Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Arnold Kling and Russ Roberts on Political Language

Russ Roberts linked to this old EconTalk with Arnold Kling on his twitter feed today, noting that it was relevant to the responses to Snowden. I hadn't listened to it the first time but since I was just sitting and chugging through data this week it was convenient to have it on in the background.

My non-controversial agreements and disagreements come first and my controversial disagreements come in the next section. However, I think the controversial disagreement should serve to illustrate precisely why the subjectivity of these issues matters so much.

Kling argues that libertarians, liberals, and conservatives think along three very different axes. Libertarians think in terms of coercion and freedom, liberals think in terms of the oppressed and the oppressors, and conservatives think in terms of civilization and barbarism.

I agree with the big picture that people frame their thinking differently and I agree with Kling that a lot of disagreement comes from (1.) the framing itself and speaking different "languages" as he put it, (2.) the fact that man (most?) people don't consider looking at the world through other people's framework, and (3.) as Russ pointed out, people try to fit every issue into their framework (even if it's not a good fit).

So I do agree with all that. I don't agree very much with the axes that Kling chose and I think he's slipping into the same problem he identifies - namely using his own language and framework to try to talk about how liberals and conservatives think. Does the evidence in the talk suggest that Kling could pass the Turing test? I doubt he could. If I had to set out the axis of relevance to each of these groups I would have said they are:

- Libertarians: big state vs. small state
- Conservatives: strong vs. weak and status quo vs. change (I couldn't decide here)
- Liberals: human flourishing vs. lack of flourishing (in the sense of Nussbaum or Sen's "capabilities approach")

I couldn't quite decide on conservatives. If I really had to pick the common denominator it's that they like to approach things from what they perceive as a position of strength and think their adversaries approach things from a position of weakness. This of course is relevant to the defense of the status quo.

The liberal result is obviously more self-serving just like the libertarian axis that Kling provides is more self-serving for him. But it was genuinely tough for me to come up with anything else. Sometimes you hear talk about "equality" or as Kling says "oppression", but that seemed like a very narrow and stereotypical view of what liberals are all about. "Flourishing" or "capabilities" seems better to me because that's truly encompassing of everything that liberals promote. It's the common denominator in the same way that the juxtaposition of a big and a small state is the common denominator for what libertarians think.

The difference is quite obviously not "freedom". Many libertarians don't seem to realize this, but when a liberal hears a libertarian talk about "freedom" it sounds as politically compromised as when George Bush talks about "freedom". Sure, like Bush libertarians get some of what "freedom" means correct, but mostly it's just a word that libertarians use to discuss their position because most people respond well to it (same as why Bush used it). I do not see libertarians I respect like David Henderson or Bob Murphy and think "they like liberty more than I do" and I fully anticipate they think the same of me. What I think is "they like a smaller state more than I do".

*****

As I explain below, I'm going to belabor my disagreement here but not exaggerate it - and the belaboring is to make a point.

Generally speaking I enjoyed the talk a lot and agree with most of the substance of it. I'm focusing on what I disagree with because there's more to talk about there almost by definition. Honestly, some of the things I liked about the talk surprised me. For one thing, Kling has always struck me as being especially guilty of the sort of presumptiveness and dismissiveness of other people's frameworks that he's arguing against here. Of the three classic EconLib contributors (David Henderson, Arnold Kling, and Bryan Caplan), Kling always infuriated me the most of the three because he would make these outrageous claims about "how liberals think" that made no sense to me at all and more often than not came across as not only nonsensical, but an attack.

So the discussion was ironic enough to begin with - Kling was talking good sense on a lot of issues I always thought he was guilty of. Then later on "he" came up. I don't even have to say who "he" is because if the subject of discussion is poor treatment of others in the blogosphere and the people holding the discussion are libertarian economists it can only be a single person.

Paul Krugman, of course.

In the talk Kling said that Krugman "sets a horrible example" and that his "success has not been a healthy thing for economists" because he sticks to his axis (i.e. - oppressed vs. oppressors) and abandons substance.

There's the Arnold Kling I always remembered!

My jaw dropped. It was like a completely different person from the first half of the discussion. From my perspective - and I've been following both Krugman and the libertarian blogosphere for years now  - Krugman's value added is precisely that he stays on substance (an amazing degree of substance given that he's a New York Times blogger... usually Times bloggers don't get too "wonkish"), he challenges people on "his side" (Stiglitz, Obama, Galbraith, etc.) and manages to do both of those things while still passionately makes his case. Most of his attacks are pretty well targeted and directed at politicians but I'm happy to admit he occasionally catches other people in the cross-fire. Still, when he does that it doesn't even approach being as bad as what gets said in the libertarian blogosphere. Taken alone we can obviously criticize Krugman. Taken in the context of the economics blogosphere he's well behaved.

I fully expect thoughtful libertarians to see the situation as being somewhat worse with Krugman than I do. But "sets a horrible example" is just an unreal thing for Kling to say and if it weren't for how good the first half of his interview was with Russ it would completely discredit him.

Now I belabored my difference of opinion with Kling here, but I didn't exaggerate my difference of opinion at all. I belabor the point to drive home three ideas:

(1.) I don't think Kling can pass a Turing test, but
(2.) he is completely genuine when he says this about Krugman - as genuine as I am - and he thinks he is making a comment that ought to be taken seriously, and
(3.) the evaluation of these sorts of framing issues is highly contingent on your framing and your perspective.

I have yet to read Haidt's book but I think this is what bugs me about Haidt too. It's not so much the broad strokes. I agree strongly with both Kling and Haidt that people operating in different ideological spaces frame things differently and think about things differently. It's the details of that claim that seem less sensible. Any kind of content analysis or experiment to derive those sorts of details is going to be plagued by the same contingencies. Certainly Kling drawing on his own personal experience is going to be plagued by the same contingencies.

15 comments:

  1. I've been flirting with no longer calling myself a libertarian. If I do, it's mostly because I share a similar general world view. But, I don't see any broad difference between liberals and libertarians. Libertarians are liberals that disagree on specific issues (how to maximize "liberty;" how to maximize social well being; how to maximize the standard of living of the worst off; et cetera). That is, they disagree on the specific direction of change. But, at the same time, both agree that there ought to be change, and that this change ought to benefit as broad a group of people as possible.

    I don't think modern conservatives are about the status quo. I think they're more about exclusivity, in the sense that they want to impose certain normative conclusions on society as a whole. More importantly, they don't think it should be open to debate; and if they do think it should be open to debate, they think they should win the debate no matter what (e.g. it wouldn't matter to them if the majority of people supported drug consumption or abortion). Fwiw, I think there are libertarians that come close to the conservative position -- one possible candidate is Rothbard.

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    1. Very nice - I felt like elevating these thoughts and my reaction to a new post rather than keeping it in the comments.

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    2. ~More importantly, they don't think it should be open to debate...~

      Neither do many, many liberals on a whole host of issues ranging from guns to GMOs (many liberals have particularly asinine views on GMOs IMO) to affirmative action.

      Frankly conservatives argue for change just as much as anyone does. In fact, claims of tradition are almost invariably wrapped up in innovations to that tradition.

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    3. Yea, I think there are a lot of liberals who don't act very liberal. They just think they're liberal, because they find their position to be more progressive than the alternatives.

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    4. So that prolly would mean that there are conservatives who act like liberals (however you are defining that term) which tells me that the effort to sort people in this way is almost meaningless (I write almost because I do think it tells you a lot about the person who is doing the sorting).

      I see broad and narrow differences between liberals, conservatives and libertarians, thus it isn't surprising that alliances come about between all three, between two of the three, etc. In fact, liberals and libertarians broadly disagree on some very fundamental things, these include free speech, property rights, the role of the military in international affairs (and indeed the role of the U.S. in international affairs), the nature of prices, all manner of so-called morals legislation, the welfare state, immigration, etc. etc. etc.

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    5. In other words, trying to gloss over the fundamental differences between liberals and libertarians doesn't really do much of a service to either way of looking at world. Of course once a Republican is back in the Presidency that is exactly what a number of people will likely try to do.

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    6. "I think they're more about exclusivity, in the sense that they want to impose certain normative conclusions on society as a whole."

      Here is liberal critcism of conservative tricked out as political analysis. Yes, of course it's the CONSERVATIVES who try to impose their norms on society. Liberals would never do such a thing! Utter nonsense.


      "Fwiw, I think there are libertarians that come close to the conservative position -- one possible candidate is Rothbard."

      Yeah that anarcho-capitalist regarded as a nutjob by liberals and conservatives alike is "close to the conservative position". Why? Presumably because he shared the norms of 1950s America and believed that, you know, energetic and smart people with ambition will probably make more money than lazy and dumb people with no ambition. Guess that makes him a "conservative" eh? That and his belief that drugs, prostitution, gambling etc should all be legal. Yup, a real conservative soul.

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  2. Do you realize how blind you are to the conservative mindset?

    Find what you said in Sowell. It's not there, and Sowell has been the most explicit about articulating this in the modern world.

    Kling nailed what I sometimes say with respect to being vaguely "conservative" on certain margins but in no way should that be categorized as strong v weak or status quo v change.

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    1. So yes, this is largely my point - that there's a lot of blindness going on in this sort of evaluation.

      But I think you're overstating your case. I was pretty conservative for quite a while (longer than my little libertarian interlude) and a lot of my family still is. I think my offerings make a lot more sense than Kling's although I agree they probably aren't perfect.

      I think the "civilization vs. barbarism" thing is drawing too strongly on the experience with terrorism alone, and it's not really just a conservative response.

      "Status quo" might be better put as "tradition" vs. change because obviously there are a lot of instances where society has moved on and conservatives want to go back to some better way of being.

      If a conservative were to decide what the axis is I anticipate he or she would say "freedom vs. control" much like Kling said for libertarianism, but for reasons I laid out in the post I don't think that would be an accurate distinction either.

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  3. Substance is a problem when the data and arguments are not on your side. This seems why conservatives have ceased even trying to make them. Libertarians make them but have to have very different values from most or even less reality about the world than they always accuse liberals of having. Krugman represents the passing of the bleeding heart straw liberal that is still the core of their assault. They are sensitive to his tone because they cannot prevail on substance, only changing the subject is possible.

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    1. re: "They are sensitive to his tone because they cannot prevail on substance, only changing the subject is possible."

      I think this is really perceptive. Krugmania confuses the hell out of me. If we think of what he says about other economists (who are mostly the people complaining), the worst he usually comes out saying is something like "they're sooooo wrong - wrong, wrong, wrong - and I'm right and they've always been wrong".

      He's relentless and I could see why some people would consider him annoying but it's all relatively tame. Very tame - as I said - compared to the rest of the blogosphere. So I guess it's the tone that gets to them. I just don't know.

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  4. "Of the three classic EconLib contributors (David Henderson, Arnold Kling, and Bryan Caplan), Kling always infuriated me the most of the three because he would make these outrageous claims about "how liberals think" that made no sense to me at all and more often than not came across as not only nonsensical, but an attack"
    I completely agree. That's why I thought it odd he started a new blog focused on making a "charitable reading" of others.

    Kling's taxonomy seems focused on threats, hence "oppression" for liberals is like "barbarism" for conservatives. "Flourishing" sounds blander to a satisficer.

    "they want to impose certain normative conclusions on society as a whole. More importantly, they don't think it should be open to debate; and if they do think it should be open to debate, they think they should win the debate no matter what (e.g. it wouldn't matter to them if the majority of people supported drug consumption or abortion)"
    To me that describes ALL POLITICAL TENDENCIES. Abortion, for example, was legalized by the courts. Liberals and most libertarians seem perfectly fine with that, even if a majority of people in some places might want it prohibited. Same sort of deal with gay marriage. Even I think there are certain things with structural importance, free speech for instance, that I don't want legislation to go near.

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  5. The discussion in the podcast reminded me a lot of Haidt's _The Righteous Mind_.

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  6. " - Liberals: human flourishing vs. lack of flourishing (in the sense of Nussbaum or Sen's "capabilities approach")"

    Way too woolly.

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  7. "I do not see libertarians I respect like David Henderson or Bob Murphy and think "they like liberty more than I do" and I fully anticipate they think the same of me. What I think is "they like a smaller state more than I do".

    The thing is Daniel, they DO like liberty more than you. It's so obvious. Pick any area and you will find that they favour more liberty and you less. Why is that so hard to admit? You think that liberty is good, up to a point, until it becomes dangerous and needs to be controlled by other men with less libertarian tendencies. They go further than you on the liberty dial. They crank it right up, you want to say "hold on".

    Sure, you can call your preference "libertarian" too, it's not like you're AGAINST liberty or anything, heaven forbid! But let's call a spade a spade.

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