Who Am I? Who Are You?

So apparently today we’re supposed to all be talking about Scott Sumner’s attempt to re-conceive political groups in a way that improves on both the traditional linear Left-to-Right spectrum, as well as the two-dimensional Nolan Chart. Such diagrams tend to be the product of libertarians wriggling away from the board others would pin them to, being the ideologically exotic butterflies that we are, and since I, like Sumner, am a pragmatic libertarian of sorts, I was initially congenial. However, the diagram really makes little sense on reflection.

First, it is the result of truncating a permutations chart. The chart has two axes, one for “Democrat or Republican or Libertarian” which should be immediately problematic if your goal is to identify something deeper than party membership which might in turn explain party membership (and which suggests that the whole thing is designed to privilege libertarianism; a very different chart emerges if the third category is “Other” or “Independent.” The second axis is dubious as well, as it distinguishes between “Idealistic or Dogmatic or Pragmatic or Corrupt.” Though I think “Corrupt” may be salvageable, surprisingly enough, I will probably want to call it something else, since I’m pretty sure that I fit “Corrupt” better than “Pragmatic.” The ease with which I confess this suggests that either his choice of words leaves something to be desired, or else I am a sociopath, and a stupid one to boot. I lean toward the former hypothesis. Anyway, it’s very hard to make sense of how we are to distinguish between “Corrupt” (what you call me) and “Pragmatic” (what I call me) or “Idealistic” (what I call me) and “Dogmatic” (what you call me). Lastly, I mentioned that the chart is truncated: it’s called a hexagon because he has apriori legislated out of existence half of the twelve permutations: pragmatic progressives, pragmatic conservatives, idealistic libertarians, dogmatic progressives (at this point, he has defined out of existence everyone I know personally!), dogmatic conservatives, and corrupt libertarians. I think corrupt libertarians is probably an oxymoron, but that may just be a blindness on my part. And despite that, and his explanations, I still have a very hard time figuring out where all sorts of actual, prominent people go.

There are alternatives, of course. We could work inductively, as the Pew Center does, but this otherwise seemingly promising approach is hostage to the implicit understandings involved in constructing the poll questions. Also, it is too “issue-driven” in assuming that issues have some sort of life independent of ideological perceptions.

Let’s try this: the persistence of the notion that there is such a thing as Left and Right suggests that there is something to it, but what exactly? Well, one of the aforementioned friends, a pragmatic conservative I think, once said “when conservatives lose elections, they go back to whatever they were doing; when progressives lose elections, they don’t eat.” There is a grain of truth to this (at least in a complex society like ours; in a society in which the public sector overwhelmingly predominates, the reverse might be true). So let’s begin with the thought that a person’s livelihood is either secured by pleasing shareholders, or by pleasing voters. We would have to make this a bit more complicated to take into account the fact that nominally private entities (e.g., private universities, defense contractors, etc.) may very well be entirely dependent on private funds which wouldn’t exist if not garnered directly or indirectly from public sources. But there is some sense in which you belong more to the public or more to the private sector. I do tend to think that this is probably the most fundamental fact about a person, politically; it more than adequately explains the predominance of so-called liberal bias in academia. No one likes to bite the hand that feeds them.

Surprisingly, the “Corrupt/Not corrupt” distinction (as I foreshadowed above) seems to be a useful distinction, but can be expressed far more justly as “political process pragmatism.” Whatever your political goals may be, you can either look at them from the perspective of what would be the most efficient way to realize them if we abstract away the political process (ironically, this is what Sumner calls being “pragmatic”!) or if we take into account political process as a part of our pragmatic calculations with an eye toward actually achieving something (what I call “pragmatic” and what Sumner calls “corrupt”). Since political feasibility means appealing to the moral and non-moral interests of the groups that comprise the political process, that means helping some groups, hurting others, horse-trading and the like, the sort of thing a political scientist is fascinated by and an economist reviles and thinks in a perfect world would cease to exist, presumably because in a perfect world we would not be ruled by human beings but by Gort, who would be programmed with the political philosophy that falls from Platonic Heaven, er, I mean, the one I choose.

The third category is what you might call “ideologicality.” I would charitably characterize this in terms of whether one’s understanding of politics is primarily defined in terms of something amenable to social science, or if instead it is primarily framed in terms of moral interests and narratives. This is what we call “idealistic” when talking about ourselves, and “dogmatic” when talking about others. I make no distinction here between various cognitive styles of ideology construction, and thus regard, say “public sector ideologues” has having more in common with each other, regardless of their narratives or moral interests. Unlike Marx, I do not regard ideology as cognitively worthless, or mere rationalizations of interests. I think ideology is very important for defining our communities and identities, and orienting action in a complex and unpredictable world.

So: my typology would be:

Public sector wonks

Public sector politicians

Public sector ideologues

Private sector wonks

Private sector politicians

Private sector ideologues

That’s the best I can do. The only other approach I know of that works as well, is Plato’s. But as far as I can tell, all he has added is consideration of those who prefer military rule, and those who prefer rule by lunatics. Neither of those apply to America. Yet.


2 comments on “Who Am I? Who Are You?

  1. Richard says:

    I thought that variation at the bottom of his update was less tendentious and more enlightening, but the process of mapping ideology onto a two-dimensional diagram is probably inherently flawed. The one-dimensional Left-Right axis is even less illuminating, but has the upside of being very simple, which I think is a major aspect of it’s popularity.

  2. poseidonian says:

    It’s interesting. I found the thing that most found most tendentious, the “corrupt” thing, most illuminating to think about, but in his responses to me I think that he tipped his hand in ways that were more tendentious than I would’ve expected, saying in essence “the reason why there is no ‘principled v. pragmatic’ distinction for progressives and conservatives is because progressives have no principles and conservatives have no pragmatism.” Now this strikes me as simply ignorant. One can find all sorts of folks who were associated with the Bush administration who would have to be characterized as “pragmatic conservatives” and who have been denounced by “principled conservatives” — I would feel very uncomfortable collapsing them into the “special interest conservatives” merely because they accomplished so little (like replacing Social Security with forced retirement accounts — what’s the “principle” there? What the special interest? It’s worth noting that many components of the highly unprincipled Obamacare statute were crafted by a conservative think-tank ages ago). And I am too much the academic to not find the idea of principled/dogmatic progressives highly salient. But anyway.

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