Being Uncharitable to Those Who Disagree

In his recent book, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know, Jason Brennan writes,

American politics has two large camps. The first camp advocates an American police state–one that polices the world at large while policing its citizens’ lifestyles. It advocates having government promote traditional Judeo-Christian virtues. It wants to marginalize or expel alternative modes of life. The second camp advocates an American nanny state–one that tries to nudge and control the behavior of its citizens “for their own good.” Both camps support having the government manage, control, and prop up industry and commerce. In rhetoric, a vicious divide separates the two camps. Yet when in power, the two camps act much the same.

Brennan’s book is in large part an effort to refute the uncharitable views that others hold about libertarians. In that regard, it may be valuable. However, the quoted paragraph offers what I believe is an uncharitable view of progressives and, especially, conservatives.

Consider Bryan Caplan’s Ideological Turing Test. If you were to say, “I advocate an American police state,” would conservatives be convinced by that statement that you share their beliefs? Instead, I think that they would view this as a highly uncharitable characterization of conservatism.

I think that if you want to be convincing in an argument, taking an uncharitable view of the opponent is a bad strategy. Just as libertarians become scornful and defensive toward those who take an uncharitable view of our beliefs (think of people who say “libertarians just want to let people starve” or “libertarians believe markets are perfect”), we can expect others to become scornful and defensive if we take an uncharitable view of their beliefs.

I have written an essay, to appear next month, in which I suggest that the core conservative belief is that civilization is always threatened by barbarism. Think Lord of the Flies. Meanwhile, I think that progressives also see a threat everywhere–the threat of oppression. Think of the Biblical story of the Exodus. Libertarians do not typically focus on barbarism or oppression. Instead, we focus on coercion vs. free choice. We celebrate the fruits of voluntary cooperation via markets. Think I, Pencil.

Suppose that my characterization of conservatives is correct. Then libertarians need to address their concern. How do you keep civilization from sliding into barbarism? Conservatives viewed Communism as barbaric, and they saw a need for our government to defend against it. Similarly, they see terrorism as barbaric, and they see a need for our government to defend against it.

How should this concern with external barbarian threats be addressed? One approach is to deny the threat or to insist that our side is just as bad. I think of Murray Rothbard and his descendants as taking that path (am I being uncharitable?). It seems to me that you have to be incredibly selective in your choice of facts in order to sustain that position. A more promising approach, in my view, is to emphasize the costs and risks of various government strategies (airport screening, foreign invasion) for dealing with these threats.

Conservatives view a number of cultural phenomena as representing a slide into barbarism. There certainly is room to disagree with conservatives about what constitutes barbarism (gay marriage? marijuana?). However, nearly everyone I know shares some of the conservative’s worries. Few would argue that teenage motherhood, heavy drug use, or poor impulse control are desirable. Again, I think that the place to make a stand is to be skeptical of the practical results of government policies that purport to improve social character.

Finally, note that the pattern of demonization is likely to be predictable. Libertarians will demonize their opponents as statists, because what libertarians care most about is the coercion-freedom axis. Conservatives will demonize their opponents as enemies of civilization (“the left wants to destroy our way of life”), because what conservatives care most about is the civilization-barbarism axis. Finally, progressives will demonize their opponents as oppressors (“they want poor people to suffer”), because what progressives care most about is the oppressor-oppressed axis. One psychological benefit of demonization is that it provides a way of coping with people with whom you disagree without having to acknowledge the possible partial validity to their perspective. However, the cost of demonization is that it accentuates animosity–both yours and that of the group that you demonize.

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9 Responses to Being Uncharitable to Those Who Disagree

  1. Ben says:

    How, more precisely, would you differentiate the coercion/freedom axis and the oppressor/oppressed axis? They seem quite related whereas the barbarian/civilization axis seems relatively more orthogonal.

  2. Bret says:


    My experience is that your being way too charitable to all parties.

    Isn’t it possible that liberals pretend to care about the oppressor-oppressed axis while using that pretense to grab power? Isn’t it possible that conservatives just use rhetoric about the barbarism-civilization axis to propel them to political victory? Isn’t it possible that libertarians just debate the coercion-freedom axis to expand their own personal power and avoid obligations that would otherwise be imposed on them and let those obligations and costs fall on others?

    My experience tells me that Nietzsche’s “Will To Power” (or the simpler and less nuanced “Might Makes Right”) explains the beliefs, rhetoric, and actions of the vast majority of people far better than your charitable description. While you’re right that the uncharitable description certainly won’t convince anyone and in fact will close the doors to any discussion, an unrealistic view of what motivates people will waste effort as well.

    The purpose of books like Brennan’s is not to convince those in other camps but instead to fire up people in his camp in order to strive for power. As Brennan notes, “Yet when in power, the two camps act much the same.” The simplest explanation for that is that power is the goal of both camps. Political victory and power are the ends, not the means.

    “My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (–its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on–” Nietzsche, from The Will to Power, s.636, Walter Kaufmann transl.

    I think that any plan to change thought and the political and economic trajectory we’re on needs to keep the concept of power directly in the crosshairs at all times. Unfortunately, for libertarians, they are the least well suited for this task.

  3. ThomasL says:

    If people are motivated by a will to power, how could on group be less well suited to a will to power than someone else? If it is because they don’t possess the same will to power as other people, the argument that a will to power is what motivates people of all camps falls a part. If it is somehow a will to a different kind of power, it falls apart as well, because there exists an infinity of different kinds and applications of power, so an infinity of different wills to power. With an infinity of possible objects, it ceases to communicate anything distinct.

    If you mean instead that they don’t have very much power, that is something else; then you can start plotting schemes to manipulate and seize power–just like everyone else apparently.

    But I think Nietzsche was as wrong as Thrasymachus, and both fail to explain the larger part of human activity. Power is one good among many, not the only or the highest good.

  4. ThomasL says:

    Also, of course, power is no end in itself, but a means. The ultimate end could hardly be a means.

  5. Joe Cushing says:

    I don’t see the need to be charitable. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck. How about we just tell what’s true? Just because the two parties don’t realize how freedom robbing their ideals are, doesn’t make them any less freedom robbing. When an non-freedom loving individual says things like “libertarians just want to let people starve” or “libertarians believe markets are perfect” that just provides us with an opportunity to point out that their characterization of us is just plain false. We can turn it around by saying that if a non-libertarian really cared about starving people, they’d pick up an economics book and learn how to really take care of them. We can point out that the only people who hold libertarians to the standard of market perfection are non-libertarians. We can explain that we are not competing with a government system of perfection and show just how LOW the bar is that we are competing with. Those arguments are easy to overcome but the non-charitable arguments against non-libertarians are not easy to overcome because they are true. I see no reason to be charitable with ideals that hurt, starve, and kill people. I think libertarians need to ramp up the rhetoric and tell the truth in more bold ways. Very few libertarians point out the violence in the views of the opposition and I don’t think we will get anywhere in this debate until we constantly point out that everything the state does, it does with a gun. The gun should be brought into ever conversation about the state because that is what the state is: people forcing other people to do things they would otherwise not do with guns.

  6. ThomasL says:

    Unitatem in necessariis, in non necessariis libertatem, in omnibus caritatem–charity in all things.

    That isn’t contrary to the truth. But it is a call that when pursuing the truth one do things like engage someone’s strongest argument, not their weakest. Not to assume malignant intent, &c. Perhaps it is even more persuasive that way, but that is not the point.

  7. Arnold, I just wanted to jump in and say how much I appreciate the fact that you’ve returned to blogging. I find your attempts to bring thoughtfulness and civility to these kinds of discussions a genuine contribution in its own right.

  8. I see a recognition of the power of voluntary community as largely eliminating the discrepancy between libertarians and conservatives. When local villages or, later in the U.S., mutual aid societies were the source of welfare, communities pressured those who engaged in behaviors that were costly to the community to improve their behavior. Communities that largely finance their own social welfare insurance will likely put limits on barbarism unless they are wealthy.

    As societies became larger and more pluralistic it becomes unrealistic to have one set of standards for morality (and barbarism). In Free Cities going forward, we will encourage the development of voluntary communities with mutual aid societies each of which can (and will) identify their own moral boundaries. As an educator I’ve long realized that education should be fundamentally about habits, attitudes, norms, morals, and culture – the academic part is trivial by comparison. Voluntary communities will want to educate their children in good habits so as to reduce the long-term costs associated with poor behavior. Most health care costs are due to behavioral decisions (most costs associated with chronic diseases, accidents, addictions, substance abuse, STDs, obesity, violence, are all due to behavioral choices). In voluntary communities, populations with good habits will collectively have a much higher standard of living. Entrepreneurs will provide systems in education, insurance/mutual aid, health care and wellness, crime prevention and punishment, surveillance, law and governance, etc. that will result in more effective solutions to all of these realms than what we have now.

    Such a “libertarian” solution will have far less barbarism than does the U.S. today – even though some of the communities will be more tolerant with respect to drugs, sexual preference, etc. than is the U.S. today. Others, of course, will be much more conservative. The result will approximate Nozick’s “Utopia of Utopias.”

  9. chipotle says:

    Jason Brennan’s passage does seem unbalanced in the relative amount of emphasis on conservative error.

    However, it strikes me that in making the attempt to be maximally charitable to those who disagree, you can end up arguing the other side better than they did themselves!

    Humans are ingenious at telling “just-so” stories. This argumentative charity thing is becoming overly time-consuming.

    I don’t know what the answer is (aside from heavy usage of direct quotation).

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