‘Ideology’ and ‘idea’ are etymologically close. But in every other respect they are as far apart as two concepts can ever be.
An idea comes from reason and appeals to reason. An ideology, on the other hand, uses reason for tactical purposes only, if at all. Both its origin and the target of its appeal are emotional and visceral.
Every ideology I’ve observed in action relies on negative emotions at both send and receive: hatred, resentment, injured pride, desire for revenge. Ideologies seem to compete with one another as to which deadly sin they not just expiate but raise to moral virtue.
This distinction seems to be lost everywhere, including within the ranks of the Tory Party. Smelling the decaying flesh of their parliamentary majority, MPs genuflect, banging their heads on the floor and screaming repudiation of economic ideologies.
In fact, hoping to imbibe the elixir of political life, they are spewing ideological death on every shoot of a sound idea planted before their eyes. Kwarteng and Truss used ideas to spit against the ideological zeitgeist, only to have their ideas blown back into their faces.
Yes, Kwarteng deserved to be sacked, just as Truss deserves having become a lame duck soon to waddle into political oblivion. But they proceeded from ideas, not ideologies. And their ideas were doomed even had they been better thought through, or executed with more subtlety.
The ideas are familiar to every sensible family: don’t spend more than you earn, manage your budget, prioritise, be thrifty in your expenditure and prudent in your investments.
Adam Smith put it in a nutshell: “What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom.”
However, such ideas are too simple for modern economists to understand. Thus, for example, Samuel Brittan, the FT’s late economics guru: “Since my undergraduate days, I have been pointing out that a government budget is not the same as that of an individual…” Exactly. That’s precisely the trouble.
Smith’s statement was an idea. Brittan’s retort was an expression of the prevailing ideology.
The ideology comes from the innate megalomania of the modern, which is to say post-Enlightenment, political state. From birth it has pretended to spread political power wide, with every eligible person seemingly having a share. And criteria of eligibility have been falling off by one, until the ever-lowering age remains the only one left standing.
However, by breaking up power into millions of fragments, the modern state makes each fragment meaningless. It’s like a chap buying one share of a giant corporation and hoping to have a say in how it’s run. He won’t. The board will take care of that.
A corporate board is essentially what runs the modern corporatist state, and most modern states are corporatist. It’s this board that drafts and enforces the corporate charter, called the rule of law in the political context.
This political elite owes its existence to the Enlightenment, which had innately more to do with ideologies than ideas. That DNA is reinforced by the state’s will to self-perpetuate at all costs, and the combination seems invincible.
The ideology of equality and liberty, comprised as it is of mutually exclusive components, would be oxymoronic if it had any real substance to it. But it doesn’t. It’s all smoke and mirrors, especially the equality part, but increasingly liberty as well.
Or else it’s a massive advertising campaign building up momentum over three centuries. The product it sells is a giant paternalistic state doing so much for the people that it feels justified to do much to them.
That advertising campaign has taken so long to sell its product because it runs against the grain of a great civilisation created over the previous centuries.
Yet the corrupting ideology regenerates as the public degenerates. Hence the board holding the controlling interest manages to seduce the poor sods, each clutching a single puny share, into accepting zeitgeist as the wind of progress.
The zeitgeist blows in the direction of endless expansion of the state and its ability to turn more and more citizens into dependents. Every modern state has become a welfare state not because it cares for the people, but because it needs to create a growing class of people who depend on it for their livelihood.
In practice, this means runaway government spending funded by promiscuous borrowing and punitive taxation, with inflation its de facto subset. It also means more and more people putting their survival into the hands of the state – and hence compelled to kiss the hand that feeds them.
In France, for example, only 25 million people work for a living, out of a population of 67 million. In the UK, the corresponding number is 33 million out of the same population – a marginally better proportion, but just as ruinous.
The natal affliction of political modernity has over time turned into a pandemic, with germs coming together to form that invincible ideological zeitgeist I mentioned earlier. And this is the ideology that Truss and Kwarteng tried to fight with ideas, pitting Adam Smith against Samuel Brittan. Smith didn’t have a chance.
Like Smith, they proceeded from commonsensical ideas, not ideologies. Not being blessed with Smith’s intellect, nor indeed with the skills involved in operating political mechanisms, they made a mess of it. This compromised the ideas, which is unfortunate.
The idea of cutting taxes across the board was sound, but not accompanying it with concomitant cuts in public spending was sheer folly. Now the mock-Tories elected to Parliament by out-Labouring Labour scream bloody murder, or rather bloody ideology.
However, had Truss and Kwarteng done everything right by not only cutting taxes, but also kicking huge dents in the welfare state, the reaction would have been even more violent than it is now. And it would have been an ideology killing ideas – not the way they are put into practice.
I strain my weakening eyesight trying to discern a flicker of hope for conservative, which is to say sound, ideas. But I can’t – things have gone too far, the baby of ideas has been splashed out. The dirty bathwater of ideology continues to run freely, a flow that can only be stemmed by other ideologies, not ideas.
The list of ideologies to choose from is small, with entries from Russia, 1917, Italy, 1922, and Germany, 1933, leaving little room for others. Oh yes, there’s also Russia, 2022, which some of our true-blue Tories find oh-so appealing.