The wheel of ideology revisited

I plan to argue that libertarianism is likely to shift from being a right wing ideology to a centrist ideology. To do so, I’d like to revisit a post I did back in 2011, which proposed a three part ideological framework. The post was a bit half-baked, so I hope to improve it here by grounding it in more clearly thought out principles.

Here’s the graph I proposed, drawn by commenter Vlad Tarko:

Why not a two side ideology—left and right?  Or how about the four-quadrant approach favored by many libertarians?  Why do I have three ideologies, each combined with two value systems, leading to 6 outcomes?

Let’s start with the left/right ideological axis, which has been around since at least the French Revolution.  Intellectuals on the left would probably define “right wing” as follows:  The right supports government policies that favor the stronger groups in our society.  These might be economic policies that protect the rich.  They might be ethnic nationalism that favors the dominant ethnic group.  They might be rules that enforce the moral values of the dominant religion.  They might be pro-military policies.  According to this view, the left supports government policies that favor the weak and downtrodden.

This perspective has a grain of truth, although of course the left also favors policies that support groups such as intellectuals, educators, public employees unions, and others that are hardly weak and downtrodden.  Nonetheless, this left/right dichotomy does make some sense.

Then I’d argue that modern political systems tend to move society toward a “two tribe” structure.  Even in the multiparty democracies in Europe, you often end up with one governing coalition and a primary opposition party.  And of course referenda are even more intrinsically binary.  Thus a society with 13 tribes ends up with a political system with two super-tribes, each of which is a coalition of smaller tribes.  This is how the left/right spit forms.

But then why three ideologies?  There’s a third option—government policies that do not directly favor any tribe—the minimal state.  (Yes, I know that laissez-faire indirectly favors some people, I’ll come back to that important point later.)

But why not four ideologies:  Government policies that favor tribe A, policies than favor tribe B, policies that favor neither and policies that favor both?  On closer inspection, it’s not really possible for policy to favor both.  Consider the four policy regimes:

1. Tax everyone $1000 and give all the money to tribe A.

1. Tax everyone $1000 and give all the money to tribe B.

3. Tax everyone $1000, and give $1000 to everyone.

4.  Tax no one.

On closer inspection, option 3 and 4 are basically identical.  So in a two-tribe polity, there are three possible ideologies.  Have policy favor A, have policy favor B, or laissez-faire (do nothing.)  Just as a math set with {0, 1, -0 and -1} is identical to a set with {0, 1 and -1}.

Back around 1800, laissez faire ideology (classical liberalism) was viewed as a left wing ideology.  That’s because governments had traditionally extracted taxes from peasants to provide a more lavish lifestyle for aristocrats.  By the late 1800s, classical liberalism began to be seen as a more right wing ideology, which allowed “robber barons” to exploit downtrodden workers.  In America, it has continued to be viewed as a right wing ideology (often called libertarianism), even in recent decades.  But this may be about to shift.

In a recent post, I pointed out that many conservative intellectuals are becoming highly dissatisfied with ideas associated with laissez-faire, such as “neoliberalism” and “radical individualism”.  These new conservatives are increasingly willing to embrace a strong state that promotes conservative values.  This might include nationalism, protectionism, immigration restriction and enforcing religious values.  If this shift becomes real and sweeps most of the conservative movement, then the libertarian position will no longer be seen as particularly right wing.  It may not be seen as left wing (as progressives are moving left in recent years), but it will be seen as more centrist than before–at least in a left/right sense.  A sort of radical centrism.  That idea is probably more understandable to Latin Americans.

Let’s apply the three ideologies to housing policy:

1. The left:  Nimbyism to protect low-income neighborhoods from gentrification.

2. The right:  Nimbyism to protect affluent neighborhoods from construction of apartments for the working class.

3. Classical liberals:  Yimby!

The previous post also posited that there are two value systems for each ideology.  For the left and the right there are both “corrupt” (i.e. selfish) and idealistic proponents of their ideology.  It makes less sense to use this dichotomy for libertarians, as their ideology forces them to oppose interventionist policies that favor their own financial interest.  You might object, “But don’t low taxes favor the rich?”  Yes, but a truly corrupt rich person would not be satisfied with low taxes, he’d demand affirmative government policies (tariffs, subsidies, etc.) that favored his financial interests.  But that policy would not be libertarian.  He’d become a right winger who hid behind “pro-capitalism” rhetoric.  We’ve all met that sort of person.

Instead of an idealistic/corrupt dichotomy, in the 2011 post I found it more useful to divide libertarians up into “consequentialists” (such a utilitarians) and “deontologicalists” (who believe freedom is a “natural right”).  To be clear, I’m not arguing that libertarian intellectuals are more pure than left or right intellectuals.  Indeed true believers in any of the three ideologies tend to be idealistic, and the corrupt part of the left and right tribes barely pays any attention to principled arguments.

To the extent that a few people seemed to find my wheel to be clever, it was because of the way the six groups related to each neighbor.  This is the part of the post that The Economist (Will Wilkinson?) chose to excerpt:

My goal here is to set things up in such a way that each group has a values affinity to those on one side, and an ideological affinity to those on the other side. So you could circle any two adjoining groups, and describe a common feature:

1. Progressives/Pragmatic libertarians: Both tend to be secular utilitarians, or at least consequentialists

2. Pragmatic and dogmatic libertarians: Both favor very small government

3. Dogmatic libertarians and idealistic conservatives: Both are nostalgic for the past, and revere the (original intent of) the Constitution.

4. Idealistic conservatives and corrupt Republicans: Both are Republicans.

5. Corrupt Republicans and corrupt Dems: Both believe in realpolitik, are disdainful of fuzzy-headed, idealistic intellectuals.

6. Corrupt Democrats and idealistic progressives: Both are Democrats

Thus on values there are three pairings: utilitarian, natural rights, and selfish. On ideology there are three different pairings: Democrat, Republican and libertarian.


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Kurt Vonnegut and The Idle Rich

Final in a #ReadWithMe Series

Read the first two parts here and here.


The second half of the book takes us to the Rhode Island Rosewaters, who were swindled out of their fortune by a cunning ancestor of their Indiana cousins.  Although Fred Rosewater is an Ivy League graduate, he doesn’t get to slurp from the Money River; his disappointed wife “married Fred because she thought everybody who lived in Pisquontuit and had been to Princeton was rich” (155).  She spends her idle and modest days in envy of her idle and rich friend Amanita Buntline. The Buntlines got to slurp from the Money River, so they are now among the rich people who will never have to work.  Neither will their kids.


Before the questions, I can’t help myself but take another jab at the academy.  Attorney McAllister asks, with a blend of horror and incredulity, “How dare a university teach compassion without teaching history too?” (169).  Oh dear, if he could only see today’s post-Marxism, identity politics, and grievance studies!


Lest I spoil the dénouement, I will focus here on questions, rather than commentary.


1- Pisquonquit is “populated by two hundred very wealthy families and by a thousand ordinary families whose breadwinners served, in one way or another, the rich” (134). One need not be a deeply committed Randian to admire the movers who employ those who lack the capital or imagination to drive the economy and create jobs.  Without the capital and jobs provided by the 200, where would the 1,000 work? Is there any nobler task than meeting payroll faithfully every two weeks?


2- There is a second unsung hero in Vonnegut’s pages. The idle rich may provide capital for business and funds for charities (a point Vonnegut does not entirely neglect) – but Vonnegut doesn’t have much respect for them.  He clearly admires the manual work of Harry Pena and his sons (182).  And Fred’s unglamorous sales slog does not enrich him – but it does allow widows and orphans to have basic necessities after the family breadwinner dies (146).  Yet Vonnegut also suggests that “real people don’t make their livings that way any more…  That’s all over, men working with their hands and backs.  They are not needed” (185-186).  What do you make of this?  Are workers somehow more deserving of esteem than the idle rich, even if they live lives of quiet despair?


3- Where does respect come from – honest toil or good ancestry? Fred Rosewater defends his ancestors:  “The Rhode Island Rosewaters have been active, creative people in the past, and will continue to be in the future… Some have had money, and some have not, but, by God, they’ve played their parts in history!  No more apologies!” (205).  This theme comes to a climax – without spoiling the novel’s plot – with the prediction that human beings will eventually become worthless as producers (264).  What do you make of this?  What is the source of a person’s worth and the approbation of others?  What would Adam Smith have to say?


4- This brings us to the question of helping the poor. We’ve already seen Eliot’s reservations about living as a rich boulevardier, or about the arts elevating souls – versus direct charity.  Stewart Buntline worried that his money should be given to the poor, without realizing that money spent or invested also helps the poor.  I am reminded here of a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1990s.  Assigned to digging latrines for a village in Central America, he soon realized that his work might change the lives of a few dozen people in the village – but a cell phone network would changes the lives of millions throughout the country.  So he quit the Peace Corps and went to work for a consulting firm.  Using profits over charity, he helped the country develop a wireless network.  This meant, of course, not just the opportunity to share cute pictures of pets on Instagram or engage in shallow emoting on Facebook – but online banking, communication, and e-commerce.  How does one help the poor?  Are there limits to markets?


Vonnegut raises many other questions, but that they are beyond the purview of this short assay.  I hope you have enjoyed this delightful and insightful novel as much as I have.  After a short break to catch up on other reading, I will surely return to Vonnegut.



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