Political Theory and Ideology


Like economics, political theory is both normative and descriptive. This is a simply written article about complex social life. It is therefore meant to be read with the accompanying footnotes of relevant fact.


People seek broader meanings in political theory. Political theory gives a society’s history meaning; it inspires and justifies the institutions which shape political perceptions and political life.

Political theory also exists in a historical context. To consider it otherwise would be as if Plato wrote about the virtues of dictatorship without experiencing the Peloponnesian Wars and Thomas Hobbes wrote about the social contract without being enmeshed in the English Civil War and Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations without being aware of the Enlightenment, a movement that sought, in part, to socialize the “nasty, brutish” individuals subsisting in the Hobbesian state of nature. The following essay discusses the historic origins of the liberal philosophy, in particular U.S. political philosophy which is the product of the English civil wars and its later system of free market economics. We then ask how these ideas are relevant to the 21st century.


Greek History

Almost all Western patterns of governance harken back to ancient Greece. To provide some chronological context, the Homeric myths of the Iliad and the Odyssey were set in Greek prehistory, describing the monarchial Bronze Age societies around the 12th century B.C. After the ecological collapse of these societies and a time of chaos, the Greek city-states of the 6th century B.C. abandoned monarchy in favor of democracy and oligarchy, these two groups constantly warring both within and without the city-state. As the following quote illustrates, the social conflict (stasis) between the two could be severe in the close confines of the polis, particularly when aggravated by foreign alliances that involved democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta. This is British historian Arnold Toynbee’s translation of Thucydides, describing social conflict on the Greek island of Corcyra in B.C. 427 (modern day Corfu) during the Peloponnesian war that fatally weakened Greece for later conquest.


The civil disorders in Corcyra began with the return of the prisoners taken in the naval battles of Epidamnus, who had been liberated by the Corinthians (ally of Sparta) …to bring in consideration of the fact they had agreed to bring Corcyra over into the Corinthian camp. These ex-prisoners duly started to intrigue, by canvassing their fellow-citizens individually, with a view of detaching their country from the alliance with Athens.

Meanwhile, the (oligarchic) party in power at Corcyra took advantage of the arrival of a Corinthian warship with a Lacedaemoninan (Spartan) diplomatic mission to attack the proletariat (demos) and to defeat them in regular battle. When night descended, the proletariat took refuge in the citadel and the high-lying parts of the town and concentrated their forces…while the other party occupied the (agora), where most of them lived….fighting started again, and this time victory was secured by the proletariat, who possessed the superiority in position and numbers….The decision was reached late in the evening, when the reactionaries - in a panic lest the proletariat rush the dockyard and annihilate them - set fire to the houses and tenements surrounding the (agora), without sparing either their own property or their neighbors’, with the consequence that a vast quantity of merchants’ stocks was consumed, while the entire town was in danger of destruction if the flames had been fanned by a wind blowing in that direction. 1

After Greece, with a few exceptions, the main pattern of western governance was oligarchy (aristocracy) rather than absolute monarchy. In the 17th century, Europe began to remake its political order for a modern democratic political system and economy.


British and American Disagreements

The English civil war began in 1640 with a disagreement over how to finance a war in Scotland, between the pro-Catholic Charles I and a popular Puritan parliament with deep roots in the counties. This resulted, after many twists and turns, in the financial and administrative reforms of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. These reforms created Europe's first modern state and a vital balance between a strong centralized government, preventing local oligarchies, and a self-confident participatory local government. 2

Recall that America was founded by colonists seeking religious freedom. In successive waves, the Puritans of New England and the Catholic Royalists of Virginia sought to escape the English civil war of religions. 3 Not affected by the government reforms of the Glorious Revolution, the American colonists, whose political perceptions were formed in an earlier tumultuous era - whatever their religious differences - were unified by their resistance to increased British central authority, particularly taxation. Read closely, the U.S. Declaration of Independence is a Bill of Particulars against that rule. This resulted in the Boston harbor Tea Party that sparked the American Revolution of 1776.


Political Theory

Replacing feudal authoritarianism, liberalism, whether classical or modern, is a reasoned form of government. Writing during the intense conflicts of the English civil wars, Thomas Hobbes based his politics on reason applied to a very antagonistic world, beginning with a fictive state of nature where, “…the condition of man…is a condition of Warre of every one against every one…” As a result, the life was, “…solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” 4 To obtain security, individuals in the state of nature agreed to a social contract and established civil society by transferring a revocable authority to a sovereign legislature or monarch, to preserve their safety and their property. By its starting point of individualism, however, Hobbesian political theory justified the liberal order and the competitive capitalist economy, where the worst that could happen was red ink.

The main theoretical objection to Hobbes’ view was that it neglected man’s natural sociability, a view that the Enlightenment of the 17th century sought to correct. 5 The practical objection to Hobbes’ view is that political democracy also requires compromise with others, which is impossible after all political authority has been neatly transferred to the sovereign.

In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, where he justified the nascent market system growing in England. Rather than finding order in an imaginary social contract, Smith found a natural social order and harmony in the free market, driven by rational self-interest. Robert Heilbroner wrote, “It was Smith’s greatest achievement to show how the mechanism of competition would bring about a state of economic provisioning as dependable as any provided by state command, and a great deal more flexible and dynamic.” 6 Contrast this freely self-organizing economic system with the feudal system that Heilbroner also described:


Lacking land, labor, and capital (our note: tied to their social institutions), the Middle Ages lacked the market; and lacking the market (despite its colorful local marts and traveling fairs), society ran by local command and tradition. The lords gave orders, and production waxed and waned accordingly. Where no orders were given, life went on in its established groove….


There would be nothing for any economist to do for several centuries - until this great, self-reproducing, self-sufficient world erupted into the bustling, scurrying, free-for-all of the eighteenth century. 7



For Smith, humans had a natural acquisitiveness. What made this selfishness work for all societies, and is the basis of democracy and capitalism, was Smith’s lesser known Theory of Moral Sentiments (version 1790), that provided the psychological basis for capitalism.


As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations....By the imagination, we place ourselves in his situation. 8


Smith wrote that the sympathy principle was the basis of conscience and personal freedom. It is also the basis of all societies, particularly democratic and capitalist ones where the concept is wide. It makes possible the political bargaining and compromise that democracy requires and is furthermore a basis of all innovative economic activity, where entrepreneurs perceive and seek to predict the demands of their customers. 9



Political Theory and Ideology


A political theory is born out of specific historical circumstances. Thus, although broadly applicable to the institutions of society and the nature of its people, it can’t be considered holy writ written by “inspired” authors. The original authors of the U.S. Constitution were inspired by reason, and thus if circumstances change reason can change some of the Constitution as well. That is why the founders foresightedly gave the Constitution an Article V amendment clause.


Ideology is crystallized political theory, turning the latter into a thoughtless social recipe book, supposedly enabling people to achieve their goals: virtue, wealth, economic development or whatever. But rather than existing only as an idea, political theory also once existed in the history of its author. Its applicability and effectiveness to future history therefore depends upon the conditions that any theory, social or natural, will encounter. For social theory, history – speaking very broadly – is one of the conditions.


Adam Smith in the 21st Century

Should societies be more like Greece of the 5th century B.C. and England of the 1640s? Extremist social philosophies are born out of intense conflict and socio-economic displacement, for instance as in the Mideast or as perceived by the U.S. Tea Party. 10 But success in a globalized world now requires of societies an internal cooperation that results in a dynamic social stability 11 around institutions that makes possible long-term investments in education, infrastructure and scientific research. This cooperation is the result of Smith’s sympathy principle. Economic growth doesn’t just happen because future returns require present investment.

The extent of the sympathy principle varies. It can extend only as far as one’s family, gun club, social group, state, nation or it can extend further. More generally, the justice abstraction of Smith’s sympathy principle makes large non-kinship systems possible. Eli Sagan (1991) writes,” Justice is a primary mode of social cohesion; it holds all groups, including large societies, together….Justice is the attribution of rights I claim for myself to others whom I do not know…” 12  To maintain globalization’s large-scale economic activity, people should try to politically extend the sympathy principle and the more abstract concept of justice as far as possible. Smith’s sympathy principle is a key assumption of social systems, enabling people to do business with each other to their mutual advantage.