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History’s Worst Governments Had the Most Ideology

August 13, 2011

Ideology is great stuff. It topples tyrants and fires up the citizens to achieve momentous things. But when a government adopts an ideology, it’s grim tidings for those who disagree — and for anyone suspected of disagreeing. Plus, fiercely held ideologies tie governments’ hands and lead to irrational policy choices. Ideology, in other words, is a prescription for bad government.

The Execution of Louis XVI

The French and American revolutions give us a test case for ideology’s role. They took place around the same time and pursued the same key goals: democracy, liberty, and equality. Those were revolutionary values, and they drove the new French leadership to the exclusion of almost all else, resulting in an ideological government. In America, on the other hand, revolutionary values had to compete with the traditional values of the English upper classes, favoring private property and civil liberties. Those minority rights restrained democracy in America, creating a government of compromise, rather than ideology. (Not all the Founding Fathers applauded that outcome, by the way. Thomas Jefferson preferred the French ideological model.)

France’s revolutionary government quickly descended into mass executions — 17,000 during 1793 and 1794 alone — as well as oppression, insecurity, and almost constant warfare. The revolutionary First Republic lasted only twelve years, and the nation was actually relieved when Napoleon began replacing it with imperial dictatorship in 1799. The American Revolution, on the other hand, produced a government that’s still kicking (despite losing its AAA credit rating last week). And America’s revolutionary generation didn’t have to suffer through regular war, mass executions, or even much suppression of dissent. (On the other hand, the French First Republic abolished slavery in 1794 — as abominable to democratic ideology — while America didn’t until 1865.)

Modern history gives us a long list of ideological governments like the French First Republic. Think of the Puritan colonies of Seventeenth Century Massachusetts with their witch burnings; Cromwell’s Protectorate in Britain with its massacre of Catholics and moralistic dictates; the Paris Commune of 1871 with its destruction of precious art and architecture; Cambodia’s 20th Century Khmer Rouge with its mass executions; and Afghanistan’s Taliban with its oppression of women and destruction of Buddhist art. The best-known examples, however, come from communism and Nazism — and not just for the obvious reason: the vast death tolls of regimes led by Stalin, Mao, and Hitler. Communist and Nazi governments also made countless bizarre and self-destructive choices due to ideology. For instance, China’s attempt to spread communist culture — the “Cultural Revolution” — stymied economic growth, reduced literacy and education, sent citizens with vital business and technical skills into hiding, and destroyed priceless art and architecture. (Today’s PRC, by the way, is only communist in name and actually lacks a clear ideology.) The Soviets, for their part, rejected entire fields of science as somehow non-communist — genetics, for instance — while Soviet social sciences were dominated by bureaucrats without any education in their own fields.

The Nazis take the cake for awful decisions taken for ideological reasons. Banning jazz as “Negro music” is just a drop in the bucket. Hitler’s worst choice probably had to do with the Russians. World War II began in 1939 as a struggle against Britain and France, triggered by the Germans’ invasion of Poland. The Soviet Union wasn’t involved, and in fact it was effectively Germany’s ally against the Poles. But Nazi ideology saw the Russians as inferior and as enemies, and it insisted the Germans should seize their lands. So on June 22, 1941, the Nazis attacked Russia and brought one of the world’s largest and strongest nations into World War II on the other side.

History’s most effective governments invariably operated without ideology. For centuries, historians have praised the Roman Empire at its height — during the first two centuries C.E. — as one of the happiest states of all time. Imperial Rome was a non-ideological government, with a live-and-let-live view of religion (usually) and no particular goals other than prosperity, security, and law and order. The same goes for most dynasties of united imperial China. They balanced several competing philosophies — particularly Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism — and presided over history’s most consistently wealthy and powerful state. The Western governments of the late 20th Century fit the bill pretty well too, though few of their citizens realize it. Westerners often think they’re dedicated to capitalist and democratic ideologies. But modern regulated capitalism and constitutional democracy actually involve live-and-let-live philosophies and hordes of compromises. And Western nations generally regret their occasional surges of ideology, like America’s descent into McCarthyism during the 1940’s and 1950’s.

That doesn’t mean governments do well without values. History suggests that a government with no values — a corrupt regime — can do almost as much harm as a government dedicated to a single overarching value. The corruption of France’s ancien regime, the monarchy, led to the oppression and incompetence that triggered the Revolution. The kings of the 1700’s presided over a centuries-old system of privileges for the Church and the nobles: a system that benefited the rich and powerful with no real justification accepted by anyone in the Eighteenth Century. Corrupt governments also soured much of Twentieth Century history. It’s hard to overestimate the harm done by regimes like Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq, Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile, and Idi Amin’s in Uganda.

History’s prescription for good government, then, seems to be values but not ideology and philosophical flexibility but not corruption.

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© 2011, 2016 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2011 9:58 am

    Excellent! I really enjoyed this. It would love to see a rating of countries’ long term viability based on factors like this.

    • August 16, 2011 10:47 am

      Excellent idea. This would be a meaningful addition to national credit ratings from S&P, Moody’s, and the like. There should be an ideology vs. corruption index, and the highest ratings should go to countries in the middle. That might even be more important information than the current debt-related scoring, though the two could be blended.

  2. Asya Pereltsvaig permalink
    August 18, 2011 10:45 am

    Ideology was not the only driving force behind Hitler’s attack on the USSR, but it was a strong component, for sure.

    • August 18, 2011 12:05 pm

      For Hitler himself and many other Nazi leaders, I’d say we should add mental illness to the list of driving forces.

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