Three Axes and Communism

A reader asks,

how does conservative opposition to Communism (in the second half of the 20th century) fit on the civilization-barbarianism axis? I’m not sure that the Soviet Union or communist China are really thought of as “barbarians”. It seems weird that the main competitor in a space race can be a “barbarian”.

Put yourself in the mindset of 1950. In America, religion is still sacred, so to speak. Recall that Churchill described Lenin as a bacillus sent on a train from Germany into Russia. There was a fear that Communism was like a spreading infection, with many in the west having succumbed to the disease. There was some awareness of Stalin’s butchery of his own people (although this awareness increased considerably a few years later). There was much awareness that Communist “show trials” had mocked the rule of law.

Communists were not primitive in the sense that many environmentalists today are primitivists at heart. The were not medieval like Islamists. But they were against religion, family, and freedom, and they appeared to be willing to use any means, including lies and violence, to spread their ideology. That was sufficient for conservatives to view Communism as barbaric. In fact, conservatives’ characterization of Communists as barbaric greatly disturbed Americans on the left, who saw anti-Communism as extreme and irrational.

Among libertarians, Rand was very anti-Communist, but Rothbard was inclined to blame America for the Cold War. Thus, there was no consensus libertarian position on Communism.

Progressives, like Galbraith and Samuelson, admired the Soviet Union for its engineering achievements. Conservatives thought that Soviet engineering prowess made them more threatening, not less so.


Martin Gurri Watch

Forfare Davis writes,

Whereas conventional forms of collective action, they argue, are reasonably predictable based on demographic information, the hyper interactivity of social media amplifies the role of individual personality as a dominant variable in outcomes that resemble viral outbreaks of collective action of a very unpredictable kind.

He refers to a book by Helen Margetts and others.

The fading of the Constitution means that the political vehicle has lost its brakes. Davis argues that social media have put the mob in the driver’s seat. He does not think it will end well.

You may find the entire essay interesting.

Three Sources of Limits on Liberty

Going back to Handle’s comment on problems for libertarian thought, he writes,

obsession with explicit state / government action and insouciant attitude regarding social pressures, when, in the modern era, the latter may have emerged as an even worse threat to the exercise of traditional liberties.

The ‘local freedom to coerce’ problem. If we are trying to increase welfare by giving people what they desire, we have to recognize that one of the things people desire is ‘a community’ and for their communities to have particular characters and sets of norms. There are certain forms of social experience or community life which are impossible to coordinate if the overall enterprise is deprived of some of the core, and at least mildly coercive, attributes of sovereignty.

On the first point, John Stuart Mill also worried about social pressure as a restriction on liberty. And on the second point, Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman (at least if I remember correctly the relevant passages in Capitalism and Freedom) were against Federal intervention to protect African-Americans from segregation, even segregation imposed by state and local governments.

So these are longstanding problems for libertarians. My own position is that the best way to deal with social opprobrium or discrimination is to give the people who are hurt by those phenomena as much opportunity to exit as possible. I think that once you construe it as a problem that government must solve (by passing Civil Rights laws or regulating organizations) the overall consequences are likely to be worse than letting the problem be resolved through exit.

I hasten to add that exit is not a solution to every problem. Cities, in particular, are bundles of externalities. For any individual, some of these externalities are positive, and some of them are negative. If the positive externalities are strong enough, you will stay in a city and put up with major negative externalities. In theory, using government to get rid of those negative externalities would be an improvement. In practice, I have to say that it is the local government that is the negative externality where I live. That is, if you ask me what would motivate me to move, the first thing that comes to mind is the local government, which increasingly is going to collect taxes to pay for union pensions, not to provide actual services.

Kling vs. Haidt

A commenter asks,

Could you do a post comparing and contrasting your three-axis model with Haidt’s five-or-six parts of mortality? (Care/Harm, Liberty/Oppression, etc.)

The main contrast is in terms of purpose. With the three-axis model, I do not propose to explain why people differ in their political views. I think of someone’s preferred axis as the easiest way to communicate with them about an issue. When you hear an issue described in terms of your preferred axis, it resonates with you. When you hear it described on someone else’s axis, it does not resonate with you so well.

Haidt’s moral foundations are supposed to explain political views. He describes them as six dials that are set to different levels. The idea is that if you measure each person’s moral dial settings, you can predict their political leanings. There is an implication that there is a causal relationship between the dial settings and political views.

I do not think of the causality as running from the three axes to political views. It might very well be the other way around–once you choose your political tribe, your preferred axis follows from that. I am agnostic about causality.

Slouching Toward Progressivism?

From a Handle comment on problems with contemporary libertarian thought.

A steady slouching towards progressivism. (e.g. The Niskanen Center). Of course it is hardly alone in his regard, and one may just as easily point to trends in mainstream conservatism or Christianity.

My remarks.

1. I believe that Robert Conquest’s second law says that any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.

2. I think that progressives are more prone to using the threat of scorn or excommunication, and it is hard not to respond to that. As a thought experiment, I believe that if I were to say, “I think gay marriage is ok” in a room full of conservatives, they would not hold that against me. However, if I you were to say, “I think gay marriage is wrong” in a roomful of progressives, they would give me what-for and never let me forget it.

3. Handle also says that liberatiranism tends toward

An overoptimistic – to put it charitably – account of human nature, psychology, and the decision-making capacity of most adult human beings. Specifically, there are hard questions about the nature of utility or happiness and the origin of our wants that are often overlooked.

More specifically, I think that whether libertarians break left or right depends on their outlook on human nature. The libertarians I know who break right all seem to share with conservatives a concern with the more competitive and violent propensities in human nature. The libertarians I know who break left tend to see such tendencies only in politicians.

Three Axes and Jews

Larry Summers writes,

It has seemed to me that a vast double standard regarding what constitutes prejudice exists on American college campuses. There is hypersensitivity to prejudice against most minority groups but what might be called hyper-insensitivity to anti-Semitism.

The progressives own the sensitivity issue, which means that it is aligned with the oppressor-oppressed axis. Nowadays, Jews do not qualify as oppressed. End of story.

Passover is coming up in a few weeks. The Passover story is an oppressor-oppressed narrative with the Hebrews as the oppressed group that is redeemed from slavery. I believe that the power that this story holds for Jews is one of the factors accounting for the tendency of Jews to lean left. However, I see a lot of Jews my age experiencing cognitive dissonance between their left-leaning historical inclinations and the fact that nowadays the oppressor-oppressed axis is often invoked against Israel.

Note that Larry Summers has another reason for experiencing cognitive dissonance relative to left-wing college students and their oppressor-oppressed axis. Recall that he lost his Harvard Presidency over his alleged insensitivity to women.

Three Axes as Tribal Rallying Flags

Scott Alexander has an essay post on tribalism. Read the whole thing. An excerpt:

in order to talk about tribes coherently, we need to talk about rallying flags. And that involves admitting that a lot of rallying flags are based on ideologies (which are sometimes wrong), holy books (which are always wrong), nationality (which we can’t define), race (which is racist), and works of art (which some people inconveniently want to enjoy just as normal art without any connotations).

What I call three axes are three rallying flags. Progressives rally around oppressor-oppressed, conservatives rally around civilization-barbarism, and libertarians rally around freedom-coercion. It is important to recognize that the actual belief systems are much more complex than that.

Methodological Individualism, Libertarianism, and Conservatism

The error at the heart of all libertarian thought is that the individual is the smallest and primary unit of society. The libertarian consistently frames social and moral imperatives in terms of individual needs and desires and freedoms. He posits that society is the sum total of individuals pursuing self-interest.

This is not true. The smallest unit of society is the relationship between two individuals. One, two, or a thousand individuals do not comprise a society until there are relationships connecting them to each other–agreements, customs, laws, values. The connecting relationship, not the individual, is the atom of human society. It is impossible to have a society of one man.

A commenter supplied this quote, with vague attribution. If you put the whole thing into Google, it will provide a couple of forum posts by “Pleasureman.”

I believe that there is a weakness in libertarian thought, but I am not sure that methodological individualism is the culprit. Consider an analogy. Chemists want to talk about atoms as being fundamental. But in the spirit of the quote above, one could argue that we do not have a substance until we have many atoms bound together. The relationships binding the atoms are what is really fundamental in chemistry. It is impossible to have a substance with just one atom.

I would say that it is useful for chemists to think in terms of atoms, and by the same token it is useful for social theorists to think in terms of individuals. But it is important for chemists to understand the various bonding mechanisms among atoms, and it is important for social theorists to understand the various bonding mechanisms among humans.

I think that what makes conservative social theory of the Burke/Tocqueville/Yuval-Levin sort distinctive is its emphasis on multiple modes of human interaction and bonding mechanisms, including families, organized religion, civic associations, and business enterprises. Libertarians tend to focus almost entirely on free trade as a mode of interaction, and progressives tend to focus almost entirely on the central government as a bonding mechanism.

My Review of Yuval Levin

The book will not be available for another month. My review is here. An excerpt:

His diagnosis blames both the left and the right for promulgating an untenable vision of an individualistic society under the umbrella of the central government. The result has been to demean and weaken mid-level social institutions, including local government, organized religion, and the charitable sector. He argues that such institutions are the best hope for addressing challenges that require collective action but for which the federal government is poorly equipped.