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.