How to Spot an Ideologue

Political Philosophy and Economy 8 min read

It is not hard to find ideologues these days. I mean, YouTube videos with titles like 'Watch Jordan Peterson DESTROY Leftist Host on Her own Show' or 'Talk show host Destroys Conservative' hardly inspire confidence in the neutrality of their channels! However, sometimes it is more subtle. The key question is how to spot an Ideologue and and then find the flaws in their thinking.

(You can thank Conservative Network and Young Turks for the equally inspiring examples of political reconciliation and balanced content above.)

The Data doesn't fit the model

...rather than the model doesn't fit the data.

People create models of the world. For example, you expect people to behave in a certain way - hence why you would be surprised if your boss or teacher started doing a chicken impression while you were working.

Please don't fire me

(Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash. Caption and sizzling wit by me)

When something happens in the world which doesn't fit your model you have a choice:

  • Change the model - maybe your boss isn't the sane man or woman you thought
  • Change the data

Someone who is not an ideologue is willing to change the model after taking into account the chance it might be an anomaly. Perhaps it turns out it was chicken-impression day at work, so your boss is still the sane, if slightly sad, person you thought.

Frankly, you might be so freaked out by the experience you 'change the data', and just pretend you never saw that chicken suit flapping about.

I'm not an Ideologue, I'm just right!

The Ideologue starts from the assumption that their model (i.e. ideology) is right, and hence the data is wrong or an anomaly. Below are two examples from across the political spectrum to help understand this. This is self-reinforcing as over time the Ideologue only remembers evidence which may support their ideology, having discounted everything else.

Maybe after several hundred million deaths there might be a problem with socialism, and centralising all power in the state for power-hungry a**holes to try and seize. But the Socialist Ideologue will instead say that the USSR wasn't quite the right conditions for socialism, and ignore that Stalin rose to power through the messy mechanisms of a centralised political system. Wherever you have centralised power, power-hungry people are going to seek it, and those with the least scruples may have an advantage in getting it. Perhaps Venezuela was brought down by outside malevolent forces (who appropriated the businesses and relentlessly printed money from within the Venezuelan Government?).

A hardcore free-markets advocate may say that everything is the result of Government failings. Financial melt-downs? Ah, a result of Government intervention sometime earlier no doubt! No chance that free markets can be volatile?

They gloss over the fact that, while markets provide a way for correcting inefficiencies, competition cannot remove human nature. We have enough common biases and flaws to make bubbles and recessions possible. Have a look here -the housing bubble was maintained by mass delusion and human bias. Seeing what people in 2006 thought of the housing prices is sobering.

And how to call them out

Debates with Ideologues is like a game of whack-a-mole: there are a never-ending stream of reasons why it must be an anomaly. Rather than tackling these head-on, you should examine the burden of proof they are using. I.e. for the claims they are making, how much evidence do they think is sufficient?

See if this burden of proof results in inconsistencies. A hardcore socialist may not accept that a centralised Government leads to tyranny. Yet would they accept that large companies can lead to nasty people running them by virtue of the struggle to the top? That the same motivations for money and prestige can apply in a State, just accentuated if that State has access to all resources in a country. And that, just as it is impossible for the Government and Public to keep track of all actions companies may do (do you want to read company reports in your spare time?) even with the help of investigative journalism, how transparent would a behemoth state really be?

A fun game is whether their burden of proof can be used to give results they are vehemently opposed to. If a good injection of local participation can make Socialism work, why not just do that but within companies? If it is possible to create hierarchies in which benevolent leaders always rise to the top through rules and regulation, apply these within a capitalist economy! If prayers being answered proves one religion, can you find people claiming their prayers are answered in another religion?

What Happened?

Also see if the same or similar burden of proof was used in the past. For example, did people think that Socialism could surmount the obstacles in Russia in 1917, China after 1945 and Venezuela more recently? If these people thought Socialism could succeed in these circumstances (which we now know it couldn't), that begs the question why. If there are consistently 'anomalies' which cannot be seen, those anomalies increasingly look like the ideology fails as a model: it does not explain the world. A structural flaw results in consistent failure. Say local democracy was the cause of the USSR's failure. If local democracy cannot act easily as a constraint on Government in the UK today, what hope does it have if the central Government's power is greater and individuals' resources less. Why didn't the people then, who were actually implementing it, not see this problem?

Likewise, if markets' failure is always explained by Government intervention, how come there were the odes of praise for the market leading up to the Great Depression and the 2008 crash with accompanying deregulation? Is the increased optimism and negligence in investment really caused by a Government regulation or a human reaction to increasing prices?

For your amusement, below are some snippets from a few years ago


The final trick they play is very sneaky. It roughly says 'it can only work without this and that being present'. I might say that whenever the profit incentive is present people are corrupted, or that whenever the state interferes the market is contaminated. This is difficult to deal with as it makes their claims unverifiable unless you implement the whole system

Unless you want to commit your nation to anarchic-capitalism or revolutionary socialism, this might not be the ideal way to test their hypothesis.

You need to analyse how valid their claim is.

They are saying that an effect X contaminates something to the extent the other parts of their theory cannot be tested or fails.

That leaves one opening: is there a good reason why effect X will always occur? For example, black markets are the natural consequence of people having different preferences and then trading. If the presence of any markets ruins Socialism, it's never going to work. If any regulation ruins your anarchic-capitalist paradise, what about when people come together and voluntarily agree on certain rules?

Another opening is that this is a very strong claim which will probably fail a sensible plausibility test. The idea that any profit motivation ruins your character? Surely it can be healthy to want to be productive, save and improve your life. Or Government regulations, which change behaviour, must then change behaviour by less when you have fewer of them prescribing rules for you. Thus we can test a degree of deregulation and the effect of people having more leeway.

There is no hard and fast rule. As societies are so complicated a formal proof of failure is impossible. However, there is a large arsenal to find ideologues and their inconsistencies.

Persuade the Ideologue!

This is hard.

It is best done over a longer period of time, and in person rather than online. This way, they change their mind slowly and thus don't realise it! (People don't like admitting they are or have been wrong, after all). If someone has a strong attachment to their beliefs - and have probably developed social networks and online circles around them - you will not be able to change their mind quickly, as they have to give up too much. Also, they have to go from a place where they thought they knew the world to a place where they don't.

First of all, try and get them to say what they think are acceptable starting points. For example, they might think that humans are generally honest except when they can profit otherwise. Try and help them see how, with their starting points and other arguments, other positions aren't so far away or crazy after all. The Socialist will readily agree nasty people can get to the top of businesses - try and extend that understanding to the State. A religious viewpoint generally holds that other people's religions are wrong - and what about the other religions' claims about prayer?

Set your target low at first: you might persuade a Socialist to support the free market provided there is a large State. Pick good examples - the Scandinavian countries for example have very free markets (and score above the US on ease of business rankings) but also high distribution. That just as centralisation of power into overly large multinationals may not be ideal, neither is it into a behemoth State! Likewise, you may be able to persuade a religious fundamentalist that religion and science are compatible. If you say and argue they aren't, they'll probably ditch Science rather than their faith.

Happy Hunting!

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