In Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages Of Politics he argues that we don’t all exist along some set of objective political axes, left and right, or even the classic two-dimensional spectrum (or even three dimensions). Instead different groups use different axes, or different dichotomies, to look at the world. Because we don’t share a common idea of good vs. bad, thus we cannot agree on what is good and bad, and so we disagree politically.

The free PDF of the book is linked above if you want to read his exposition. I first encountered it in a podcast. The idea is simple:

  • Liberals view political conflict as oppressed vs. oppressor
  • Conservatives view political conflict as civilization vs. barbarism
  • Libertarians view political conflict as freedom vs. coercion

None of this is meant to speak to the virtue or correctness of these political philosophies. Nor does political discourse directly reveal these beliefs. That’s why it’s so confusing: everyone is talking to the audience, slipping into different imagined value systems in the almost-useless attempt to “convince” someone of something. But underneath a conservative’s argument is an argument “you should do this in support of civilization and against barbarism”, while a liberal makes another argument “we must support these oppressed people in opposition to these oppressors” – applied to a specific political conflict the arguments bear no resemblance to each other and are entirely unconvincing to the other group.

Looking at political views using these underlying value systems has helped me make more sense of the world. Instead of being shocked at the hypocrisy of other people’s beliefs, it gives me a chance to feel some sense of empathy. It’s not always a forgiving lens: for instance, looking at modern conservatism as an expressions of a battle between civilization and barbarism makes it all seem even more racist. But at least things make sense, and the wildly different reactions different groups have to the same event or idea makes more sense.

(I don’t believe in this libertarian axis. It’s too close to the outward expression of libertarianism. If it was correct I think it would explain why anarchists and libertarians – outwardly sharing a value system of freedom vs. coercion – express their politics so differently.)

As helpful as these axes are, I looked at them and didn’t see myself. I often self-identify as liberal, but I know in my heart I am not. The axis of oppressed vs. oppressor makes that clearer to me: this is not my primary narrative lens, it’s not how I construct stories for myself when deciding how I feel about something.

My first reaction, maybe because my primary narrative is one of hubris, is that I am a realist. I’m above it all! Everyone else is stuck in their personal narratives, I just try to see things how they are.

This is nonsense of course. Even my younger self was suspicious of self-proclaimed “realists”, but an older me is confident it is self-indulgent bullshit, a way of projecting biases and perspectives onto an imagined truth without bothering to investigate what truth really is. The only realist is someone who knows the limits of their narrow perspective too well to call themselves a realist.

Still there’s nothing inherent in these three political groups and three axes. So I offer this additional axis:

  • Technocrats view political conflict as progress vs. superstition

I thought about “progress vs. regression”, but that seems too easy. They are logical opposites, sure, but they don’t express what draws me emotionally to one side and repels me from the other. Other options might be “progress vs. corruption” or “progress vs. romanticism.” It’s important to capture how change feels to people in the group.

I’m not even sure if these are “value systems” so much as descriptions of what winning and losing feels like. We imagine politics is (or should be) the making of rational arguments about different policies. Instead I think we tell each other stories about how we might win or lose. I don’t know the implications, but right now everyone feels like they are losing. Everyone.

Understanding how I frame winning and losing helps me be more at peace with the disagreements I have with other people, especially the people with whom I am close. I don’t want to condemn them those people, I don’t want to declare them as “wrong” (even only in my head). Agreeing to disagree by understanding why we disagree feels right.

I could continue with this post and argue why my axis is the correct axis. But I truly do not believe that it is. We’re better off with many value systems: there are many things I don’t care about, but that someone should care about. It’s not just balance, it’s like an ecology of individuals making up a moral society. (And yet, not every ecology is healthy…)


KWuFri, 02 Aug 2019

I've really appreciated Kling's axes over the years as a framework for understanding why we disagree. The "progress vs. superstition" is a helpful addition, too.

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