Questions for Arnold Kling(‘s new book)

Arnold Kling recently released a revised version of his most talked-about book: Three Languages of Politics. I think I will buy the revised edition. I think I will buy it because while I’ve read about the model it presents on various blogs, and while that model seems useful to me, I have a number of questions about it.

If you’re not familiar with the model, here’s a necessarily rough version. People tend to talk about politics in oppositions – this vs. that, right vs. wrong. They define their own political positions in terms of what they support and what they oppose. The terms of these oppositions differ greatly among people, to the point of being orthogonal. Though everyone frames their beliefs in their own way, there nevertheless seem to be three dominant tendencies among Americans. These three tendencies phrase things in such different terms that the norm of political discourse has become one in which members of each group simplyi talk past each other. Expressing things in your own terms means your explanations and arguments necessarily don’t translate well to people who use different terms, and that can make your positions seem clueless at best and alien at worst to them, and vice versa.

Kling finds it useful to think of the three main oppositions as axes in three dimensional space – x, y, z. These axes are:

Progressivism – which sees things in terms of oppressor vs. oppressed. Progressive politics is framed in terms of correcting for oppression, and progressives are most comfortable when identifying an oppressed group and discussing ways to relieve them of their burdens.

Conservatism – which sees things in terms of civilization vs. barbarism. Conservative politics is framed in terms of shoring up the civilizing project, and conservatives are most comfortable when talking about how to keep the ever-present barbarians at bay, whether through robust national defense, or promotion of tried and true social institutions that have proven their worth by standing the test of time.

Libertarianism – which sees things in terms of freedom vs. coercion. If that sounds similar to the Progressive axis, the salient difference is that Libertarians are interested in individual autonomy. Libertarian politics is framed in terms of minimizing interference in the decisions of others, and libertarians are most comfortable talking about how to keep the list of things that are forbidden maximally clear and maxiamlly short without tipping over into absurdity.

This model strikes me as a good explanatory framework for why disagreements in politics in the United States take the form they do. If we’re all talking in incompatible generalities without recognizing it, it does sort of follow that there would be a lot of demonizing and not listening. Or, even when there’s listening, that it would be fairly ineffective because the moral framework you’re hearing isn’t yours.

And yet it raises as many questions as it answers, which is why I want to read the book.

My first question concerns an obvious omission: that of fair vs. unfair. Now, the snap answer would be that fair is a virtue word, like "freedom." Everyone supports fairness, they just differ on what they mean by it. I suspect Kling says something like that in the book. And yet, it strikes me that in everyday discourse, progressives are a lot more hung up on "fairness" than the rest of us. Libertarians support "fairness" to the degree that it means "equality before the law," but they tend to be suspicious of it outside of that context as it’s so frequently used to argue for expansions of state power. Conservatives tend to think of fairness as an impossible ideal – something that society is evolving toward, but that is realistically not present now, and that it would in any case be an act of hubris for we flawed humans to try to ensure. Maybe Kling’s response will be that fair and unfair in the sense that I’m talking about them are really just proxy terms for degrees of oppression.

My other questions concerns people like me. At the end of the day, I’m not just a libertarian, but a libertarian of a decidedly Objectivist bent. I’m nothing like an orthodox Objectivist, but it’s the political mythology I started with, and so in the terms of the book it’s the framework I feel most comfortable expressing myself in. The thing is, I’m not really sure where it falls on these axes. It seems to be a synthesis of the conservative and libertarian axes. I say "synthesis" rather than "hybrid" because there’s nothing that feels grafted about the combination. Objectivists consider the freedom/coercion and civilization/barbarism axes to be the same thing. The point of the civilizing project is to free the individual from dependence on others so that he can enjoy maximal autonomy, and to the extent we’re increasing our dependence on others, we’re sliding back into barbarism. Anyone who has read Atlas Shrugged – and certainly anyone who’s read it as many times as I have! – would find it completely impossible to choose which of these axes it belongs on. I suppose the right answer is "the libertarian one," since Rand is no fan of traditional insitutions – like religion. Still, the conflation of the two is serious enough that identifying the substrate doesn’t really answer the question, and so I know, for example, that the primary way that I differ from mainstream libertarians is that I, too, see individual autonomy as a civilizational goal and so express myself quite comfortably in the otherwise "conservative" terms of civilization vs. barbarism.

Along the same lines, a lot of black community politics in the United States tends to seem equally comfortable on the progressive and conservative axes. On the one hand, virtually all black political action organizations were founded in terms of oppressor vs. oppressed, for the obvious reason that they were clearly oppressed and trying to solve exactly that problem. On the other hand, there’s a seige mentality that lends itself to community organization, which in the black community has tended, for whatever reason, to revolve around local churches and Christian (and, to a lesser extent, Muslim) organizations. These organizations tend to be conservative, and so you find consistent support on political surveys among blacks for policy positions that are not progressive at all – such as opposition to immigration and gay marriage. Protecting the community social institutions is a priority.

So, Kling’s is a rare policial book that I want to read beyond the Cliff’s Notes. I’m ex ante inclined to agree with it, but I have a lot of questions about how it actually works on the ground. I will, of course, report back as and when I get around to doing the actual reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>