Monday, April 26, 2010

Notes Further Toward a New Political Taxonomy

Noah Millman has a provocative and interesting post up at The American Scene titled "Notes Toward* a New Political Taxonomy." He argues that writers ought to use a three axis system for classifying political writers and thinkers. First, "liberal" or "conservative" to classify the writer's attitude toward individual ability and authority. Second, left wing or right wing to indicate whether one is more animated by failure than by success. Third, reactionary or progressive to define one's attitude toward the future and past.

Only #2 is easy for me. I'm unabashedly right wing.

Axis #1 is hardest. What if one is generally impressed by individual capacities, but also deferential to authority?

Take Pnin and me. While I'm prepared for the possibility that he might vociferously disagree with me, I would say that he is much less impressed than I am by individual capacities, but also far less deferential to authority. It's manifested itself to some degree in our professional lives. Most of my scattered professional endevaors to date have involved sticking up for plucky little guys against the system -- Up with hairbraiders and non-licensed tour guides! Down with racial and gender preferences; their intended beneficiaries can make it on their own, thanks! Much of his scholarship, on the other hand, involves voter ignorance -- an endeavor that necessarily involves taking a dim view of individual capacities.

This difference also manifests itself in our daily lives sometimes. I imbibed some kind of red state can-do optimism in childhood that I have a hard time shaking. Of course I can learn how to bake rhubarb pie this weekend! Or do yoga! Or look fashionable! Or, possibly, Japanese or German or Russian (or all three at once!) Only physical collapse is an excuse not to keep going with new projects. Pnin, on the other hand, has a much more focused conception of his abilities and interests. He wants to be a good scholar, a kind person to his family, and pursue a few selected hobbies (like following sports statistics and science fiction.) Outside those selected realms of expertise, he's much more deferential to those he recognizes as experts; I, on the other hand, am more likely to try to compensate for lack of real knowledge with frantic Google searches and crash courses consisting of a few books. I've seen it also when we talk about the nature/nurture debate. We've seen much of the same social science. Yet at some gut level, he seems to find nature explanations, with all their limited capacity explanations, infinitely more interesting than I do.

Each tendency has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of mine is that it gives my life variety. But sometimes vaa taste for variety turns into dilettantism, which is one of the reasons why I On the other hand, the down side of thinking that one can do anything if one works hard enough is that it seems all the more crushing when one can't. I take umbrage easily at the suggestion that I can't be all things to all people. He doesn't. Yet he takes slights harder when they come in his areas of focus, from what I can tell.

Yet our views on deference to authority diverge. This emerges at a grand philosophical level when we've debated the individual duty to obey unjust laws. My position: yes! Otherwise, anarchy. How can most people know if their resistance to the law is justified? His: of course not! Law is merely an instrument to an end!

As with the individual capacity split, the authority split manifests itself in interesting ways in everyday life. He's much more willing to argue with authorities about some small injustice -- say, debating a parking attendant charging us for three hours when we've parked in place for two hours and five minutes. My instinct is along the lines of "The rules are the rules! If we've parked there for more than two hours, then we should pay for more than two hours. We shouldn't expect the rules to be bent for us." Ditto my weird anxieties about interacting with people more important than me, which he doesn't share to nearly the same degree.

I'm not sure how to classify myself along Axis #3 either. I think scientific and technical progress is wonderful, and so long as just a few wealthy societies stay basically politically and economically free, I can see it making life infinitely richer and better. That's a kind of Whiggishness which should make me a Progressive on Millman's axes. But I'm not nearly so sanguine about political and economic freedom. And I have deep reactionary tendencies when it comes to culture. I don't think that there's much that can be more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace or the Venus de Milo. Not to mention my weakness for the Victorian novel. Likewise, I don't think that human nature can be fundamentally changed or revamped, as some true Progressives do.


  1. I would say that my work on political ignorance is less about limited capacity than limited incentive to use that capacity to acquire political information and analyze it rationally. I don't doubt that most people have the ability to learn basic political knowledge if they put in the time.

    But I think you capture most of the rest of our differences accurately.


  2. One other thing: My work about political ignorance is in a way about "sticking up for plucky little guys against the system." I want more decisions to be made by individuals controlling their own lives (where they generally have good incentives to be rational and well-informed) than by large groups voting in elections where they make choices for everyone (and where most of the voters have poor incentives and know very little).

    I think I actually differ from you somewhat on Millman's point 2. I favor strict limits on government power primarily because it's good for those he defines as "losers" (meaning mainly the poor and politically weak), and much less because it helps "winners." Certain types of winners (especially winners of political competitions), I tend to dislike.

  3. First, sorry if I've inadvertently caused you heartburn by mischaracterizing your views on any of the above points. I could try to edit the original post, but it probably makes the most sense just to let your comments stand.

    Re: political ignorance, that is fair. I may be confusing your views somewhat with Thomas Sowell or even Hayek. Both of them argue for limited government on grounds similar to yours, yet both of them are much more pessimistic than I (or, apparently, you) would be about individual capacities.

    I didn't flesh out my views on Millman's #2 because, as I said above, that axis is the easy one for me. I'm not actually sure that you should count as left-wing along that axis. I had a few friends and acquaintances in college who are easy left wing cases on that axis. We'd be sitting in a coffee shop doing homework, and some girls carrying Prada handbags would walk in. I'd be all like, "Ooooh, shiny object!" or alternatively, "Not my thing, even if I actually had the $900 to spend on one." They, on the other hand, found it an affront to their sensibilities that such objects existed and that people bought them. They'd see Prada Handbag Girl as some sort of walking insult to their value system that made them want to impose vast inheritance taxes on people or ban sororities or things. Me, not so much.

    There are people on the political right who do this, too. There are the Sarah Palin populist types, and there are also the deeply Christian religious types. C.f. also Ross Douthat's memoir, which I believe that Millman mentioned, much of which kept returning to the point that there were eating clubs full of rich people at Harvard that didn't want him and how this made him mad. (It's on the bookcase upstairs in my office if you haven't read it, I think.)