Who's an "Ideologue"?

Speaking to the House Republican Conference on January 29, Barack Obama disingenuously asserted, "I am not an ideologue." I couldn't see the faces of his audience on the C-SPAN broadcast, but they must have registered strong disbelief, because Obama paused, flinched, and then his pitch rose a couple of notes as he defensively insisted, "I'm not." 

With all due respect, Mr. President, quit being coy and 'fess up. You are an ideologue. And lest those reading this think I'm being nasty and engaging in mudslinging, let me hasten to add: I, too, am an ideologue.

A political ideologue is simply a person who acts in accord with an ideology. An ideology is a well-thought-out, coherent worldview, informed by bedrock values and dedicated to specific goals. Thus, an ideologue seeks to develop, advance, and implement policies that reflect that view, embody those values, and achieve those goals. 

There is nothing intrinsically scandalous or objectionable about being an ideologue. Wouldn't you prefer a president who has thought deeply about the problems we face and who is grounded in core beliefs and clear-cut values (in other words, an ideologue) over a shallow-thinking opportunist or a cynical moral chameleon? 

The problem is not that people are ideologues, but that we have different and opposing ideologies. For example, Obama's ideology is different from my own. (More on that momentarily.) Since human beings have a natural tendency to believe that our own ideas and positions are the correct ones, we sometimes get miffed when somebody dares to view the world differently. Then we are tempted to think or say, "I have principles, but you, sir (or 'fool'), are an ideologue," turning the word "ideologue" into a derogatory term that is code for "I disagree with your principles and beliefs."

For conservatives or liberals to try to score cheap points by hurling the label "ideologue" at political opponents is both childish and off the mark. Of course, the president is an ideologue. So what? Is his ideology good for America, or is the alternative better? This is the crucial question. 

When it comes to the economic questions that loom so large today, the two fundamental alternative ideologies are Barack Obama's and mine. (In practice, compromise leaves us in between the two poles, but any hybrid "ideology"-- the so-called "middle way"-- inevitably comprises elements borrowed from both of the two polar opposites.) Let's compare the two.

Obama is a self-described "progressive." The progressive ideology favors more government control over economic activities, including a greater redistribution of wealth. Last January, Obama made his "only government can..." speech (archives 1/15/09), in which he expounded his conviction that government should be the pilot steering our economic ship. 

By contrast, the free-market ideology, to which I subscribe, believes that truly free markets produce the most prosperity for the most people. Also, government intervention into economic affairs diminishes liberty, infringes on individual rights, impairs economic performance, introduces social injustices by picking winners and losers and deciding who gives how much to whom, and inevitably leads to stagnation and lower standards of living. 

Contrary to the straw-man canards hatched by leftists, the free-market ideology, properly understood, does not espouse an "anything goes" ethos, does not advocate that there be no rules to protect innocents against criminal conduct, and denounces as disgusting and unjustified the rampant rent-seeking behavior by which the well-connected have used the power of government to suppress free markets and enrich themselves via politically obtained privileges. (Obama, by the way, is one of the leading practitioners of bestowing political rent on his allies, as documented in Timothy P. Carney‘s insightful book Obamanomics.)

Another prominent feature of Obama's ideology is his "greenness." He wants to slow economic growth and lower Americans' standard of living. He resents Americans who drive SUVs, keep their houses at 72 degrees, and use lots of energy.

The free-market ideology, recognizing that the most lethal environment for human beings is poverty, favors policies conducive to economic growth. We don't denigrate prosperity, but instead, we welcome it as the key to preserving and improving lives while enabling us to afford more anti-pollution measures. 

So which of these two ideologies is capable of producing the greater good for us? In a democracy, it is reasonable to expect that the ideology favored by the majority will have the upper hand in shaping public policy. As far as I am concerned, may the more popular ideology win. Fair enough? 

I'm not sure, though, that Barack Obama agrees with me. Despite abundant evidence (election results, polls, the inability of Congress to implement the Obama agenda) that a majority of Americans oppose his big government plans, the president has taken the attitude of "you folks just don't understand how great my plans are, so I'm going to enact them anyhow." 

This raises a very important question: Is Barack Obama an antidemocratic ideologue? Does he believe so strongly in his own ideology that he will impose his plans on us even if most Americans don't want him to? Now that's the kind of ideologue we should fear.  

Mark Hendrickson teaches economics at Grove City College, where he is Fellow for Economic & Social Policy at the Center for Vision & Values (www.visandvals.org).