• *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.


    • Bullet point one:

      Open minds: That requires free and open discussion without the use of power. Once power is exerted especially in an unbalanced fashion the discussion is no longer open and free.

      • Nice that the internet has opened things up. It’s very easy to start a blog, tweet, etc.

        • No need.

          You provide some very interesting points of view and you can keep anyone on their toes. Besides which I think some of the things you say have great interest. I agree with some of them even though everyone else might call those things nuts. No matter which side one is on there is a lot of bull around so it is good to look around, smell the roses and see what a new face is saying.

          I’ll stay around for awhile, but if you think I am saying something that is not true let me know on or off list. I like pure honesty and will always furnish an explanation or a source. Sometimes I just assume that what I say is common knowledge but, if it isn’t let me know. Bill G, did just that so I immediately provided him sources with .gov and ncbi.nih.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. I’d also note that it’s free to rent if you have their Prime membership and a Kindle device.

    • Thanks Austin – will indeed read with great interest. I have been trying hard to understand vs judge – and something like this would seem to be a good facilitator of that understanding.

    • One short coming of that framework is that it fails to explain why libertarians typically ally with conservatives. Barbarism involves a lot of freedom, and oppression involves a lot of coersion; hence, his model should predict that libertarians would identify more with liberals than conservatism.

    • It’s hard to see why Kling thinks that liberals view things along an oppressor-oppressed axis.

      This image of liberals doing battle against oppression doesn’t mesh with the idea of placing 315 million people under the control of a single, central authority for local activities that call for self-government (e.g., healthcare, gun control, education, domestic violence).

      In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt similarly sees liberals as compassionate freedom fighters in arguing that liberals tend to rely on the care, fairness, and liberty foundations from among his six foundations of morality.

      But it seems that Haidt’s “sanctity” foundation better explains how liberals view things (although Haidt would probably disagree). The argument would be that liberals have sacralized big government, and as Haidt has explained, once anything is “declared sacred, then devotees can no longer question it or think clearly about it.”

      • Nonsense. Liberals don’t actually care about government size. Conservatives, OTOH, strongly believe that they are in favor of small government and conclude, therefore, that liberals must be in favor of the opposite. In reality we have seen over and over that conservatives like big government and increased government spending when it supports their goals and liberals like big government when it supports their goals. Under GWB we saw a huge increase in government and spending (Medicare Part D, two wars, increased defense systems contracting, Homeland Security) and under WJC and BHO we see things going in the opposite direction.

        You aren’t really interested in using Haidt’s framework to establish a dialogue as much as you are interested in sharing gratuitous insults. I chose to delete mine.

        • J_Bean is right. Liberals don’t care about the size of government as an independent good, but as a means to an end. They certainly don’t sacralize it, as a quick glance at liberal criticisms of government over the last 60 years would show. Big government does wrong all the time in the liberal view (often when it further advantages the advantaged and increases inequality/unfairness, or engages in needless war, fails to plan for the future – education, infrastructure, environment – and for many other reasons as well).

    • For mass movements and their true believers, I like the thoughts of Eric Hofer, some 60 years ago. One might also describe changes in the character of social capital as a constant level of random human events driven by a tension between degrees of cognitive dissonance, narcissism and paradigm paralysis. For now, one might characterize healthcare reform as having high levels of all three. The result is a healthcare industry most clearly paralyzed by 1) states right issues, 2) the pervasive conficts of economic interests underlying the health services for Complex Healthcare Needs of each citizen and 3) the absence of a public health priority for the Basic Healthcare Needs of each citizen. Sometime, I would urge a free-ranging discussion about the probable root causes of why the healthcare industry is unable to sponsor or direct is own fundamental reform. Our nation’s future autonomy within the world-wide community will depend on our ability to substantially improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our nation’s healthcare, soon!

      Cognitive dissonance, narcissism and paradigm paralysis — think about it.

    • Any analysis like King’s that tries to reduce liberal, conservative and libertarian to a single dimension is going to be limited by the fact that these are family resemblance terms. No single dimension of concern can capture everyone who self-identifies with each of these political categories (let alone everyone who is characterized by others to fall under one of them).

      For example, like Austin I have a pretty strong concern for each of the interests King identifies. But I tend to vote Democratic as I think Democratic politicians tend have the best balance of concerns. As a result, almost every self-identified conservative in America would call me a liberal.

      But what leads me to “liberal” policies is not, primarily, concern for oppression, but a sense of what policies will work to promote economic growth, advancement of the human condition (including knowledge and science, in short, civilization) and human happiness. I resist the Republican version of conservatism because I think it will lead to a society more like Latin America circa 1960 or the American Gilded Age, while the Democratic version of liberalism is leading to something closer to contrmporary France or Scandinavia. Oppression is a small part of why I prefer Sweden to Guatemala.

      That said, king’s points about finding what concerns motivate others and speaking to them, if you want to actually persuade, are well taken.

    • I think King is onto something, but I’m not sure about the axes.

      Another useful continuum I’ve heard proposed is a “circle” from libertarian to progressive with the constraint that both want good value out of government.

      Libertarians want no interference in their lives (government or otherwise) and are willing to live without services to get there.

      Progressives want good service from government and are willing to pay for it in terms of taxes and some regulation.

      The advantage of debate along this axis is that it’s possible to debate whether the benefits of a proposal justify the costs without straying into religion.

      The problem is that we currently have two parties BOTH dedicated to increasing the size and power of government and directing the treasury to the pockets of their political contributors, frequently by riling up their “bases” into hating each other.

      Personally, I’m disgusted by the process, but don’t know what to do about it given the controls available.

      I’ve considered blogging as a “flaming moderate” on a crusade against the “wing nuts” — both left wing nuts and right wing nuts.