Axes of Exaggeration

Partly in response to comments, here are a few more thoughts on the three axes I propose. I think the axes help to predict which threats will be exaggerated by which partisan.

A conservative will exaggerate the extent to which a practice leads to barbarism. Again, I use the example of illegal immigration. A conservative emphasizes that it is illegal, therefore the immigrants are lawbreakers by definition, hence the threat to civilization is intrinsic. In general, I think that conservatives view social trends as much more dire than I do and see society in decline more readily than I do.

A progressive will exaggerate the extent to which people fall into classes of oppressors and oppressed. If you look at the biography of UN Ambassador Susan Rice, she apparently both inherited and married into wealth, received an elite education, worked for McKinsey, and now has a net worth of over $20 million. Yet people on the left describe her as oppressed, because she is African-American and female. I want to say, “Really?”

A libertarian will exaggerate the extent to which a practice represents coercion. They are fond of saying, “If you don’t comply with xyz policy, men with guns will come and take you to prison.” I understand this argument and I generally take it as valid. However, I can also understand how someone with a different point of view might argue that when they pay taxes what they get in return is a fair deal.

I also believe that the three axes are different. A practice can be barbaric without being coercive or oppressive. Body piercing, for example. A practice can be coercive without being oppressive or barbaric. Social Security, for example. A practice can be oppressive without being coercive or barbaric. Owners of restaurants refusing to serve non-white customers, for example.

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20 Responses to Axes of Exaggeration

  1. Robert Easton says:

    ” However, I can also understand how someone with a different point of view might argue that when they pay taxes what they get in return is a fair deal.”

    My feeling is this is not the main reason progressives would typically reject the concern of “If you don’t comply with xyz policy, men with guns will come and take you to prison.”.

    I think it is more likely to be about how, even if in theory the government can do that, in practise it effects almost none of us, so is not a useful framing. You can agree taxes are coercive but still say the coercion part is not an important factor.

    When it comes to locking people up for non-violent drug crimes, I don’t know how this fits either the “fair deal” or “not common enough to be a priority” explanation though. It’s both common (for some parts of society) and I don’t know how people see it as fair.

  2. Joe Cushing says:

    If it were a fair deal, the market would provide it and the men with guns would not be necessary.

    • Scott Mayo says:

      I still have trouble with the circular reasoning – policy xyz, say “zoning laws” are coercive and require men with guns. The externality of stench from the newly installed neighborhood slaughterhouse should be handled through some sort of market pricing mechanism so that the butcher and his neighbors will reach a fair equilibrium? Without the inherent coercion, the butcher has zero incentive to change his spillover behavior. In the alternate real world (sans govt. coercion), the coercion would still occur – the neighbors would “fix” the smell (and it wouldn’t be by purchasing clean smell rights from the butcher). I still think that’s the point of the original post – can’t we at least agree that in some context that ultimate individual freedom is mutually exclusive with community? If so, we can then gradually (and in a civil manner) contemplate various points on the continuum.

      • Joe Cushing says:

        When the butcher produces smells and other things that leave it’s property and land on other people’s property, this would be a violation of the property owners around him. It would be the butcher that would have to pay them for rights to their property, not the other way around.

        • Scott Mayo says:

          What possible incentive would he have to pay anyone unless there was a coercive law in place defining where his freedoms ended and his neighbors began? Even for the market to work, there has to be a rule of law. Whether that law is deemed “fair” or not is going to depend on whose ox is getting gored. All I’m saying is that the concept of coercion is inescapable and hence its non-existence can’t be a starting point. The absence of coercion doesn’t produce Rousseau’s Noble Savage, it produces The Lord of the Flies. We can argue about how much and from what quarter (idealistically based on the Constitution), but dealing with spillover costs (for example) takes a definition of those costs by someone outside the system to overcome the inherent conflict of interest. Without that outside “coercive” definition/enforcement, my pig farmer neighbor is very likely to respond, “What smell? Oh that. It smells like money to me!”

          I found it interesting that I assumed the neighbors would pay him to quit whereas you assumed he’d pay them for the right. Who, pray tell, defines which way the money should flow? As is plainly evident from mankind’s history, it cannot be claimed that the answer is self-evident. Regardless of the answer, one of the parties will feel coerced.

          Going all the way back to the original point of this post, if we can’t think of (or agree upon) one instance where governmental coercion is valid, then we will never, ever do anything but shout past each other.

    • Kenneth A. Regas says:

      Let me (esay to) join Scott. Any political theory has to start with the following: “In the beginning, there are men with guns who want your stuff and to enslave you.” That’s the state of Man before political science, theories of governance, etc. Now then, if you are a libertarian, what comes next?

  3. Joe Cushing says:

    Correction: The market COULD provide it.

  4. Seth says:

    ‘A libertarian will exaggerate the extent to which a practice represents coercion. They are fond of saying, “If you don’t comply with xyz policy, men with guns will come and take you to prison.”’

    Where’s the exaggeration?

    “However, I can also understand how someone with a different point of view might argue that when they pay taxes what they get in return is a fair deal.”

    I can understand someone arguing this as well, to which I often respond that the key problem is that it doesn’t have to be a fair deal and a secondary problem is what you consider to be a fair deal may differ from what I consider to be fair deal.

  5. mgj says:

    A. The most difficult talent is the sense of proportion ?
    B. Most see black and white, when most everything is marbeled ?

  6. Mike says:

    There seems to be a difference between the three axes. Freedom is the opposite of coercion. Civilization is the opposite of barbaric.

    What is the opposite of oppression?

    • Arnold Kling says:

      interesting question. In a sense, all of the terms I am using are not well defined–in fact I am suggesting that they are defined differently by people of different ideologies. I guess the opposite of oppression would be a totally classless society. Or a society in which no individual or group is clearly disadvantaged. I’m struggling to maintain a charitable stance toward progressives here

      • Kenneth A. Regas says:

        I’m a conservative who has struggled with your use of civilization vs barbarism as my axis of exaggeration. But I’ve warmed up to it, in light of the history of the word “barbarism.” It comes from a concept shared by ancient Greeks and ancient Chinese. both of whom could justly claim to be the most advanced societies of their own acquaintance. Both saw the world as consisting of two types of people: themselves and the barbarians.

        If we understand civilization and barbarism as simply “values we do and don’t share, respectively” then I think your use of the term perfectly fits the conservative mindset, while doing no violence to your intent.


  7. Curt says:

    I think this way of characterizing the positions in terms of their ‘exaggerations’ could be useful, but I might describe the positions a bit differently.

    Liberals – exaggerate the ability of the government to ‘do good’ (i.e. stop injustice, inequality, oppression). They think utopia is a few programs away, and there are no unintended consequences.

    Conservatives – exaggerate the threat of change (unless the change is intended to get back to some mythical past). Utopia is probably not possible, and most of what we get are unintended consequences.

    Libertarians – exaggerate the ease with which individuals could just work everything out in absence of government. Perhaps the most utopian of all.

    But of course it’s awfully easy to get defensive quickly about all this stuff!

  8. Curt says:

    Also – glad to have you blogging again, Arnold!

  9. Gian says:

    My attempt to unify the proposed idea in terms of citizen and non-citizen distinction.

    1) To a conservative mind, non-citizens represent barbarism since a non-citizen is likely to have a different moral world than a citizen.
    The conservative seeks to retain citizen non-citizen distinction (i.e the “national difference”)
    2) Progressives seek to erase the national difference by making everyone a citizen. They see oppression in the efforts that seek to maintain the national differences.
    3) The libertarians seek to erase the national differences by making everyone a non-citizen (i.e. people having no common moral sense or history or identity i.e. Strangers). Thus efforts to maintain the national differences look like coercion to them.

    • Gian says:

      A slight corrective to (3):
      “Thus effort to maintain a a common moral sense or identity look like coercion to them.”

      The Progressive is a Universalist seeking Universal moral norms.
      The Conservative is a Particularist seeking Particular moral norms.
      The Libertarian is against all moral norms save non-aggression
      (the norm that is common to all rational persons).
      Thus the Progressive and Libertarian seek universal norms; only the Progressive desires a larger set of them–non-discrimination, child rights, animal rights, gay rights etc etc while the Libertarian is content with non-aggression and respect for property.

  10. wophugus says:

    I really don’t see “if you don’t obey the government men with guns will come and shoot you down” as an appeal against coercion, it is more of an appeal against fighting government oppression. For an example of the distinction, you rarely hear libertarians speak negatively about people being coerced into respecting property rights or into not shooting each other. Libertarians aren’t primarily outraged that people get coerced, they are outraged that the government does the coercing and that it does it in ways and for reasons it should not. And that is, more-or-less, just another word for oppression!

    Anyways, I have more thoughts about all this on my blog.

  11. guthrie says:

    Arnold, this is brilliant. I’m with Curt… a hearty welcom back!

  12. Fonzy Shazam says:

    I think a better example of oppressive without being coercive or barbaric would be: “Owners of restaurants laying off laborers or cutting back labor hours while substituting in capital in response to rising minimum wage rates.

    My take on the axes is here:

    Glad you’re back, Doc Kling … Sounds like duckling when said fast.

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