People worth reading: Arnold Kling and the three languages of politics

3 minute read

I subscribe to almost two hundred blogs, covering a wide range of topics. I thought it would be fun to highlight some of the more interesting ones, in case anyone else finds any of them interesting and also to provide some insight into the particular things I tend to blog about. First up is Arnold Kling and his “Askblog”, the tagline of which is “taking the most charitable view of those who disagree”.1

It was the attitude expressed in Kling’s tagline that actually led to my subscribing to his blog. Kling is an economist of generally libertarian views, part of a group that includes Bryan Caplan, Art Carden, Tyler Cowen, and others (many formally or informally associated with George Mason University). Economists of any political persuasion can be dogmatic and dismissive of those holding opposing views, as can libertarians whether they’re economists or not. It’s a fairly common conceit among some that they arrived at their own views by a process of disinterested reasoning, and that by implication those who disagree with them are stupid or malicious or both.

So when Kling stopped blogging at Econlog and moved to his personal blog it was a pleasant surprise to read his philosophy of blogging:

I want to model a very particular style of discourse, as indicated by the tag line “taking the most charitable view of those who disagree.” ... I will try to keep the posts here free of put-downs, snark, cheap shots, straw-man arguments, and taking the least charitable interpretation of what others say. So, if what you most enjoyed about my past blogging efforts were the put-downs, be prepared for disappointment with this incarnation.

That was enough to put Kling on my list of blogs to read regularly. In reading him since then I’ve found he’s generally kept to that stance, with only a few occasions where he’s become exasperated with what he thinks are others’ shoddy and self-serving arguments.

One of the most interesting features of Kling’s blog posts is his analysis of what he calls the “three-axis model” of politics:

My hypothesis is that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other.

This is in some respects Kling’s own adaptation of the ideas of Jonathan Haidt and colleagues, who’ve argued that people are predisposed to view moral issues according one or more of several “moral foundations”. (I blogged about this previously in the context of possible genetic influences on political views. Kling has also written an excellent essay discussing Haidt’s ideas.) Thus, for example, the “civilization/barbarism” axis roughly corresponds to a combination of the “loyalty/disloyalty”, “authority/subversion”, “sanctity/degradation”, and (to some extent) “fairness/cheating” moral foundations hypothesized by Haidt

Kling has expanded on the three-axis model in a book, The Three Languages of Politics. It’s well worth reading, and you can’t beat the price. Kling has also further discussed and applied the three-axis model in a number of blog posts.

Kling frequently takes his own advice (in the essay on Haidt linked to above) to “call your own fouls”, that is, to “expose intellectual error on our own side” and “search as hard for holes in our allies’ arguments as if they were opponents’ arguments”. This often leads him to espouse what I might call (in imitation of Andrew Sullivan) a “libertarianism of doubt”. For example, in an essay on libertarianism and group norms he points out that libertarians’ emphasis on individualism leads them to denigrate the tendency people have to conform to group norms, a tendency that arguably makes modern liberal (in the classical sense) and democratic societies possible. I think on balance this willingness to “think it possible that you may be mistaken” makes Kling a more effective advocate for libertarianism than the many others who are more certain and more strident.

  1. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I had a little bit of professional interaction with Arnold Kling many years ago when I worked at Netscape and he was starting up an Internet venture. He had the unfortunate experience of trying to use Netscape’s web server product at the time when Netscape was in its manic hyper-growth phase and its products’ quality often reflected that. (Dr. Kling, if you happen to read this, my apologies for the problems you had, and for any part I might have played in your going down that road. But do note that I was not and never have been a “salesman”; I’m an SE.)