Sunday, August 11, 2013

Post #50: Who's a liberal?

Political discussion across ideological lines would go better, and people with different ideologies would seem more sane and less rigid, if we understood that we are speaking different "languages," according to economist Arnold Kling, who has published an Amazon single entitled The Three Languages of Politics. These languages come with different assumptions and core values, and so give rise to lines of argument that others find incomprehensible, not to mention insensitive to their own core values.

Kling condenses the wide variety of perspectives across American politics into three main strains:
  • libertarian, whose principal concern is individual freedom, and for which the main evil is coercion, particularly from government;
  • conservative, whose principal concern is the maintenance of civilization, and for which the main evil is the barbarism that threatens that civilization; and
  • liberal, whose principal concern is with oppressed people, and for which the main evil is the oppression from which they suffer.
(Note that this suggests divisions among today's right-leaning Republican Party are philosophical in nature [conservative vs. libertarian], while for the left-leaning Democratic Party they are matters of degree [somewhat liberal vs. strongly liberal]. This may oversimplify matters, and to be fair to Kling, he doesn't push it.)

Kling's definitions are redolent of others who have written on political ideology--I thought immediately of David T. Koyzis's book Political Visions and Illusions--with a useful focus on the strains most prominent in America. I'd find Kling's analysis more persuasive if he sharpened his definitions. Even though I try to shun the rabbit holes of semantic arguments that turn on the definition of one disputed word, I think Kling's phrasing is begging for just those semantic arguments. Liberal focus on the oppressed doesn't explain their concern with environmental conservation; conservative belief in economic markets is as concerned about government interference as the libertarians are; and who really likes coercion? So I'd rephrase his definitions this way, probably asking for arguments of my own, but finding it irresistible to alter someone else's draft:
  • libertarian: individual autonomy, defined as freedom from government coercion (removing "particularly")
  • conservative: maintaining traditional values, the alternative to which is chaos (here I'm totally indebted to a felicitously-phrased comment by Chris Wilson on the "Strong Towns" blog)... this allows us to combine support for markets with traditional moral values and a strong and unilateral international presence
  • liberal: individual autonomy, defined as non-coercion of the less powerful by the more powerful... this allows us to include the economically disadvantaged, the socially unpopular, and plant and animal species, and to cast government as potential enemy (spying on dissidents) or friend (enforcing civil rights or environmental regulations)
Does that help? Maybe not. Let us press on.

Kling, like Koyzis, treats ideologies in their pure form. (It is ideological purity that Koyzis, from a Christian religious perspective, compares to idolatry.) But this can lead to pointless "straw man" arguments, not to mention stereotyping. An excellent comment on the "Strong Towns" blog by "Steve S." suggests it might be more accurate to describe people, for example, as "libertarian-dominant" rather than "libertarian," because they are likely to view some matters from conservative and liberal perspectives. Still, libertarian-dominant types are likely to come at issues with perspectives that are so different from conservatives and liberals that they seem incompatible in conversation or debate.

Kling's approach explains how people can look at the same situation and come to very different conclusions. In the interview with "Econ Talk" host Russ Roberts, he uses the examples of policies related to immigration and terrorism. On immigration, for example, liberals concerned with the plight of illegal immigrants might argue for looser border controls and amnesty for undocumented people already here, finding themselves on the opposite side of conservatives concerned about values like the integrity of the border and the laws on the books. They might find some sympathy with libertarians who aren't crazy about borders to begin with.

As the immigration example shows, different languages can lead to similar outcomes on specific issues. At the same time, ideological language does not determine issue positions. Again with immigration, liberals whose principal concern is with low-wage American workers (or with environmental habitats stressed by increased population) might argue for restricting immigration. Your position on abortion is probably less due to ideology than with whose autonomy or which traditional value you're defending.

SO! We're less concerned here with predicting issue outcomes than in understanding how differing perspectives can derail debate. On health care, for example, three years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, conservative objections based in market economics, and libertarian objections to the individual mandate, make no sense to liberals worried about the vast numbers of people whose health insurance is either inadequate, insecure, or non-existent. These liberal worries seem similarly irrational to conservatives and libertarians who tend to see government economic activity as vicious by definition.

Understanding each other's ideological languages can facilitate civil discussion of societal issues. To Parker J. Palmer, civil discussion is essential to effective democracy. It may also help persuade a broader range of people to your desired outcome. In the perceptive post on the "Strong Towns" blog that led me to Kling, Andrew Burleson argues that Strong Towns has had more success than other anti-sprawl organizations because they make their case using conservative language.
I would argue that one of the reasons we've had such rapid growth and adoption of our message is that Chuck [Strong Towns co-founder and president Charles L. Marohn, Jr.] originated this message from somewhere in the Conservative / Libertarian camp, whereas the majority of other organizations that are interested these issues come from a Liberal / Progressive point of view. For many, Strong Towns is the first group that has talked to Conservatives in their own language about the problems with built environment in America today, and how the effects of those problems ripple through into all areas of our life.
In other words, it's not enough to argue that sprawl has terrible effects on the environment and on the urban poor (which it does), if only liberals are speaking that language. Conservatives aren't, and are suspicious of the government regulation and societal change which limiting sprawl is going to involve. Better to make the argument that sprawl has largely been facilitated by federal government irrationality, and subsidizing sprawl as we now do is a profligate waste of taxpayer money. Values-oriented conservatives might be sympathetic to new urbanist efforts to rebuild traditional communities at the neighborhood level.

It's worth a try. Moderate liberals, at least, know how to speak market, even if there core concerns lie elsewhere. Market mechanisms are an important part of the Affordable (Health) Care Act (state-level insurance exchanges) and such proposals that have been made to address climate change (cap-and-trade for carbon emissions). Have they made any friends?

Kling is not naive. Not all the energy in contemporary American politics is being spent on the search for cooperative resolutions to policy conflicts. A lot, maybe more now than ever, is being spent on fomenting outrage which obstructs such resolutions. Kling made a resonant point in his interview with Russ Roberts: Most political punditry seems oriented, not to opening the minds on your own side, or opening the minds on the other side, but to closing the minds on your own side. I don't know that I can achieve a conversation with, say, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), because I don't think he wants one.

Burleson continues in his praise for the Strong Towns approach: Beyond [being able to speak the conservative language], though, we're strongly non-partisan (even anti-partisan) in our approach. These issues are bigger than any one political cohort, they affect everything, and we can't afford to descend into an "us versus them" battle. The hole we're in is deep, and all of us are going to have to work together if we're going to get out.

That is what I would have said about my approach to this blog, Holy Mountain, as well as to my teaching and public presentations. I started my blog in April thinking I could step away from the often-silly, often-irrationally angry, short attention span discourse of contemporary American politics, so I could focus on what's important. I'm not advocating for any political party, and have assiduously avoided getting into issues of personality in my posts here. Yet it's inescapable that when I identify the core obstacles to Americans being able to live together--economic opportunity for all, environmental sustainability, accommodating diversity--I'm pretty clearly speaking Kling's liberal language. I mean, I'm not worried about economic opportunity for the already-well-off, right? I'm worried about the marginalized, of course.

There is the dilemma of how much to acknowledge this in class and on the media. Kling, while acknowledging his own libertarian stance, suggests in his interview with Russ Roberts that it is possible to adopt a pure academic language of, say, economics. I've always advocated this, but am increasingly dubious this is even possible. Kling in his example contrasts a libertarian talking about government coercing him "with a gun to my head" with the economically-grounded discourse of Milton Friedman. I think Friedman is a dubious example; despite his exemplary contributions to economics and economic policy, his biases against any government policy action besides monetary policy, or the very existence of labor unions, were obvious.

While I work this out, I will throw myself upon the mercy of Parker J. Palmer, which seems to be expansive. Palmer, in Healing the Heart of Democracy, lists "Five Habits of the Heart that Make Democracy Possible": (1) An understanding that we are all in this together; (2) An appreciation of the value of "otherness;" (3) An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways; (4) A sense of personal voice and agency; and (5) A capacity to create community. Talking is good. Listening is good. Trying to understand and speak each other's languages is good. There is much each of us can learn from the other, and the conversation likely is more important than the policy outcome.


Andrew Burleson, "The Three Languages of (American) Politics," Strong Towns Blog, 25 July 2013,

"Kling on the Three Languages of Politics," Econ Talk Podcast,

David T. Koyzis, Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003)

Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (Jossey-Bass, 2011)


  1. The labels in sociopolitical discourse rarely have the privilege to be dominantly denotative. Instead, connotative hyperbole rears heads like Medusa's hair.
    It is not different languages, of course, but choosing different words form the same language and also choosing the extreme definitions and inflections.
    The definitions of libertarian, liberal, and conservative can be given objective meanings, yet daunted by those meanings. Similarly: christian, jew, muslim; buddhist, taoist, wiccan, and so on.
    The labels are a meta-construct towards providing a short-hand short-cut towards defining a person's viewpoint. Unfortunately, the viewpoint becomes the message, the extreme becomes the mission, and the original problem to be solved is lost amongst the morass of descriptive verbiage.

    Can a liberal talk about money? Can a conservative talk about helping people? Can a libertarian talk about the need for social rules? Of course. Usually, however, they have to shed their adopted skin.

    In other words, sociopolitical labels offer the speaker a facade of hegemony. If the labels are dropped, speakers have the opportunity to argue their positions yet feel their way around to other parts of the proverbial elephant.

    I liken certain viewpoints, be they political or religious, to musicians able or unable to play in different styles, actors able or unable to perform various roles. A jazz musician, a classical musician, a rock musician can argue forever "What is Music?", yet almost always only one is going to get the gig. A Musician is going to understand what is called for, what is needed, a provide it without the nonsense. An Artist, even though they have defined a style, is still capable of other styles. A Chef will prepare a fine meal, though fully able to boil up mac and cheese.

    With the jazz, classical, and rock musicians, more often that not, their disdain for the other stems from an inability cum unwillingness to perform differently. With the liberal, conservative, and libertarian, it is likewise.

    Also, in regard to the ACA, it has been the delusion of power, not language, that has unleashed the myopic, regressive conservative. For some reason beyond reason, be it the ACA or immigration or abortion or gun control, the issues have been clouded and choked off by a bad acid trip replete with fear, anger, hatred, egoism, and willful ignorance.

    The libertarians have some thoughtful positions, yet daunted by the fact that nearly no one votes for them, thus rendered inert in a democratic republic.

    Those with liberal viewpoints have recently found some teeth and muscle, empowered by winning the moment and focusing on the present. Some may publicly denounce Democrats, even, but vote for them anyway.

    Thus, the labels are less important that the wearers oftentimes wish they were.

  2. Matthew, I'm arguing the opposite. That people (like, for example, me) who try to operate apart from ideological labels still speak a particular language that reflects an ideological predisposition. Thus, to paraphrase your conclusion, the labels reflect something that is more important and more present than the speakers wish they were.


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