I've been writing a lot about ideas recently. The tendency has become to overlook ideas and the theoretical basis that drive people to make decisions and instead focus on the outcomes of those decisions. This is a jaundiced view, increasingly taken in much modern analytic work, presuming that the motivations for action should be ignored as long as the outcomes eventually line-up with our desired world view. While I do agree with the case for pragmatism in the construction of public policy - there is a necessity to work with a broad set of actors who may have radically different motivations for their actions - it is also wrong to ignore the ideologies that drive people to act. Further, the semi-predictable outcomes of our decisions may often have their seeds in the ideologies that informed these actions. People in general, and particularly political scientists, may be poor forecasters of the future, but the shortcomings of our ideas and the "propaganda"-driven frames we use to interpret the world have a roll in shaping those outcomes all the same. Belief in an ideology paves the way to a set of outcomes that may have otherwise been off the table.
In an interview, the filmmaker Adam Curtis, summarizes what he sees as the importance of ideas:
...I believe that ideas have consequences. And why I like people like [19th century conservative sociologist, Max] Weber is because they are challenging what I see as that crude left-wing vulgar Marxism that says that everything happens because of economic forces within society, that we are just surfing, our ideas are just expressions—froth on the deep currents of history, which is really driven by economics. I’ve never believed that. Of course, economic forces have a great effect on us. But actually, people’s ideas have enormous consequences. And to be honest, if you had to reduce what I do, I spend my whole time just looking at how ideas have consequences, not necessarily what the promoters of them intended, because I think that’s a really big thing in our time. (emphasis added)
I think that Curtis articulates a very important point here. Just because our limitations at making predictions are very real does not mean the ideologies that we use to make those predictions will not have some resonance upon the outcomes. No one would initiate grandiose mechanisms of social upheaval if they did not intrinsically believe that their ideology would result in a desired impact. Stalin did not agriculturally collectivize the Ukraine with the goal of starving millions of his own citizens, he did it because he believed that he was implementing a scientifically derived socio/political framework that would help deliver the Soviet Union to a greater degree of resource independence. It was in part, because of the near religious nature of the prescriptive Marxist dialects involved that the policies were implemented on the scales that they were and resulted in the level of destruction that they did. The same case can be made for the decision of the Khmer Rouge to return Cambodia to the technological stone age or by neoliberal economists to subject developing economies to the cruelties of structural adjustment throughout the 1980s. The beliefs themselves shaped and determined the outcomes, even if they were not the outcomes predicted.