*The Three Languages of Politics*

The Three Languages of Politics, by Arnold Kling, is a worthwhile and quick read, a $1.99 e-book on Amazon. His thesis is that progressives (or liberals), conservatives, and libertarians don’t just disagree on some issues, they speak in different political languages. We’ve all heard that before. But Kling’s value added is that he is much more precise about what those languages are.

To him, they’re three orthogonal axes, like the x-y-z Cartesian coordinate system. Progressives tend to view things along the oppressor-oppressed axis, favoring policies that provide aid to the latter and punish the former. Conservatives’ lens is that of civilization vs. barbarism, and they tend to favor policies that restore or promote the former at the expense of the latter. Finally, libertarians often are most concerned with freedom and coercion, viewing markets as the best way to achieve the former and government as a force for the latter. For any particular policy, progressive, conservative, and libertarian camps can be variously for or against it. But the rationales for their positions are framed in completely different languages, hampering the ability for members of different tribes to understand each other’s positions.

I’m positive many readers will disagree with Kling’s political coordinate system. However, I think it’s a useful model, acknowledging that it is just that and, therefore, that it assumes away some real-world nuance. Keeping it in mind, I do find that I understand the priorities of the three political tribes better, the language they use, and why they “talk past” one another.

The book begins with a test of which language or tribe most suits the reader’s political perspective. By his scoring method, I did not squarely belong in any camp. I’m about equal parts progressive, conservative, and libertarian. This does not surprise me at all.

Below are a few passages I highlighted. All are quotes. Also, they’re not necessarily in the order they appear in the book

  • One goal is to open the minds of people on the other side. Another goal might be to open the minds of people on your own side. A third goal might be to close the minds of people on your own side. Nearly all of the punditry that appears in the various media today serves only the third goal.
  • Our political debates are frustrating and endless because each group expresses itself along its preferred axis. As a result, we talk past one another rather than communicate.
  • What learning the other languages can do is enable you to understand how others think about political issues without having to resort to the theory that they are crazy or stupid or evil. They may have a coherent point of view. In fact, it could be just about as coherent as yours. The problem is that they apply their point of view in circumstances where you are fairly sure that it is not really appropriate.
  • If we want to shift from motivated reasoning to constructive reasoning, then we have to resist the inclination to give critical scrutiny only to facts and analysis that threaten our beliefs.
  • It is very unlikely that I am the one who is objective and that those who disagree with me are unreasonable. And yet my sense of my self is that I am objective. It is very difficult to reconcile logic and intuition in this regard.
  • I think that one’s goal for others should be that they have open minds. And if that is my goal for others, then that should also be the goal that I set for myself.

If you prefer your information to be delivered aurally, Kling discussed his book with Russ Roberts on EconTalk.


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