From Hobson's Choice
A paradox arising from the pursuit of political ideologies. Any political ideology identifies a normative goal, such as defending the national identity, or eliminating exploitation, and positive strategies for achieving those goals: conservativism in the first case, socialism in the second. However, both positive and normative goals involve highly idealistic, ambitious operations on human nature. The conservative believes that the problem will be solved if the liberal impulse can be decisively stamped out, while the socialist believes the problem will be solved if the social order is radically altered. Both, however, are almost as ambitious (i.e., unrealistic) as the normative goal.
Usually in the social sciences it is customary to distinguish between positive and normative goals. Positive goals are those that one pursues in order to achieve something; normative goals are pursued for themselves. While this distinction is often elusive, it's still useful for organizing goals into a hierarchy.
In matters related to political ideology, however, this lack of a clear distinction between ends and means can be fatal. If the ideology is based on a radical critique of the existing social order, then the person making the critique perceives that there is a fundamental wrong of society that can only be redressed through a reordering. The new social order represents a positive goal, in the sense that people living under it would cease to suffer under, or perpetrate, the wrong alluded to.
However, the achievement of this intermediate social goal may itself be highly unrealistic. For example, anarcho-capitalist ideology has historically enjoyed immense prestige with business authorities and the military in many countries. Much of the history of Latin America, for example, can be described as repeated efforts to establish an idealized version of anarcho-capitalism. Nevertheless, anarcho-capitalists hardly ever acknowledge success in relation to the conquest of power. While they assure us that all other forms of economic organization have been discredited, they refuse to accept that their own ideal has ever been achieved. Exceptions are usually invalid; Hong Kong, the most commonly cited, was effectively governed by a cartel, which was empowered to act as a surrogate of the state (and this power was conferred, de facto, by two actual states). A logical conclusion is that, either the anarcho-capitalist ideal is unattainable, and hence irrelevant to the management of human affairs; or it has been attained, with results so awful that they did not survive for long.
It can be seen that any means can be subdivided into two parts: a subordinate end (the achievement of this particular step) and the subordinate means (the steps taken to accomplish this particular step). The achievement of the ideal civil order is intended, perhaps, to end exploitation or waste. That ideal civil order is conceived such that humans, living under it, will no longer be exploited. Perhaps it is so that humans would indeed have virtuous tendencies under such a system, but the achievement of that system also needs to be considered as part of its evaluation.
- Eliezer Yudkowsky, "Terminal Values and Instrumental Values," Overcoming Bias (17 Nov 2007)
James R MacLean (15:30, 3 September 2007 (PDT))