You probably hear the word ideology used a lot, whether it is used in political or economic discussions (or in sociology classes). But what does it really mean?
Put plainly, ideology is a way of seeing the world. Ideologies are like lenses through which we view just about everything. They offer pre-packaged solutions to problems much like some fast food restaurants have special deals which plan a meal for you in advance: sandwich, drinks, and chips for one predetermined price. Like these meals, in many cases clinging to ideology means that many of the answers to social issues are pre-packaged. It may make the world seem simpler, but it can also cloud our decision making without us even realizing it.
Consider economic systems. They tend be viewed through various ideologies. Here in the United States we tend to view life through the lenses of capitalism, even beyond the way we think about our financial markets. We tend to promote the idea of competition in many aspects of life, view high profits and salaries as ultimate definitions of success, and like to think of ourselves as all players in this game. Competing economic systems are not just thought of as different, but a threat to what makes us American.
Even within capitalism, there are competing ideologies. Some view the free market as the best way for our economy to operate. Within this perspective, any government interference is negative for economic growth. Similar to Social Darwinism, free marketers believe that the market will weed out any businesses that cannot compete, that competition is ultimately best for business and for consumers. The fittest business models will survive.
Others argue for a more controlled version of capitalism, with government acting as referee making sure the “game” is played fairly. Many basic regulations, like laws against insider trading (when people take advantage of information not available to the public to buy or sell stock), were codified as law in the U.S. early in the twentieth century, as the gap between the wealthy and the poor grew significantly. Other regulations were passed within the Securities Act of 1933, legislation passed following the onset of the Great Depression to try and avoid some of the practices that led to the stock market’s crash in 1929. For most of the middle decades of the twentieth century, the ideology of regulated capitalism was very widely held.
As the Great Depression faded from view, the political pendulum shifted towards less regulation and gradually loosened regulations. In 1999, Congress passed the Financial Services Modernization Act, which rolled back many of the laws passed after the Depression. As you can surmise from its title, the implication was that regulations were no longer “modern.” As a result, banks could combine a variety of services beyond money lending, to include selling insurance and other investments with less oversight.
Fast forward nine years, and with the collapse of this new and “improved” financial services industry, an administration that touted the free market version of capitalism has been forced to dramatically change its tune. To stave off collapse (which free market advocates would argue should be able to happen when businesses make bad decisions), Congress approved a $700 billion bailout package. Sometimes circumstances challenge the degree to which we should adhere to ideology.
Former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan questioned his own beliefs in the ability of the free market to police itself after the financial collapse, telling a Congressional committee that some regulation should have been introduced. He also noted that he was surprised that the interests of the banks did not prevent them from making such risky and confusing investments.
The Los Angeles Times examined whether the bailout was the beginning of the end of the free market ideology, or just a temporary fix to a crisis. Some economists quoted within the report argued against the bailout, based on ideological principle. Others admitted that it shouldn’t be something that they would agree with, but under the circumstances felt that the government had no other choice. Whether to adhere to ideology or make a decision that is based on circumstance is a challenge: to violate the “rules” of one’s ideology means risking others on your ideological “team,” maybe even get called hypocritical.
Ideology traditionally shapes American politics as well. Well-worn arguments about both major political parties traditionally give opponents platforms to run on, and can shore up the party’s ideological allies by recalling these debates. Obama could rally like-minded others by charging that McCain will primarily represent the interests of the wealthy. McCain argued that Obama would be a tax-and-spend-liberal, drawing on concerns that Democrats like to raise taxes to fund lots of social programs. As the race heated up, the McCain campaign also accused Obama of supporting socialism.
This was more than just a critique of Obama's ideas, but drew upon the concept of ideology. The suggestion of socialism harkens the Red Scares that have occurred throughout American history. People accused of being socialists and communists could be jailed, fired, and were derided as enemies of America. So you get the idea that we’re not just talking about economics here, but protecting the very way that we have chosen to view the world.
Ideologies can be useful for providing pre-packaged ways of seeing the world; most of the time they seem so much like common sense that we are unaware of when we believe them. Ideologies can blind us and prevent us from searching outside of our traditional ways of thinking to find the best solutions to problems if we feel like we must always conform to an ideological framework. But is it ever possible to have an ideology-free society? What do you think?