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Difficulties in trying to understand the views of others

Robin Hanson posted a discussion of the differences between liberals, conservatives, and libertarians in which he considers not just their disagreements on issues, but their differences in who they respect.

I have to admit I’ve never really had a clear understanding of what “libertarian” means; perhaps because they have never been in power, it’s more difficult to pin down a particular set of attitudes and positions for them.

But what I wanted to talk about here are Hanson’s descriptions of conservatives and liberals, which seem to me to illustrate the difficulties of trying to understand, even sympathetically, views much different from one’s own.

1.  Hanson writes:

Libertarians support low taxes because individuals should be free to
choose how their money is spent, rather than being forced to accept
collective choices.  Conservatives support low taxes so that those who
have worked hard for their money can show off the fruits of their labor
and earn full respect for it.

Again, I can’t comment on the “libertarian” part of this, but the “conservative” bit seems like a caricature.  Do people really support low taxes so that people with a lot of money can show off?  I don’t think that showing off is anything like a basic conservative value, beyond the idea that people should feel free to show off if they want to.  I think a more accurate statement would be, “Conservatives support low taxes because they think the market is more effective than the government at producing prosperity,” or “Conservatives support low taxes because they don’t think it’s right for half of your paycheck to be taken away by politicians, which then gives these politicians power as they decide how much of this money to give back to you in the form of government programs.”  Even this doesn’t take into account the diversity of views that conservatives have on the issue, but I think it’s a start.

2.  Hanson writes:

Libertarians support gay marriage because individuals should be free to
have whatever consenting relations they want.  Liberals support gay
marriage because they want us all to officially respect gays as much as
straights; gay activists have earned their group more respect.

Again, I can’t comment on the “libertarian” part, but for the part about liberals:  I assume that Hanson really believes that’s what they think, but I don’t buy it.  Liberals support gay marriage because they are impressed by gay activists?  I think a more accurate statement would be, “Liberals support gay marriage because they don’t think it’s fair that straight people can marry and gays can’t,” or “Liberals support gay marriage because some gay people want to marry and they don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to.”

Gay marriage is an interesting issue in another way, in that a few years ago, most liberals didn’t support gay marriage.  Much of people’s attitudes is determined by what’s on the table, by what’s considered a legitimate policy position.  Two hundred years ago, it was considered reasonable in many circles to support slavery, and 50 years ago, it was considered reasonable in many circles to support communism.

Anyway, my real point here is not the details of conservative and liberal views on these issues, but just the difficulty that an outsider such as Hansen can have with them, even when trying to portray them in an understanding and sympathetic light.  Not a reflection on him in particular, so much as a general difficulty in understanding others’ attitudes.

20 Comments

  1. Jadagul says:

    I don't know how much of Robin's work you've read; based on your comment that you're not particularly familiar with many libertarians, I'm assuming not terribly much. Robin's post makes a lot more sense if you understand his general worldview, which centers around the idea of signaling. Basically all his work has to do with understanding how people signal; he generally takes as almost an axiom that the actual reasons people do what they do is almost unrelated to what those people think the reasons are. He contends that basically all human action is driven by a (usually subconscious) desire to signal desirable traits to other members of the group, and tries to analyze almost all human interaction in terms of signaling.

    So when he writes a post like this, he's sort of assuming that people's political positions aren't determined by value judgments, or logical arguments, but by what sort of traits and values they want to signal they have (and, in fact, that value judgments are themselves products of signaling). I think he'd respond to your post by saying, basically, that conservatives think high taxes are unfair because this belief signals respect for entrepreneurs, and liberals think marriage discrimination is unfair because that belief signals respect for historically oppressed groups, and that the stated reasons are a (likely subconscious) cover.

  2. jsalvati says:

    You should *definitely* crosspost this to Overcoming Bias.

  3. Zubon says:

    I would say that Robin Hanson's comment lacks the context you would need to get his usual point of view, which is to say that you are having difficulty understanding his attitude. One of his recurring themes on Overcoming Bias is that many beliefs and activities are fundamentally about social signaling, rather than the reasons we believe or claim to believe them. So whatever reasons teams red or blue have for supporting policy x, a lot of it will come back to "policy x gives my team higher status."

    Many would disagree with the emphasis that Robin Hanson places on signaling, but that is the context that is being dropped. It is a communication issue, and that post is not a good place to enter a Hansonian view of the world. I presume that he understands the points you made, however much he believes the signaling subsumes them.

  4. Nameless says:

    With regard to low taxes, I think that there are two basic aspects of the conservative worldview.

    You've captured one – "because they think the market is more effective than the government at producing prosperity". This aspect is largely shared with libertarians, though, in libertarian worldview, the description you proposed takes precedence. An even stronger libertarian position on taxation is that "the government has no right to take away any of its subjects' money".

    The other aspect is that one of the primary conservative values is working hard for your money. For that reason, conservatives are strongly anti-welfare. They believe that it is wrong to give people free money without expecting them to work for it. That is perhaps the point Hanson tried but failed to put across.

  5. Larry Wasserman says:

    Andrew:

    The libertarian position is the simplest
    (and most consistent).
    It is always based on the following principle:
    no person should use force against another person.
    That's it.

    –Larry

  6. Andrew Gelman says:

    Jadagul: I know where Robin is coming from, and I respect his focusing on signaling. I don't think signaling is as important as he does, but I'm pretty sure it's more important than most of generally assume. So I think he's doing a service by expounding his views on the matter.

    That said, I think his descriptions of conservatives and liberals are so caricatured as to be a hindrance to his thinking.

    Jsalvati: Robin has reformulated his blog and is no longer posting things by others, hence I'm posting it here.

    Zubon: see comment to Jadagul above. In short, I think Robin has a strong bias himself in his understanding of liberals and conservatives.

    Nameless: I completely agree. My one-sentence descriptions of liberal and conservative attitudes are necessarily incomplete. No matter how you slice this, I don't think that "showing off" is a fundamental conservative value.

    Larry: Sure, but this particular definition doesn't address either of the two political issues raised above: (1) the level of taxation, and (2) whether the gays can legally marry each other. (I'm assuming that, in deference to political realities, the options of "zero taxes" and "no such thing as marriage laws" are not on the table.)

  7. Robin Hanson says:

    Everyone is right. I'm struggling to understand these conflicting world views, and I'm not very confident of my descriptions. I'm trying to describe the signaling approaches underlying these views, not what people think they say.

  8. Peter says:

    Andrew,

    Larrys position actually does address the two issues, since "zero taxes" and "no such thing as marriage laws" is the way that things should be from a moral perspective.

    (1) The level of taxation should be zero. People shouldn't be coerced into giving away money that they have earned morally. Depending on which libertarian you listen to, they generally favor use taxes (toll roads, eg), and more private property ownership to generate public works.

    (2) Gays should be able to associate with whom they want. Many libertarians think that the State should have no role in any marriage.

    The libertarian view is more of an idealistic moral view, rather than a politically feasible view. At least, until I take over as supreme libertarian leader of the world.

  9. noahpoah says:

    I find it odd that Hanson's descriptions of libertarian positions don't seem to have anything to do with signaling, unlike the descriptions of conservative and liberal views.

  10. dsm says:

    I see a Malthusian angle… Here are my thoughts.

  11. Douglas Knight says:

    Haidt's hierarchy morality (aka authority or respect) sounds to me like RH's version of conservatism. (It also sounds like RH's version of liberalism.) Of course it is an extremely cynical caricature, but that's different from saying it's irrelevant, two positions you seem to alternate between.

    I find it odd that RH seems so cynical about liberals & conservatives and so willing to take libertarians at their word. But it might be right. Libertarians might be people so distracted by rhetoric, they have no idea how politics works or what people care about (even themselves). This is compatible with their ineffectiveness.

    cf this <a>comment by michael vassar:
    "The libertarian view is that the government isn't a parent. It's a desired mechanism to enforce "should be natural law" derived from generalizing and inferring from their idiosyncratic interpretations of the rules they were taught by their parents at a young age."

  12. Lord says:

    Yes, it would be more natural to say
    Libertarians support low taxes because they consider it their money, not someone elses. That is, they don't recognize themselves as part of a larger social structure even though they would prefer a larger social structure that emulates their views.
    Libertarians support marriage for all or for none. The larger social structure should either not impose on or distinguish between them, but should prevent attempts of others to do so through it, though not through them individually. That is, they should have rights the social structure shouldn't have.

  13. JR says:

    Can somebody tell me what libertarians really think about the family and about background advantages and disadvantages?

    Serious libertarian political philosophy usually relies on some device of equality of initial endowments – i.e. everyone starts out with an equal entitlement, and then we all trade for mutual benefit, so the outcomes are just. But when I talk casually to people who call themselves libertarians, they just skip the part where we start out equal. They are happy for some individuals to begin life with massive endowments of money and other resources, while others start with nothing, because they were unlucky in their parents. I find it hard to believe that the people who state this position really believe it is "fair," although that is sometimes what they say! That just seems stupid, and I am unwilling to believe that the libertarians I am speaking with are that stupid.

    I think this must be an example of dishonest presentation of one's views, but it's hard for me to tell for sure what is going on. Any thoughts?

  14. EmilyKennedy says:

    Jadagul: Thanks for your post. It's much more enlightening to read Gelman's post and Hanson's quotes with this context in mind.

  15. jay says:

    Can somebody tell me what libertarians really think about the family and about background advantages and disadvantages?

    There is nothing in the world that is naturally equal. We are not equal in intelligence, looks, strength or lifespan. We need to work with what we've got.

    Is there something wrong with providing your children with the benefits of your work? This is fundamental to human culture, I think it can be argued that it is fundamentally unfair for government to take away the gifts you wish to give your offspring simply because 'others don't have this advantage'

    Certainly there are things that could be done to make opportunity available for those willing to expend and work for them.

  16. But when I talk casually to people who call themselves libertarians, they just skip the part where we start out equal. They are happy for some individuals to begin life with massive endowments of money and other resources, while others start with nothing, because they were unlucky in their parents. I find it hard to believe that the people who state this position really believe it is "fair," although that is sometimes what they say! That just seems stupid, and I am unwilling to believe that the libertarians I am speaking with are that stupid.

    Well, here's a couple of answers:

    1. Yes, it's not particularly equal. However, we note that there is substantial movement between socioeconomic groups. Poor people who start with little or nothing regularly work hard and invest smart and propel themselves upward. Rich people who start with a lot and fail to work hard and/or invest smart regularly collapse into lower socioeconomic classes thereby. The wheel turns. Inherited position is not nearly the guarantee of future position it's claimed to be, and is therefore not nearly the problem it's claimed to be either.

    2. Stipulating the above, the chief problem – in the view of most libertarians of my acquaintance – that prevents the poor from ascending the socioeconomic ladder is not lack of fiscal capital, but rather lack of the necessary cultural and intellectual capital (self-reliance, entrepreneurship, future time orientation, value placed on education, etc., etc.). This is not a problem which can be solved by seizure and redistribution of any kind of tangible asset.

    (Much the same explains the fall of the badly-raised wealthy, too.)

    3. Even assuming, arguendo, that it is "unfair" and that everything that is "unfair" should be fixed, seizing and redistributing property by way of fixing it is, per se, theft on a massive scale, since inherited property is the private property of the deceased. Theft is prohibited (as coercion and/or fraud) by deontological libertarianism, as something wrong in and of itself. An eo ipso wrong supersedes a hypothetical good. C'est la vie.

  17. Robin Hanson says:

    Jadagul, thanks, good summary, which I suspect Andrew still doesn't understand.

    noahpoah, yes I admitted that in my added to my post.

  18. Andrew Gelman says:

    Robin: I understand what you're trying to do, I just disagree with what you think people's motivations are! I think you're trying your hardest to understand where people are coming from, in a deep way . . . but I just don't think it's working out. But I'll have to digest your latest post on the topic before saying more. In any case, as I wrote earlier, I think your focus on signaling is a good corrective to the usual discourse (by myself included) that focuses on partisanship, issue attitudes, policy, and all the rest.

  19. C says:

    Mancur Olson's description of the history and evolution of democracy, while kind of depressing, creates a fairly workable model of what drives coalitions of interest. One could view Liberals and Conservatives as the broadest segments of collective action that form in a democratic system (smaller, more effective special interests develop and work within this "ecology"). The Liberal/Conservative divide comes down to how motivated each group is in the support public goods expenditure (Jost-style arguments aside).

  20. Crimson Wife says:

    I found this blog after having read Dr. Gelman's "Red State, Blue State" book. Both the book and this blog are very interesting! :-)

    I'm a conservative on the issue of gay "marriage" and my DH is a libertarian.

    I believe in the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. I don't really object to the government granting the same legal rights to homosexual unions as it does to marriages (the way California has for many years and continues to do post-Prop. 8).

    My DH is a libertarian. He believes that the government should leave the question of who can marry up to the individual church/synagogue/etc. The government should provide legal rights to couples who sign a contract formalizing their union in the eyes of the state, but should not be involved in defining what is and what is not marriage.