It is Sometimes Appropriate…

I wish that people would begin political conversations by conceding that the generic way that their opponents view the world is sometimes correct. Start by saying, “It is sometimes appropriate…”

My hypothesis is that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other. So here is what I recommend doing when arguing with each:

When arguing with a progressive, start by saying, “It is sometimes appropriate to view particular classes of people as oppressors and other classes as oppressed.” Slavery is an example. Proceed then to suggest that, on the other hand, there are instances in which this way of looking at things is not so compelling. For example, if you think about it, borrowers who obtained homes with no money down are not necessarily oppressed, and the banks that lent them the money are not necessarily oppressors.

When arguing with a conservative, start by saying, “It is sometimes appropriate to view particular practices as barbaric and to view tradition and authority as protecting civilization.” There are, for example, criminals who commit assault and murder without remorse. Proceed then to suggest that, on the other hand, there are instances in which this way of looking at things is not so compelling. For example, if you think about it, Latin Americans who sneak across the border in order to work in this country are probably more civilized than barbaric.

When arguing with a libertarian, start by saying, “It is sometimes appropriate to view particular policies as coercion.” For example, taking tax revenue to hand out political favors. Proceed then to suggest, that, on the other hand, there are instances in which this way of looking at things is not so compelling. For example, if you think about it, it is plausible that some activities function better as monopolies: water and sewer service; courts; road systems. If competition is unworkable, then provision via elected government should not be considered coercive.

Again, I will have an essay that delves more into this way of characterizing ideological differences.

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33 Responses to It is Sometimes Appropriate…

  1. aretae says:

    I’ve been using an alternate triangular politics for years now, since you proposed yours 3-5 years back, I’ve been using a modification. This is much better than your old words, and much better than mine as well. Very well done.

  2. N. says:

    > For example, if you think about it, borrowers who obtained homes with no
    > money down are not necessarily oppressed, and the banks that lent them the
    > money are not necessarily oppressors.

    Every week, I have this discussion with my progressive friends, and every week they will not concede this point. To them it is strictly a question of Big versus Little and Scheming versus Naive. “The borrowers did not understand the risks they were taking, because if they had, they would not have taken those risks. The burden should be on the bank not to act like a predatory institution and take advantage of unsophisticated customers. Unfortunately, we know from example that banks cannot be trusted and thus they must be forcibly prevented from these shenanigans by the government, and the debt taken on by these borrowers under false pretenses should be relieved.” I think that they would agree without reservations to both the letter and the spirit of the way I’ve phrased that, so I think I’m being charitable there.

    On the other side of the equation, they see home ownership as a social good, especially and specifically for those who cannot afford them, all the more so for members of disadvantage minorities without access to capital. Their prescription is for banks to eschew profit motive in these cases and extend home loans at terms the borrower can pay without difficulty. This, they argue, is the cost of being part of a community that allows them to make a lot of money off those who can pay, and they find it a perfectly reasonable requirement.

    I have replied by trying to explain the unitended consequences of perverse incentives of this nature and the effect distortions like those they suggest would have both on housing and money available for investment, etc., but have not yet given so much as one of them pause. They do not find it unreasonable to respond that if the possibility of home ownership cannot be extended to all, it should be in principle available to none.

    These are my friends, my good, close friends. My revealed preference is still to hang out with them, and them with me. On these points, though, I think as charitable as we may be with each other, the argument is intractable. We have never even been able to meet on the margin. It makes me sad; I think it makes them sad, too, but perhaps for different reasons. Sometimes, for both of us I’m sure, being charitable feels like a Herculean task. I often wish I could share their views, or anyway could keep my opinions to myself, just to keep the peace.

    • backyardfoundry says:


      Home ownership is probably not a social good.

      1)Studies merely correlate home ownership with good life outcomes. It makes more sense to view people who generally have their lives in order as being more careful with their money and willing and able to own a home than it does to view home ownership as giving people a bunch of positive characteristics. Why do your friends think having a mortgage is good? Because having a mortgage is correlated with good outcomes? Do they not know that correlation is not causation?

      2)A home is a stupid investment vehicle. Unless there’s a bubble, they barely beat inflation and they tie too much of one’s assets into one asset. It’s like Enron employees (or any other) investing all of their money (or having a pension) with their employer. If the employer goes down, the job, the stock, and the pension are at risk. If most of one’s savings is tied into an asset that was only available because of government intrusion …

      3)We all just lived through a giant housing crash; are your friends convinced that using government to force banks to loan to poor people is a good idea? Do they think NINJA loans make a lot of sense, given the default rate?

      4)Moving can be difficult. When the value of a house drops a lot, how do your friends expect poor people to handle the giant hit?

      5)What is the giant advantage of owning a home instead of renting one?

      Finally, what your friends are demanding is that banks become charitable institutions. Wouldn’t something like a basic income from taxes better address inequality than to micro-manage every single industry away from using math? I mean, your friends are probably not communists, so do they want government to control every element of industry or would the rather just give money to people to “help” them the way they do in the Nordic countries?

    • PrometheeFeu says:

      First, I think it is important to recall that friendship does not require to see eye-to-eye on everything. This is especially true of politics where both you and your friend are powerless. My wife is an ardent liberal. My best friend is an authoritarian conservative. I don’t believe I see anyone on a regular basis who adheres to the same brand of libertarianism as I do. (I know perhaps 1 of my friends who is himself a libertarian) This has sometimes caused tension (mostly with environmentalists and animal-rights activists) but in general, it’s just an opportunity for discussion.

      I would say that if you want any hope of changing their minds, you need to truly understand and empathize with their position. Remember, they do not hold their beliefs for purely rational reasons. Nobody does. Instead of attacking frontally and attempting to demonstrate the flaws in their arguments, you need to see what their values are and very gently present them with 1) a way that their values are violated by their beliefs and 2) a way to resolve that conflict.

      You don’t want to shove their contradictions in their face. That’s the way you win an argument, not the way you convince anybody. You need to just help them along in realizing the conflicts between their beliefs and their values and between their competing values. Once they doubt, then, you can help them resolve their doubt by telling them what you want.

  3. Mark says:

    Looking forward to the essay. What I like most is that this may be a practical technique for having constructive conversations. (And I say this without necessarily agreeing with your hypothesis.) In the past I’ve seen terms like “compassionate conservative” and “bleeding-heart libertarian” for those from specific ideologies who address these differences. (I don’t know of a similar modifier for liberals or progressives.)

    Usually, ‘moderates’ (for lack of a better term) are dismissed as squishy or worse. I like to think of myself as one. But perhaps, following the thinking here, the uncommitted are just trying to determine what the biggest risk of a policy is: are we more afraid of a market failure or a government failure in a given case?

    Although the odds of improving discourse are low, this is a welcome effort. We need to be able to discuss options without immediate categorization into ingroups and outgroups.

    This reminds me of a pair of columns by Thomas Edsall: “What the Right gets Right” and “What the Left gets Right,” in which voices of each side are given the opportunity to acknowledge the value of the other side. From what I read there, what you propose may come more easily to liberals and libertarians.

  4. Ivan says:

    In a utopian technocracy populated by evolved human beings you could have elections only used for determining public tolerace for oppression/coersion/bararism. CBO can then score policies along those three axis and have optimal policy come out of a spreadsheet.

  5. djf says:

    Arnold, with your example of how to argue against a conservative, you are doing what you have said you do not want to do anymore – caricaturing people who disagree with you. The argument against excessive immigration is not that the immigrants are barbarians, but that excessive immigration diminishes the quality of life, in ways economic and otherwise, for the majority of people who live here now. Perhaps this view is mistaken, but it has nothing to do with the claim that immigrants generally, or illegal immigrants generally, are barbarian or evil.

    I realize your point here is not to address the immigration issue, but your implicit cartoonish caricature of the immigration-restrictive position is beneath you.

    • aretae says:


      I disagree rather strongly. I’ve spent an awful lot of time arguing pro-immigration against the anti-immigration folks on my blog…and argument that you make is one of several all of which fall in the “civilization” category.

      Importing lots of immigrants damages our civilization/ our way of life is the primary strong argument. Of course there’s the subsidiary economic arguments, but they’re all subsidiary. We have a way of life here in America, and importing lots of foreigners damages our civilization…perhaps breaking it, and pushing (very slowly) into barbarism.

      • djf says:

        My point was that those who want to restrict immigration are not saying that immigrants generally are barbarians. Rather, they are saying that unrestricted immigration threatens the particular kind of civilization (or culture, to use a less histrionic term) we now have.

        Arnold seems to be assuming that if you want your society to use coercive measures to preserve the particular kind of civilzation/culture your society now has, you must be saying that the alternative is “barbarism” (by which I assume he means anarchy or Nazism or Cambodia under Pol Pot). Perhaps Arnold believes that coercive measures to preserve a certain kind of culture – such as limiting immigration – are morally justified only if the alternative is an acceptable risk of “barbarism.” I’m not arguing against it.. But I think he misunderstands conservatism if he’s suggesting that the conservative position is that this or that aspect of the culture must be preserved because the alternative is high risk of descending into barbarism.

        • djf says:

          In the above, I should have written “unacceptable risk of barbarism.”

        • aretae says:


          Thanks for the thoguhtful reply.

          I read myself, Arnold, and you as all saying the same thing about conservatives. The axis that matters is damage to our civilization/our way of life. Incremental damage is bad too.

          If Arnold would concede “our” civilization, would that fix the concerns you have with his position?

          • djf says:

            From Arnold’s next post, it seems to me that he’s quite invested in viewing conservatives as irrationally fearful that things they oppose will lead to total societal collapse. Again, this appears to violate his claim to want to characterize his opponents’ views in the most “charitable” way possible when arguing against them. But it appears that, for libertarians as for Leftists, traditional conservatives are just beyond the pale.

        • Gian says:

          “unrestricted immigration threatens the particular kind of civilization (or culture, to use a less histrionic term) we now have.”

          The liberals, including Progressives and Libertarians, deny the Political Nature of man.
          Thus they deny that mankind lives in self-ruling moral authoritative particular communities that we call nations.

          They would either universalize the “particular” (Progressive drive towards World Govt) or eliminate “self-ruling moral authoritative” (Libertarian)

        • Anthony says:

          On the specific issue of immigration, as an “anti-immigration” conservative, I’d say that Kling is correct insofar as the anti-immigration argument *is* about preserving our civilization, without arguing that all immigrants are barbarians. But more importantly, Kling’s model explains why conservatives will never convince liberals, even on the liberals’ own terms, about immigration. The economic argument against mass immigration is that it hurts people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, which can be read as immigration supporters oppressing blacks, the poor, etc. However, liberals will never believe that they are the oppressors (just as conservatives will never believe that they are damaging civilization or that libertarians will never believe that they are being coercive), which leaves it as “big business against the poor”, which isn’t terribly convincing in the immigration case. Also, immigrants have a claim to being “the oppressed”, and given the common liberal trope that poverty is the result of oppression, immigrants have a *better* claim to being oppressed than almost any American group.

    • Krishnan says:

      This is a nation that was built by immigrants and so the quality of life we enjoy reflects that … Adding more immigrants will only serve to add to that quality of life.

      The problem is not immigration – but condescension – on the part of those that believe that no one should “struggle” to achieve their goals – that GOVERNMENT should forcibly take some from those that have and give it to others (it is condescension in the name of kindness or generosity). Most immigrants who come to the US (legally OR illegally) have a work ethic that would put “native” americans to shame – they understand better than those that live here on how lucky they are – If only the political class were to not exploit that …

      • KFJ says:

        (1) This nation was not “built by immigrants.” It was built by British colonists. There had to be a nation first, for latecomers (including most of my own ancestors, BTW) to immigrate to.

        (2) Earlier waves of immigration (e.g. my own ancestors) arrived before we had a massive welfare state to subsidize the influx of foreigners at the expense of the native population.

    • KFJ says:

      It is sometimes appropriate to step back from “the claim that immigrants generally, or illegal immigrants generally, are barbarian or evil.” OTOH, illegal aliens are, after all, you know, illegal. They’re criminals, by definition. Their very first act upon entrance to our nation is to disregard our laws and our sovereignty. Not a promising start, IMHO.

  6. Joe Cushing says:

    There are private ways to provide services that are natural monopolies that don’t involve the force of government. That said, I’m not certain I can think of any natural monopolies. Lets look at the ones you listed.

    Many homes have wells and septic fields. This infrastructure can be $30,000 for one home but once it is paid for, the cost of water and sewage is almost $0. Then the government comes along and installs a second infrastructure in front of homes and uses guns to force people who already have their own infrastructure paid for to pay again for the government infrastructure through taxes and forced use of the water from this new system. This is why you sometimes see signs on the road that say: NO WATER! In a free society, the people would have a choice about whether or not they wanted to pay for the second infrastructure.

    The public court system is so expensive and inefficiency, a second private court system has emerged to deal with this. This is why you often have to sign contracts that contain clauses mandating the use of one of several competing courts in the private court system. In addition to this, some private organizations have dispute resolution systems. Ebay comes to mind.

    Roads are not natural monopolies. You can choose one of several routs to get just about anywhere. Even the road in front of your house is not a monopoly because you consider the condition of the road when you rent or buy your home. For example the road in front of my parents house is gravel. They could have bought a house around the corner on a paved road but chose the one they are in. The kind of road is a consideration for businesses to and it has a significant impact on the value of store fronts. You choose your road when you choose your land or when you choose your rout. There is no reason for the government to own any roads.

    The problem with your criticism of the libertarian view is that it is designed to be charitable to a view that is just wrong. Government is always and forever force. It can never be anything but force. The moment it acts in a way that is not force, it ceases to be government and becomes a voluntary organization.

    • Gian says:

      Courts must be authoritive and arbitration can not always work.
      What if one party refuses to accept the decision of the arbitration?

      The essence of the State lies in its authoritive nature and not in the provision of services.

    • drunkenson says:

      I am not going to disagree with your comment that many homes have septic fields and well water.

      How does this model work in Manhattan?

  7. Orlando says:

    Seems Joe Cushing beat me to the comment I wished to make: “The problem with your criticism of the libertarian view is that it is designed to be charitable to a view that is just wrong. Government is always and forever force. It can never be anything but force. The moment it acts in a way that is not force, it ceases to be government and becomes a voluntary organization.”

    Further: in no way can a monopoly function better than a non-monopoly for any extended period of time. If so, it wouldn’t *need* to be a monopoly. Unless you characterize monopoly as something other than an entity that uses force to prevent competitors from competing.

    All that said, this is an important post and an important sentiment that Arnold is making.

    • Gian says:

      America is a continent in itself thus the libertarian is free to view himself as opposed to and oppressed by his Govt, there being no other Govt or people to disturb his peace.
      Other less-fortunate people can not afford this view. They are aware that they need to be organized to protect themselves from other unfriendly organized people.

  8. Mr. Bab says:


    The word “plausible” is carefully placed into the sentence so I applaud you for that but the premise of the argument is greatly flawed, and that is what commenter Joe Cushing explains: government, by nature, is force; and such examples are not monopolies.

    But let’s ignore that premise and assume government is a charity (I wish!). It is not the election of the government official that is considered coercive but the means (taxation) in which the official provides the mentioned activities. Furthermore, radical libertarians, i.e., anarcho-capitalist, have made excellent cases for privatization of roads and courts. So depending to what kind of libertarian you make the case to, your so-called monopoly argument will surely be destroyed.

    I’m a first time reader and will surely sub.

  9. Scott Mayo says:

    What I find amusing is how the reactions are really doing nothing more than proving the point. The only corner we haven’t heard from yet is the liberal bemoaning that the supposed charitable characterization of the liberal position was wrong, ill-informed, a caricature, a straw man, etc. (that’s probably only true because none have seen this yet). Maybe that’s the point. I’d challenge any of you to draw up your own examples to populate the points on the respective axis. Lamentably, I’d be willing to bet that as soon as you post, the indignant replies would begin. It sure seems that we’re all pretty comfortable in our ideological foxholes.

  10. thomas boyle says:

    What N. said, at 12:15.

    Basically, the Warren Philosophy.

    My well-intentioned (and rather smug) progressive friends think it’s the only enlightened one. My arguments to the contrary move them not at all.

    However, they do hold “tolerance” and “diversity” as high values. I am experimenting with recasting their views as intolerant of diverse life choices… The problem is it needs a more positive spin.

  11. Chris H says:

    To those commenters above, I’ll say that I think this isn’t the appropriate way to approach the post. I definitely agree that public utilities and other “public goods” that are run by government supported monopolies are coercive, but settling that argument isn’t (I believe) Arnold’s point. Instead the point would be that this is something a liberal or conservative could do to begin a reasonable argument with a libertarian.

    By the same token I don’t think the liberal or conservative is going to easily come to the “we don’t need the oppresion/civilization scales for these issues” conclusion. I could see a liberal arguing that of course the loan market is about oppression as any loan company is more powerful than any individual customer and therefore inherently oppressive. Similarly a conservative would bring out problems of cultural and political externalities as evidence for their barbarism worries with immigration. That these seem like slam-dunk cases for the libertarians probably is mostly from the libertarian slant of most of the commenters here. We could be right, but that doesn’t mean said correctness would be at all obvious to non-libertarians.

    Ultimately I think this approach is the best way to engage in these types of conversations, but like “N.” I don’t think that means there is a high chance of achieving agreement. That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless to try, but most people come from starting positions too disparate for any attempted approach to conversation to really bring about agreement.

  12. Um, you have rediscovered centrism.

    You model lacks an important degree of freedom: those who argue in good faith and those who don’t. You’re wayyyy down the latter.

  13. Steve Sailer says:

    This model fits British parties in the early 1900s quite well:

    Tories/Conservatives — Civilization
    Whigs/Liberals — Liberty
    Socialist/Labour — The Oppressed

    Edwardian England is nothing to sniff at, by the way. This Downtown Abbey era still has grand appeal. Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to think that this classic three party system makes more sense than America’s two party system.

    In 18th Century America, however, the Whigs defeated the Tories, and Socialism never got off the ground in industrializing America. So, American parties are still basically various offshoots of the Whigs. And, being constricted to two parties, they the underlying factors get muddled in odd coalitions.

    • KFJ says:

      Don’t forget, there was a fourth party in Edwardian Britain: the Irish. Hence a fourth axis: “us” vs. “them” (which was which, depended on your point of view).

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Right. And the Irish thoroughly gummed up the British parliamentary system, so Winston Churchill was happy to get rid of most of them in 1922. The remainder in Northern Ireland, with their Us v. Them politics, proved a major headache for the Brits from 1969 to 1997.

  14. Garry Reed says:

    You may be interested in this article I published about your Three Axes. My main concern is that if, as reported in the student’s article linked to in my article, the three axes are “independent and not related; the axes do not intersect” then how can any common ground be achieved? I’ve spent several hours searching through your archives and can’t find anywhere that you explain to the contrary.

  15. Roy Johnson says:

    You have described three perspectives on issues, and suggested that the appropriate approach is to find the perspective that best fits the issue at hand. That is not the same as having three axes that all contribute to the position.

    I posit (click my name for the post) a different three-axis model based on theories of government:
    The left believes government should change society to make things more equal
    The right believes government should prevent society from changing
    Libertarians believe government should not shape society either way

  16. Eric says:

    It’s illustrative of the evolution or manipulation of popular political language that the outlook classically assigned to Marxists – “the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other” – is assigned to progressives, instead, and the outlook classically assigned to progressives – “the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other” – is assigned to conservatives, instead.

    I would add a Marxist axis, bump the outlooks back to their proper labels (conservative to progressive, progressive to Marxist), and change the axis for conservatives to order on one end and chaos or anarchy at the other.

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