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.

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.

Three Axes to Explain Terrorism

The front page of today’s WaPo has me thinking about this.

First, there is the story of the massacre of Christians on Easter in Pakistan.Along the libertarian freedom-vs.-coercion axis, the preferred explanation is blowback. That is intervention by western governments in foreign countries produces terrorism. However, it is difficult to see how this story applies here.

Next, there is a story of how terrorists met in prison in Belgium. You can see that the reporter has an urge to tell an oppressor-vs.-oppressed story of how prisoners from the oppressed class of Muslims turned into terrorists. But if you read all the way through, you see that the attempt does not really work. Still, seeing the headline, many progressives will jump to the conclusion that better treatment of prisoners is the solution to terrorism.

For me, the best explanation of terrorism lies along the conservative civilization-vs-barbarism axis. And I think that President Obama’s steadfast refusal to see Islamic terrorism along those lines is something that many Americans find frustrating and demoralizing.

Three Axes Explains Soda Taxes

Catherine Rampell writes,

Why not just target the output, rather than some random subset of inputs? We could tax obesity if we wanted to. Or if we want to seem less punitive, we could award tax credits to obese people who lose weight. A tax directly pegged to reduced obesity would certainly be a much more efficient way to achieve the stated policy goal of reducing obesity.

Because taxing obesity would be “blaming the victim” from a progressive perspective. Taxing soda fits the narrative in which the obese are oppressed and soda manufacturers are the oppressors. Never mind about efficiency, tax incidence, and other economic concepts. A soda tax advances the oppressor-oppressed narrative, and therein lies its appeal.

My Political Fortune Cookie

I got it from taking this quiz, which said that the conservative thinker who most fits my views is Russell Kirk.

You are a traditionalist conservative. You emphasize tradition, order, the moral imagination, and the “permanent things.” Although you are alert to the threat of big government, you are also critical of atomistic individualism, as you emphasize man’s spiritual and social nature. As such, you are skeptical of finding much common ground with libertarians.

I prefer to frame things in terms of my three-axes model. I am certainly not a progressive, because I cannot think of a single issue that I view through the lens of the oppressor-oppressed axis. To the extent that I come out libertarian on issues, it is not so much because I frame them in terms of the freedom-coercion axis. More often, it is because I believe that people over-estimate the effectiveness of the political process and under-estimate the effectiveness of the market process.

I admit to thinking often these days in terms of the civilization vs. barbarism axis. I am old enough to be entitled to that as a natural inclination. But how can one not? Are Islamic radicals not barbaric? Does this year’s Presidential election give one confidence that our civilized values are securely in place? Are our college campuses reinforcing our civilized values? Do we believe that if there is a radical direction taken in American politics, that we will be happy with how that turns out?

Guess the Axis

David French writes,

I grew up in Kentucky, live in a rural county in Tennessee, and have seen the challenges of the white working-class first-hand. Simply put, Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin. Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them to file a bogus disability claim.

Call it the civilization-vs.-barbarism hypothesis to explain the increase in labor immobility. Pointer from Mark Thoma, who I am sure looks at this from the standpoint of a different axis.

French is commenting on a piece by Kevin Williamson. More coverage here.

“It is immoral because it perpetuates a lie: that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces,” the NR roving correspondent writes. “[N]obody did this to them. They failed themselves.”

Also from the Monkey Cage Blog

Lilliana Mason writes,

Partisan identities have become increasingly aligned with religious and racial identities. Republicans tend toward Christian and white identities, and Democrats tend toward non-religious and non-white identities. With these highly aligned identities, people tend to be more sensitive to threats from outsiders, reacting with higher levels of anger than those with cross-cutting identities.

Read the whole post. I wanted to excerpt all of it. My one quibble is that I wish that she had not only used Trump supporters as examples of what she is talking about. I think she is saying that people on the left also react angrily to the identity threats posed by those with differing political beliefs and cultural traits, but my guess is that many of the readers of the post will miss that.

I have been interested in the issue of tribalism in politics for quite some time. See, of course, The Three Languages of Politics.