Political Speech: How the English Language Divides Us
Commentary From Your Libertarian Opinionizer
This isn’t a book review of Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics. That’s been done before by Cato Institute, The Incidental Economist, The Wall Street Journal, National Review, 300 readers on Goodreads and a really good one at Law and Liberty with follow-up comments.
This is a discussion rather than a book review. The book first appeared in 2013 and the current edition has been available since 2017.
Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have made many inroads into the minds of our severely divided political classes. That, therefore, is why this discussion is needed.
And that’s what this is; a discussion, not a review.
I’m Right, Everyone Else is Evil
The book makes it clear that our three languages of politics have a dual purpose, to negate the worldview of others while virtue signaling one’s own worldview.
You make a perfectly intelligent, articulate and convincing point on some political or social or cultural issue and your friends cheer and cry “Hell yes!” while those people over there who are equally intelligent, articulate and convincing leer and jeer and call you “moron” and “evil.”
What’s with that? You’re all speaking and listening in good ol’ American English but somehow these groups of people just aren’t communicating. And it’s more than just two different groups of people. It’s at least three different groups speaking three different American English languages, with a multitude of different dialects within each group.
YOU are almost certainly speaking in one of these three languages.
Unfortunately, it gets even worse. Not only is the divide Right versus Wrong but it’s become Good versus Evil. Each tribe is convinced that they are morally right and the other two are not just morally wrong but mortally evil.
Virtually all political speech has become hate speech.
The Dialogs Defined
The simple premise of the book is that there are three prominent languages that dominate modern American politics:
1. Progressivism, which sees the world in terms of the Oppressor versus the Oppressed,
2. Conservatism, which identifies all conflict as Civilization versus Barbarianism, and
3. Libertarianism, which defines human interaction as based on Liberty versus Coercion.
The author does admit that these languages aren’t all-inclusive; There are sublanguages—dialects and jargons—such as Human versus Earth (Environmentalism), Humans versus Animals (Veganism) and No One versus No One (Egalitarianism) and others that tend to fall outside the worldviews of the primary languages.
Kling, unfortunately, never points out the fundamental reality that both Progressivism and Conservatism are collectivist languages while libertarianism is an individualist language.
The difference is crucially important. While both collectivists and individualists claim to seek the betterment of the human condition Progressives and Conservatives demand compliance with authoritarians while libertarians insist that all interactions be voluntary.
This pits libertarianism against both Progressivism and Conservativism. And to the extent that libertarianism is anarchist it pits libertarians against all forms of statism as well.
So there is one overarching caveat here. In this particular discussion the Progressive and Conservative worldviews, and to a lesser extent the capital L Libertarian political worldview, are all being evaluated from the non-political lower case L philosophical libertarian worldview.
Being that he’s an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute that’s also Arnold Kling’s position. But he makes his reasons for writing his book clear in the book itself:
“Let me hasten to point out that I do not classify myself as a centrist. I am not looking for some sort of “Kumbaya” compromise that tries to satisfy everyone. I believe that on any given issue, libertarianism usually gets you to the best answer. However, the point of the three-axes model is to give people a tool for communication, not to steer the outcome of that communication in my direction.”
Since these languages are political languages the thing to do now is to define “politics.” This will also be a philosophically libertarian definition:
Politics is the art of manipulating people for the benefit of the manipulator.
This is a broad-based definition since some form of what we call “politics” impinges upon virtually all human interactions, not just in the running of a government. We’ve all heard of office politics, business politics, family politics, classroom politics, religious politics, sexual politics and so on.
In all cases the libertarian definition of politics fits, keeping in mind that libertarians pursue the voluntary persuasive form of manipulation (argumentation) while the others pursue the involuntary compulsory form of manipulation (coercion).
Esoterica vs Examples
But enough esoterica; let’s look at some specific examples
In the book, Kling asks how the three language worldviews would answer the question “what accounts for the high incarceration rates of young African American males?” The answers would revolve around their primary worldviews:
“A progressive would look to racism in our justice system and society as the cause. A conservative would look to high crime rates as the cause. And a libertarian would look to drug laws as the cause.”
Another example explains how each sees the state of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
From their Oppressor-Oppressed mentality, “Progressives see Israeli policy as responsible for much of the Palestinian suffering. To support the Palestinians is to stand up for an oppressed people. To support the current policies of Israel is to back the oppressors.”
From their Civilization-Barbarism mindset, “Conservatives emphasize the nihilism of Palestinian terrorism. To support Israel is to defend civilization. To support the Palestinians is to promote barbarism.”
From their Liberty-Coercion worldview, it’s Israeli militarism versus a corrupt Palestinian government. As Kling puts it “For the United States, the policy that is most consistent with liberty is one of nonintervention in foreign affairs. Providing diplomatic and financial assistance to Israel requires coercive taxation at home to support a coercive government abroad.” For libertarians everyone involved is anti-liberty and therefore belong in the Coercion classification.
It might be interesting to stop here and consider how so often the Oppressed become the Oppressors. Jews were cruelly oppressed nearly everywhere throughout their history and most especially during the Nazi Holocaust. Virtually all decent people, Progressive, Conservative and Libertarian alike, considered them as The Oppressed.
But in 1947, the United Nations partitioned Palestine and imposed the Jewish state of Israel on the Palestinian people. With the backing of the UN the Oppressed had, as so often happens, become the Oppressors.
A similar transformation occurred on the North American Continent. Early English settlers were dependent on local tribal people not oppressing them until they themselves became strong and numerous enough to become the oppressors themselves. In this case it was all about white “Civilization” versus native “Barbarism.”
As for the difference between civilized and barbaric people we need to ask ourselves how civilized our great American civilization can be when remotely controlled predator drones armed with missiles are used to attack and kill people attending funerals and weddings in “uncivilized” parts of the world.
Perhaps the best example of noncommunication in today’s Babel of political-speak, not addressed in the book, is the way all three languages define “capitalism.”
Capitalism vs Capitalism vs Capitalism
When Progressives utter the word “capitalism” it’s always said with a sneer and meant as a smear. To them it’s always the Old European Marxist class warfare concept of the Oppressor-Exploiter-Predatory Boss cruelly victimizing the poor innocent Oppressed Laboring Class. While there are many different sub-definitions Progressives accept this as the true definition of capitalism.
When Conservatives proudly speak of “capitalism” they always mean “Mixed Economy” in which the public/private elitists composed of politicians and business people are “protecting” Civilization by regulating the Barbarians. While there are many different sub-definitions Conservatives accept this as the true definition.
When Libertarians say “capitalism” they mean a nearly-free market in which a minimal coercive “night watchman” government is restricted to protecting individual rights. While there are many different sub-definitions political Libertarians accept this as the true definition.
There are anarchist variations on all of these positions which reject government coercion entirely. These include the socialist anarchist Progressives who assume that a democratic socialist society would naturally evolve in the absence of a government; the Conservative-Libertarian anarcho-capitalists who assume that the absence of government would result in a capitalistic “spontaneous order;” and the (lower case) libertarian/voluntaryist post-statists who see the state replaced entirely by consumer-controlled “governance” as opposed to coercion-controlled “governments.”
Conversing, Not Converting
There’s a whole pile of words and phrases to play mix-and-max with. Little wonder that these definitional and sub-definitional variations cause people to talk past rather than to each other when they say "capitalism."
Beyond that Kling insists in the beginning of The Three languages of Politics that “My goal in this book is to encourage people to take the first step toward healthier political discussion.” It is not, as he clearly states further on, about convincing others, changing minds, converting people or winning arguments.
And even beyond that this slim 145-page book packs a punch in every paragraph with insights, perceptions, interpretations and nuances that all thinkers in all language groups should chew on and digest for their own benefit.
“In fact, I do not think one’s goal should be to win everyone over to the same ideology,” Kling insists. “I think one’s goal for others should be that they have open minds. And if that is my goal for others, then it should also be the goal that I set for myself.”
No one can change another person’s mind; the other person must change one’s own mind—or not. Libertarians should remember that, simply state their case for a free and open society based on the non-aggression principle against coercion, intimidation and fraud, and move on.
Open minds, after all, are the only minds that can change.
The 2017 edition of The Three Languages of Politics can be downloaded free in the PDF format here.
Links and References
Law & Liberty Here’s that really good review of The Three Languages of Politics by Professor Mike Rappaport, Director of the Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism at the University of San Diego, with follow-up comments mentioned at the top of this article.
Ideological Tower of Babel As noted in the article there are many sublanguages within the three main languages that Author Kling talks about in his book. Here’s one attempt to cover many ideological differences in political, cultural and social contexts.
Want more? The “Free Thoughts Podcast” audio discussion with Arnold Kling, author of The Three Languages of Politics, presented by Cato Institute, goes in depth into the problem of political communication in modern America.