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The Theory of Ideology

Mark Schmitt loots at recent articles on tax "reform" à la Bush from Jonathan Chait and Nick Confessore and constructs a debate between two ways of looking at the issue. One way, attributed to Chait, takes the vulgar-Marxist line that it's all about financial interests. The other way, attributed to Confessore, takes the ideas of the pseudo-reformers seriously, albeit skeptically. It seems to me that understanding of this controversy, and of policy analysis more broadly, benefits from understanding Marx's more sophisticated, actual theory of ideology.

The Marxian view starts with the observation that ideological views tend to reflect economic power, and thus believes that one should not treat ideas as simply ideas, but rather one should understand them as emanations of financial interests. It does not, however, treat the holders of those views as insincere. Some people, of course, are insincere in their views. But this is relatively minor. More broadly, one has a kind of self-deception. People are more open to views that are congenial to their interests. Even more important, ideas are more likely to gain wide currency when they are in line with the interests of powerful economic actors.

Social Security privatization is, I think, a case in point. I once mused on the question of why the mainstream "small government" view on Social Security is that the system should be replaced with a mandatory savings system, rather than the more natural small government view that taxes and benefits should both be lowered. My theory involved the financial services industry's financial support for privatization and I mentioned the Cato Institute in this regard. Many of my libertarian friends and acquaintances around the Web took umbrage at the notion, objecting to the idea that they are bought and paid for pawns of investment managers.

This is true enough, as far as it goes. I don't think Will, Julian, Gene, Radley, Justin, et. al. were all sitting around the house one day pining away for means-testing and then decided to convert en masse to forced savings because some brokerage house offered them a check. Rather, what I think happened is that once upon a time you had a diversity of rightwing views on Social Security. Barry Goldwater wanted to basically just eliminate the program and replace it with nothing. Back then, benefits weren't indexed to anything other than the whims of congress, and principled advocates of small government opposed such increases. And maybe some people out there thought creating a mandatory savings system was a good idea. But no one is going to give someone a large sum of money in order to advocate for reductions in benefits growth. People who -- quite sincerely -- believed that replacing Social Security with mandatory savings, by contrast, did eventually start getting lots of money to advocate for their view. Mandatory savings advocates, therefore, had their hands strengthened and, over time, began to win people over to their side. Most of these conversions were probably sincere, but that doesn't mean the money was irrelevant. It's much easier to make your case if you've got lots of money behind you.

And to be clear, this is a general phenomenon, not something peculiar to the right. Liberals generally think we should spend more money on education. But of course this underdetermines the issue. We should spend the money on, what, exactly? At the same time, there's a major constituency on the left with a direct financial stake in education policy -- the teacher's unions. One result of this is that the most popular liberal ideas for what to spend additional education spending on, tend to be things, like smaller class size or higher teacher pay, that reflect the financial interests of the teacher's unions. Other potentially worthy ideas -- like my pet scheme to give money to students who get good grades -- have a harder time garnering financial support. Most liberals aren't education experts. But most liberals do have some views on education policy. Not being experts, and not spending a great deal of time on the issue, they tend to just pick up whatever liberal ideas are most forcefully advocated in the public sphere. I would tend to include myself in this group with regard to education. Thanks to my line of work, I know more about this than the average person does, but my level of knowledge is pretty small and I don't spend much -- if any -- time seeking out novel, marginalized ideas. Just as on the right most people aren't retirement security experts. But they do have views on retirement policy. Not being experts, they don't know much about the issue and tend to adopt whichever conservative/libertarian idea is most forcefully advocated in the public square. And that's privatization. And that's a direct consequence of privatization being in the interests of some already wealthy actors.

One could go on and on in this vein, but I'll stop. The point is simply that money matters. Even if you want to take ideas seriously, you can't fully understand how they get shaped and why they become popular unless you take money seriously.

January 19, 2005 | Permalink

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» Write What You Know: Vulgar Marxism Edition from The Bit Bucket
I actually agree with the general thrust of this Matthew Yglesias piece, but I think he picked a terrible example in Social Security: I once mused on the question of why the mainstream "small government" view on Social Security is... [Read More]

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Comments

Makes sense to me.

I think everybody understands that if the economy doesn't do well in the next 40 years, Americans won't be able to get as much from SS. Why not just code that into the rules so that this deficit goes away. It's not even a benefit cut, the benefits just won't have grown as much if the economy had done better. I guess I don't have any moneyed financial interests behind my idea.

Posted by: Chad | Jan 19, 2005 5:25:45 PM

I know that the left has all sorts of nifty excuses about how Marx didn't really write the preface to "The Black Book of Communism", but let's be serious: Don't you have any qualms at ALL about buying into a philosopher whose writings led to mass slaughter on such a mind blowing scale?

That aside, no, I think what's really happened with Social Security is that the program has been around for so long now, that reformers who might frankly prefer in all honesty to just drive a stake through the thing's heart know that that's now a complete non-starter.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 19, 2005 5:26:40 PM

Jesus Christ, Brett.

Posted by: Jesus Christ | Jan 19, 2005 5:34:55 PM

Hey ideas have consequences, and ought to be judged by them, as people who are aware of those consequences ought to be judged by the ideas they're none the less fond of.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 19, 2005 5:42:04 PM

". . . a philosopher whose writings led to mass slaughter . . ." Grow up, BB.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Jan 19, 2005 5:44:28 PM

"Don't you have any qualms at ALL about buying into a philosopher whose writings led to mass slaughter on such a mind blowing scale?"

Just in case you didn't get "Jesus Christ"'s point, Brett: would you ask that question of your Christian friends, family, or acquaintances?

Posted by: live | Jan 19, 2005 5:52:48 PM

Don't you have any qualms at ALL about buying into a philosopher whose writings led to mass slaughter on such a mind blowing scale?

St. Augustine? (Think "compelle intrare.")

I wonder if we even need to adduce Marx for this; it seems like La Rochefoucauld ("he who gives advice... seldom means anything but his own interest or reputation") or someone like that would be as pithy.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Jan 19, 2005 6:00:19 PM

If the slaughters caused by taking Christianity seriousy were anywhere near as recent as those caused by taking Marxism seriously, I would. But since Christianity is a dead faith, existing today primarilly as nothing but a lifestyle choice, I don't see the need.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 19, 2005 6:02:48 PM

Our "libertarian" friend is in a box!

How is accepting and believing that Christ is the son of God a "life style" choice, Brett?

Posted by: Drew | Jan 19, 2005 6:06:35 PM

"If the slaughters caused by taking Christianity seriousy were anywhere near as recent as those caused by taking Marxism seriously, I would."

The way I'd put the general point is: it's simplistic and unfair to conclude, from the existence of monstrous perversions of someone's ideas, that those ideas themselves can't be separated from the perversions of them.

Were the deaths you have in mind due to perversions of Marx's ideas? I'd say yes, maybe you'd say no, fine.

Posted by: live | Jan 19, 2005 6:08:52 PM

Yes, I think Matt is correct here. One thing this explains is the (increasing, it seems to me) support of the affluent for the Democratic party.

Here in bluer than blue Massachusetts, I suppose one might find that folks earning more than 100K a year voted for Bush in greater numbers than the general population of the state. But I bet the margin is a small one, and it wouldn't shock me if they voted in greater number for Kerry than the general population of the state, or, if, say, Massachusetts residents earning between $35-75K voted for Bush in greater numbers than those earning over $125K. It seems that cultural conservatism these days is often inversely proportional to affluence.

Increasingly, the Democrats are the party of the affluent, high-earning, highly-mortgaged, well-educated, professional, upper middle-classes. Indeed, from the perspective of many of these folks, Social Security is great deal. It's largely irrelevant for the uberrich (as long as the income cap is kept nice and low). But for the non-uberrich but merely prosperous professional person earning, say, $200k annually, Social Security (like most of the government domestic spending infrastructure of the post-New Deal, Democratic-party engineered political consensus) ain't that bad a deal . I mean, Joe Liberal Lawyer pays less than half the effective FICA rate paid by the chambermaid who cleaned his hotel room this morning. And in return for that pittance he gets a nice little subsidy in his (long) retirment life that'll come in handy to pay green fees and car leases.

Marx indeed.

Posted by: P. B. Almeida | Jan 19, 2005 6:13:31 PM

Perhaps I can suggest "Late Victorian Holocausts" by Mike Davis to Brett. In one sentence..."Davis argues that the seeds of underdevelopment in what later became known as the Third World were sown in this era of high imperialism, as the price for capitalist modernization was paid in the currency of millions of peasants' lives."

Markets kill too.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 19, 2005 6:16:11 PM

Mark's (not Marx) point is the other one, of course: there's no shortage of death and destruction caused by the attempts to forcibly make the world safe for free markets.

Posted by: live | Jan 19, 2005 6:20:47 PM

attempts to forcibly make the world safe for free markets.

That's what imperialism was?

Posted by: Ugh | Jan 19, 2005 6:26:15 PM

I'm fond, as a rule, of connecting ideas and consequences, but this is silly. There's a very good case to be made that the kind of total state control of the economy associated with Marxism is tightly linked to the horrors of communism. But historical materialism and the idea that economic realities determine the shape of the ideological "superstructure" are another animal. I'm hard pressed to see how the value of that particular analytical method--and I don't think it's especially great--can be determined by counting the bodies in the Gulags.

Posted by: Julian Sanchez | Jan 19, 2005 6:32:58 PM

Brett, your position is beyond anti-intellectual. It seems hostile to the very idea of analytic thought itself. "Marxist thought" is a messy assemblage of a number of different theses and concepts. Do you seriously maintain that to find one item from that assemblage to be useful commits you to the whole package? Or do you think that it's somehow dangerous to do so, as if people can't keep straight the difference between, say, the labor theory of value and Marxist generalities about ideology? Or do you subsribe a theory of intellectual sin, according to which ideas are to be judged by their origin and associations?

Posted by: bza | Jan 19, 2005 6:46:17 PM

I don't think that the phenomenon of conservatives advocating private accounts instead of abolishing Social Security altogether needs much explanation. Abolishing SS is a sure way for Republicans to achieve Goldwater-level defeat at the polls. Private accounts is a more politically saleable policy. That's enough of a reason, it seems to me.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough | Jan 19, 2005 6:55:21 PM

I think that the worst part of Marxism is that it claimed that the revolution would happen, and when it did, it wasn't any individual's fault what sorts of horrible things happened. If millions of kulaks get killed, that's just the way the wheel of history turns.

I'm not so sure about the real life practitioners of Marxism as terribly perverting his ideas. In the 18th Brumaire, he claims that rural peasants are basically a force of reaction, who are stuck in pre-capitalist ways of thinking. In The Communist manifesto, he makes it clear that they (along with all other classes that don't fit into the bourgeois-proletariat paradigm) must be dissolved and incorporated into the proletariat.

I also find his economics pretty bad. His writing on the organic composition of capital and the surplus labor value theory of profit seem to contradict his assumption of the labor theory of value.

But... leaving that aside, I think that Marx's true theory of ideology, if Matt describes it correctly, sounds pretty good. It makes a lot of sense to me, at least.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Jan 19, 2005 6:59:21 PM

P. B. Almeida writes:

"Increasingly, the Democrats are the party of the affluent, high-earning, highly-mortgaged, well-educated, professional, upper middle-classes."

As Michael Lind puts it, we're the party of the well-educated professionals and the party of the working poor.

However, we're no longer the majority party in this country because since '68 we've been getting our clock cleaned among the white working class.

Those folks should be one of the core members of any majority center-left coalition, and solving the riddle of getting them back is the key to the future.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 19, 2005 7:18:59 PM

"Or do you subsribe a theory of intellectual sin, according to which ideas are to be judged by their origin and associations?"

No, but I DO think ideas should be judged by their real-world consequences. And those of Marxism have been fairly ugly.

Now, I will grant you that Marx wrote enough verbage that not everything he wrote was nonsense and/or morally monsterous. Hell, Nietzsche had a few worthwhile things to say, too, but if a political writer used him for more than a source of a couple of nifty aphorisms, you'd worry about his judgement.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 19, 2005 7:33:14 PM

Yglesias is influenced by more than just Marx--he posits a Darwinian structure of "competition of ideas in the marketplace," and then describes a key characteristic of fitness: the ability to attract supporters who have money. Other important characteristics of fitness that he mentions in passing: enough intellectual coherence to attract both "true believers" and intelligent folks who lack a deep understanding of the policy issues involved, straightforward enough to be understood by a critical mass of intellectuals, etc.

If we had access to large computers, it might be very interesting to model this Darwinian competition and run simulations of how ideas thrive and die. We could take popular ideas throughout history, break them down along various axes (appeal to monied interests, intellectual coherence, "soundbiteyness", etc) and assign various alleles to these axes. Then we could run them in various environments, with varying initial frequencies, and see what happens.

I'm not saying it would be easy, but it could be a really cool joint project for a political scientist, evolutionary biologist, and computer whiz to work together on. Of course, it will never be funded, as it is an almost purely intellectual enterprise and has no appeal to monied interests...

Posted by: theorajones | Jan 19, 2005 7:33:20 PM

"Of course, it will never be funded, as it is an almost purely intellectual enterprise and has no appeal to monied interests..."

Darned good thing, that; There are enough potential "purely intellectual enterprises" to bankrupt the entire world many times over, if there weren't some mechanism in place to limit funding to mostly research that has some slight prosepct of paying for itself. We do, after all, live in a world of scarcity.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 19, 2005 7:59:43 PM

"I DO think ideas should be judged by their real-world consequences."

Well then, as others have noted, we really ought to do something about squelching the three religions of Abraham.

And let's not forget that Einstein's ideas have had some pretty nasty fallout...

Posted by: Petey | Jan 19, 2005 8:02:08 PM

P. B. Almeida: But I bet the margin is a small one, and it wouldn't shock me if they voted in greater number for Kerry than the general population of the state, or, if, say, Massachusetts residents earning between $35-75K voted for Bush in greater numbers than those earning over $125K. It seems that cultural conservatism these days is often inversely proportional to affluence.

Well, you might want to look at the exit polls instead of speculating.

http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2004/pages/results/states/MA/P/00/epolls.0.html

30-75k was about 33/65 Bush/Kerry, while 100-150k was 42/57 Bush Kerry according to this poll. Above 200k in Massachusetts favored Bush 54/46. Bush's support grows monotonically with income.

I remember looking this up before. Washington state was one of the anomalous cases. The 200k+ crowd preferred Kerry 64 to 36.
http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2004/pages/results/states/WA/P/00/epolls.0.html
Meanwhile, 30-75k voters favored Bush. I suspect that if you split out the income by region (is King County wealthier than other parts?) you'd get a clearer picture of what was going on.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 19, 2005 8:29:12 PM

"Yglesias is influenced by more than just Marx--he posits a Darwinian structure of "competition of ideas in the marketplace," and then describes a key characteristic of fitness: the ability to attract supporters who have money"

That, of course, is the interesting thing about Matt's post.

---

On a related topic, it's interesting how in an era where Dems are financially competitive with the GOP for the first time in a generation, the left's idea/propaganda machine continues to languish.

Throughout the 90's this problem was masked by the output of Clinton's WH shop in crafting ideologically popular policy. But now that Clinton's team has scattered to the four winds, we're back in the hole again.

And love 'em or hate 'em, over the past 15 years, the DLC has been about the only independent idea shop on the left that's interested in playing with ideas that are politically relevant.

Hopefully, the noises that have been made recently about some of the Dems' heavy hitter donors funding some new idea shops will come to pass...

Posted by: Petey | Jan 19, 2005 8:29:52 PM

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