Scott Alexander on The Revolt of the Public

He wrote,

Systems are hard. Institutions are hard. If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it. Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the “destroying the current system” step and expecting the “build a better one” step to happen on its own. That never works. The best parts of conservativism are the ones that guard this insight and shout it at a world too prone to taking shortcuts.

Thanks to a commenter for recommending the post. Martin Gurri’s fear in The Revolt of the Public is that exactly the form of nihilism that Alexander fears is what the Internet facilitates.

Here is a thought: If you could push a button that would destroy everyone’s faith in government, in order that they would become receptive to libertarianism, would you do it?

Maybe the question is too ill-specified. But my answer would be “no,” and in that sense I am conservative. I certainly would like to see people change the way that they think about government, so that they wish it to take on more less responsibilities and face fewer more constraints, but I do not want to blow things up so that we can start over.

My view on Clinton vs. Trump has been different. I see Trump’s authoritarian tendencies as almost certain to be restrained by the media, by left-wing elites, and by important elements of the Republican establishment. Even if we grant that Clinton is cautious, how would she react to, say, a government debt crisis or continued escalation of he costs of Obamacare? My guess is that her response would be authoritarian, with more regulation and controls. And there would be no effective institutional opposition.

However, it is not an easy call. I agree that a Trump victory would probably harm conservatism and libertarianism more than a Trump defeat. And that is worth taking into consideration.

How to Change Minds

Maria Popova writes,

Nearly half a millennium before modern psychologists identified the three elements of persuasion — attunement, buoyancy, and clarity — French physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623–August 19, 1662) intuited this mechanism as he arrived at a great truth about the secret of persuasion: Pascal came to see that the surest way of defeating the erroneous views of others is not by bombarding the bastion of their self-righteousness but by slipping in through the backdoor of their beliefs.

Pointer from Olivia Goldhill.

Borrowing a Hansonian locution, I would say that argument is not about changing minds. Instead, it is about playing status games. You make points that lower the status of those with whom you disagree, and this in turn raises your status among those with whom you agree.

As Popova’s article explains, if your goal is to change someone’s mind, then the best approach is to start by talking about what seems right about the person’s beliefs. Then allow the person to come around to the problems with their thinking and, ultimately, to the better alternative.

Perhaps my Three Languages of Politics can be useful in this regard.

Haidt, Cosmides, and Tooby on Socialism’s Attraction

Self-recommending. I went to the event with high expectations, and I was not disappointed. I will post on the substance once I have watched a re-run. Each of the speakers had problems. Jonathan Haidt was flustered by technical difficulties which delayed the start of his talk. Leda Cosmides had a sore throat from a cold. And John Tooby reminded me of Paul Samuelson, in that it appeared that his mind was working much faster than he could talk, giving the listener the feeling of missing out on insights that were in the speaker’s head but never made it out of his mouth.

In general, I wish the event had been longer.

Google News Usurps Matt Drudge

Drudge is known for juxtaposing two headlines to make an ironic point. At the moment, Google News is showing me one headline about President Obama disputing as not jibing with reality Donald Trump’s dark characterization of the state of things during his acceptance speech. Higher up on Google News is a headline about the latest apparent terror attack in Munich.

People have pointed out to me that Trump came down strongly on the civilization vs. barbarism axis. My guess is that the Democrats will not end up trying to compete along that axis. I do not think that they help themselves by calling attention to the issue. In fact, no matter how much they may believe that facts and rationality are on their side, claiming that the problems of crime and terrorism are over-stated would be the most self-defeating way possible for the Democrats to call attention to those issues.

I expect that the Democrats will end up coming down strongly on the oppressor-oppressed axis. Generically, they will try to tie Mr. Trump to another headline I see on Google News, which is that ex-Klansman David Duke is seeking a Senate seat. Their message will be that “If you are an X, then a Trump Presidency will take away your rights,” where X will be alleged to include non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-Evangelical. . .

In other words, my prediction is that this election season we will see the three-axes model much in evidence, with Mr. Trump hitting the civilization-barbarism axis for all it’s worth and Mrs. Clinton hitting the oppressor-oppressed axis for all it’s worth.

Three Axes and Police

Jonah Goldberg writes,

At least for a moment, antagonists on either side of polarizing issues could see beyond the epistemic horizon of their most comfortable talking points. Black Lives Matter activists thanked the police for their protection and sacrifice. Conservative Republicans, most notably House Speaker Paul Ryan and former speaker Newt Gingrich, spoke movingly about race in America. Gun-rights activists were dismayed that Philando Castile, the man shot by a police officer in Minnesota, had followed all of the rules — he had a gun permit, cooperated with the officer, etc. — and was still killed.

So are people able to view this along one another’s axes? I doubt it.

1. Progressives, who communicate in terms of the oppressor-oppressed axis, stress entrenched racism.

2. Conservatives, who communicate in terms of the civilization-barbarism axis, stress the importance of maintaining respect for police.

3. Libertarians, who communicate in terms of the freedom-coercion axis, stress that laws from the state ultimately are backed by force, so that if you want less state violence you need fewer laws.

Judging from my facebook feed, some libertarians also seem eager to align themselves with progressives.

My own feelings are mixed. On the progressive side, it seems reasonable to me to hold police to a standard that they should respond to the same behavior in the same way, regardless of the person’s race. Shopping while black should not be presumed criminal.

On the conservative side, it seems reasonable to me to want an active and assertive police force that is treated with respect. It seems likely that an active and assertive police would be particularly beneficial to poor people living in dangerous areas.

Brexit Along Three Axes

I do not think that the 3-axes model performs as well as usual at interpreting the post-Brexit feelings. But here is a try.

Let us treat the vote as an anti-immigrant backlash. That might not be correct, by the way. The journalists who are offering that interpretation are the ones who are shocked and appalled by the vote. But suppose it is a major factor.

The oppressor-oppressed view would have to treat the immigrants as the most oppressed group. So, even though working-class natives were traditionally treated as oppressed, you would expect the progressive defense of “remain” to emphasize the plight of the immigrants. I am not really seeing much of that. Instead, I get the sense that there is instead more of an emotional attachment to the project of a united Europe, along with some snobbery toward working-class provincials. I understand how the united Europe fits in with Progressive beliefs, but it does not line up with the oppressor-oppressed axis.

The civilization-barbarism view is that immigration has to be restricted in order to protect British civilization. That would be the language in which conservatives would express support for “leave.” I think we more or less see that.

Finally the freedom-coercion axis says that restrictions on immigration are an especially cruel form of coercion. So it argues for “remain.” And I think that there are some libertarians who express that point of view. But for others, the salient issue is not immigration but instead the Brussels bureaucracy. Regardless of how they come out on net, libertarians do use the language of freedom-coercion in articulating their position.

So on a generous reading, we can say that the three-axes model gets two out of three right.

Yuval Levin praises my book

Actually, he praises two of them.

His 2013 book The Three Languages of Politics is a great example of that. The book sheds a bright light on our political life by arguing that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians tend to see political questions as arrayed along three distinct axes: Progressive think about politics along the oppressor/oppressed axis; conservatives think in terms of the civilization/barbarism axis; and libertarians think in terms of the freedom/coercion axis. . .Try that insight on for a minute as a lens through which to look around at our politics and you’ll find that an awful lot of our debates make much more sense.

Kling’s latest book, out this week and available practically for free on Amazon, is to my mind his greatest contribution yet. Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics, is as ambitious as its subtitle suggests. Kling argues that our understanding of the fundamental character and purpose of the discipline of economics has been distorted by the form that the professionalization of the discipline has taken.

Those are just excerpts. More kind words at the link.

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.


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.

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.