A tao of politics

Most uses of language can be understood in both referential and functional terms. If I tell the policeman “He ran the red light”, in referential terms I am claiming that, in some world external to my language, there was a car driven by a person I refer to as “he” which crossed an intersection while a red lightbulb was lit. But my words have functions as well, quite apart from what they refer to. A person might be fined or go to jail as a consequence of what I say. I might be conveniently exonerated of responsibility for an accident. Those consequences might be independent of the referential accuracy of the remark. Or they might not be. Perhaps there will be other corroborations, and inconvenient penalties if I am deemed to have lied. Regardless, it is simultaneously true that words refer to things and utterances have consequences. Both as speakers and as listeners (or as writers and as readers) we need to consider the “meaning” of a use of language on both levels if we are to communicate effectively.

Often there are tensions between referential accuracy and functional utility. Referential accuracy does not necessarily imply virtue. Whether we agree with the practice or not, we all understand what is meant by a “white lie”. Statements with identical referential meaning can yield profoundly different social consequences depending on how they are said. To “speak diplomatically” does not mean to lie, but rather to pay especial attention to the likely effects of an utterance while trying to retain referential accuracy. To “spin” has a similar meaning but a different connotation, it suggests subordinating referential clarity to functional aspects of speech in a crassly self-interested way. But paying attention to the functional role of language is not in itself self-interested or crass. We all pay attention to how we speak as well as what we say. If we did not, we would needlessly harm people. Even if we are scrupulously truthful, we all make choices about what to say and what to omit, when to speak and when to remain silent. When we discuss our inner lives, often the consequences of our utterances are more clear (even to ourselves) than their referential accuracy, and perhaps we let the desirability of the consequences define what we take to be the truth. Perhaps that is not, or not always, without virtue.

This bifurcation of language into referential and functional strikes me as illuminating of the stereotyped left-right axis in politics. In broad, almost cartoonish, terms, one might describe a “left” view that humans as individuals have limited power over their own lives, so the work of politics is to organize collectively to create circumstances and institutions that yield desirable social outcomes. The “right” view is that, absent interference by collectivities that are inevitably blind to fine-grained circumstances (and that usually are corrupt), individuals have a great deal of power over their own lives, so that differences in outcome mostly amount to “just desserts”. It’s obvious why there might be some conflict between people who hold these different views.

On the key, core, question of whether individuals have a great deal of power or very limited power to control outcomes in their own lives, the stereotyped left view is, in referential terms, more accurate. If you are born in poverty in a war-torn country and fail to achieve a comfortable American-style upper-middle-class life style, it’s hard to say that’s on you, even if some very tiny sliver of your countrymen do manage to survive to adulthood, emigrate, and prosper. In narrower contexts, the question becomes less clear. For those lucky enough to be born in a developed country, are differences in outcome mostly a result of individual agency? For Americans born white, raised in middle-class comfort, and provided an education? For people born with identical genes? The case that differences in outcome result from choices under the control of individuals, for which they might be held responsible, grows stronger as we restrict the sample to people facing more similar circumstances. But even among the most narrow of cohorts, shit happens. People get sick, debilitated even, through no fault of their own. As a general proposition, individual human action is overwhelmed by circumstance and entropy. Policies designed with grit and bootstraps for their engine and individual choice for their steering wheel usually fail to achieve good social outcomes. This is the sense in which it’s true that “the facts have a well-known liberal bias“.

But, before the left-ish side of the world takes a self-satisfied gloat, it should face an uncomfortable hitch. In functional terms, widespread acceptance of the false-ish right-ish claim — that people have a great deal of power over their own lives, and so should be held responsible as individuals for differences in outcome — may be important to the success of the forms of collective organization that people with more accurate, left-ish views strive to implement. This isn’t a hard case to make. A good society, qua left-ish intuitions, might provide a lot of insurance to citizens against vicissitudes of circumstance. A generous welfare state might cushion the experience of joblessness, housing and medical care might be provided as a right, a basic cash income might be provided to all. But a prosperous society with a generous welfare state requires a lot of people to be doing hard work, including lots of work people might prefer not to do. If people are inclined to see their own and others’ affairs as products of circumstance, they might easily forgive themselves accepting the benefits of a welfare state while working little to support it, and even lobbying for more. They might find it difficult to criticize or stigmatize others who do the same. That would lead to welfare-state collapse, the standard right-wing prediction. But if an ethos of agency and personal responsibility prevails, if differences in outcome are attributed to individual choices even in ways that are not descriptively accurate, if as a social matter people discriminate between justifiable and unjustifiable uses of public benefits and stigmatize the latter, the very prevalence of a right-wing view of human affairs might falsify the right-wing prediction and help to sustain the left-wing welfare state. Conversely, the existence of a left-wing social democratic welfare state renders the right-wing view less wrong, because it diminishes disparity of circumstance, increasing the degree to which differences in outcome actually can be attributed to individuals’ choices. Irreconcilable views reinforce one another.

God is an ironist. If left-ish views are referentially accurate while right-ish views are functionally useful, then a wise polity will require an awkward superposition of left-ish perspectives to inform policy design and right-ish perspectives as public ethos. Singapore is ostentatiously capitalist, is widely perceived as a kind of protolibertarian paradise, yet it builds a rich welfare state out of mandatory, government-controlled “savings” and extensive intervention in health care and housing markets. The Scandinavian countries are left-wing social democracies, built on a politics of trade union solidarity, yet the right-wing Heritage Foundation ranks them about as “economically free” as the United States despite governments that spend much larger shares of GDP. Nordic politicians bristle at being called “socialist”, and they maintain higher levels of labor-force participation than the welfare-stingy US.

Like Yin and Yang, black and white, right and left might stand perpetually in opposition even as they require one another to form a coherently incoherent whole.


17 Responses to “A tao of politics”

  1. reason writes:

    Again very good.

    One thing I found is left out though – uncertainty and risk.

    “But even among the most narrow of cohorts, shit happens. People get sick, debilitated even, through no fault of their own. As a general proposition, individual human action is overwhelmed by circumstance and entropy.” – where is uncertainty and risk here? People take actions today with repercussions in the distant future, a future that of its very nature is unknowable. Is this not important?

  2. reason writes:

    P.S. To illustrate why this might matter, it is exactly my feeling where the main error in the “Austrian” view of the economic world is. Read “Austrian” works and look for the words risk and uncertainty. They are so sure that risk and uncertainty are not real that they are moral hazard fetishists. And this is exactly the point. If you want to make entrepreneurs into heroes the last thing you should be is a moral hazard fetishist. You should want people taking risks.

    In a way this comes back to your YIN/YANG point. The problem is not left/right it is fundamentalism.

  3. reason writes:

    P.P.S. I don’t necessarily the different ethos is as independent of policy as you might make it out to be. That is why I (and Milton Friedman) support welfare as a basic income. At the margin it maintains incentives and because real humans don’t function exactly like homo economicus it is at the margin that counts. As a general rule, the DIRECTION of incentives matter much more that the SIZE of incentives. The one case when I think this might not be the case is with investment (and that is one reason the zero lower bound and the benefit of low but positive inflation seems so important).

  4. Greg writes:

    Good, as usual

    This reminds me of some of the work of David Sloan Wilson. He’s a biologist interested in the study of altruism and he has talked about multi level selection. Basically its the idea that while certain forces like competition are important within a small group, as your group grows in size forces of cooperation take over and become more important to success of the group.

  5. William Meyer writes:

    Clearly, free riding is a social problem (in ANY political arrangement, and certainly not exempting enormous amounts of free-riding common to “libertarian capitalist” societies), but the solution for that is not necessarily to praise people who don’t utilizing and disparage anyone utilizing social insurance. The solution might simply be to spend more time policing social norms against free riding. In reading some works on evolutionary biology, I noted that such policing regimes are quite common in social species, and “pay off” by raising group survival rates for a relatively affordable expenditure of calories spent on the policing effort. As I have grown older, and more curious about the political arrangements of my society, I have wondered over and over again why we spend so little policing our many rules, or why we promulgate so many rules and effectively enforce so few. (Note how things actually work in legal system, for example, where lying, deceit, and procedural manipulation are quite central strategies.) Frankly, I suspect it is the result the preferences of those who routinely free ride by profiting from other people following rules that they do not–to put it another way, a conspiracy of “assholes” (see the classic work, “Assholes: a Theory”).

  6. reason writes:

    @5 I’m old enough to remember Australia in the early 1970s when pensioners were desperately poor, houses cost about 2 times annual income, mortgage rates were 6-7% and unemployment was less than 1%, and people complained about surfing dole bludgers. (Remember unemployment was less than 1%). Most of the dole bludgers quickly enough got bored, or started running caravan parks or surf shops. Being voluntarily poor doesn’t survive growing up really.

    So yes, free-riding at the top end of the income scale (e.g. Trump) is a much bigger problem.

  7. reason writes:

    Me @6
    Actually thinking about it, what probably killed the surfing lay-about was not so much growing up, but an increase in petrol prices. Unless they had parents to support them, the lifestyle stopped when their wheels stopped.

  8. Peter writes:

    I think of this more in terms of group/individual frameworks: at the group level we have to grapple with aggregate individual behavior as it is, not as it should be, or in your terms downplay individual agency. At the individual level, we’re better off dealing with our environment (group behavior, social/political conditions) as it is and not as it should be, or in your terms exaggerate our individual agency.

    I think this gets me to a similar place (advocating both liberal politics and individual responsibility) in a slightly less depressing way. But maybe it’s just semantics.

  9. Longtooth writes:

    The perpetual opposition of Yin & Yang as you refer to left-ish and right-ish objectives isn’t anything new, so I’m not sure of your point or if you were just reiterating this long recognized opposing views in terms of modern rhetoric.

    What I’ll point out though is that it’s not the fact that the left-ish and right-ish opposing objectives exist that’s relevant, but the relative proportions of one to the other that determine societal outcome. What’s missing however is that neither left-ish or right-ish (liberal / conservative) recognize they need to have a common objective.. so they both battle against one another for all the marbles .. which eventually leads to either total stagnation, or war.

    Humans are really not intelligent.

  10. pc writes:

    The left has some good ideas, and some bad ideas, and the right has some good ideas and some bad ideas. There is no need for the increasing polarization. Almost everyone wants the same things. This article is a pretty good illustration.

  11. Was Abraham Lincoln to the left or right of Henry Clay?

    Leave it to an economist to carefully explain how a theory has been falsified and then advocate for its truth!

    So weird.

  12. asdf writes:

    1) Singapore and the Nordic countries both do government/society *well*. It’s not left/right, but competent/incompetent.

    2) Both have high IQ high trust populations.

    3) Nordics were homogenous until recently, and the non-homogenous part is breaking it down. To the extent Singapore isn’t homogenous, its Chinese majority is completely dominant politically and has no sense of racial guilt about running things a way that works.

    Maybe a better way to phrase it is that there are a wide set of rational and competent institutions within the market-liberal Overton Window that will work well as long as you have a high IQ homogenous society. In large part because the default in such situations is that most people do the right thing without being asked.

    Of course you take the same exact policy/institution mix and bring it to the third world and it tends to decay and underperform.

    This is why policy debates are less important then demographics. Good demographics make a wide variety of policy options work. Bad demographics make it so there is no correct policy mix.

  13. Arguably not directly in point, but your post puts me in mind of Adam Smith

    This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.

  14. Mercury writes:

    Show me a culturally homogeneous country (Singapore or Sweden) and i’ll show you a country with the highest likelihood of success with any collective endeavor, regardless of -isms. You’re inferring political ideology in circumstances where it is probably the least significant factor. And, BTW, as many poor, Mexicans without PhDs know, if a woman gives birth to a child while physically in the USA, there is 100% probability that child will be born in the USA. Luck has nothing to do with it. You can only be born to your parents, not someone else’s.

    Reality has no bias and to the extent that facts reside within reality, they have no bias either. Using Krugman as a yardstick for reality or bias assessment is simply insane as his two big “Gotcha!” examples illustrate.

    Many components of climate science are inherently untestable and unknowable (at least right now) and therefore the full rigor of the scientific method cannot be applied in the way they can to say, gravity or Boyle’s Law. So, climate alarmists should stop pretending they’re standing on the shoulders of Isaac Newton yelling “Listen to us! we have a new science-y reason why you should give us everything we’ve been asking for since 1965!” -because they’re mostly standing on the shoulders of Woodrow Wilson and every other 20thC social engineer who believed that the world would be better off under comprehensive central planning.

    Also, whatever the merits of Obamacare, it made almost no attempt to expand medical care supply and mostly just rejiggered and restricted demand for the same, fixed amount of supply. Having health insurance (the expansion of which is OC’s main bragging point) isn’t the same thing as receiving quality medical care when you need it and it was never the case that no Americans without health insurance were receiving quality medical care when they needed it. There are certainly instances where Americans’s with C- Obamacare insurance are worse off than they were or would have been with no insurance under the old system.

    Maybe someone can explain to me how the facts outlined in the links below have a liberal bias. Because I think they instead reflect the outcomes of policies with a liberal bias. They show African-American achievement going down the tubes in lock-step with the consequences of an increasing amount of (Great Society and beyond) Left/liberal social policies. The percentage of black students in NYC exam schools (for instance) peaked in 1975:



  15. David Friend writes:

    Mercury should reconsider the claim that Singapore is a culturally homogenous country. Per http://www.indexmundi.com/singapore/demographics_profile.html:
    Singapore ethnic demography:
    Chinese 74.2%, Malay 13.3%, Indian 9.2%, other 3.3% (2013 est.)
    Buddhist 33.9%, Muslim 14.3%, Taoist 11.3%, Catholic 7.1%, Hindu 5.2%, other Christian 11%, other 0.7%, none 16.4% (2010 est.)
    Language groups:
    Mandarin (official) 36.3%, English (official) 29.8%, Malay (official) 11.9%, Hokkien 8.1%, Cantonese 4.1%, Tamil (official) 3.2%, Teochew 3.2%, other Indian languages 1.2%, other Chinese dialects 1.1%, other 1.1% (2010 est.)

  16. reason writes:

    David Friend @15,
    please ignore Mercury who has shown himself to be a troll looking for attention and never argues in good faith. (Raising off topic climate change science at the very time when anybody with any awareness would be avoiding the subject shows his mindset.)

  17. Mercury writes:

    Ethnic and/or religious diversity does not preclude national, cultural homogeneity. In Singapore peaceful tolerance of others is a point of pride, meritocracy is the gold standard and home ownership is above 90%. I doubt their national leaders encourage group identity politics and constantly bang the drum about race, class and gender.

    Unlike the contemporary United States, Singapore seems to know what it’s about.

    Cultural homogeneity.