Ideology — that is, a system of beliefs that are baked into our perception of the world — serves important functions in human society. It can provide context to problems, foster a sense of belonging and community, and in some cases even inspire hope.
A lasting — key word there, lasting — ideology is based on fundamental truth that is also adaptive. Its proponents are continually able to adapt and modernize to meet current circumstances. Those ideologies that can’t adapt to the times fall behind in the march of history.
But because the world is filled with infinite possibilities which cannot be predicted by or contained in a single ideology, no matter how adaptive and sophisticated, new information and conditions will inevitably come into conflict with ideology. Here we are faced with a dilemma: default to our human instincts, independent of ideological predispositions, or hold firm to what we already held to be true? This is the frontier of ideology.
So to keep it fresh and flexible and ready for battle, any ideology ought to be questioned and tested often, but there is another edge to this sword. It is equally perilous to over-question ideological tenets. An endless rabbit-hole of nuance is no more useful than a rigid and unyielding monolithic ideology.
Consider this: if we didn’t occasionally rely on some pre-existing ideology, we’d never have moved from addition and subtraction to calculus. In order to do advanced math, we have to take for granted a certain framework; we have to take for granted that 1+1=2 and 2+2=4. If we were to spend much of our time wondering whether the sun will rise in the morning, we wouldn’t achieve anything.
But it must be individuals who choose where to strike that balance, based on their own circumstances. And to find that balance, individuals must be able to exercise their cognitive faculties to respond to the unknown without fear of persecution or retaliation. Free individuals are not bound to an ideology that chooses the limits of their thoughts, desires, and actions for them. They can question all, discuss all, and interpret all.
The strength of the statement “2+2=4” comes precisely from the fact that it’s constantly open to probing.
Moreover, ideology can strengthen as well as weaken a free society. If an ideology is built on truth, then generally, it will strengthen a society. If it’s built on false premises but endures anyway, it will weaken anything it touches. And the places in which liberty is the least abundant are those where a rigid, inflexible, and unquestionable ideology, built on falsehood, stifles any sort of intellectual challenge.
The vast economic disparity between North and South Korea boils down to the regime in Pyongyang’s reluctance to part ways with imposing a monolithic, antiquated Leninist-Marxist ideology. This ideology has roundly failed — and by its very nature can’t help failing — to generate prosperity.
By contrast, South Korea embraced a plethora of world views, notably, liberal democracy and capitalism which helped Seoul transition from a military dictatorship into a strong, innovative, and prosperous free society.
In another example, European feudal monarchies justified their rule through a faith-based hierarchy. Feudalism kept society in an indefinite state of weakness and poverty that became increasingly difficult to justify following the onset of capitalism. Feudalism’s core premise of divine rule could not withstand the challenge that economic and social realities presented — namely, that free markets are more efficient than central planning and that free people are happier and more innovative than peasant serfs.
What these examples suggest is that phenomena exist outside of any human or ideological framework. Put another way, yes: a tree that falls in the forest does make a sound, even if there’s no one around to hear it.
The problems of the world are not concerned with any ideology. They exist whether you believe in them or not. So any ideology you put forth or subscribe to better be based on reality.
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This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily those of the United States government or any organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.