This is the great ideological battle of our time

It used to be capitalism vs. communism, free markets vs. central planning

When people talk about ideologies and political beliefs, the mind usually goes to the left/right political divide, commonly referred to as the “political spectrum“. On one side -and I’m obviously oversimplifying here for the sake of brevity- are the proponents of ideas like central planning, social welfare, big government and redistributive taxation. Names like Marx, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Olof Palme and many others come to mind. On the other side one can find ideas like free markets (and their invisible hand), the law of supply and demand, laissez-faire, entrepreneurship and, generally speaking, as small a government as possible. People mention names like Adam Smith, Keynes, Hayek, Milton Friedman and at the extreme end, Ayn Rand.

In addition to the above, if you follow a more holistic school of thought like e.g. the political compass, you would note that there’s more to politics than the way the state handles people’s money. The social behaviours that are or are not allowed are at least as important, if not more. On one hand you have progressive, permissive societies, like Denmark or the Netherlands, and on the other conservative, authoritarian ones like China or Russia.

So clearly both the economic and the societal dimensions of politics are important. People have not only hotly debated the differences between different forms of government, they have literally given their lives for it.

Today, it’s… a bit different.

It’s not that these differences do not exist, or have been ironed out. There are still people that believe that “workers should own the means of production” (a Marxist thesis) or that “a man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress” (an Ayn Rand thesis).

But everyone that takes even a casual look at talk shows, or the social networks, actually any medium that hosts public discourse will note that the lines are increasingly being drawn in a different way: those that base their opinions on reason -or at least try- and those that advance or fall prey to conspiracy theories and other instances of unfounded beliefs.

I’ve first come to this realization some months ago, when I noted that, during discussions in a social network, I kept agreeing with a left-leaning doctor while being more of a free-market person myself (though I’m nowhere near to being an Ayn Rand fan). At the same time, the doctor kept disagreeing with people that belonged to the same party -or at least were clearly left-leaning. Why? Both of us were defending government policies that, no matter how much you liked or hated the current Greek government, were based on the medical research that was available at the time. The “others” were bashing the actions of the government… because they were followers of a different political party. Whether the actions of the government were right or wrong, it simply didn’t matter. For them, the opposing party will always be wrong.

I’ve since tried to follow this a bit more closely, and by now it’s clear to me. You see distinguished members of the US Republican Party distance themselves or even denounce Donald Trump. You have virologists that present solid, peer reviewed evidence on COVID-19, and others that rely on unscientific gobbledygook, even flat-out schoolboy math errors, just so they can advance that “COVID is mostly harmless” or “it’s no worse than the flu” (which it bloody isn’t).

Are there always two sides of the story?

Look, let’s be honest here: the last man described as “universalist”, an all-knowing polymath, was Henri Poincaré, and he died more than 100 years ago. Since then, all of us have to please our trust somewhere. We have to believe that someone, in certain areas, tells the truth -and build up on that.

But reducing the matter to just “I believe A, you believe B, why is your belief better than mine?” misses a very big point. At the very minimum, there are beliefs that are validated by reality and ones that are not. To take a simple example: many of us regularly use GPS to help us drive through our city. If you believe that earth is flat, it’s… a little strange to be able use the signal from satellites, isn’t it?

So the conclusion I’ve drawn from all this is the following: sometimes I find myself agreeing with people that normally don’t share my political opinions. Conversely, I might disagree with people that do. That’s fine. At the end, we share the most important political thesis of all: there exists an objective reality and the best way to discover it is to use the scientific method. And yes, reality imposes constraints on us, often unpleasant, and until we find a way to work around them, we need to accept them.

And no amount of YouTube videos can change that.