The Problem With Ideologues

It isn’t that ideologues are stupid. Most are really very bright–if we define “bright” to mean that they have high IQs. They just can’t deal with ambiguity, and we live in an ambiguous world.

Politicians aren’t all ideologues: although many members of Congress–both Democratic and Republican (albeit more Republicans these days)–doggedly adhere to relatively simple “black versus white, wrong versus right” world-views, many others do not. The current administration is far, far from ideological. (True, Trumpers play to their fanatic base of True Believers, but from cynicism, not agreement.) Con artists are the antithesis of ideologues, and as I’ve previously noted, we have an administration composed of none-too-bright Keystone Kops and people who would be right at home in the Mafia.

We should also distinguish between “True Believers” and ideologues. True Believers tend to be people who uncritically adopt world-views generated by others. They find those “ready made” explanations (white nationalism comes to mind) appealing because they provide answers/excuses: why is it that my life isn’t going the way I wanted/expected? Whose fault is it? Who can I blame?

Ideologues, on the other hand, tend to be high IQ people who have worked out a coherent, orderly explanatory model that they proceed to apply to a world that is anything but coherent and orderly.

And that brings me to Richard Epstein.

I met Epstein briefly some twenty-five years ago, when he was teaching at the University of Chicago Law School. (You don’t teach at U.C. unless you are really, really smart–of course, “smart” and “wise” aren’t the same thing–not even close.) He made a speech which I have since forgotten, and had just written a book which I read and which is still buried somewhere in my library.

I would describe Epstein as a radical libertarian, and what I remember most about that just-written book was one chapter’s insistence that we don’t need a government agency to award or monitor air lanes–that once two planes had collided midair, and the airlines had been held liable for the immense damages (he does believe in legal liability, evidently–it’s been a long time since I read the book), the airlines would be motivated to get together and agree on the distribution of air lanes, because it would be in their financial interests to avoid such collisions in the future.

Cold comfort to those on one of the first planes…

At any rate, Epstein is now, apparently, affiliated with both NYU Law School and the Hoover Institution, and according to the New Yorker,  his approach to the way the world should work significantly influenced early White House pandemic policy.

According to the Washington Post, “Conservatives close to Trump and numerous administration officials have been circulating an article by Richard A. Epstein of the Hoover Institution, titled ‘Coronavirus Perspective,’ which plays down the extent of the spread and the threat.

Epstein, a professor at New York University School of Law, published the article on the Web site of the Hoover Institution, on March 16th. In it, he questioned the World Health Organization’s decision to declare the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, said that “public officials have gone overboard,” and suggested that about five hundred people would die from COVID-19 in the U.S. Epstein later updated his estimate to five thousand, saying that the previous number had been an error. So far, there have been more than two thousand coronavirus-related fatalities in America; epidemiologists’ projections of the total deaths range widely, depending on the success of social distancing and the availability of medical resources, but they tend to be much higher than Epstein’s.

According to the article, Epstein is known for his “libertarian-minded reading of the Constitution.”  He continues to advocate for what he calls a “restrained” federal government, and last year published an article on Hoover’s web site arguing that “The professional skeptics are right: there is today no compelling evidence of an impending climate emergency.”

Well, when pesky evidence threatens your carefully-constructed worldview, the evidence must be wrong.(What are you going to believe? Your lying eyes, or your elegant theoretical model?)

The linked New Yorker article has a verbatim interview. If you want a glimpse of just how far afield a rigid ideology can take even a really smart person, click through.


  1. There is a common theme in today’s Neo-Liberals: they seem consistently uninformed, arrogant, white, male (except for the females who fall into the “Blondes have more fun” category), know everything yet are at experts in nothing, intolerant, self-absorbed, confident to the point of stupidity, disdainful of intelligent thinking, have an amazing ability to twist words and statistics to their perspective and, perhaps the most alarming trend in contemporary American culture, confident that their opinion is as valid as those with knowledge and expertise.

  2. “Well, when pesky evidence threatens your carefully-constructed worldview, the evidence must be wrong.(What are you going to believe? Your lying eyes, or your elegant theoretical model?)”

    Apparently Anita Kirchen adheres to Trump’s “because I said so” which fits into no view but his own view which can and does change on his personal whims. His appointee changes will never catch up with his changing comments based on his attempts to prove he didn’t say what he said in those films of him saying what he said before our lying eyes…but they are enough to keep us confused as to who is in charge of what department of our government on any given day. Today’s foe is yesterday’s best friend…yet they continue to support him…why?

    “It isn’t that ideologues are stupid. Most are really very bright–if we define “bright” to mean that they have high IQs. They just can’t deal with ambiguity, and we live in an ambiguous world.”

    If those “ideologues” sitting in the White House at Trump’s beck and call at this time aren’t stupid; how did we get into the current deadly, leaderless condition we are struggling to survive today? Did Trump read Epstein’s March 16th article that Covid-19 is NOT a Pandemic or did Jared give him this information? He still doesn’t believe HIS lying eyes or any medical adviser in this nation.

  3. I’ve just been sitting here wondering if “Stupid” is considered an “Underlying Condition.”

  4. If by Neo-Liberals, Anita Kirchen means the advocates of Neo-liberal economics, who tend to be today’s Conservatives, I would agree with her completely. But if by Neo-Liberals, she means what every one else calls Liberals, I would say she lives in the alternate world created by those in the Trump White House.

  5. theology,religious,scholarly, the constitution,law,trade paper,and many radicals. how ones minds tends to bend towards ones thinking,or, something that triggers ones mind. how one thinks about something,totally diffrent from someones elses thinking.. verse for verse,in the bible.
    blacks,webster. ive focused on the working persons needs,hense , i want to believe, and find credit where its due. if my own needs are met,then one can level thier thinking to the can its put in.. if i believe someone elses needs are not met,in relation to my own,then im leaning towards their needs too. every voice sees reason,and every voice may contradict others. ones thinking,like the latest Roberts court,well did i say enough?

  6. Dogma comes from all sides. This reminded me of Bernie Sanders calling out Castro’s wonderful public education program which is widely known to be institutional Marxist brainwashing of kids.

    The world is very complex and few, if any problems, have a silver bullet mantra that will solve them and result (belated Happy Easter) in the Common Good.

  7. Without a doubt, Mr. Trump never read Richard Epstein’s “theory,” but when one’s world view boils down to greed, as is the case with Mr. Trump, the temptation to align it with the “public interest” through the crackpot notions of a Darwinian/libertarian theorist will attract the attention of someone who has the president’s ear. Its explanation to Trump certainly would have required sounding out the big words and colorful crayon illustrations, but its economic utility strongly recommends it, of course, as plausible public health policy. “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

  8. I believe as was mentioned before in previous threads, intellect has nothing to do with education, nor does common sense have much to do with IQ!

    I used to laugh when my wife who work for a large pharmaceutical company used to talk about the scientists and researchers, ones with multiple bachelor’s and doctorate degrees, where the most helpless people when it came to regular day-to-day activities. They can rattle off why DNA and RNA are different, and why they are symbiotic, and how to develop equipment to read the genome and find tests to detect different sorts of disease and defect, but couldn’t balance a checkbook, or couldn’t pass a driver’s test, or had difficulty communicating with fellow employees. These folks were wired differently, a lot of folks with extremely high intellect are also mentally ill many ways.

    Then you have those who are willfully ignorant, purposefully loutish, wanton con artists, and sinfully devious, who recognize how these highly intellectual people can be manipulated very easily. And manipulated towards their selfish and self-centered agenda!

    Unfortunately with the advent of instantaneous communications, public shaming, bullying, and manipulation, is much more impactful than it was when someone could influence the few around them. These influencers only use their cult of personality to manipulate the intellectuals and thereby giving themselves credence. Sad but true!

    As a side note, a friend of ours who works for the police department said she gets calls every single day without let up, since this whole Covid 19 epidemic started, people tell them where they will be and to come and find them. When they get there, they have committed suicide! This is something that they don’t talk about, people have lost their jobs almost immediately, they never saw this coming. Most of these folks are small business owners, or work for small businesses that are shuttered, they can’t get their unemployment, the so-called stimulus or whatever it is is NOT on its way, they can’t buy food, they can’t pay rent, their entire world has been destroyed.

    I believe this is what our government wants anyway, CULLING the herd! Because, why not? They are just a drag on the economy now and did not useful commodities!

    It’s obvious by listening to these conferences by this administration, life is not precious, and if the life is not theirs, they don’t care, no compassion, just an empty shell of self serving compulsion and greed!

  9. My exposure to libertarians has primarily come from social media “discussions” about climate change. I would say from that experience that most libertarians came to be what they are because they evolved in a culture of “me first”, they believe that every dollar that they pay in taxes is stolen from them, and they would like to prove that those with the lightest education are the most informed because their brains got a heavier than average dose of “common sense”. Other than that they are very cult like in terms of behavior. They don’t follow a person as much as being part of a tribe that always agree that they are entitled not by accomplishment but by membership in the tribe. While my exposure again has been from the perspective of climate change the tribe seems to pretty much agree on everything else too.

    It’s a very dysfunctional tribe but explains to some degree the political pathology of Trump supporters.

  10. John,

    Your wife’s condemnation of eggheads is unfair, inaccurate and narrow-minded. Yes, some of those exist. I know some of them, but I know A LOT more eggheads who are capable of cooking a gourmet meal, building a house and playing scratch golf.

    This guy Epstein sounds like he used to take warm showers with Milton Friedman while at UC. When guys like that start shooting off their mouths about how wonderful market pressures are, I think it’s time for the guys in the white coats to enter the room. Great intellectual musing is great, but each adventure should be taken to the global conclusion using ALL the evidence and keeping imagination a servant of IT instead of the other way around.

  11. John @ 9:57 am, so many good points in your post.

    The Epstein’s and Richard Epstein echo what their paymasters want them to say. These people can be intelligent, it does not mean they are immune to the influence of who butters their bread.

    Does Epstein and those fellow-travelers of his ideology really believe in what they writing or saying?? Or do they realize at some level they would not have some cushy job at a University or the Hoover Institution if they abandoned their Libertarian Ideology????

    The simple fact is “The Market” or Capitalism has no soul or conscience. Like any other living thing, it primary purpose is to reproduce itself in the case of Steroid Capitalism the purpose is “Profit over All”.

  12. This is political philosophy day, so I’ll have at it. Taxless libertarians (except for the military to protect their property interests) posing as Republicans come in all shades in the Congress, from Paul in the Senate to Amash in the House, and delight in throwing monkey wrenches in House and Senate proceedings from time to time to grab a headline while sating their libertarian instincts. They fit the Epstein model in that they are bright and arrogant – and wrong with their views of individual freedom and hatred of government – as though the rest of us are dummies in dire need of elucidation for failing to accept their brand of nihilism.

    Unfortunately, they have moved the Republican Party of Eisenhower to the far right with their 17th century political/economic views which they have meshed with the American frontier spirit of individual freedom in order to cover their “freedom” to pursue greed with public intervention by government a no-no, as though we in the 21st century with 330 million people are living in the days of Daniel Boone and Kaintuck. We aren’t. Horse and buggy ideas in re an economy and government in this Information Age ruled by corporations and cartels are a recipe for disaster, one to which we are bearing witness due to wage inequality even if coronavirus had never happened.

    Neither classical economists like Adam Smith nor David Ricardo would be happy with an economic system that is bereft of virtually all public control as advocated by libertarians, nor would modern economists such as Stiglitz and Piketty – and for good reason. We’re not what we used to be, and perhaps more radical change is in the offing as a result of both Silicon Valley innovation and continuing greed – like a change in isms – because tomorrow we’ll not what we used to be today, and especially in an AI era when the nature of change is itself changing.

  13. It sounds to me like Richard Epstein needs to read up on the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    Actually, now that I think about it, I wonder if there’s a relationship between libertarian thinking and susceptibility to the DKE. Meh. Maybe I’m overthinking it and it’s just simple selfishness.

  14. John so sorry that our uniformed protectors are having to witness such startling cases of “self taking of life”. While I knew gun sales have been record breaking, I admit I was not thinking about the use of many against one’s own self, more about use against others.

    And it is just starting, perhaps the shower before the storm.

  15. when i run across libertarians i like to ask how they view the accomplishments of libertarian alan greenspan who was chairman of the federal reserve for the two decades leading up to the banking system collapse of 2008. They generally respond, that he couldn’t have been a libertarian, despite having claimed that mantle.

  16. Years ago – 1970s maybe – I obtained a copy of Robert Heinlin’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” At that time, I was enthralled with its ideas – truth tellers, strong women, wise (and compassionate) old men. As I write this and reflect, I sense an unfortunate connection to the ideas of Ayn Rand. Too bad for the young me.

    I saved the book over years and moves, meaning to enjoy a re-read when I had free time, thinking to pass it on, in a heritage sort of way, to my children…so, in 1998, after completing my last move, I had that opportunity. And… I threw the book away – I got to maybe the beginning ten or 15 pages and was beyond disgusted and shamed that I’d ever thought that book a reasonable thing to read and ponder about, much less pass on.

    My point is that I was blessedly able to grow up (at least, so I hope). Now, I cannot get a useful grip on libertarianism, it seems to define selfishness, self-centeredness, solipsism – all those ‘I am king of everything, I deserve to be king of everything, and who the h… are you to whine about it…who the h… are you, anyhow?’ sorts of world ownership views.

    It is my belief that, no matter their label, the current criminals running this country have not managed to grow up at all, they are and behave like out of control toddlers, weirdly wise about what ever advantages them. Throwing tantrums, not really out of control at all, but calculated threats to those of us who believe in the common good and all the things, large and small, that go along with loving our neighbors as ourselves.

    I wish I could believe in a positive outcome. I am a Quaker, albeit, not a terribly successful one. I learned that we have the responsibility to honor that of the ineffable (God) in every being. It seems to me now that for all the earnestness and effortful goodness of Quakers, there may be a problem…too much depending on the basic good in others, leading, in me, to perpetual blindness to the evil depths that other humans can reach.

    I guess I am happy here, though hopefulness appears to be a mugs game, it does make reality slightly more bearable.

    Thanks for reading such a long post. Best wishes.

  17. John Street – Libertarians are “Social Darwinists”, not “Darwinist”. Social Darwinists don’t understand the science and use Darwin’s ideas to promote their “bullies take and deserve all” ideas. All Social Darwinists should be condemned to read Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid” aloud — ten times. It is (1) Kropotkin’s answer to Social Darwinism, (2) spends over half the text listing examples of mutual aid (rather than “survival of the fittest” in the popular interpretation), and (3) perhaps the most boring book I have ever read.

    NVL – I read “Stranger in a Strange Land” while in college – around that time. I thought it was a great novel — I thought it was a novel. Ayn Rand followers — well — I may have posted this before, but I like this Internet find.

    “There’s an age when boys read one of two books. Either they read Ayn Rand or they read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. One of these books leaves you with no grasp on reality and a deeply warped sense of fantasy in place of real life. The other one is about hobbits and orcs.”

  18. Some folks are so committed to their own ideology (almost typed idolatry) that facts are like nuisance gnats to be swatted away.

    Pandemics should be the death knell of ideological purists. Most governments can’t afford that purity since they have the obligation to do things like keep people alive, prevent panics, and keep economies afloat. That’s why our economy is a mix of capitalism, socialism, and public-private partnerships. It’s tough to get the right mix to confront the alarming floods of reality. It’s often tougher still to get the purists to admit there’s a flood.

  19. Vernon,
    Sorry, busy day!
    You are entitled to your opinion, although, I think your opinion is narrow-minded! Back in the day, I witnessed it myself when I would go visit for lunch. You can beat intellectual without being smart yes, a person can be really good at book learning and terrible with common sense. That’s an observable fact, not fiction!

    People tend to be good at what their passion is, if they are intellectual and their passion is cooking, then they probably will be able to cook okay. Myself, I cook better than okay! I can also climb the 150 ft pole without safety harness! Ride horses and a bunch of other stuff, and I’m not a genius.

    that being said, it takes every sort of person that you can imagine to meld into a society and make it decent. Millions of heads are better than one, something that our POTUS doesn’t understand!

    Yes, it’s a terrible thing! And the number is climbing every day. It’s becoming more frequent. People have no place to turn. The government lies so much, people are aware of it, so they don’t know who to believe. Scripture say people will ask the mountains to fall over them, which denotes the government in Scripture most of the time. so these people hope the mountains I E government will protect them and help them, but they realize that it will not!

    These deaths are directly related to The covid 19 epidemic, the same with many of the cardiac arrest and pneumonia deaths, because that’s what covid 19 does. A lot of these red states are going to have an epidemic of suicides and other things very shortly.

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