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August 18th, 2009 · 31 Comments

Given that my current idée fixe seems to be the depressing rarity with which people actually understand the views of people with different ideologies, I was pleased to see Tyler Cowen’s attempt at a sympathetic summary of what he sees as an intelligent progressive’s credo—one that at least some progressives apparently recognize as a fair depiction of their beliefs. Matt Yglesias responded to Cowen’s invitation to progressives to do the same for libertarianism, if not entirely in good faith, then at any rate with interesting results: Instead of outlining something a self-described libertarian might accept as a sympathetic portrayal, he outlines the sort of case for a libertarian agenda that a (fairly cynical) progressive with Yglesias’ priors might find somewhat appealing. Disappointingly, if not especially surprisingly, Yglesias’ commenters seem incapable of carrying the thought experiment even this far, since they all understand that libertarianism is not so much a belief system as an adolescent emotional disorder.

What I’d actually find most interesting, though, is something that navigated between these two poles. To summarize another ideology sympathetically as Tyler did means, necessarily, to make choices about the most compelling way to frame a cluster of close variations of views held by diverse people. Matt’s snarkier “case” involves a rather more radical reframing, and is not so much “a progressive’s sympathetic description of what a libertarian thinks” but rather “an attempt to make what the libertarian thinks speak to a progressive’s goals and values.” What’s sacrificed in the process, of course, is anything resembling the libertarian’s own conception of or rationale for those views. A potentially fruitful exercise might be to try and combine these approaches.  The goal would be to formulate a thumbnail sketch of an alien ideology that would be recognized and accepted by someone who holds that ideology—if not as an exact description of their beliefs, then at least as a summary of a view that counts as broadly libertarian/progressive/conservative/whatever view. At the same time, you’d try to present such a view in what you regard as its most compelling form—the version of the doctrine that you could most easily imagine yourself embracing. I can pretty easily construct the shortest path (consisting of the fewest significant belief-change “moves”) from my own worldview to one that would count as genuinely conservative or progressive. It’s probably worth stressing that this would not necessarily just be a very libertarian-sounding progressivism or conservatism, since the shortest path might be to push on a tentatively-held stance fairly high up the ladder of abstraction, with dramatic downstream consequences. But I’m also pretty sure it wouldn’t look a whole lot like (say) Naomi Klein’s progressivism or Ann Coulter’s conservatism.

So why would someone bother to do all this? Consider the way our views normally evolve. We sort of hunker down in our ideological bunkers trying to fend off various attacks and challenges. Sometimes an especially forceful argument will require a modification in the fortifications—and on rare occasions, we’ll even be forced to abandon a position. Which is to say, we learn from other perspectives largely in a defensive mode, through a kind of Darwinian selection of arguments.  But what if instead we tried to use the insights available from our own perspectives, not to defeat or convert the other guy, but to give his argument its best form? This might sound like giving aid and comfort to the enemy, but even in terms of the Darwinian struggle, there’s value to being able to show how your view trumps even the optimal form of the competition. Think of chess: You can’t see your own best move unless you have some sense of what your opponent’s best response would be.

But the more intriguing possibility is that a smart progressive’s good-faith reformulation of libertarianism might be something that the libertarian, too, could recognize as an improvement—and vice versa. We shouldn’t expect this to happen if our basic values or pictures of how the world works are as radically at odds as our rhetoric sometimes suggests—but I rather doubt this is the case. Typically, when we’re not at battle stations, we recognize that the other guy’s values are genuine values; we just give priority to different ones. There’s probably more disconnect in people’s beliefs about how the world works, but in at least some cases there, it’s not that we think the other side’s causal story is just totally nuts, but that we think it’s swamped by trends or effects pushing in the other direction. Insofar as ideological modeling trends toward treating the most significant values and causal mechanisms as the only ones worth bothering about, a second pass from an outsider perspective may help find the spots where the framework can be enhanced by adding what was omitted back in. In those cases, the process would generate what I’m calling Pareto-ideologies: Versions of each worldview that both adherents and opponents can agree are stronger or more adequate.

This is all fairly abstract, of course; the test is whether you can actually carry it out with respect to specific tenets or principles. As a possible example, let me humbly offer up my own recent post on the popular progressive idea that there’s a “right to health care.” The first step is to allow the force of the conservative/libertarian objection that there’s something incoherent about this claim, insofar as “health care” is not some monolithic thing, but an array of goods and services, the nature of which changes over time, all of which are to some extent or other scarce. (Contrast, say, the right not to be punched in the face, which can in theory be enjoyed in unlimited quantities at any historical period.)  Step two, the sympathetic move, is to try to reformulate the claim so that we get at the same practical upshot—a moral obligation to provide each other with health services—in a more satisfactory way.  That doesn’t mean we suddenly agree about the scope—or even existence—of the obligation, but at least we’re in a position to have a more fruitful conversation that doesn’t just devolve into one side asserting there is a right, another denying it, and both regarding the other position as unintelligible or grotesque.

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31 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Progressives [pro-greh-sives] (noun): A Group That Seems A Lot Like Liberals « Around The Sphere // Aug 18, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    […] Julian Sanchez on the effort Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Liberals And History […]

  • 2 adam // Aug 18, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    So I’d be interested in your sympathetic description of libertarianism? Or of various other political ideologies. Make a list of ’em maybe.

  • 3 jre // Aug 18, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    As I now always expect here, this is a remarkably thoughtful and constructively-motivated post.

    For my part, I always considered myself a libertarian, but over time it seemed that everyone else who considered him- or herself a libertarian reasoned from a fairly unexceptionable set of norms (“individual liberty is the highest social good”) to a set of descriptions that ranged from wishing for a pony (“a truly free market will take care of itself”; “an armed society is a polite society”) to wishing that the other guy’s pony had foot-and-mouth disease (“government programs never work”).

    After a time, I lost the ability to get past the descriptive goofiness to reach the normative goodness.

    If I could work up a set of descriptions that were at once harmonious with libertarian values and not too violently at odds with reality as I know it, I’d present that as a sympathetic outsider’s view. I just don’t see them yet.

  • 4 digamma // Aug 18, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    I’ve drifted from libertarianism to progressivism gradually and what it’s mainly taught me is that I’m stupid and what I think doesn’t necessarily make sense at all.

    Arguments I used to agree with now seem stupid to me. You’d think I’d be in a unique position to rebut them because I made the transition, but I can’t explain how I made the transition. I’m just dug in on my side, and my instinct is to tell you “that libertarianism is not so much a belief system as an adolescent emotional disorder”.

  • 5 asg // Aug 18, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    It’s probably worth stressing that this would not necessarily just be a very libertarian-sounding progressivism or conservatism, since the shortest path might be to push on a tentatively-held stance fairly high up the ladder of abstraction, with dramatic downstream consequences.

    This part was unclear to me — can you give an example?

  • 6 EMY // Aug 18, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    I have always thought that the libertarian ideology would work in a much better world than we have now. But because the world is the way that it is, messy and painful, and there is not much more that we can do to change this essential truth, liberalism seemed to be the way to go. Disclosure: I’m a buddhist so I believe in the first noble truth which is essentialy, there will always be pain in life regardless of what anyone does.

    I see my liberalism (slightly left of center liberal at that) as being a pragmatic approach to lessen the suffering just a bit in society.

    I know I’m not being very specific here, but that’s the best I can come up with on a small comment on someone else’s blog.

  • 7 asg // Aug 18, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    Also, apropos of nothing, what font does this blog use? I like it.

  • 8 EMY // Aug 18, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    “Typically, when we’re not at battle stations, we recognize that the other guy’s values are genuine values; we just give priority to different ones. ”

    I’d say that sentence just about sums up what I think about reading Megan McArdle. I understand her libertarian values and I agree with them to a degree, I just think other values are far more important, those values typically being “liberal” ones. This sentiment is especially strong the more and more I read her health care blogs.

  • 9 Will // Aug 19, 2009 at 12:06 am

    Fascinating post:

    “I can pretty easily construct the shortest path (consisting of the fewest significant belief-change “moves”) from my own worldview to one that would count as genuinely conservative or progressive.”

    But is there any chance you could sketch this out in greater detail? I’d be pretty interested to see what belief-change “moves” you make.

  • 10 Aaron Haspel // Aug 19, 2009 at 12:59 am

    Philosophers regularly abjure “bad faith” arguments, which may be why we don’t see Cowen’s kind of post more often. But arguing in bad faith strikes me as an attempt to meet your interlocutor on his own ground, to offer reasons that will persuade him even if they don’t persuade you. (I was all set to go on about how this post was essentially a defense of arguing in bad faith, hit Google for some support, and found that you had already made my point three years ago.)

  • 11 Julian Sanchez // Aug 19, 2009 at 1:24 am

    Sure. So, some of my policy views are pretty heavily overdetermined. In order to think that anything like our current drug war is justified, I’d have to basically invert a whole complex of moral and empirical beliefs—kicking out one or two wouldn’t actually move me that far on the practical conclusion. If, however, you got me to change my view of the incommensurability of human values—that is, the view that there are goods and ends people choose that can’t be weighed in any objective balance—a whole bunch of dominoes would fall with that, and I’d probably be substantially more amenable to both redistribution and paternalism. Or, without going into tedious detail, if I had a different view of what morally arbitrary facts counted as constituents OF persons rather than allocations of benefits TO persons, or if I were as convinced as a lot of modern philosophers appear to be that the acts/omissions or failing-to-aid/harming distinction was irrational, I would probably end up far to the left of most progressives on a bunch of economic issues. Since I’m not really a consequentialist, I could do this even while retaining the belief that progressive economic policies would reduce aggregate welfare in the long run. Probably I’d end up overshooting the mainstream American left entirely and argue for massive transfers to the developing world over the heads of the (wealthy by global standards) domestic poor.

    On the flip side, if I were somewhat more pessimistic about the efficacy of human reason—of both the citizenry and the governing class—given that I’m moderately pessimistic already, I would become a good deal more conservative. And indeed, I might become an “unreasonable” conservative, in that I would probably just insist on not evaluating the traditions too closely to see if they made any kind of sense, because I’d doubt we had the capacity to tell the difference.

    I don’t know whether that makes things clearer or more muddled. But I suppose it also counts as an incredibly half-assed pseudoresponse to Will. I’ll try to work up a whim to do it in proper detail one of these days.

  • 12 Re-Approaching Ideology | Heretical Ideas Blog // Aug 19, 2009 at 11:16 am

    […] Sanchez has an excellent post on the need to re-examine your own ideas from time to time. Consider the way our views normally […]

  • 13 Matthew Yglesias » Political Life’s Mysteries // Aug 19, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    […] Sanchez has a post bemoaning “the depressing rarity with which people actually understand the views of people with […]

  • 14 Julian Sanchez // Aug 19, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    NB: Having some political rant you paste verbatim on dozens of comment threads is, by my lights, spam. And I delete spam.

  • 15 Font // Aug 20, 2009 at 9:57 am

    I see Julian has dodged the hard question. asg, the font in question is Georgia. Whenever you see a pleasant-looking version of Times New Roman on the web, it’s invariably Georgia. And likewise the slightly-more-sophisticated version of Verdana you always see is invariably Lucida.

    Incidentally, if you use Firefox, “font finder” is a fun plug-in.

  • 16 nuffsaid // Aug 21, 2009 at 10:56 am

    1. “Given that my current idée fixe seems to be the depressing rarity with which people actually understand the views of people with different ideologies,”

    2. “…all understand that libertarianism is not so much a belief system as an adolescent emotional disorder.”


    It must be really depressing for you when you so openly display the behaviour you describe as depressing you. And within the same paragraph that’s going some.

  • 17 Julian Sanchez // Aug 21, 2009 at 11:33 am

    The second line was meant sarcastically; I am myself a libertarian.

  • 18 Justin Johnson // Aug 22, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    What you articulate here has been suggested several times before, notably by both Quine and Davidson. It’s called the Principle of Charity or the Principle of Rational Accommodation, and it is indeed the best way to make an argument, in addition to furthering understanding.

  • 19 Marvin // Aug 23, 2009 at 1:19 am

    My memory of reading philosophy in college is that striving to articulate the best possible form of the argument one intends to analyze — whether for the purpose of refutation or just for understanding — was considered a basic principle of sound scholarship. It’s a principle that applies equally to the sciences, liberal arts, and politics.

    And I tend to think of it as something more. It’s not just a rhetorical virtue. It’s a habit without which it is impossible, I think, for a person to be genuinely honest. Many of us grow up being told that honesty consists in just saying what we actually believe, but I think this is a mistake.

    Honesty is caring about the truth so much that we seek the correction of our own ideas from other peoples’ perspectives, experiences, and expertise. It is impossible to be honest without committing ourselves to expressing other people’s opinions with the best possible accuracy and understanding. This doesn’t entail agreement with those opinions, but it does imply a good-faith effort to understand and a refusal to distort the speech of others.

    Applying this standard of honesty to our religious and political leaders invites despair.

  • 20 Alex Russell // Aug 23, 2009 at 2:09 am

    I’ve always thought that this exact effort was explicitly necessary, or at least I wrote it out in the strongest terms fifteen years ago. Part of it is actually a precursor: the assumption that you live or die according to the strength of the other side’s arguments. But that has to mean the other side’s arguments in their best possible form, which can mean that you have to “join” the other side, to in effect do their work for them as carefully as possible.

    One reason to do this is that you encounter information you would not encounter otherwise (all points of view “screen” information; there are no “honest” viewpoints to this extent – much less “objective summaries”). Also, this specific activity serves one of the core functions of rational discourse: that everyone over time comes closer and closer to meaning the same things by the same words at the same time, so that unnecessary disputes never occur.

    But I’ve thought the most pressing reason to do it is to try to counteract very strong biases, in the first person, that I know I’m prey to and I presume everyone else is just as subject to. People clump these in different ways, but there’s defense of my current sense of reliability and priorities – which is also making sure that I seem right about these things, and, by hook or by crook, that I seem to have been right all along. And I’ve thought of a big shadowy bias-angle as one toward assuming that the things that I am not and have not been interested in are genuinely not interesting and deserve that little interest.

    This interacts with the practical consideration that the easiest model that I can make of a noncongruent construction with my own accepted mental building blocks, in order to account for it, is usually going to be a weak or unsound or nonsensical one. And idea-communities (which I think of as mutual-admiration societies, exchanging word-counters and validation) encourage this and make it worse.

    You’ve described this here as a tactical good, or a method for improving dialog, but for me it’s a way in which I can try, by policy, to assure myself that I have indeed thought about, or really looked at, or taken an interest in, an idea when I think I have. Because, just as the feeling of sureness or of conclusiveness feels the same whether it’s sound or false, the impression that I’ve adequately thought something over tends to happen no matter what I’ve done. I have to make myself do something specific that’s, at least slightly more, really taking a careful interest.

    Otherwise… well, the history of my different intellectual periods contains a fair number of embarrassing examples. And people in general supply plenty. Like, I’ve talked to a few progressive types, with whom I am often not out of sympathy, who have come to think and say, as a complete take, that market-based arguments, whenever brought up, are merely the propaganda of the monied big interests and do not even need to be looked at. An explicit policy of engaging with the best form of “their” argument, as a background sense of what to do, can lead one to end up having gone and found at least a general notion of why Milton Friedman would have said such and such. Lack-of-interest blind spots would be as easy to find among people of any stripe.

  • 21 Alex Russell // Aug 23, 2009 at 2:37 am

    Minor comment: You refer to the value to the Darwinian struggle or the chess game (“You can’t see your own best move unless you have some sense of what your opponent’s best response would be”). You do go on from there to suggest the more wide-open benefits of a better version of an other-side position from the point of view of the other side and your own, but on the level of the binary contest you could also have mentioned another benefit: By doing this, you put yourself in a much readier psychological position to recognize and steal or cannibalize the other side’s best stuff in service to your own fiendish aims – a productive and creative perspective. :o)

  • 22 Leonard // Aug 23, 2009 at 5:25 am

    Thanks Marvin for articulating thoughts that I have had and found missing in so much of what passes for commentary today. I too remember the college philosophy classes that stressed the value of putting your opponent’s argument in it best possible form before beginning a refutation. This approach served me in the practice of law.

    Now, if there was some way to reduce the intellectual dishonesty that is so much a part of of public discourse perhaps we could make more progress in deciding public policy.

  • 23 CraiginKC // Aug 23, 2009 at 10:41 am

    I appreciate the reminder that only by being able to answer your opponents best arguments (or anticipating what they’re best arguments could be if they were capable of coming up with them) can you effectively begin to persuade. This is actually a central premise of debating (the organized kind engaged in by high school and college students).

    I think this speaks precisely to the miserable condition of the current brand of public discourse. It appears that both politicians and especially the punditocracy on the 24-hour news networks have come to specialize in highlighting the very worst arguments of their opponents, and using them as case-studies for why the opposition is too stupid to be trusted. In fact, typically, the most outrageous comments on either side of the political spectrum are put forward as exemplary of what the other arguments regarding an issue might be. Lies get more television coverage than thoughtful commentary, and through a perverse-Darwinism, the least fit often rise to the top of our public awareness as a result (e.g. “birth certificates” and “death panels”). I actually think that Obama, personally, is distinctive precisely because he tries to anticipate his opponent’s best arguments, project respect for them, and address them. Ironically, this may be the “weakness” of his political strategy–rendering his message “muddled” or insufficiently “forceful.” In today’s political arena, I wonder if what is clearly a virtue at the level of an individual comes to be a “failure” in the context of Party politics and promoting an agenda. I think the relationship of Sanchez’s point to the larger, structural features of public discourse (how are ideas disseminated? by whom? why and whose interest’s are served?, etc.), is the only thing missing from this essay.

  • 24 jbahr // Aug 23, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Very thoughtful, Julian, glad I found your site (linked by Andrew).

    Having read what seems like a zillion comments on various sites (the Salon/Slate/TrueSlant/Atlantic bloggers, 538, et cetera), I really seems that individuals’ particular mix fear and hope drive their self-identified philosophy more often than not. Most of the time, of course, self-identified ideology is simply incorrect and people will often act in ways that are antithetical to their stated beliefs (which permits pollers to find that half the country is wary of evolution, for example, as they sign up for their next flu shot). Liberals tend to vest their hope in ways I find attractive and their fears in pockets of paranoia (but, as Woody Allen famously noted, perhaps justifiably) that are different than those of libertarians and conservatives. Witness the conservative arguments in the current health care debate: many are based upon the fear that one thing (say, end-of-life counseling) will morph into another (say, death panels). The strategy (when you have the votes) may just be to do what’s right and let them get used to it. The fear abates (or perhaps becomes focused elsewhere). When you look at the history of conservative objections to progressive policies, it’s a seemingly endless cascade of things that are just fine now (Social Security, the end of miscegenation laws, . . .) but were feared for their future effects.

  • 25 Chris // Aug 23, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Wow, you should really stay away from Darwin; the phenomena you describe have nothing to do with Darwinian selection. Using bad evolutionary metaphors is harmful, especially given the generally horrible understanding of such concepts in the first place. Darwin/evolution have been terribly abused, like the concept of irony–the incorrect definition has superseded the actual definition.
    What you are describing far more closely resembled artificial selection, i.e. domestication, than any natural evolutionary process.

  • 26 Beeshma // Aug 23, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    You sir, are a raving lunatic, who has waded too deep into the weeds of your own ideological way to view politics.

    But that said, I support your attempt to convince neandertal conservatives that their worldview of defensive, hostile-to-other attitudes might be a liability.

  • 27 A-gu // Aug 23, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    This reminds me of a critical component of high school debating skills — the ability to argue both sides forcefully and with conviction. At the end of each debate, I’d always find myself rehashing the arguments in my mind, often convinced I was clearly correct and my opponent was absurd — whichever side I was on that particular hour.

    This experience helped lead me to the insight that human beings are absurdly attached to silly labels and political “teams” even when they make no sense on their own.

    And it also helped me realize that more often than not, political “opponents” are people who have similar if not identical interests, but a different understandings of the facts involved and differing expectations of how certain policies will affect things on the ground. That’s a far cry from the average view, which is that the other side is a bunch of idiots.

  • 28 Julian Sanchez // Aug 23, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    What I have in mind goes a bit beyond the principle of charity as traditionally conceived, insofar as it’s more unabashedly transformative, but certainly that was in the back of my head when I wrote this.

  • 29 Online Discourse Part 2: Pareto Ideologies. « The Ego Chronicles // Sep 9, 2009 at 4:34 am

    […] on September 9, 2009 Julian Sanchez comes to the same conclusions that I came to, in an interesting post: Given that my current idée fixe seems to be the depressing rarity with which people actually […]

  • 30 Know Thy (sane) Opponent | Library Grape // Dec 20, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    […] the Dish, I see Julian Sanchez wondering about a better way to argue politics: Consider the way our views normally evolve. We sort of […]

  • 31 Tami // Jan 29, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    Your style is unique in comparison to other folks I have read
    stuff from. Thank you for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I will just book mark this web

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