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.