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The three languages of politics by Arnold Kling


Discussing politics is a delicate business.

It can be hard to have constructive conversations on politics because, often, tightly held political views represent extensions of a person’s own moral frame which can colour the way they see the world.

Where ever you reside on the political spectrum it’s hard to understand where people are coming from because we all interpret information in different ways and have different views of the role government should play in society, what value we place on existing institutions versus new claims for justice, the nature of problems in society and how they might be best addressed.

American economist Arnold Kling, in a short book available on Amazon, says political polarisation occurs because the three ideologies of progressivism, conservatism and libertarianism are “languages” and each ideology uses the language of their own in group but doesn’t, or cannot, speak the languages of the others.

Each “language”, Kling explains, sees politics along a distinct axis- progressives in terms of “the oppressor and the oppressed” where the strong dominate the weak, conservatives in terms of “civilisation and barbarism” where traditional values must be preserved and libertarians along a “freedom-coercion” axis worry about how government threatens individual choice.

The problem with this is the libertarian, for example, who sees the issue of immigration, for instance, as one of the freedom of anyone to take a job anywhere in the world does not speak the language of the conservative who worries that open borders will disrupt the existing civilising institutions and in some cases the culture of the recipient country. The libertarian thinks the conservative is coercion personified while the conservative thinks the libertarian might favour the degeneration of institutions in return to a disordered “barbarous” state.

This disconnect is apparent in many policy areas; consider labour relations – libertarians consider people should be free to accept any job offer (even if it is very low by existing standards) but progressives consider job contracts should be regulated to prevent the oppression of employee by employer. So, the “freedom-coercion” language which the libertarian thinks decisive does not necessarily translate to the “oppressor-oppressed” language of the progressive when discussing labour relations.

This causes a further problem when it comes to interpreting new research because wherever we reside on the ideological spectrum we are tempted to be less critical of research we intuitively support but more critical of research which goes against our philosophical priors. Most reasoning, therefore, Kling notes, is “motivated” –that is to say an attempt to fit it into our pre-existing ideology as opposed to the “constructive” type whereby we honestly try to assess the data and interpret what it really means.

Instead, therefore, of being an honest exercise in persuasion much political punditry is about closing the minds of one’s own side.

The other problem is the languages often mean partisans give the least charitable interpretations to the views of their ideological opponents.

In the midst of a US presidential election characterised by pretty uncivil behaviour by the supporters of two outsider candidates, this aspect of value commitment has some appeal to me.

Kling is a libertarian so he admits his representation of the “freedom-coercion” axis is likely the most precise.

For me, although the book was actually written after Kling’s, the three languages of politics built on the ideological binary Yuval Levin discusses in his excellent 2014 book, The Great Debate. I read Levin’s book in 2014 and only recently came across Kling’s. Levin’s book draws a distinction between left and right by tracing this ideological fissure to the debate between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke on the desirability of the French Revolution. Paine argues for the French Revolution because of the unjust nature of a feudal system of oppressors and oppressed while Burke is more cautious – he is aware of the injustices of the French system but wary of discarding that which works within the system in favour of an entirely new system. This identifies a binary between the left, through Paine, who first see what is failing and seek to address it and the right, through Burke, who have a much lower bar for human society and look at what works and how we build on those functioning institutions to address society’s deficiencies.

The book only costs $1.52 on amazon and took me about an hour and a half to read. It was $1.52 and a hour and a half well spent and, if you are interested in understanding politics, it will be for you too.


The Wall Street Journal wrote a review of the book when it came out from the “conservative” point of view.

Here is Arnold Kling’s blog.

Russ Roberts spoke to Arnold Kling for an econtalk episode.



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