Does this ever happens to you? Some issue pops up in the news or there’s some new action in society — by government or a company or a private organization — and you instantly know what you think about it. An action is completely wrong. It’s clear-cut. Nobody with principles could see it differently.
But then you talk to somebody else who’s obviously intelligent and informed, but he sees it completely different from how you see it. Then you talk to someone else and discover that this person has an entirely different point of view from either you or the other guy.
“Those idiots!” you mutter darkly to yourself. “It’s so obvious. How can they be so blind?!”
This happens in politics all the time. I hear people saying that their opponents are dishonest, stupid, crazy or evil. The opponents tend to be equally sure that you’re dishonest, stupid, crazy or evil. How can we come to such different conclusions?
I think the people who disagree with me about politics or social policy tend to be simply wrong, not evil or stupid or crazy. My thought has been that if you can understand their assumptions and their ways of looking at the world, their conclusions will at least make sense, even if you still think they’re completely wrong. You can understand that people of good will and sound brains can disagree.
Economist Arnold Kling has just published a short ebook examining this issue and proposing a model that makes sense to me. It’s called “The Three Languages of Politics.” It’s $1.99 and only available at Amazon. (If you use Amazon’s Prime service, you can read it free.)
Kling proposes that three dominant groups in American politics today look at the world along three different axes. He divides the the U.S. political scene into progressives, conservatives and libertarians. (Kling is generally libertarian today, but he’s been part of the other two camps at different points in his political evolution.)
Here’s how Kling believes the three groups tend to interpret the world:
— Progressives see the world largely through a lens of oppression. They see it as a battle between oppressor groups and oppressed groups. In their view, “good people” line up with oppressed groups. Progressives also tend to see the world in terms of competing groups more than in terms of individuals.
— Conservatives tend to see the world through the lens of civilization vs. barbarism. For them, it’s a battle between civilized and reasonable people on the one hand and those who want to destroy everything that’s good on the other hand. This is why they tend to see the “war on terror” as an existential crisis to protect western civilization and they’re less concerned with the history of how we got here.
— Libertarians see the world through the lens of freedom vs. coercion. If you’ve read much that I’ve written here, you’ll recognize that as my lens. We see the world as a battle between those who are trying to live their own lives freely against those who are trying to control others.
If you understand these differing lenses, it can make sense how we see issues in different ways. Kling and economist Russ Roberts have a great discussion of the book on this week’s episode of EconTalk. I strongly recommend listening to Kling’s insights, even though I don’t agree with all of his points.
You can see the clash of these differing points of view all the time, and it’s even messier because people can sometimes see certain issues partly through lenses other than their normal ones. Here’s a recent example.
In the days following the bombing of the Boston Marathon, many of us in the libertarian camp were outraged at what we saw as serious intrusions into individual rights. Police shut down the city and were going door to door in force, searching for suspects — with no warrants or specific reasons to search certain places. To us, it was clearly a widespread violation of the Fourth Amendment.
For plenty of other people — mostly from a conservative viewpoint, but not exclusively — the police actions were clearly necessary to protect civilization. They didn’t see the matter as we did. To them, this was simply a matter of protecting the public safety from barbarians who didn’t care about rules or about civilized people. (This attitude is why it’s so easy for conservatives to defend torture when it comes to suspected terrorists. They tend to see “those people” as barbarians who don’t deserve the same rights we have.)
A former friend who lives in the Boston area actually cut me off — defriended me on Facebook with no explanation — because I wrote about the issue from a Fourth Amendment perspective and asked what legal basis there was to randomly search people’s houses. It was apparently so upsetting to him that someone would take a view that he saw as dangerous to his family that it was worth cutting off a friend because of it. This is an example of what happens when people see the world in different ways and have trouble accepting someone else’s point of view.
Kling doesn’t believe that understanding these differing perspectives will help us to all agree. He doesn’t even think it will help us to change other people’s minds. But it’s important to think about so we can understand other people — and maybe come to the realization that other intelligent and rational people can simply see the world in different ways.
As with so many things, I see it as another example of why we shouldn’t be forced to live under a “one size fits all” set of rules and that we should be able to choose our own rules and establish our own cities or enclaves.
Of course, given the lens through which I see the world, isn’t that predictable?