. It is not just the province of economists or policymakers, or a fabrication of Svengalis in the propaganda ministry. Nevertheless, politicians and economists and other “opinion leaders” probably do have disproportionate influence over ideological change. As far as I’m concerned, they (we) ought to be doing a better, more careful, and more conscious, job of it.

[*] Team Bush was not unconscious of the ideological dimension of their labors. Remember this famous passage?

[Probably Karl Rove, talking to Ron Suskind] said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

For all the manifest failures of the Bush Administration, look at where the United States is today, politically and ideologically, compared to where it was ten years ago and ask yourself whether Karl Rove was wrong. Self-styled members of the “reality-based community” have very little to crow about. They studied — “judiciously”, even — while their America, my America disappeared beneath our feet. Perhaps it is some consolation that they felt superior and scientific all the while. (I, by the way, am not an innocent. I was something of a fellow traveller to the Bush Administration for much of its first term.)


47 Responses to “Endogenize ideology”

  1. […] Endogenize ideology Steve Waldman […]

  2. david writes:

    People do detect ‘bad’ government relatively quickly – Bush was unpopular fast. But perhaps not quickly enough? Since making the US civil service less vulnerable to being employed toward ideological ends is difficult, it may be better to make it more vulnerable – if a technocratic Fed and a liberal Supreme Court do not keep blunting the effects of bad policy, then the longer-term campaign to make the Fed less technocratic and the Supreme Court less liberal will founder.

    How does Europe do it? Even as Nordic nations become more free-market than the US (according to Scott Sumner, anyway), they seem to have retained a technocratic policymaking culture.

  3. Greg writes:

    Another outstanding effort Mr Waldman.

    Johnathan Haidt addresses some of what you are talking about here.


    In this study, one of the things he concludes is that the “left” tries to use reason to change people minds while the “right” uses religious tactics. The left needs to get back to its religious roots (MLK, Ghandi) and start appealing to the best of peoples hearts.

    I think the arguments should all take place on moral/ideological grounds. Thats where the left can win. Lets INSIST the right make its moral claim to extreme individualism over the collective well being. Theyll lose that argument all day

  4. Nemo writes:

    Another original an interesting post. But I feel obligated to write a quick apology for the straw man caricature of “conservatives”.

    An ideology that treats all taxation as theft — as illegitimate, coercive, perhaps even morally equivalent to violence

    Interesting. If I point a gun at you and ask for your wallet, is that “coercive”? Is it “morally equivalent to violence”?

    If you think this analogy is poor, try not paying your taxes. Eventually men with guns will show up and point them at you.

    Conservatives are correct that taxation is a coercive threat of violence to hand over your property. Of course, unlike a mugging, taxes are not “illegitimate”. They are legitimate if they are instituted by a properly representative government. But I see no problem with reminding people that taxes — like all laws — carry a threat of violence. (Krugman’s own piece suggests that liberals forget this too easily.)

    I think most conservatives would agree with Krugman that “It’s only right … for the affluent to help the less fortunate.” Where they disagree is when it is right for the majority to point guns at the minority to allocate their labor and property according to some vision for a better world.

    But I do not believe this is new, nor that most people on each “side” are absolute in their positions. We just disagree about when violence is justified.

  5. maresuke writes:

    Great post, as always.

    In the interest of illuminating the rhetorical bent of the “right” in this dynamic, I think we should emphasize anecdotes like Nozick’s invocation of rent control to override his own, freely-chosen contract and use the power of the state to steal his landlord’s property.


    While I think it’s notably irrational that it continues to be main stream to invoke “free markets” as an unqualified positive, that’s where we are. Still, as you have noted, if empiricism is unavailing, then let’s try to make sure that everyone is aware of the hypocrisy of leading lights of the radical, fundamentalist, insurrectionist-predator side.

  6. ZeroInMyOnes writes:

    ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’ Human receptiveness to different ideologies may shift over time with the accrual of events, yet the principals of human psychology which truly govern our actions may be more constant over time and happenstance.

    Are taxes moral or immoral? The left-leaners obsessively fight that same stagnant battle. But whether one believes taxes are moral or immoral might not actually matter: if you are one of the people paying taxes on 15 April, it is gonna hurt. It hurt 50 years ago, it hurts now, and it will hurt three hundred years from now. That may be a constant and unchanging principle of human psychology.

    To use your context, the ‘player’ which can lever any constant human psychological truth and best dress it in ‘ideology’ may then have a relative advantage. (We prefer our psychology to be dressed in philosophy…that may be just another human truth!)

    Yes, our right-leaners have appeared to be ‘wrong’ at times. That was just them using a bit of trial and error to see what ‘ideology’ best tapped into our fixed underlying human psychology.

  7. Steve,

    “many of Krugman’s professional colleagues really do treat ideology or “political constraints” as given”…

    They, including Krugman, have the same problem with actual policy as well. They assume that the rules constrain action as designed. How wrong they’ve been about the EU throughout the crisis on that basis.


    I can provide you with a long list of countries in which residents believe they get value from their tax contributions – meaning it does not hurt to pay. You’re talking about a regional quirk, not human psychology.

  8. Nellie writes:

    “Nemo writes: Interesting. If I point a gun at you and ask for your wallet, is that “coercive”
    … Conservatives are correct that taxation is a coercive threat of violence to hand over your property.”

    Interesting. If I point a gun at you and say that I won’t let you walk in this direction, is that “coercive”.(Does it matter whether I (and the state) see this as your land?)
    Socialists are correct that property rights of land is a coercive threat of violence to uphold the privileges of the capitalist class.

    And the same things could of course be said about my possibilities to sing/write/build whatever I want through the enforcement of e.g. patents and copyrights.

    Still – maybe we are better of with all of those things.

  9. Biff Spacely writes:

    Nemo’s dramatic characterization of the “violence” of tax collection is exactly the charming misrepresentation the post is discounting. Only the most extreme and peculiar tax avoiders are hauled off at gunpoint in this country, which is really a shame because I for one would enjoy the “perp walk” footage of white collar criminals being detained in the interests of justice.

  10. BSG writes:

    Brilliant post!

    I think a key point is “…Being acted upon by, and acting upon, prevailing ideology are part of what it means to be human. It is not just the province of economists or policymakers, or a fabrication of Svengalis in the propaganda ministry. …”

    Especially your allusion to Svengali. Whether we are aware of it or not, or care to acknowledge it, we are all susceptible to indoctrination. While awareness of same is essential to counter nefarious influence, it is not sufficient. That’s where “acting upon” comes in.

    Kudos once again!

  11. dave writes:


    Is the price of having police and courts that everything I’ve ever owned, produced, or may produce is the property of the state to be confiscated whenever it chooses and in whatever quantity, quality, and manner it chooses? That is a mighty steep price, personally I think a government ought to be able to enforce basic law and order without making us all slaves. Would I fork over a small portion of my income to support the legal and enforcement apparatus necessary to secure modern property rights and criminal enforcement, yes. After all, this country could provide basic law and order long before we even had income taxes. Would I give around half my income to support the vast myriad of government program I do today, most of which I receive no benefit from and actively oppose? No, I’d rather not.

    @Biff Spacely:

    Fear keeps people in line, not a patriotic sense of duty. In countries that don’t have effective controls to punish non payers people avoid taxes en masse, just look at some European countries like Greece. Even in this country I’ve never seen someone that supports higher taxes make a voluntary donation to the US treasury, even though doing so is easy and many of these supporters have the means to easily do so.

  12. Nellie writes:

    If you can comment on older posts – I didn’t se how.

    Anyway – haven’t been reading this blog before and is very pleasantly surprised. Amazing posts – particularly the last ones about morality (including todays post). This is precisely what is needed – not just among the public figures but also among economists at large.

    What I would like to ask in connection to a previous post is why you assumes that Brad Delong have any strong beliefs about morality? Of course everyone has views on morality, but for some people they certainly don’t seem that important (or even remotely coherent). Sure – he often argues rather passionate – but more in the sense you would expect from e.g. a physicist that don’t agree with another physicist about some factual statement without inherent moral content (except tribal identification). Even in the piece you reefers to, Brad doesn’t say that he favors the points he suggest – but simply that this would have been a viable intellectual position to take by Rubin without angering to big groups of people.

    I have been reading Delong’s blog for quite some time and can’t remember a single instance where he has taken anything remotely similar to a moral standpoint – and thereby simply drawn the conclusion that the guy is as dull as they get (but still definitely worth reading because of his brilliant analysis)

    On the other hand – I really cant see why anyone would choose to study such a messy subject as economics unless you had rather strong moral views about it.

    And finally one line about todays post: Hasn’t Krugman made a rather explicit move towards a more ideological position on the economy during the last weeks? Your point about endogenous constraints is still very important but don’t you think that it´s precisely this insight that have prompted Krugmans resent move (or am I just fantasizing, indulging myself in wishful thinking – say it’s not so)?

  13. Nellie writes:

    So what you basically are saying is that you think that the state should use its coercive powers to enforce every rule you prefer – now more, no less.

    This must be a coincidence but I would want the very same thing!!! However – I´m not sure that your set of rules is equivalent to mine.

    Do you have any suggestion as to how we should solve this dilemma – given that we both (and many others) want an coercive government but diverge according to which rules it should enforce?

    A couple of standard answers is that we should ask God, nature or the people. What’s your pick?

  14. Nellie writes:

    Sorry for spamming (and for the bad English as well), but I can’t resist Daves comment to Biff.

    @Dave. Have you ever seen anyone make voluntary donation to Wal-Mart as they take a good from the store, to voluntary donate to the landowner after they been allowed to use his land for free, to voluntarily give royalties to some author or patent holder?

    Does this mean that no one wants property rights or does it mean that we have a prisoner’s dilemma situation (i.e. that peoples first choice, was it available, would be that everyone but themselves would have to consider property rights),

  15. dave writes:


    Yes, you have different preferences as to what laws governments should enforce. How should we decide whose laws get enforced? I believe that they should be decided much in the same way they are now, by the election of representatives to a legislative body. However, I believe that legislative bodies powers should be constrained by constitutional rules, because the wisdom of the body politic is imperfect and that constitutional constraints optimize policy outcomes. I believe such a constitution should strongly protect property rights because strong property rights have a long history of leading to effective outcomes for society. That includes rights against confiscation by the state.

  16. dave writes:


    I see people make charitable donations all the time. To the theater, to public works and projects, to charities. People make voluntary donations when they believe in the cause. Perhaps the lack of voluntary donation to government represents people’s lack of belief in its effectiveness.

  17. david writes:

    Coincidentally, it occurs to me that a certain East Asian city-state seems to have gotten away with wholly reshaping the political ecosystem so that technocratic neoliberalism comes out on top – to a level unmatched anywhere else on the planet, I suspect.

    Which is utterly impossible for the United States, of course, but an interesting factoid.

  18. […] writes: I largely agree with Steve Randy Waldman about the value of and need for “ideological […]

  19. Nellie writes:

    @ Dave.
    That’s certainly a valid standpoint. Nemos however – in which some coercive state actions should be framed in a different setting than others – are not. I mistook your comment for approving of his view.

    And sure you need (more precisely want) property rights, but I haven’t seen any evidence that some (even rather high levels of) taxation would seriously affect the efficiency of the outcome (e.g. the level of BNP, but crime certainly seem to rise if that’s what we want to measure).

    If we instead talk about the effectiveness and you have some non consequentalist criteria – well then it’s just a tautology (i.e. the most righteous outcome is the one that emanates from a market defined by the coercive set of rules A – therefore the most effective rules is the set A).

    If you on the other hand would be a Utilitarian, i.e. care about peoples wellbeing, I think your proposed set of rules would be extremely ineffective. (Which should be pretty clear unless you buy into the nonsense about ordinality and the impossibility of interpersonal utility comparison which apparently only hold when it comes to wealth distribution? As soon as you ask the same person why it should be legal to pat someone on the back but not to punch him in the face he will tell you that the very same objections is silly to make – and of course he would be right in one instance, but obviously not in both cases. Then we just need a concave utility function but that’s more or less an axiom, and if that doesn’t satisfy you there is a lot of studies about wellbeing that should)

  20. […] Steve Randy Waldman takes Krugman and the US left-of-center more generally to task for their implicit assumption that our national ideological stage is somehow not subject to being shaped over time.  Casino games and sport have fixed rules.  Politics does not.  Somehow, many positions that even Nixon was supportive of in 1970 would now be laughed out of congress as socialist.  Trying to get things done within the apparent current constraints is not necessarily as pragmatic as trying to change the rules over time. […]

  21. dave writes:


    Your whole last paragraph seems nonsensical and off point?

    I favor government intervention when its simple, transparent, and makes sense. I think the private market is generally the best to allocate scarce economic resources. I feel governments primary job is to eliminate market failures such as asymmetric information and principal/agent problems via a robust regulatory framework with a clearly defined role. Secondarily I believe the government has a role to play in high ROI public infrastructure development, but maintain a high ROI threshold given the pitfalls in direct government investment. Likely I would favor a radical change in current use of government funds, favoring physical infrastructure and scientific research over much of current budget expenditures I consider a waste. I believe that the level of public investment I envision could actually be accomplished at lower expenditure levels then today, and thus lower taxes.

    I generally oppose transfer payments. I find them absolutely fraught with problems, and I think once the government gets into the transfer payment and subsidy business it tends to be a net negative for society. I detest having the government pick winners and losers and having “what people deserve” as a topic of debate in the body politic. I feel the body politic is terrible at determining the answer of what people “deserve”. I also lack faith market power arguments that are deterministic about peoples fate. Despite this I might be willing to support a very small minimum income payment given to every single citizen with no qualification. I support some version of government provided or regulated health care due to efficiency and political realities, but nothing like what we have in the US. Bits of pieces of other countries plans would be my ideal, but I’m not going to go into it in detail. Ironically this could provide more care for less money.

    For a rough image of what I’m talking about I’d like Singapore’s governing structure and economic policies with Hollands civil liberties policies. Note that such a country would probably be considered to the “right” to a certain degree by many mainstream leftists because it would have lower taxes and a greater degree of economic freedom. I don’t believe such a thing is possible in America today, and I think the only way it could occur over time is if there is an anti-federalist movement that allows more experimentation amongst the states. Empires tend to act like empires, that’s why you only see libertarian success in small countries.

  22. Bryan Willman writes:

    Your whole argument makes some sense, but as best I can tell is still avoiding a couple of key aspects of reality.

    1. We often pretend that whatever a “majority” votes for will prevail. But that’s not true. So a numerical majority might vote for free food exports from the relatively sparsly populated farm states, but we’d likely find out very quickly who has the real power in that dynamic. (This, by the way, is part of why removing farm subsidies will be so hard – they reflect (corruptly) a physical and political reality – one way or another *YOU* (and I) populous state dwellers will PAY for agriculture.

    2. There is a part of the political landscape that is dynamic and changes – you describe just that. But there are other parts that are deeply rooted, always present, and only *seem* to sometimes “get the upper hand”. There was never actually anything like “consensus”, there was just less extream debate than there appears to be now. Did Obamacare “push outside sort of accepted bounds” and therefore step that up? Surely at least partly true.

  23. Dave E. writes:

    I was hoping that there was something intriguing here, but the pretty straw man stopped me in my tracks:

    “An ideology that treats all taxation as theft — as illegitimate, coercive, perhaps even morally equivalent to violence — is now sufficiently prominent that it effectively renders policy ideas that involve use of resources by government and potentially even redistribution impractical.”

    That’s complete nonsense. There is no “sufficiently prominent” ideology in America that views all taxation as illegitimate. The real debate is the proper degree of taxation and which level of government should collect revenues for which purposes. Government at all levels takes in revenue roughly equivalent to 30% of GDP. Is that too much or not enough? Does it make sense to send money to Washington D.C. and have it sent back to local government to pay for roads and schools, only now it has mandates and regulations attached? Those are the types of debates that will take place over the next two years and even though I almost certainly disagree with most of the people here I would welcome your participation. Or you can play with your straw men.


  24. JD writes:

    Nice essay. Welcome to Political Science!

  25. […] largelyagree with Steve Randy Waldmanabout the value of and need for“ideological […]

  26. […] – Morality and economic policymaking. […]

  27. Bradford writes:

    Thanks for this very interesting post.

    My impression of the Obama campaign was that it proposed to do exactly what the post criticizes it for failing to do. It saw a given ideological environment (a highly polarized political discourse defined along generation-old ideological axes) and proposed to change that ideological environment through action (by “being” post-partisan). That was certainly his rhetoric; I think that it was the expectation of many of his supporters; and I think that some of the strategies of the first year of the administration can be explained in this light — its hands-off approach to health care legislation, for example.

    I would like to know whether you agree with this assessment? Do you think that Obama, and his political allies, began attempting to change the ideological environment and then gave up on this? If so, when do you think they gave up?

    Or do you think that they never “really” tried to shape the ideological environment? If so, what are the differences between the type of engagement that Obama’s administration claimed to be making and the kind of engagement that you describe above?

  28. vlade writes:

    nice post – it seems to me that you’re moving into the “economics and politics are facets of the same thing” facts.

    What you touch on is something that I believe to be fairly fundamental – that is, breaking the rules is the way to power. By accepting a set of rules, you accept their limitations and give power to those who came with the rules.

    By not accepting the rules, and figuring how you can break them, you take power (or at least not give it away). And, quite often breaking the rules has less consequences than we’re led to believe (enforcing them is often non trivial and costly, so it makes sense to foster this belief).

    Unfortunately, the nice people are almost by definition those who do not break the rules, and power in our society is still almost unconciously associated with “evil” (as in only bad people want power).

    It probably sounds fairly machiavellian, but then machiavelli described the world as it was, rather as we would wish it to be – and people like Lincoln, FDR etc. understood that to move the world where we wish it to be, we first have to understand it as it is.

  29. JKH writes:

    You never know, Obama may be taking a second term/first term, recursive, dynamic programming approach to the issue of ideological footprint. I.e. he may be deliberately holding back on his true ideological guns until a second term, under his own operating assumption that he’ll have a second term. If he’s successful, finance and health may turn out to be early compromise operations before the main event. Your comparative statics/ constrained optimization interpretation doesn’t really consider that possibility.

    “Optimal substructure means that the solution to a given optimization problem can be obtained by the combination of optimal solutions to its subproblems. Consequently, the first step towards devising a dynamic programming solution is to check whether the problem exhibits such optimal substructure. Such optimal substructures are usually described by means of recursion.”


  30. JKH writes:


    Similar recursive strategy was used here:


  31. Indy writes:

    Welcome back. We missed you. Blog more, dammit! If I could draft you, I would. The Army needs more thinkers.

    Anyway, make the game a little more complicated in a few steps.

    1. Make it a Team Sport
    2. Dozens of Teams Playing Simultaneously, with malleable alliances, and occasional defection of players – who are far from perfect “agents” or “representatives” and disagree vehemently about strategy and even where the goals are.
    3. Even similar members of the same team have different interests and time-horizons because of the non-perfect overlap of the news-cycle, the business cycles, and the democratic election cycle. One team member is trying to play the long-game, which another has to beat his primary opponent in a few weeks – and the manifestations of their respective efforts are mutually undermining, counterproductive, and self-defeating.

    I submit that when you introduce these (fairly realistic) elements of increasing complexity – approaching that of economy or ecosystem – the recommendation changes. The eventual complete legitimizing of “ideological work” as “everybody’s going it, that’s how the game is played, got no choice if we’re going to make progress, no holds barred” is not going to be a happy and cohesive place in which to live. (Many say it already goes on daily – have you seen what’s on every cable news channel lately? I see it only on the internet and it makes me happy I cut the cord).

    Also, as you alluded to, just as not every potential ideology will “take” on the human animal’s wetware – that wetware is, it would seem to be the lesson of History, more susceptible to take some truly insane yet seductive ideologies than sensible, technocratic-ally-friendly ones. Tribalism, for one, seems very deep in the blood and close to the surface for most of humanity – which makes perfect biological sense, even if it’s inconvenient for modern civilization – but appeals to it will always register with palpable allure. Some of the constraints of the long-game battlefield are not so malleable by player-choices because they are set by God and Nature.

    A universal-adherence to “ideological work is a means to and end and therefore acceptable and essential” world gives an edge to those propagating natural-but-dangerous modes of thought and behavior. Over the long term – reason won’t defeat that edge. The party of reason is often too humane, compromising, and forgiving, whereas the party of violent unreason ) will be ruthless and brutal towards its opponents the minute it gets the chance. I’ll take you on a trip with me next time I’m in Southwest Asia and you can see this process in action, and see why the elite reformers trying to do their own “ideological work” often do no better than hit the wall, over and over.

    The alternative is anti-ideological ideology (of the kind I believe Krugman advocates)- that is – to attempt to completely undermine the public’s and the elite’s feeling of the legitimacy of the role of subjective moral opinion in “technical” fields, and, I suppose, to just hand it over to the experts, like himself, to trust and obey with someone else running the rhetoric game “Don’t worry, the country’s in the very best of hands.”

    The battle you and Krugman are fighting (sorry, I suppose I’m not very “civil”, I can’t stop using battle metaphors) is whether we should or should not legitimize ideology. Would that make the arguments you two are making to, I must say, a fairly selective audience, “meta-ideological work”?

  32. pipster writes:

    Interesting post. I understand that your hypothetical game, and some of your other conclusions, assume a much simpler world than the one we actually inhabit (that’s just what us economists do). However, as a conservative, I feel compelled to pick a few nits:

    First, the assumption that Team Bush better understands “future constraints to be a function of present moves” is a big stretch. Liberals have admitted that part of the rationale for the passage of an imperfect health care reform bill was to change those future constraints. They knew that once a bill, any bill, was passed, then the debate shifted from “whether” to “how much.” And liberals will always win the “how much” argument.

    Second, even if a player understands that future constraints are a function of present moves, that player does not necessarily know what that function looks like. A good example here is the “stimulus” bill(s) that spawned the Tea Party movement. Liberals probably thought that they were shifting future constraints in their favor with these bills, when the opposite may have occurred.

    So we are left with two players, who both know that their present moves affect future constraints, but don’t always know how. And worse, sometimes a player thinks he knows how this function works, when in reality he does not. In this scenario, both players will make plays that appear irrational, and the outcome approaches a random walk. Frankly this seems much more accurate to me, because…

    Third, I strongly disagree with these two sentences:

    Throughout the period, every Democratic presidency has been technocratically superior to any Republican presidency, in terms of its reliance on expertise rather than, um, ideology in policymaking. Yet both parties have moved inexorably rightward, so that the center right of 1970 would be viewed as Communist today.

    I’ll take the second sentence first, which can only appear to be true for somebody on the far left end of the political spectrum. Since 1970, government spending (and hence taxation) has skyrocketed, regulation has increased exponentially, and the debate has shifted to the left on almost every major social issue (abortion, traditional marriage, etc.). While there have been occasional reversals (Reagan tax cuts, Clinton welfare reform, Bush tax cuts), the country has seen a gradual shift to the left over the last 40 years. (Importantly, I do not believe that this is due to any one player having a better understanding of the game than the other player.)

    And as for the first sentence in that quote above, forgive me for descending into snark-filled waters: what planet have you been living on for the last 40 years? A brief list, off the top of my head, of positions that liberals cling to because of ideology, and in complete defiance of evidence and expertise:
    * Our schools can be improved by spending more money on them.
    * The minimum wage helps poor people.
    * Poverty has nothing to do with family structure.
    * Social security is solvent.
    * Our health care system is inferior to European systems.
    * Fossil fuels can be replaced by renewable energy sources.

  33. Batocchio writes:

    Thanks for a very thoughtful, thought-provoking post. I see many of the same dynamics, although I describe them a bit differently. Generally speaking, liberals are concerned about being fair while conservatives are focused on power. They’re simply not playing the same game. Add in Reaganomics, with modern conservatives tending to fall into one of two camps: the magical thinking “tax cuts for the rich pay for themselves” crowd, and the related “starve the beast” crowd. Their outlooks are slightly different, but both zealously fight for tax cuts for the rich, and support fiscally irresponsible policies. The first crowd is mostly reckless in pursuit of personal gain, while for the second crowd the recklessness is an additional goal, or even the primary goal. Meanwhile, the conservative base is heavily motivated by spite and resentment, and servicing that hunger is a key dynamic of the movement, especially on the media side. For 30-50 years, conservative leaders have given the conservative base scapegoats to convince them to vote against their economic self-interests. Meanwhile, witness the recent tax cuts deal and the START haggling – the GOP was willing to die on the hill for tax cuts for the richest Americans, and play games with loose nukes and national security. Given sufficient power and the perception of “legitimacy,” the team that’s reckless or even nihilistic has a major negotiating advantage over any team of responsible adults. The “Let’s make a better society for everybody” mentality is far different from the “win-at-all-costs” mentality, and if Team 1 doesn’t acknowledge the mindset of Team 2, it’s going to be in trouble.

  34. […] interfluidity » Endogenize ideology: The dudes I used to beat up on the playground are getting beat up on the playground. […]

  35. BSG writes:

    JKH – I can’t believe at this late date you’ve discovered the 11-dimensional chess meme the OFBs used to propagate. If you’re not joking, google that – you’ll get a kick.

    Compromise? You mean with himself? Like the recent tax cut extension “compromise”?

    Why is it so hard to believe that a politician does what he wants to do – especially when he gets so much money for doing it, and will get much more after leaving office?

  36. […] interfluidity » Endogenize ideology (tags: politics) […]

  37. […] Wirtschaftsblogger Steve Waldman hat einen politischen Blogpost verfasst, dessen Gedankenkonstrukt mich so fasziniert hat, dass ich versuchen will, seine […]

  38. Tolle writes:

    Nice post, Steve. This bit of dialogue from Godfather III comes to mind:

    “Vincent Mancini: Don Lucchesi, you are a man of finance and politics. These things I don’t understand.
    Don Lucchesi: You understand guns?
    Vincent Mancini: Yes.
    Don Lucchesi: Finance is a gun. Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger.”

    Too cynical?

  39. […] been meaning to write something about Steve Waldman’s post on ideology, but work has gotten in the way. But when I saw Rohit tweet it, I figured it’s about time. Of […]

  40. AH writes:

    Interesting post, but I would like to see you flesh out some of the specifics.

    A few questions that come to mind,

    How does the left do ideological work without doing socialist propaganda, or is the only option an explicit return to class war fare?

    How much does the left need to copy the right? Do we need a left wing fox news with all the lies and slander that goes along with that?

    To put it in politically incorrect terms, it is possible that the republican party is so corrupt and a sizable portion of the population so stupid, hateful and proud, that there is nothing the left can do to stop them except wait until their numbers shrink due to death from old age.

  41. reason writes:

    this is a brilliant post. Hope it gets picked up by others.

  42. […] interfluidity » Endogenize ideology. (function() {var s = document.createElement('SCRIPT'), s1 = […]

  43. himaginary writes:

    Very interesting point of view, as always.

    Maybe in the first half of the previous century, Democrats were Player 2 and Republicans were Player 1. From FDR to JFK, Democrats successfully shifted the political constraint leftward. Now Republicans want to push back, so they behave as Player 2, while Democrats, who want to maintain the constraint achieved by predecessors, behave as Player 1.

  44. […] he will bristle a bit at the characterization, within the economics profession I view Sumner as an ideologue in the very best sense. There’s both a moral and a methodological component to that. Sumner is driven, scandalized […]

  45. […] I have just read this post of Steve Randy Waldman’s which is more than […]

  46. […] deliver. In these terms, questions about branding don’t amount to very much.  I think that Steve Waldman’s recent post on the complementarity of ideology and technocratic policymaking is more useful for thinking about […]

  47. […] interfluidity » Endogenize ideology: […]