The Corner

Ideology for Thee, Not For Me

Yuval has it exactly right today in his Washington Post op-ed about the stem-cell decision. He writes:

In a prior iteration of that debate, while he was serving in the Senate, Obama told reporters that “the promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first.” This is a concise articulation of the technocratic temptation in science policy, reaffirmed by the president’s remarks yesterday. It argues not for an ethical judgment regarding the moral worth of human embryos but, rather, that no ethical judgment is called for: that it is all a matter of science.

This is a dangerous misunderstanding. Science policy questions do often require a grasp of complex details, which scientists can help to clarify. But at their core they are questions of priorities and worldviews, just like other difficult policy judgments.

Modern science offers tremendously powerful means of knowing and doing. It is the role of elected policymakers to consider the knowledge that science offers and the power it gives us, and to balance these with other priorities — be they economic as in the case of environmental policy, strategic as in the case of nonproliferation or moral as in the case of embryonic stem cells. In all these areas, politics ought to govern, with science merely its handmaiden. Science is a glorious thing, but it is no substitute for wisdom, prudence or democracy.

Will Saletan gets it too. He compares the fight over embryonic stem cell research to the fight over torture. I’m not as smitten with the torture comparison as Saletan is, but I think it works make his point. An even simpler hypothetical would be this: Imagine if the president declared “the military will be free of ideological or political interference. Henceforth, neither the Congress nor the executive branch can meddle in military decisions or impose their political or ideological agendas on how it operates.”

Most people surely recognize how stupid and dangerous this would be (including the founding fathers who wisely made sure the constitution barred anything of the sort). But then again, what’s the difference? After all, he military is full of experts who understand the complexities of war far better than most civilian leaders. Why should non-experts from the political branches impose their “ideological” preferences and agendas on the military? Let’s not even bring up the word “ethics” — it has no place in such affairs. Let’s just leave it up to the military to determine what rules it should follow, what practices it can adopt. They’re the experts.

I think Saletan and Yuval don’t go far enough, however, in explaing that Obama’s “ideology-free” position on stem cells, is itself an ideological position. I’m no fan of the philosopher Carl Schmitt, but he was right that even the decision to decide what things are “immune” from politics is a political decision. If a right-wing president declared that he would give the military a completely free hand to set its own ethical and procedural constraints, most of us on the left and right would see that as a crazily “ideological” position.

Or we can bring it down to earth more. Most liberals believe that those who want to leave the question of gun ownership up to the individual, without meddling by government, are profoundly ideological. Most conservatives think the opposite, that the liberal position on guns is ideological. And they’re right, on both sides. You can make the same point with everything from gay marriage to abortion to drug legalization. Supporting crack prohibition is an ideological position. The pro-legalized crack stance is just as ideological.

Readers of my book (and the Corner) know that I think the cult of pragmatism is really a Trojan Horse for the preferred ideological positions of people who don’t want to have ideological arguments. It often requires an undemocratic form of argumentation in which differing points of view are dismissed as illegitimate. In his pre-inaugural speech in Philadelphia, Obama proclaimed “What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives — from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry — an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.”

Now, I don’t think most reasonable people can look at what Obama has done in the last seven weeks and claim with a straight face that he’s not ideological. But Obama clearly doesn’t think he’s a small-thinker or a bigot. That’s what he thinks of those “ideologues” who disagree with his ideology. He did the same thing yesterday in his remarks about stem cells, though with marginally less name-calling. He is trying to shut down principled disagreement by saying that all reasonable people already agree with him and therefore anyone who disagrees is ipso facto unreasonable, i.e. “ideological.”

A more honest approach would be to simply declare “we’re all ideologues now” and then have a serious argument about the substance. Obama’s not interested in that. He prefers debates with strawmen.

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