Another Look at Political Labels

Arnold Klng’s three-axis model is a good place to start:

My model of political language is that it is driven by heuristics. The standard definition of a heuristic is that it is an aid to learning or problem-solving. I think of heuristics as mental shortcuts.…

…I claim that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians each use a different heuristic. Because they use different heuristics, they speak different languages.Each heuristic sets up an axis of favorable and unfavorable. Ps [progressives] use the heuristic of the oppressed-oppressor axis. Ps view most favorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressed or standing with the oppressed. They view most unfavorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressors. Cs [conservatives] use the heuristic of the civilization-barbarism axis. Cs view most favorably the institutions that they believe constrain and guide people toward civilized behavior, and they view most unfavorably those people who they see as trying to tear down such institutions. Ls [libertarians] use the heuristic of the freedom-coercion axis. Ls view most favorably those who defer to decisions that are made on the basis of personal choice and voluntary agreement, and they view most unfavorably those people who favor government interventions that restrict personal choice.

For the sake of grammatical consistency and accuracy, I would use characterize the three axes as follows:

  • Ps — privileged-underprivileged
  • Cs — civilized-barbaric
  • Ls — free-oppressed.

How Ps Think

Privilege, for Ps, implies that the possessors of certain positive attributes (high intelligence, good looks, high income, access to political power) have come by those things undeservedly, and even at the expense of those who lack them: the underprivileged. Ps believe implicitly in a state of nature wherein everyone would have equal endowments of intelligence, looks, etc., if only it weren’t for “bad luck.” Ps believe it necessary to use the power of government to alleviate (if not eliminate) unequal endowments and to elevate the “victims” of inequality.

As Kling puts it elsewhere, “Progressives tend to believe that we just need the right leaders to bring out the good that is in everyone,” as if nature were subject to the dictates of government. Thus the push for the “living wage,” “affordable housing,” “free” college education, access to the restroom of one’s choice, and the suppression of uncomfortable ideas that reflect traditional mores and morals — and the facts of life (e.g., gender isn’t “assigned,” it just is). The realization of such desiderata justifies (for Ps) the power of government to nullify and override constitutional and social norms, including property rights, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of conscience.

How Cs Think

Cs don’t view endowments (intelligence, looks, etc.) as matters of luck; they just are, and no blame attaches to anyone for his endowments or lack of them. Cs recognize “bad luck,” but only as a transitory phenomenon from which its recipients can rebound — with the voluntary help of family, friends, and other members of their (true) society — if they adhere to traditional mores and morals, that is, behave civilly.

Civility is manifested in three essential traits: respect for others (including their rightful possessions), self-reliance, and self-control. As Kling puts it elsewhere, “Conservatives tend to believe that we need traditional institutions and restraints to control the evil impulses that are in everyone.” Cs  view economic cooperation as part and parcel of social comity, which requires civility and is damaged by the divisive identity politics fostered by Ps.

Privilege, for Cs, is the status or wealth that accrues to a person who has earned it through self-reliance and self-control, while being respectful of others. That kind of privilege is earned, and it doesn’t come at the expense of others. Cs, unlike Ps, don’t view the world as a zero-sum game, in which someone’s “good luck” somehow causes “bad luck” for others. Rather, Cs view persistent “bad luck” as arising in large part from a lack of self-reliance and self-control. Such behavior, to Cs, is barbaric and shouldn’t be countenanced, let alone encouraged as it is by the unrealistic worldview of Ps.

How Ls Think

Ls are like Cs in the value that they place on respect for others, self-reliance, and self-control. But Ls are more sanguine than Cs about the distribution of those traits, and they see traditional mores and morals as unnecessarily burdensome. Ls believe that the world would be a more prosperous and happier place if people were free of the governmental restraints that deny them the full exercise of their powers. As Kling puts it elsewhere, “Libertarians tend to believe that we just need smaller government to bring out the good that is in everyone.”

Ls and Ps Compared

Most Ls and Ps adhere to traditional mores and morals themselves, but nevertheless view some of those mores and morals as oppressive. Thus abortion and same-sex “marriage” are widely favored among Ls and Ps, and drug use one of their “victimless” crimes.

Most Ls, unlike Ps, would refrain from using the power of government to adjust economic inequalities, except to remedy “crony capitalism” and perhaps to replace a host of welfare programs with a simpler income guarantee. Many Ls also favor government actions meant to attain “equality” (e.g., public-accommodation laws), even though such actions actually restrict freedom.

Ls, in other words, are selective in their abhorrence of government action. And Ls are like Ps in that they presume to know precisely how to rearrange the social and economic order to make everyone happier.

Introducing Os

Ps, Cs, and Ls — persons who actually have the somewhat coherent views sketched above — are in the vast minority of Americans. To the extent that the views of Ps, Cs, or Ls hold sway, it is because of the backing of non-philosophical citizens whose votes and influence tip the balance in favor of one philosophy or another. I will call them Others (Os).

Why Ps Usually Prevail

Ps have a great advantage over Cs and Ls when it comes to attracting supporters among the Os. There are all of the “free” goodies, of course, and the various “equality” policies that attract identity groups and people whose self-esteem is boosted by thinking and saying “nice” things.

The economic and social effects of the progressive agenda are only indirectly and slowly realized through stagnation and moral decay, and so Ps need not fear the wrath of voters for the consequences of their policies. In fact, every dire consequence of government action (e.g., economic stagnation, reduced labor-force participation, rising medical costs, higher housing costs, financial crises) is seen by Ps as a reason for yet more government action — and most of the Os go along with it.

Cs also have the disadvantage of being associated with groups who hate the groups that are privileged by Ps. The backing of such groups (e.g., “rednecks”) puts Cs on the defensive, and leads many of them to compromise with Ps in the (vain) hope of seeming “compassionate.” Calvin Coolidge was the most recent truly conservative president, and probably the last one.

Ls are just Ps who don’t offer “free” goodies. (The Ls who favor a guaranteed income are clear that it should replace other welfare programs, and despite that come under fire from other Ls — which is most of them — for their naive belief that guaranteed income wouldn’t be added to the other programs.) Further, when Ls insist that government should be smaller, they are attacking the god (or Santa Claus) so beloved by Ps and most Os. Ls, in other words, don’t stand a snowball’s chance of making a serious electoral dent.

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