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The Ideology Trap

The American psychologist Abraham Maslow famously said that “it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” But when the hammer is wielded by a political leader, entire countries may end up walling themselves off.

LOS ANGELES – President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency at the southern border of the United States – where there is no emergency at all – in order to access funding to build the wall that he promised his supporters during his 2016 election campaign. It is yet another example of the enduring – and dangerous – tension between reason and ideology in policymaking.

Evidence-based policies, whatever their limitations, always stand a better chance of succeeding than ideologically-driven policies, because they allow for adaptation to changing conditions and new data. Policies born from rigid principles, by contrast, may not be in line with reality at all.

History is littered with the disastrous consequences of choosing ideology over reality. Notably, Adolf Hitler did not believe that science could satisfy the German Volk; Germany needed to conquer a vast Lebensraum, which required turning Wagnerian myths of Teutonic supremacy into policies aimed at imperial domination. Joseph Stalin, the head of another ideologically-based regime, prevailed over the Nazis precisely because he departed from absolute imperatives and based his war objectives on cold, rational self-interest.

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