Podcast on the Three Axes

I talk with Caleb Brown. I explain how conservatives, progressives, and libertarians talk past each other along the three axes of civilization-barbarism, oppressor-oppressed, freedom-coercion.

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4 Responses to Podcast on the Three Axes

  1. Barry Milliken says:

    Kling’s definition of the 3 axes of concern (civilization, oppression and coercion) is thought provoking. But why are the first 2 dominant in our culture? Why are there not many more? And if reason and logic has anything to do with anyone’s choice of axis, then why do all the prodigious outpourings of “reason and logic” all around us produce so few “changes of mind”? See my further thought in a reply to Charles Murray below:

    From: Charles Murray [mailto:charlesamurray@comcast.net]
    Sent: Sunday, July 29, 2012 7:34 AM
    To: Barry Milliken
    Subject: Re: Why Capitalism Has an Image Problem, WSJ 7/28/12

    Interesting points all, and ones that I agree with (with some caveats about #3).
    Charles Murray

    On Jul 28, 2012, at 3:37 PM, Barry Milliken wrote:

    RE: Why Capitalism Has an Image Problem, WSJ 7/28/12

    While I agree with what Charles Murray has to say, I believe the problem is more fundamental and springs from the natural evolution, over hundreds of thousands of year, of the human brain. Four examples:

    1. The brain recognizes patterns and compares them by analogy. Since one’s own life and actions are directed by conscious motivation, we too easily assume all effective action is motivated by conscious actors: So floods are punishment from the gods and social problems are more effectively solved by consciously motivated central planning. The far greater fecundity of market spontaneous order is extremely counterintuitive.
    2. We naturally assume that resources are running out as we “use them up”. This leads to the belief that government action is needed to avoid disaster. But in fact the cave man had very few of the resources that we depend upon today: to him they were all “useless stuff”. Most of what we now call “resources” were created when human ingenuity converted formerly useless stuff into “resources” (cf: Julian Simon). Since the advent of capitalism and markets, far more resources have been created that have been used up.
    3. Before capitalism, life mostly WAS a zero sum game: only way to significantly improve ones lot was through plunder. Many people do understand intellectually that markets are a positive sum game: otherwise the total amount of wealth would be no different today than it was when we were cave men. But the subconscious pull of envy comes from a very deep seated emotion that “fairness” requires redistribution.
    4. Of course Obama is correct that all creativity stands of the shoulders of giants. (Although most of those shoulders are not attached to any government.) But most of us had those same shoulders available to us. The correct measure of value is incremental value not total value. Unless rewards go to the few entrepreneurs that create incremental value, then little incremental value will be created. Again, this is very counter intuitive to our tribal brains.

    Barry Milliken

  2. Arnold — I really like your 3 axes sketch of conservatives, progressives, and libertarians. It captures a lot of insight via a very simple framework.

    I was thinking about today’s (horrible) news, and it occurs to me that gun control is an issue where progressives and conservatives seem to swap core axes of concern. Progressives don’t want to restrict access to guns because they believe guns are used to oppress any particular group, but because they believe access to guns enables a sort of violence they’d label barbaric. Conservatives don’t support gun rights because they think a civilization with such restrictions would be inherently barbaric, but, I think, because they believe that access to firearms provides a means of combating oppression (by isolated thugs and potentially by an illegitimate state).

    I hope I’m not mischaracterizing anyone, and I don’t really have a strong point, except to say that on this issue, progressives and conservatives seem to switch concerns, and I find this apparent exception to your tiny but surprisingly powerful characterization of the groups interesting.

    • Arnold Kling says:

      Steve, these are good points. Perhaps this is stretching things, but progressives also place gun control in the oppressor-oppressed narrative. They would argue that gun manufacturers and sellers are the oppressors in this case, and innocent victims of gun violence are the oppressed. The conservative line has always been, “Guns don’t kill. People kill.” There is also, “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” That is consistent with the civilization-barbarism narrative, in that it views killers as barbaric. The libertarian view is that guns in the hands of people help limit the power of the state, primarily by enabling people to defend themselves without relying on the state’s armed police forces.

      My own view is that in this case the conservative and libertarian narratives are relatively weaker than they might be in other discussions. The conservative narrative is rather useless, because it does not seem possible ahead of time to predict who among the many weird people in this country will commit a barbarous act.

  3. English Professor says:

    I too think the three axes a very useful heuristic. And I would suggest that they hold up pretty well for gun control, but it shifts the concerns from the macro to the micro level. The conservative believes that civilization is always under threat from barbarism, and the responsible possession and use of a weapon is a part of one’s personal contribution to the maintenance of public order. This right (perhaps duty) is never wholly ceded to government. This aspect of political liberty is located on the civilizational axis. But in the resistance to a monopoly of government power, the conservative and libertarian views naturally overlap. (Libertarian values naturally overlap with portions of both the progressive and the conservative axes.) On the other hand, the progressive view is that guns are the means by which individuals can instantly impose their will on others through violence, and the most effective means of preventing this is to outlaw guns. If the government is the only institution with access to guns, it can prevent most violence and oppression at the micro level.

    (I have tried to observe our hosts goal of treating opinions with which one disagrees with some charity. I do not find it easy or congenial.)

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