Bathwater of ideology and baby of ideas

‘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.

14 thoughts on “Bathwater of ideology and baby of ideas”

  1. The Age of Entitlement. It would seem logical that a politician who runs on a platform of lower taxes and lower spending could count on the votes of all tax-paying citizens. It does not work in practice – maybe because not all tax-paying citizens vote, or at least not in the numbers that non-tax-paying citizens vote? Or perhaps they vote under the guise of some false compassion?

    I read an article written by a woman whose family lived in a suburban middle class neighborhood. An elderly aunt came to stay with them. The first day when the woman and her husband came home from work the aunt asked where everyone was during the day. She had gone for multiple walks and had not seen a single person. The woman explained that the adults were all at work and the children at school. The aunt, raised in a family of generational welfare recipients, simply could not comprehend it. The Age of Entitlement. The sacred cow. Thou shalt not cut the handouts.

    1. It was the stock markets going berserk and the IMF wagging its finger, not voters, that put paid to Austrian s school economics in the UK. Looks like they run the country now.

      1. Why didn’t the stock markets do that to the “Asian Tigers”, where the public sector is half the size of ours, in relative terms? Nor even to post-war Germany? These days the hand of markets is very much visible: it belongs to pre-pubescent, woke, half-literate, riverboat gamblers in the City and elsewhere, the Nick Leesons of this world.

        1. I don’t doubt your characterisation of trading floor types, but it’s the prospect of non-incremental economic change that sends them into a tailspin.

  2. I think it’s time to lay conservatism to rest. A noble failure.

    Is a return to Labour governance really so appalling? Why should we continue voting Conservative for fear of what might happen? -is that any way to live?

  3. That it is possible for /anyone/ to truly believe that the answer to the UK’s woes are to be found in ‘conservative ideas’ is mind-melting to me. Your writing is very pretty, but I fear you are painfully out of touch. Find me someone on minimum wage who’s concern is high taxes, and I will show you an idiot.

      1. I started to write a response to the minimum wage earner and the “mind-melting” ideas of conservative thought (like personal responsibility?) but I deleted it. One cannot use reason to argue against ideology.

        1. Personal responsibility is a fine thing, but it’s hardly relevant in the discussion of policy, is it? What matters is material circumstance, not vague behavioural stereotypes. You can have all the personal responsibility in the world and it won’t help you if your starting mark is half a mile back, without a serious blessing of good fortune. And that’s beside the fact that the have-nots are a picture of frugality next to the haves. If I’m earning £1000 a month and spending £1000, and you’re earning £2000 a month and spending £1900, it’s you that will accumulate, in spite of my more significant struggle to make ends meet. By all means argue with reason, you’re insistence on not doing so reads a lot like having inadequate points, as it stands.

      2. Yes, but the scope of your critique is too small. Individual cases of capital flight arise from the macro-economic issue of allowing those with capital to retain it, and its role in providing employment, at all. If businesses are run to turn a profit for owners, providing employment as a bi-product, then increasing taxes could certainly run them out of business. However, if that same business is owned by its employees, the necessity to earn excess profit vanishes and required revenue for business sustainability drops through the floor. More money ends up in the hands of people who spend it on food, utilities and consumer goods, and less in the hands of those who channel it into further property ownership. Therefore, more tax revenue is generated automatically via VAT and income tax, as more is in those pots to be taxed rather than in the capital gains and corporate pots where it is notoriously slippery. The increased pot would diminish the need for higher income tax in the first place, leading to better funded public services, higher wages, lower taxes, and a decreased need for borrowing to sustain that simultaneously. Under such a system, high net worth individuals would be irrelevant and free to relocate wherever they like.

        And that’s not even to mention the fact that a large enough tax pool could be created from a small group of multinationals that are already functioning in every territory, where are McDonalds or Apple going to flee to? Are they going to stop selling fries and iPhones? When they inevitably don’t, we’ll collect the higher taxes, and if they do (they won’t), they’ll leave a massive and obvious gap in the market for a less corrupt organisation to fill.

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