Ideology And Extremism


Some journalists claim that the debate between Bhagwati and Sen is similar to the   Rahul-Modipolitical debate”. But, as Swaminathan Aiyar pointed out, Modi and Rahul are not at the two extreme ends of the political spectrum. Sen and Bhagwati are not at the two extreme ends of the political spectrum.

Most journalists are incapable of making fine distinctions. Part of the reason many of them hate Modi is his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, but, I think that is what they say. Much of the hatred, I think is perhaps because they think that Modi is a capitalistic politician. This is rubbish. No high school anarchist would have trifled with this notion for a single second. Modi is not a very learned politician. Semi-literates are not likely to believe in enlightened ideologies. This is obvious. Libertarians generally have a fairly sophisticated understanding of economics and politics. It ain’t easy.

But, the word “ideology” does not have a nice, neat ring to it. Vijay Vikram, a clear-thinking young man I know has an interesting take on ideology, on Twitter:

“There must be something in the psyche of the adolescent Indian that leads him to be infected with the malodorous disease of libertarianism. It’s a disease common to the partially Westernized youths of the 2nd world but the intellectual Indian adolescent is peculiarly susceptible. Take Shanu Athiparambath for instance. The other main example is Marxism but I suppose that is intellectually passé. Indians have never taken to Western conservatism but that of course is no “ideology”. Libertarianism in India represents a new chapter in our intellectual slavery to the West. Our youth are not libertarian, but some in Delhi and Bombay think that they are. Classical liberal thought is secularized Christianity. All Western ideologies are secularized versions of Christianity.”  

Are the very young more likely to believe in extreme ideologies? Is learning/experience likely to make you less extreme? It is now almost a consensus that moderation is a mark of wisdom. If this is true, learning should make intellectuals more and more moderate. I don’t find this true. Most people find truth unpleasant. Learning might make them resist the truth less, but it is not very likely to make them embrace the truth cheerfully. Only oddballs do that. 😛

Consider this: Jagdish Bhagwati is a democrat. This is hardly surprising because a typical economist is a moderate democrat, not an extremely conservative republican. But, common people often think that democrats are anti-capitalistic and republicans are capitalistic. And there is no profession on earth that has bred more libertarians than the economics profession. Economists are known for their bourgeois prejudice. But, according to Daniel Klein, among economists, the Democrat to Republican ratio is 3:1.

Surely, there is something missing. But, perhaps not. There is not much difference between both. Public choice research has produced enormous empirical evidence that suggests that Republicans are not more economically informed or capitalistic than liberal Democrats. Anti-capitalism can take many different forms. The difference between Congress and BJP is not even worth mentioning.

As Bryan Caplan argues:

“Economic literacy often demands that personal ideology be subjected to critical scrutiny. That scrutiny may reveal ideological distortions and exaggerations, but it often happens that ideologues fail to be extreme enough! When moderate views are drastically wrong, being right requires more than moderate dissent. For example, while conservatives are more willing to attribute price changes to supply-and-demand, most conservatives still balk. Liberals are less worried about immigration, but most are worried nonetheless. Economists across the ideological spectrum, on the other hand, accept that supply-and-demand controls prices, and immigration is a minor or non-problem for the economy.”

What would have happened?  Most economists were left-liberals before they studied economics, and education did not change their party affiliation much. I did not think much about politics before I became a libertarian, but most people are born as leftists. Intellectuals in general are socially liberal, and I think most of them loved welfare schemes before they studied economics. I have reasons to believe that most Indian intellectuals were once socialists, or pretty close. When they learned that their philosophy is rubbish, most of them swallowed hard.  It perhaps changed them for good, but still…….

Post Script: Is a young Indian intellectual more likely to be a libertarian, and not a conservative? Yes, but that is true in the west too. Bryan writes:

“You might protest that libertarianism is far less prevalent than conservatism.  But that’s only true for the general population, not the world of ideas.  Prominent libertarian economists and philosophers outnumber prominent conservative economists and philosophers.  Can you name a post-1900 conservative economist as well-known as Milton Friedman, or a post-1900 conservative philosopher as well-known as Robert Nozick?”

So, why did the best intellectuals find libertarianism more attractive when the masses liked conservatism more? 🙂

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