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Semi-Intellectual: The Sequel
A reply to Verlan Lewis on *The Myth of Left and Right*
We do believe people are capable of thinking about politics philosophically. As you say in the interview, some people come to their issue positions based on belief systems like Aristotelianism, Christianity, and libertarianism. Our argument is simply that these various belief systems have nothing to do with “left” or “right.” The terms “left” and “right” have become so entwined with alternating party control of various governments over the centuries that the terms have become meaningless from a philosophical standpoint. They give us social, but not ideological, information.
Verlan, suppose you wanted to defend a purely social theory of Aristotelianism, Christianity, or libertarianism. I think you could do so convincingly using arguments that match those you use in The Myth of Left and Right. Why? Because all notable philosophical and religious movements have a large social component.
Since you don’t hold a purely social view of Aristotelianism, Christianity, or libertarianism, however, you would presumably respond, “Despite their large social components, they have some intellectual components, too.”
That’s precisely my position on the left-right spectrum. If you’d only reply “Left and right are less intellectual than Aristotelianism, Christianity, and libertarianism,” we’d agree. Instead, you insist that left and right are “meaningless from a philosophical standpoint.” Which is hyperbole.
Another common misperception is that we do not believe that any issue positions have any logical connection to each other. This is also not our view. We do believe that issue positions can have a logical connection. There are some issue positions that do naturally correlate by virtue of nature and logic. For example, being in favor of free markets domestically is logically connected to being in favor of free trade internationally. It makes sense, on that micro level, that those positions would go together.
When you assess the intellectual coherence of left and right, you use a high bar. Hyrum explicitly defends this high bar.
“Makes sense,” in contrast, is a low bar. Economists of the Dani Rodrik persuasion will say things along the lines of: “I favor free trade domestically but not internationally because a national government is only good at correcting market failures when all involved parties are under its jurisdiction.” Do I agree? No. But does Rodrik’s position at least “make sense”? Sure. Plenty of arguments about what’s “really” left or right are above the same low bar.
However, that has nothing to do with “left” and “right” because those are tribes rather than philosophies: the issue positions and values of those two tribes are constantly evolving.
Evolving at what rate? As I told Hyrum, if ideologies change by 1% per century, that is a big mark in favor of essentialism. If ideologies change by 1% per day, that is a big mark against. But we’re somewhere between those extremes, so why adopt your extreme position?
A great question you raised in our interview (paraphrasing) was: “Isn’t the stark dichotomy you present between the essentialist theory and the social theory as false as the stark left-right dichotomy you criticize in the book”? In other words, why does it have to be all or nothing? Can’t the social theory usefully explain, for example, 85% of the political behavior we observe and the essentialist theory usefully explain a mere 15% of the political behavior we observe?
Glad you agree it’s a “great question”!
I don’t think the essentialist theory of left and right explains 15% of the political phenomena we observe in the world for the same reason that I do not think the geocentric theory of the universe explains 15% of the astronomical phenomena we observe. Yes, the geocentric theory can purport to give an explanation of the phenomena we observe each day (including why the sun rises in the east horizon and sets in the west horizon), but that does not make the geocentric theory 15% true. It is 100% false. The fact is that the earth revolves around the sun and the fact is that there is more than one issue in politics. It is not 15% true that the sun revolves around the earth or 15% true that there is only one, overarching, essential issue in politics.
This begs the question. The heliocentric theory accounts for all the facts that the geocentric theory does, plus many more facts contradicted by the geocentric theory. Your social theory outperforms the pure essentialist theory, but underperforms a mixed theory.
Seriously, if you’ll buy a mixed social/essentialist theory of Aristotelianism, Christianity, and libertarianism, how can you so categorically reject a mixed theory of left and right?
Many people assume that if the survey data shows x amount of correlation between these issue positions (above no correlation at all), then the essentialist theory must be x% true. We disagree that this x amount of correlation has to be the result of an essence that ties issue positions together.
You are correct to do so. “Has to be” is a strong claim.
We point out that this correlation appears to be entirely the result of socialization (after all, the correlation does not exist among those who do not know what currently flies under the banners of “left” and “right”).
You are incorrect to do so. “Entirely the result of socialization” is also a strong claim! And your parenthetical evidence is weak. Suppose someone says, “Arithmetic is real because knowledge of addition and multiplication correlate.” A critic replies, “Not for 1st-graders, so it’s all socialization.” Do you find that reply convincing? I hope not.
Your time-traveling conventions thought experiment goes from the realm of current correlations to historical correlations. I liked that because it helped us think through the correlation vs. causation difficulty even more. You say that if we gathered into two camps everyone who has ever identified as “left-wing,” and put them in a convention, and everyone who has ever identified as “right-wing,” and put them in a convention, then we would see a lot of diversity within each convention but, on the margins, some views that are more common to the “left-wing” convention than the “right-wing” convention. You conclude that this must be the result of an essence binding together these core issue positions.
To a modest degree!
For example, you posited that Tribe Left is defined by an “anti-market” essence and pointed to the supposed agreement we would find in the time-traveling “left-wing” convention around the position of being anti-market. I pointed out that Team Left was first created in Paris in the 1780s by people who were opposed to monarchy and who were pro-market. You responded that it took a few years, but eventually, the French sorted themselves out and the people who were anti-monarchy finally came around to their natural position of being anti-market.
Actually, I’d go further. I see little sign that Team Left in the 1780s was pro-market. The Declaration of the Rights of Man is already deeply statist.
Once again, I found the discussion thought-provoking and interesting, and I hope to keep the conversation going.
Likewise, Verlan. As I keep saying, our views are very close. But you and your brother are taking a good idea too far. Just tone it down marginally and you will be exactly correct.