Conservatives are From Mars, Libertarians are From Venus?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:

“There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy.
There’s only you and me and we just disagree.”

If Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus popularized the notion that the sexes speak a different language, economist Arnold Kling’s new e-Book, The Three Languages of Politics might help us understand that much of what passes for political disagreement is really attributable to our speaking different languages to one another.

So what are these languages? According to Kling, progressives tend to “organize the good and the bad in terms of oppression and the oppressed.” Conservatives, conversely, see the world as a struggle between civilization and barbarism. And libertarians talk about freedom versus coercion.

If your goal is really persuasion, then Kling believes that it is important to speak the other fellow’s language. But he also believes that a lot of political rhetoric is really geared toward firing up one’s own tribe, in which case, it’s important to stick to your axis.

If a libertarian wants to fire up the base, for example, he should talk about freedom versus coercion. But it would be a mistake to believe that this argument is a trump card to win a debate on cable TV. (An aside: Barack Obama, I would argue, is pretty good at speaking outside his axis. Ronald Reagan was the rare politician who mastered both speaking outside and inside his conservative paradigm.)

In any event, Kling argues that once you subscribe to a language, it pretty much is predictive of how you will interpret a given event. During a recent interview on the podcast EconTalk, Kling discussed how people holding these different worldviews tend to interpret the same events differently:

“Take the Boston Marathon bombing that took place recently … let’s look at the reactions to it. The Weekly Standard, I think this was a cover piece or lead editorial, was entitled, exactly, Civilization and Barbarism. They felt like this was right in their wheelhouse, and this is exactly how you’d have predicted they would react. I think others had great difficulty with it. It had this infamous column in [Salon], before the bombers were identified, saying, boy, I hope it’s white male. It’s like, I hope it’s somebody that’s certified from the oppressor class … And finally, many Libertarians talked about, were very critical of the lockdown in Boston; said, this is a police state, there are tanks in the street, all this stuff.”

This recent example pretty much nails it.

Of course, things are complicated. Kling’s categories assume each side has pure motives if you only judge them fairly by their chosen axis, not yours. But in the real world, sometimes actors really do have bad motives.

People can also jump axes, depending on the circumstance. William Wilberforce dedicated his life to ending the British slave trade, so this would presumably put him in the progressive camp. But Edmund Burke, who is thought to be the father of the conservative school, also backed his efforts.

It’s a messy world out there, but Kling’s thesis might just help some of us better interpret it.

UPDATE: According to the transcript from EconTalk, Kling incorrectly attributed the controversial Boston bombings column to Slate. In fact, it was from Salon. (I have corrected using brackets above.)

Matt K. Lewis