Monday, December 03, 2007

My very own, very succinct...

...definition of an idealist:

Someone who believes that processes that appeal to a sense of justice (or possibly morality) will also lead to better outcomes in a consequentialist sense.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Hi Terence

oddly enough, just the other day a friend and I were chatting about what the definition of an 'idealist' was. Also, to use the simplification that there is a 1 dimensional 'spectrum' of types of people, we were debating what type of person would be at the other end of such a spectrum.

The discussion was in a slightly different context to you: we were thinking not about what defines an idealist, but about how a politician who was also an idealist would act. The motivation was Australian politics, and whether Rudd's perfect 'positioning' in order to win the election would be dumped after winning power. 'Positioning' purely in order to maximise your vote (which seemed like Rudd's strategy) seemed to us to be almost the precise opposite of idealism, and we were curious as to whether Rudd would in fact dump those carefully positioned policies in favour of more ideal-driven (or maybe ideological) ones.

As far as I know, political science contrasts idealists with 'realists', but I'm not sure I ever understood that label properly. It seemed to us that the guy at the other end of the spectrum - the purely vote-maximising politician - could instead be labelled a 'cynic', and that the two types of politicians inhabiting either end of the spectrum were defined as follows:

An 'idealist' politician begins their choice about what policy stance to take with an existing set of ideals, or moral rules. The idealist's policy stance is then determined by their interpretation of which policies they think best satisfy those ideals, given the nature of the world (the facts, the science, the ways people respond to incentives, etc etc).

A 'cynic' politician begins their choice about what policy stance to take with the sole 'ideal' of maximising their own chance of re-election / their own consolidation of power / their own benefit. The cynic's choice of policy is determined by their interpretation of what the majority of voters (or the 'median voter') will vote for or accept.

So both types 'derive' a policy stance, but from fundamentally different goals: ideals vs self-interest. Anyone else on the spectrum can be characterised by the relative weight given to 'broad ideals' (the sole goal of an idealist) versus 'the self interested ideal' (the sole goal of a cynic).

My friend pointed out that (as a stylised fact) the policy stance which wins elections is that which attracts the vote of the 'median voter'. Consequently, by a natural selection process, idealists will be weeded out unless the policies they derive happen to sit close to the median. The remaining politicians will differ only in their interpretation of where the median voter lies (and thus what the 'self-interest maximising' policy stance is).

However, you would only subscribe to this argument if you believed that politicians (idealists and cynics) were able to have NO effect on what the voting population, and thus the median voter, wants. Idealists might survive if they could convince the median voter to support a policy stance which is close to that which is 'derived' by the idealist from his set of ideals. We both agreed that there is plenty of evidence of politicians (unfortunately mostly of the cynic type) influencing the median / swinging voter.

If that all sounds a bit obvious and boring, it's because we think in spectra, graphs, and optimisation problems, which are all useful for making trivial stuff look complex.