Ideologies are often complex, but in a sense they’re also easy to understand: if you know an ideology’s key doctrines, you can usually guess correctly how its proponents will view various concrete public-policy measures. For example, if you knew that socialism advocates the government ownership of the means of production, you’d guess correctly if you thought that consistent socialists would support the nationalization of the steel industry; and if you knew that libertarians champion private property, you’d be right if you guessed that consistent libertarians would favor privatization and disfavor government intervention in the economy. Ideologies, in other words, cohere, and this is why it is easy to determine year after year what their proponents will advocate.
But liberalism (modern liberalism, that is, not classical liberalism) is a different beast: knowing what liberals say about fundamental issues would not give you a full-proof tool for predicting their stand on derivative policy issues in, say, the 2016 or 2020 elections. Maybe they’ll favor free trade, or maybe they’ll favor protectionism. Maybe they’ll be absolutists on free speech, or maybe they’ll support speech codes on campus or a fairness doctrine in telecommunications. Liberalism isn’t nearly as predictable as the aforementioned ideologies because technically it’s not an ideology; it’s more of a sociology, according to Independent Institute Research Fellow John C. Goodman.
“[Sociologies] represent a set of ideas that are often incoherent,” Goodman writes in Townhall. “These ideas are likely to come together not because of reason, but because of history or happenstance. Not only do the ideas not cohere, they may be completely contradictory.” Hence the continuing spectacle, in Goodman’s view, of liberals favoring stronger government support for preschool education but opposing certain reforms that would improve K-12 schooling; of liberals calling for job opportunities for the young and economically excluded but favoring minimum wage policies that harm new entrants in the job market; and of liberals favoring massive entitlement spending for the elderly regardless of their net worth and regardless of the harm inflicted on future taxpayers. The contradictions of modern liberalism—and those of modern conservatism—according to Goodman, stem in large part from their apathy toward the realm of fundamental ideas.