When we launched the Niskanen Center in January 2015, we happily identified ourselves as libertarians. Sure, we were heterodox libertarians, but there are many schools of libertarianism beyond those promoted by Charles Koch’s political operations. The school we identified with was a left-libertarianism concerned with social justice (a libertarian perspective that I’ve defended in debates with more orthodox libertarians here and here). That worldview lacked an institutional voice in 2015. Our ambition was to create a space for it and, in so doing, redefine what it meant to be libertarian in the 21st century.

I have abandoned that libertarian project, however, because I have come to abandon ideology. This essay is an invitation for you to do likewise — to walk out of the “clean and well-lit prison of one idea.” Ideology encourages dodgy reasoning due to what psychologists call “motivated cognition,” which is the act of deciding what you want to believe and using your reasoning power, with all its might, to get you there. Worse, it encourages fanaticism, disregard for social outcomes, and invites irresolvable philosophical disputes. It also threatens social pluralism — which is to say, it threatens freedom.

The better alternative is not moral relativism. The better alternative is moderation, a commodity that is rapidly disappearing in political life, with dangerous consequences for the American republic.

My hope is that I might best convince you to leave ideology behind by holding up a mirror to an ideological culture that is likely not your own — the world of libertarianism — and discussing the reasons why I left it behind. I suspect that, for those who hold to an “–ism,” the ideological culture of my old world doesn’t look too terribly different from your own.

I do not aim here to settle old scores or to criticize friends and former colleagues. After all, the beliefs that I find wanting today are the very beliefs that I myself held for most of my adult life. I simply mean to put in stark relief the pitfalls of ideological thinking, to illustrate those pitfalls in the world I know best, and to make the case for something better.

Ideology = Motivated Cognition

The first pangs of doubt about my old ideological attachments arose from my loss of faith in the case against climate action. As I began to express doubts about the narratives offered by climate skeptics, I found it impossible to offer an argument that resonated with my libertarian colleagues. But just how, exactly, does an ideological commitment to limited government, free markets, and individual dignity inform an understanding of atmospheric physics or paleoclimate records? And what does libertarianism have to contribute regarding the case for hedging against incredibly dangerous risks stemming from the misuse of a common pool resource, such as the atmosphere?

Libertarians have nothing at all to contribute to the conversation about the science of climate change as libertarians. They could, however, marshal ideological insights to suggest the best means of addressing global warming if it indeed turns out to warrant a policy response (as I believe it does). For libertarians, that could mean a carbon tax, but for other, more hardline libertarians, it could mean that greenhouse gas emitters should be held liable for climate-related damages via common-law legal proceedings.

But my old colleagues at the Cato Institute (where I worked at the time) were not interested in engaging in those “if/then” conversations. They were only interested in a fight to the death over climate science. Carbon tax advocacy was removed from the institutional table in 2007 when my former colleague David Schoenbrod used the institute’s byline in a Wall Street Journal op-ed suggesting a carbon tax, an act that infuriated management and led to his resignation. The common law approach to address climate change was rejected once and for all in 2010, when the Cato Institute filed an amicus brief in American Electric Power Company v. Connecticut, arguing that “it is unconstitutional for courts to make complex policy decisions that should be left to the legislature — and this is true regardless of the science regarding global warming.” Cato’s institutional position was thus adaptation (learning to live with warming), which is only defensible if scientific alarm over the risks posed by climate change is unwarranted.

This problem extended beyond the realm of climate change. Over and over again, libertarian friends and colleagues were engaged in fierce, uncompromising debate about empirical matters that had nothing to do with libertarian principles or commitments. Is the Keynesian multiplier consequential? Is Thomas Piketty correct that returns to capital are greater than the rate of growth? Do tax cuts pay for themselves? A libertarian could take either side of those disputes without having to recant any of their principles or fundamental beliefs. But to cross the party line on these or an ocean of similar empirical matters was to risk unemployment.

The point is that what ideologues fiercely believe about empirical arguments has little to do with their ideological priors. It has to do with the policy implications of those empirical arguments given their ideologically-driven preferences.

We should not shrink from the truth based on what that truth might mean for our pre-existing beliefs. I know libertarians well and they tend to accept this in theory, but like all ideologues, they have difficulty accepting it in practice. Libertarians do not care for government because they believe it is inherently coercive and destructive of individual liberty. Hence, they are highly motivated to dismiss arguments that might suggest an important need for government, or evidence that offers a cautionary warning about the negative consequences that might follow from a curtailment of governmental power.

Reason, as David Hume famously noted, is a slave of the passions, and libertarian passions point in one direction and one direction only: hostility to government. This passion is a powerful engine of motivated cognition, which invariably leads to weak policy analysis and dogmatism.

Principles, Come What May

Some of my old colleagues maintained that their ideological commitments were anchored in moral principle regarding how society ought to be ordered (for libertarians, “freedom, for good or ill!”). When pressed, however, they usually conceded that they thought their ideological commitments would produce better social outcomes, and that if that turned out to be false, they would have to reassess their beliefs. This is an important concession in that it qualifies the ideologue’s commitment to principle: the principle must have good outcomes. As John Rawls once argued, any ideology that does not concern itself with the real-world impact of its ideas on society is a thing of madness.

That madness, however, often arises in ideological communities because their attachment to principle is so powerful that it becomes an end unto itself. For instance, in my old circles, libertarians will argue passionately against the state but marshal little evidence about what sort of society might actually arise in the modern world were the state to largely disappear. Perhaps the most impressive intellectual ever to take up the libertarian cause — Robert Nozick — had absolutely nothing to say about that in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (my bible for most of my adult life).

There is a good reason for this omission. Wherever we look around the world, when we see inconsequential governments with limited power, as libertarians would prefer, we see “failed states.” How much liberty and human dignity can be found there? Very little.

That, in fact, is the main point of one of the best contemporary rejoinders to libertarianism — Mark Weiner’s The Rule of the Clan. Weiner’s argument is that without government, we don’t usually have unconstrained freedom and autonomy. We have instead the rule of family, caste, church, criminal syndicates, or any number of nongovernmental agents. Historically speaking, those nongovernmental agents have done far more violence to individual liberty and autonomy than have modern welfare states. The modern welfare state, Weiner argues, has tended to expand liberty by using its power to free people from the oppression and deprivation that so often followed from the rule of nongovernmental actors.

How much liberty and human dignity can be found in the world where state power breaks down and is overcome by private power? Very little. That point was well made in episode 23 of HBO’s The Sopranos, wherein a man comes forward as a witness to a crime without knowing that it was committed by New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano. He sits in his living room reading Anarchy, State, and Utopia when his lawyer calls to tell him that he has inadvertently put himself in the crosshairs of the mafia. Our concerned citizen turns white, puts the book down, and frantically calls the police to retract his statement. The message, echoed by political scientist Bo Rothstein, is clear: “In a ‘stateless’ Robert Nozick type of society, where everything should be arranged by individual, freely entered contracts, markets will deteriorate into organized crime and corruption.”

For ideologues, adequate concern about the real-world implications of their visions moving from (beautiful) theory to (messy) practice is rare indeed.

The Limited Utility of Principles

How should we interpret and apply our ideological principles? It is often far from clear. It turns out that applying general nostrums in the real world is not such an easy task. Despite the fact, for instance, that most libertarians offer principled objections to state-mandated racial preferences, one can also find libertarians repairing to those very same principles to defend affirmative action and reparations to African-Americans. Despite the fact that most libertarians object to labor unions as coercive, socialist enterprises, libertarian principles have also been marshalled to justify opposition to antilabor laws like the Taft-Hartley Act and right-to-work statutes.  

Moreover, all libertarians agree that there are exceptions to their ethically-driven opposition to the use of government coercion and force. If there were not, there would be no libertarians; there would only be anarchists. But what are the scale and scope of those exceptions?

Once again, it is unclear. Some libertarians adhere to a version of the “night-watchman state,” which offers few exceptions to libertarian principles, while others endorse all kinds of exceptions. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (a book celebrated as required reading in most of the libertarian world) includes clarion calls for state action against social injustice. Plenty of influential libertarian academics and public intellectuals have likewise embraced taxing greenhouse gas emissions, state-provided catastrophic health care coverage, a universal basic income guaranteed by the state, and a number of other progressive-friendly policies.

Debates within the libertarian community about how liberty should be understood, how liberty should be applied, and how to adjudicate exceptions to the rule against the use of government force are fierce and unending. Internecine libertarian disputes inflame passions to the same degree as do disputes between liberals and conservatives about the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. Factionalism within the libertarian world is rife and irresolvable because the principles themselves say less than you might think about what public policy ought to be (a point made with great force by my colleague Will Wilkinson).

One Principle to Rule them All?

What I’ve lately come to appreciate is that marshalling libertarian principles (no matter how thoughtfully or liberally considered) to referee public-policy disputes is difficult to justify in the first place. Why, after all, is liberty objectively more important than other considerations that millions of people in this country hold dear, such as the pursuit of social justice, equity, community, virtue (“statecraft as soulcraft,” as George Will once put it), pluralism, material well-being, or any number of concerns that animate people in politics? Ideology is nothing if not the elevation of one particular concern as more important than others. As Michael Oakeshott noted, however, “Obsession with a single problem, however important, is always dangerous in politics; except in time of war, no society has so simple a life that one element in it can, without loss, be made the centre and circumference of all political activity.

There is nothing wrong with policy advocacy that is informed by a commitment to principles. In fact, it is almost impossible for us to do otherwise given that principles are the projection of personal values into the political realm. Thinking about politics without principled considerations is to think about politics as the exercise of power without moral limit.

But there is no obvious reason why we should hold one principle to be more important than any other in nearly every single policy context. All of the worthy principles marshaled in American politics are important, but some will be more important than others depending upon the circumstance. They cannot all be fully realized at the same time with any given policy proposal. Ethically difficult trade-offs are necessary, and those trade-offs must be transparently considered on a case-by-case basis. There is little room for ideology in this undertaking.

There is a word for the monomaniacal pursuit of a single idea. And that word is fanaticism.

Ideology vs. Pluralism

Even if you disagree and wish to hold fast to one principled concern above all others, you would still have to confront the fact that your attachment to that primary concern — whatever it is — is largely personal and subjective. I cannot, after all, objectively and conclusively demonstrate that you should care more about individual liberty than other reasonable concerns. Brilliant philosophers and theorists have disagreed with each other throughout the ages about which principles could best rule society, and disagreement today among minds far more thoughtful than mine is as common as it has been since the beginning of time.

Accordingly, any attempt to govern with an ideological compass runs aground given the extreme unlikelihood that there will ever be a social consensus about which ethical principle should be first among equals in political deliberations. Ideological doctrinairism fails to acknowledge and respect the pluralism of social and political life. It is pregnant with the prospect of political oppression, particularly since the passions stirred up by monomaniacal moral or ethical commitments breed fanaticism, Manichean thinking, and political extremism.  

Even if we embrace ideology merely as a conceptual lens to help us better understand what is most likely to promote human well-being (ideology as a pattern-recognition device), we run into difficult problems. The incredible complexity of social and economic relationships, the heterogeneity of human beings, and the ubiquitous and irresolvable problem of unintended consequences will frustrate dogmatic shortcuts to problem-solving. Given our very human tendency to filter out information that does not comport with our worldviews — and excessive attention to information that comports with the same — the more we repair to our ideological lenses, the more distorted they become thanks to a spiraling process of confirmation bias.

Most importantly, the defense of ideology as a lens for measuring policy effects on well-being begs the question of how, exactly, we should define human well-being in the first place. An equity-grounded ideologue will define it in one fashion, a utilitarian will define it in another, a libertarian ideologue in another, a conservative ideologue in yet another, ad infinitum. In short, any ideological crusade is a crusade of conquest by political force.

The Alternative to Ideology: Moderation

The problems I’ve identified in my old world are universal across the ideological spectrum. Ideology corrupts caring, idealistic, educated, and intelligent people … and turns some of them into monsters. Ideologies breed dogmatic thinking and lazy, decoder-ring policy analysis. They encourage motivated cognition. They give birth to excessive certainty, crowding out healthy intellectual skepticism. They moralize political conflict in an unhealthy fashion, yielding incivility, extremism, and social discord. They ignore the complexities of the modern world. They threaten the pluralism that a (small-l) liberal society is obligated to respect and defend.  

What is the alternative to ideology? There is no easy answer. Without some means of sorting through the reams of information coming at us every day, we would be overwhelmed and incapable of considered thought or action. Without any underlying principles or beliefs whatsoever, we are dangerously susceptible to believing anything, no matter how ludicrous, and to act cruelly without moral constraint. Yet any set of beliefs, if they are coherent, are the wet clay of ideology. Hence, the best we can do is to police our inner ideologue with a studied, skeptical outlook, a mindful appreciation of our own fallibility, and an open, inquisitive mind.

Politics and policymaking without an ideological bible is incredibly demanding. It requires far more technocratic expertise and engagement than is required by ideologues, who already (they think) know the answers. It also requires difficult judgments, on a case-by-case basis, about which ethical considerations are of paramount concern for any given issue at hand, and what trade-offs regarding those considerations are most warranted.

To embrace nonideological politics, then, is to embrace moderation, which requires humility, prudence, pragmatism, and a conservative temperament. No matter what principles we bring to the political table, remaking society in some ideologically-driven image is off the table given the need to respect pluralism. A sober appreciation of the limitations of knowledge (and the irresolvable problem of unintended consequences) further cautions against over-ambitious policy agendas.

This leaves us with modest ambitions, which will undoubtedly leave the idealist cold. But those ambitions need not be trivial or rudderless. We are not cyborgs. Our ambitions will be driven by our principles, which are idiosyncratic and weighted differently by each of us. And while principles may be the wet clay of ideology, they need not harden into walls. Those whose principles are strongly weighted in particular directions might use “moderate” as an adjective. Those whose principles are more varied (like mine) might use “moderate” as a noun.

Intellectual and political compromise is the sine qua non of moderation. But it is compromise with a purpose. “If moderates are sometimes prepared to sacrifice the better for what is decent,” argues political scientist Aurelian Craiutu, “they do it in keeping with a larger goal, defending the pluralism of ideas, principles, and interests essential to maintaining and nurturing freedom in modern society.”

Compromise, however, has limits. Compromise with theft, murder, slavery, or gross infringements on human dignity is indefensible. As Martin Luther King wrote in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, we do not want to adopt the position of the white moderate of the 1960s, “who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.” Nor should we compromise with lying, the use of dubious means to achieve commendable ends, or over matters of scientific truth, or what is universally acknowledged to be beyond dispute. Firm positions and tough stances are sometimes required. And when necessary, moderates must have the stomach for a fight.

Moderates & Politics

Moderation has a poor image in American politics. Scoffed at by politicians (“there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos”), moderates have been nearly wiped out of the Republican Party and are fiercely scorned by a growing number of Democrats in that party as well. Moderates are seen as shallow, milquetoast dealmakers, who stand for nothing save for giving offense to the fewest number of voters possible.

Few public intellectuals, for their part, fly the banner of moderation or pay it much rhetorical heed. Moral clarity, powerfully argued, is the currency of the intellectual realm (currency that I myself trafficked in for a very long time and still struggle to put down). The low regard we have for moderation in public life consequently fuels the ideological and partisan zealotry that is tearing this country apart.

But moderation has a noble pedigree. Many great presidents, such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, were moderates of their day. The two most popular governors (by far) in the United States — Charlie Baker (MA) and Larry Hogan (MD) — are moderate Republicans. And more voters identify themselves as moderates than as anything else. As far as public intellectuals are concerned, the kind of moderation discussed here is central to the arguments forwarded by Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Camus, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Michael Oakeshott, Karl Popper, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Judith Shklar, among others.  

The main challenge for moderates is the limited amount of connective tissue that binds them together. How does one encourage rebellious minds whose only common denominator is a distrust of ideology to huddle together for warmth and to act in their collective interest against genuine ideologues, who are easily united by their causes and whose zealotry and passion is off the charts?

While that is a rich and interesting conversation for another time, the essential requirement now is to identify a fighting cause that comports with the aims of moderation while energizing a large enough subset of moderates to compel action. If moderates are not as passionate as ideologues, they will be steamrolled in American politics. My colleague Brink Lindsey has a few ideas on that front (ideas derived from the growing resurgence of interest in the political philosophy of republicanism) that will be published in National Affairs next month, so I invite you to stay tuned.

At this (rather late) point in my intellectual journey, I am of the same mind as the Italian political philosopher Norberto Bobbio:

There were only a few of us who preserved a small bag in which, before throwing ourselves into the sea, we deposited for safekeeping the most salutary fruits of the European intellectual tradition, the value of enquiry, the ferment of doubt, a willingness to dialogue, a spirit of criticism, moderation of judgment, philological scruple, a sense of the complexity of things. Many, too many, deprived themselves of this baggage: they either abandoned it, considering it a useless weight; or they never possessed it, throwing themselves into the waters before having the time to acquire it. I do not reproach them; but I prefer the company of the others. Indeed, I suspect that this company is destined to grow, as the years bring wisdom and events shed new light on things.