Russ Roberts on The Three Languages of Politics

He sketches the main ideas of the book, and then he uses the three-axes model to discuss the blind spots of each tribe. For example,

Liberals first. In their eagerness to empathize with the victim, they can turn the victim into an object rather than an independent actor. Poor people are so oppressed in the liberal view, they don’t just have limited agency to choose and live life in meaningful ways. They have no agency. They are simply objects manipulated by powerful people around them.

Indeed. I would say that the oppressor-oppressed axis attaches too little agency to the individuals in the oppressed categories. Also, it attaches too much agency to the individuals put into the oppressor category. Progressives prefer to explain market outcomes as deliberate exploitation rather than the operation of supply and demand.

I would say that conservatives have a blind spot when abandoning tradition can enhance civilization rather than threaten it. Think of abandoning the tradition of Jim Crow in the South.

Concerning libertarians, Roberts writes,

We often romanticize the power of economic freedom. We struggle to imagine that some people are poorly served by markets, that some transactions involve exploitation of ignorance and that the self-regulation of markets can fail. In our zeal to de-romanticize government, we often ignore the good that government does especially in cases where freedom might perform badly. Our worst mistake is to defend the freedom of business to do what it will in situations where government has hampered or destroyed the feedback loops of profit and loss that make economic freedom successful.

I get what he is driving at with the last sentence–the problem sometimes called crony capitalism–but it comes across as more of a humble-brag than a blind spot.

What might I see is the libertarian blind spot? Perhaps it is the tendency to view coercion as a binary phenomenon. We speak as if you either are coerced by the government or you make a free choice. Perhaps it is more reasonable to think in terms of a continuum. There are many government policies that people do not experience as horribly coercive. Traffic regulations are one obvious example. There are market situations where people do not sense that they have free choice–remember the guy who got thrown off a plane by the airline? And what if a gay couple could not find any convenient baker willing to bake them a wedding cake?

This entry was posted in Three-Axes Model. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Russ Roberts on The Three Languages of Politics

  1. collin says:

    What might I see is the libertarian blind spot?

    The height of economic Creative Destruction during the 20th Century America was between 1920 – 1932.

    • collin says:

      The second period of massive Creative Destruction 20th Century America was 1970 -1982.

  2. Handle says:

    I think I can guess how an old-school (i.e., non-Niskanen Center) doctrinaire Libertarian might response to your blind spots.

    1. The guy getting thrown off the plane situation is easier to discuss if one ignores the regulatory factors for the sake of argument. In that case, he is on someone else’s property, and he had a right to a rememdy for any harms and inconveniences. The property owner can breach the contract and rescind his right to remain seated, but it will have to compensate him, one way or another. At that point, his refusal to leave peacefully makes him a trespasser, and the property owner has a right to either self-help with the minimal amount of force necessary to eject him from the premises (which may be harsh if the individual resists), or else to call the police to do it for them. And it’s for the best to incentivize people to stay on good behavior and leave when asked instead of giving them some reason to keep playing chicken and stubbornly persist and make an ass out of themselves. Bottom Line: No problem, so no blind spot.

    2. The situation of someone completely locked out of the entire market for some important good or service because of discrimination on the part of all vendors is different because they have no good remedy under that quite extreme hypothetical. However, this is an instance of real conflict between the values of the the liberty of vendors and the maximizing of “consumer options” for all individuals, and in that contest, liberty should win. Furthermore, this particular hypothetical, in addition to being unrealistically extreme in modern times, has been thoroughly abused to permit coercive state penetration and into almost every area of social interaction, and one can hardly find a better example of the slippery slope phenomenon by which allowing a small exception to a principle without an additional logically balancing or limiting principle, eventually leads to the complete neutralization of the original principle and its replacement with its opposite number. That long term cost to liberty – and popular support for liberty – is not a price worth paying to deal with these hypothetical scenarios, and if people (or even, blegh, the government) wants to help the parties facing such discrimination, they can do so directly and in countless other non-coercive ways. So, minor problem, with better and voluntary solutions, so no blind spot.

    • asdf says:

      1) Except they didn’t compensate him. They could have run an auction for cash and gotten a volunteer very easily, but they didn’t. This is simply fraud and greed.

      The person kicked off also had no reason to believe he would later be compensated in relation to the damage done by the breach of contract. He probably figured his resistance to being shaken down would lead to a better outcome then compliance.

      2) Correct

      • Handle says:

        The doctrinaire libertarian (which you know I am not) would say that the bad facts your mention about the real world case upon which the hypothetical is based only exist precisely because of state regulatory intervention and its perverse failure to maintain a traditionally functional common law system. In Libertarian-land, perhaps that auction would have taken place. Or the the initial contract would have specified precisely what would happen in such a circumstance, and what the consequences for breach would be. And in the event of true breach, the man could have quickly and cheaply enforced his rights in court and been fully compensated for his harms.

        The DL would say that, in fact, the real blind spot is for people who support the current regime of government intervention but don’t understand how it led to this result, instead preferring to also lay blame at the evil corporation, despite the fact that the government had already dictated what would happen in situations of overbooking, the airline was responding to those legally-established incentives, and it was the state yet again – the Chicago airport police – who actually evicted the man in the rough manner on those videos.

        • Andrew' says:

          I never heard a good argument against the guy. All the conservative opinions I heard were incorrect.

          • Andrew' says:

            The liberal opinions aren’t trying to be correct.

            The airline broke the laws they helped craft. Now, we can quibble about where law comes from but they had nothing on their side.

        • asdf says:

          1) It wasn’t a case of overbooking. The airline botched its own flight crew scheduling and then tried to fix it by bouncing people, which is actually different from overbooking.

          2) Laws about overbooking apply to what happens at the gate. Once a person it allowed through the gate and seated all that goes out the window.

          3) All that said, even though this case is one where even the fine print legality probably goes against the airline, we all agree that nobody can read all the Terms and Conditions that riddle our lives. As such most customers rely on “reasonable actor” social norms to police behavior of both customer and corporation, and most everyone believes what happens violated those social norms, regardless of whatever legal technicalities there might be.

          4) “the man could have quickly and cheaply enforced his rights in court and been fully compensated for his harms.”

          We all know this isn’t true. Transaction costs and realities of the legal system are an obvious real life failure in libertarian logic. These would apply even if private arbitration.

          Ultimately, the customer would be relying on a court with the backing of the state to use force to confiscate payment from the airline if it lost the case. There is no getting around the government here.

        • asdf says:

          I keep pushing this because it’s a pretty good example where if a “libertarian” sides with the corporation you know they are just an opportunistic shill. Of if you like Cowen terms a “professional toadie”.

  3. joe says:


    I think your first comment continues to evidence the blind spot that Dr. Kling was identifying about the illusion of freedom in the absence of government intervention. There is a huge question as to what “harms” the passenger has a right to “remedy” and what compensation he would receive. Also lost is what cost it will take to invoke his remedy. Because I believe the remedy (especially after costs of collection) is likely insufficient to match the passenger’s perceived costs, the passenger is really at the mercy of the airline.

    Again ignoring any specialized regulatory regime, his remedy is a lawsuit for breach of contract. At best he might hope for lost value of the ticket, and the delay in time (i.e. lost wages) that he suffered. Let’s say he was delayed one day of work and an $800 ticket. Even if he makes 0.5M per year, that totals about $2200, or about ten hours of a pretty low cost attorney’s time. And that assumes he is not bound to arbitration and a split of those costs. Also, the suit itself will have its own time cost, even if he does it without counsel.

    The regulatory regime does appear as an attempt to provide a remedy to the passenger without the cost of collection, but a voucher for airline credit that still likely undercuts the actual damages to many professionals is hardly just compensation.

    In this situation, why is the passenger any more wrong to enforce his valid contract as against the property owner’s right to exclude? By not complying, he at least has a chance of getting the contracted service.

    Let’s also remember that the passenger, in entering the contract, did not have nearly the bargaining power the airline has. The passenger does not individually negotiate the terms of any ticket. Instead, he is faced with the prospect of picking among a variety of carriers with nearly indistinguishable terms of carriage. At that point he does what everybody does: chooses the carrier with the most convenient flight time at the lowest price.

    I am a fan of the market, and from the rosy perspective, the passenger has a choice of carriers and choice of times and is free to move about the country, provided he has the funds for it. From another perspective though, if he has need to travel, he must choose among carriers who all reserve the right to kick him off the plane. Outside of the regulatory regime, if the airline chooses not to compensate him, he has little remedy as the costs of securing compensation would likely exceed the benefit.

    • asdf says:

      I’d go further, its not clear they had the right to expel him from the plane according to what I’ve read. It’s also the case that they were short seats because of their own screw up in scheduling flights for their pilots and flight staff, which is the reason the person got bumped.

      Keep in mind the cost of a missed flight can be huge. The person in question was a doctor scheduled to do surgery at his destination. How much is that worth to the people receiving his service? What career complications does his not being there mean? I once got bumped from a flight when I was supposed to be at an important business meeting. How do you calculate the opportunity cost of my not being at that meeting? How does a court even do that?

      The easiest way to resolve the situation is find the person who values their seat the least and paying them cash (not vouchers) to give up their seat. This is reasonable and economical, but greed knows no limits. Airlines would rather try to bully people in impossible binds so they can shave a few more dollars.

  4. Ben Kennedy says:

    The Libertarian blind spot is behavioral economics, as informed by evolutionary psychology. Maximizing individual preferences does not lead to an ideal modern society, if such a thing even exists. A great example is drug policy – while Libertarians are quick to describe drug use as a “victimless crime” so therefore permitted on a normative basis, they fail to realize that our primitive monkey brains are not equipped to handle powerful opioids, and that maybe having heroin available at the local WaWa may not be the best idea for society.

    Note – while it may be true that some drug legalization could be good for practical reasons, I would reject any normative ones

    • djf says:

      Another example of a “victimless” and (theoretically) consensual activity, the legalization of which has probably harmed Western societies in ways libertarians won’t acknowledge, is pornography.

      • Octavian says:

        I think what we have hear is more of a fundamental dispute between collectivism and individualism. You’re concerned about “harm” done to ‘western society.’ I’m (from a libertarian perspective) concerned about harm to individuals.

        Who decides what constitutes harm? Well, apparently you think you do. If you decide that something is harmful to me that I think is not harmful to me, you reserve the right to prohibit me from it.

        Or perhaps you defer to the majority: if the majority thinks all races are harmed by miscegenation, it is their right to prohibit it. In either case the problem lies in who decides what constitutes harm to each individual, other than the individual himself.

        And there’s a practical reason for letting each person decide what his interests are. Once, say, Evangelical Christians decide pornography and premarital sex are harmful to all whether we believe it or not, and seek to prohibit, the atheist has no reason to seek to prohibit Christianity on the grounds that he believes it to be harmful to those who practice it; vegans and meat-eaters as well. What we end up with is a political bellum omnium contra omnes, only instead of over self-Interest, over what everyone believed to be in everyone else’s (society’s, the country’s, whatever the collective happens to be called) interest.

        • Ben Kennedy says:

          Heh, that’s another blind spot – slapping an “individual vs collective” dichotomy on every issue

    • grammar commenter says:

      While I think all addiction is very serious, and I understand your point that it’s gotten a lot worse recently, it’s obviously not gotten worse due to the rise of libertarianism.

      As a purely empirical matter, libertarian drug policy has actually been tried, and it worked well for a rather long time. opiates (along with lots of other stuff that’s now illegal) WERE available at the corner drugstore in town as recently as the early 1900s. And some people were taking them just to get high. It’s not clear to me why we can’t ever again handle addiction just as well – if not better – than communities used to back then.

      • RohanV says:

        That same time period gave us terms like “opium dens”. Hardly sounds like properly handling addiction.

        Not to mention that alcohol was abused to much greater degree. The Temperance movement did not arise out of nothing. If anything it’s arguable that what kept opiate/drug addiction under control was the cost relative to alcohol.

        • asdf says:

          Indeed, reading about the lost century in China reminds me just how much a drug can get out of control.

      • Ben Kennedy says:

        I’m not taking a stand on drug policy, rather I’m pointing out that evolutionary spreaking, hyper-addiction is a new phenomenon so that terms like “rational self-interest” need not apply to things like heroin addiction. I’ve heard a couple Libertarian voices defend things like giving money to drunks on Hayekian grounds – surely the drunk knows how best to use money given his own circumstances! Never mind that he may a be mentally ill addict…

  5. RohanV says:

    I think the Libertarian blind spot is that they underestimate the power or naturalness of “collusion”. Even though they fight against it when it is in the form of government. People colluding together are powerful enough to overwhelm freedom and can change the rules of the game.

    I think this is the conservative/liberal reaction to libertarianism. Their first response is “what stops people from colluding, and taking away freedoms?” I don’t think libertarians have an effective method of fighting collusion.

    • Butler T. Reynolds says:

      Maybe that’s true, but it seems to me that in order for the collusion to be effective for any meaningful amount of time, a government would be required.

      I would think that a regulatory regime makes collusion even more likely to happen. It would take a different form, yes, but for the consumer the outcome would be the same. In the government enforced scenario, it make take decades for alternatives to emerge.

      I’d enjoy examples.

      • RohanV says:

        A government is collusion, just taken to the ultimate end. I think that if you somehow didn’t have a government, people would collude to form one. And that grouping would overpower the people who didn’t.

        Basically, in any situation where there is competition, there is a lot of incentive for the competitors to stop competing with each other, and come to an arrangement with each other, and lock out other potential competitors. I think that preventing that is much, much harder than libertarians think it is.

        • Butler T. Reynolds says:

          “I think that preventing that is much, much harder than libertarians think it is.”

          I understand how someone might think that of libertarians, but I’m not sure that necessarily reflects libertarians’ viewpoint.

          I think *non*-libertarians think it’s much easier to avoid collusion (and other problems) than it really is. Many think that a government of disinterested philosopher kings is the solution.

          This is why libertarians prefer an environment that prioritizes “exit” over “voice”.

    • Octavian says:

      I think this is a good critique against anarchism. But a non-anarchist libertarian like myself you’ll say that (minimal) government is an answer to potential coercive collusion. I would refer to the madisonian goal of pitting the powerful institutions against one another so no one of them (including a popular majority) ever really gets powerful enough to dominate everyone else.

      Gicernment needs to be just powerful enough to keep itself from being replaced by a new government (a new coercive power, be it foreign or domestic). But the end is still the maximization of individual freedom, not the pursuit of some supposed collective good as decided by would-be philosopher-kings.

      • RohanV says:

        Government needs to be just powerful enough to keep itself from being replaced by a new government (a new coercive power, be it foreign or domestic).

        And this is the blind spot. I think this is simply not possible, or at least orders of magnitude harder than libertarians think it is.

  6. Zane Gray says:

    I love the continuum of coercion idea. We need to recognize that no choice is unconstrained in a world of scarcity. On the other hand, everyone has the choice of the ancient stoics–that of how to behave toward the objects of one’s own will. Athletes on TV talk about that kind of choice all the time, but we’d all be better off if the concept bled over into the rest of our culture.

  7. steve says:

    I have always thought that the blind spot libertarians have is the enforcement of property rights. Any government adequate to the task of maintaining property rights, is strong enough to do all of the things of which libertarians disapprove, and it will.


  8. Slocum says:

    I’d say the biggest libertarian blind spot is how different our minds are from many of our fellow citizens. Agreeableness is the big one. We are comfortable adopting beliefs based on principles regardless of whether or not this puts us at odds with people in our lives. Or perhaps comfortable is not the right word — I’d be more comfortable if more people around me agreed with my perspective. But I can’t adopt beliefs out of fellowship, simply because my friends and neighbors hold them. Even if I wanted to, even if I thought it would make my life easier, the best I could do would be to fake it. But others (both liberals and conservatives) are not like that. Adopting the beliefs (and enemies) of their tribe and being enfolded in the agreeable embrace of fellow feeling comes naturally, while rejecting their tribe’s beliefs based on rational argument is quite foreign. That’s something that only weird people (like libertarians) would do.

  9. Paul Power says:

    Dr Kling:

    There’s one thing I’m still not clear about from the book. You distinguish talk from thought but as you see in Russ Roberts’ article as an example, many readers do not make this distinction: Roberts refers to how people “see” things rather than how they talk about them.
    It could be argued you are not giving the reader an explanation of the difference that hits home, and even that you are not clear in your own mind either. It could be you are conflating two different things:
    1) A set of axes as a conceptual framework, where each issue is somewhere in the resulting space and not necessarily along an axis; this tool allows us to analyse issues better and in a way that recognizes different perspectives;
    2) Three antagonistic framings of issues that the three tribes use in a constant intellectual war – the antagonism causing them to represent each issue entirely as one of civilization versus barbarism, or oppressor-victim, or coercion-liberty. This leaves little room for hope as it has nothing to say about what people think: perhaps it’s not simple partisanship but how they really think too.

    One could that in 1), “axes” is the plural of “axis” whereas in 2) it is plural of “ax”

Comments are closed.