October 22, 2005

Ideology Leading to Incompetence

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 10:05 am

Update [10-23-05]: Monday’s New Yorker has an article on Brent Scowcroft’s disdain for Bush 43’s policies wrt Iraq. It’s not online yet, but you can find some excerpts here. (For once I seem to be ahead of the curve instead of a few days behind!)

Update [10-22-05]: Thanks to Wildwest for the pointer to this article in Common Dreams on, interestingly enough, neo-con ideology and Iraq.

Last night we watched the movie version of the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” on DVD. (I think there are two potential reactions to the movie: if you’ve read the books, it’s a let-down, and if you haven’t, it’s, um, odd.) One line from the movie (that doesn’t appear in the books) is spoken by Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Galaxy, when Ford Prefect asks him about his extra head: “well, apparently you can’t be President with a whole brain”.

Which of course got me thinking about competence and the Bush administration. Much has been made of the garden-variety incompetence of FEMA caused by cronyism and an underlying disdain for the role of government. But I think there’s another factor at play as well: ideology.

I’ve said in the past that extremism is a result of seeing the world as one believes it ought to be, rather than as it is. This is the essence of ideology — an overarching and unifying explanation of the world that is so attractive that one clings to it even in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary. Both the far left and the far right have had ideologies leading to extremism — think communism and fascism. But the conservatives have their own ideologies today, and they are a major cause of incompetence in the Bush administration.

Here we are with a ballooning deficit caused by huge tax cuts, the Iraq War, and now rebuilding after Katrina. The Republicans’ solution is to make the existing tax cuts permanent and enact more tax cuts even while cutting the budget for the neediest in our society. How could one possibly come to such an illogical solution? Ideology, in this case, a supply-side ideology that insists that tax cuts pay for themselves.

The Laffer Curve was proposed in 1974 by Professor Arthur Laffer as he drew a on a napkin, hypothesizing that cutting tax rates could generate more revenue by stimulating the economy. Of course, after Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981-2, Reagan, the elder Bush, and Clinton all raised taxes. The Supply-Side ideology has grown however, maintaining even in the face of the empirical evidence to the contrary that the boom years of the 1990s were all because of Reagan’s tax cuts. This ideology now argues that any tax cut for the wealthy will pay for itself in defiance of all logic and experience! This is beyond politics — this is ideology leading to incompetence.

Kevin Drum, Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias have been discussing whether the Iraq War was a good idea that failed because of incompetent execution, or it was just a bad idea to start with. I’ll argue that the distinction is artificial. Cheney, Rumsfeld and the neo-cons held on to an ideology that was not reality-based. It was this ideology that led them to think that invading was a good idea, and having decided to invade, it was the same ideology that led to incompetent execution.

The neo-con ideology maintains that the US has a moral obligation to make the world a better place through force of arms, and that the good, peace-loving people in the world (as opposed to the terrorists and autocrats) will celebrate our intervention. This ideology made invading Iraq seem like a really good idea, and led the administration to repeatedly make bad decisions once there. There may have been a moral and non-ideological rationale for invading, such as to liberate the Iraqi people from oppression. But a non-ideological plan for the invasion and occupation would either have resulted in a dramatically different war, or in a realization that it was simply not feasible. (I’m betting on the latter.)

Reality-based isn’t just a political blog slogan. It’s a rejection of extremist ideologies that insist on seeing the world as it ought to be rather than as it is. And there is only one possible result of ideology — bad decisions, and bad execution, aka incompetence.

And before any commenters accuse me of dissing religious faith (after all, isn’t religion an ideology, just seing the world as God says it ought to be?), let me be clear. My religious faith is not belief in an ideology, it is faith in a person, Jesus Christ. My beliefs regarding who he is, and what it means for us, is based on God’s revelation both in the Bible and through the action of the Holy Spirit in my life. But it is also based on reality, the reality of our world today. Mother Teresa was not an ideologue, she was immersed in the world as it is, not as it ought to be. Poor people ought to deserve what they get, but they don’t. Immoral people should be punished in this world, but they aren’t. Sinners ought not be redeemed by God, but they are. Like Mother Teresa, we too should strive for a reality-based theology, not an ideology-based one.

Theology based on seeing the world as it ought to be rather than as it is is bad theology. Just as ideology leads to incompetence in the political realm, ideology leads to incompetence in the religious realm, incompetence in our call to follow our Lord. The bad news is that we are all religiously incompetent in some respect. The good news is that God is far more forgiving than the polity. Thanks be to God.


  1. Are you referring to this article? http://www.commondreams.org/headlines05/1022-06.htm

    “There may have been a moral and non-ideological rationale for invading, such as to liberate the Iraqi people from oppression. But a non-ideological plan for the invasion and occupation would either have resulted in a dramatically different war, or in a realization that it was simply not feasible. (Iā€™m betting on the latter.)”

    If I recall correctly, the stated reason for the invastion in the first place was not ideological, but because we “knew” there were WMDs and we knew exactly where they were, “somewhere like kinda around Tikrit, y’know, like north, east, south, and west.” The “ideological” reason for the invasion was only brought out later when the WMD argument was “outed.” But yes, I think the ideological reason was there all along. It just wouldn’t have sold in the beginning. And now it’s all that’s left. How long are Americans willing to wait for the economy to get better and things to straighten out in Iraq before they realize they’ve been had? The longer it takes for that realization to materialize, the harder it will be to fix the problems that ideology has produced.

    Comment by wildwest — October 22, 2005 @ 10:53 am

  2. I cannot believe this perpetuation that Bush and the federal government is somehow more to blame than the State and Local officials of those areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. I have resisted commenting on this attitude wherein everyone among this blog’s readers just seems to have come to an unspoken consensus that FEMA and the Federal government are solely to blame for what occurred there. Please read this article:


    A couple of excerpts:

    “In New Orleans, those in peril and those in power have pointed the finger squarely at the federal government for the delayed relief effort.

    But experts say when natural disasters strike, it is the primary responsibility of state and local governments ā€” not the federal government ā€” to respond….

    …Instead of sending city buses to evacuate those who could not make it out on their own, people in New Orleans were told to go to the Superdome and the Convention Center, where no one provided sufficient sustenance or security….

    …As one FEMA official told ABC News, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco failed to submit a request for help in a timely manner.

    Shortly before Katrina hit, she sent President Bush a request asking for shelter and provisions, but didn’t specifically ask for help with evacuations. One aide to the governor told ABC News today Blanco thought city officials were taking care of the evacuation….

    …Both the president and Congress have vowed to investigate questions of blame. It may already be safe to conclude that there will be plenty of it to go around.”

    ABC News’ Dan Harris filed this report for “World News Tonight.”

    And then I would remind you that Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco are both Democratic representatives. The above excerpts were published on 09/06/05

    Comment by Jacke — October 22, 2005 @ 11:39 am

  3. One reason ideologies are attractive, I think, is the complexity of our world today. It’s much easier to have a ready-made answer to cover every situation than to weigh the pros and cons before trying to discern the best course of action. It’s easier in the short term, but it can have consequences that make it far more difficult in the long run.

    Comment by BruceA — October 22, 2005 @ 8:27 pm

  4. I think that one of the things I find most confusing about some Christians is while they do want to look at the world the way the world ought to be according to the Word of God, the Word of God also speaks to how the world will actually be –full of sin with Satan at the helm. We know that a lot of what goes on in the world should not go on. We know what God has to say about sin, Satan, and the fate of the world. But, God also tells us to not be of the world. We are not to let the things of the world tempt us.

    God says that He doesn’t think like us, work like us, or even see things the way we do. He sees things from His own perspective and does things in His time. We cannot even begin to understand the way God works or views things. We don’t have the brain to even begin to grasp it because we are not holy. We are not good. We are not sinless. We can’t even start to comprehend God’s love for mankind. We claim we do, but there is no way that we possibly can.

    War, taking from the poor to pay for other programs, lies–all that stuff is not of God. Satan wants war. Satan wants us killing each other. Satan wants to turn our hearts from the poor and make us cold towards them. Satan wants us to believe the lies and pass the lies on. None of that is from God. No matter how it is white-washed or covered in Scripture. Satan uses scripture to convince us of lies. I, you, any of us can find Scripture to support sin. Jesus came and gave us the road map. It is time for Christians to take up their crosses and follow Him instead of the world.

    Sorry, I got into a rambling this morning. Too much of today’s sermon still on my brain. šŸ™‚

    Comment by Angel — October 23, 2005 @ 9:05 am

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