Arnold Kling  

Emotional Politics

The Ethics of Giving Machiavel... So Bad It's Good...

Will Wilkinson and Jonah Goldberg (among others) are debating whether a little bit of nationalism is a good thing. For example, Wilkinson writes,

Liberty is best loved when it is loved because it is good -- because it makes possible a rightful order. Liberty is neglected when it is loved merely because it's what we, the folks in these parts, happen to tell each other we love. An ongoing culture of liberty certainly makes us readier to grasp liberty's real worth. But a culture in which the love of freedom is too easily confused with an admiration of martial virtue is a culture likely to find itself sooner or later at war with some imagined enemy and its own liberal values.

I believe that people seek in politics some emotional gratification. Masonomics would say that it's mostly about group status--you want to feel part of a group that is doing well in terms of relative status. But there can be other things as well--it could be a desire for "transcendence" in Deirdre McCloskey's terms.

Where emotional politics clearly goes wrong can be in people getting emotional about the wrong things, people getting overly emotional, or people combining emotions with arrogance.

Last night I was at an event where the speaker waxed optimistic about the Republican Party, but several of us pointed to the divisions between the elites or moderates or libertarians and the party's base. Someone who was defending the Tea Party movement said that they are the sort that carries a copy of the Constitution with them at all times. Well, yes, but they are also emotional about "securing the borders" and "energy independence," two crusades that don't resonate with libertarians.

Goldberg throws this at Wilkinson:

Wilkinson's mockery wouldn't be possible if thousands of Americans hadn't died in an effort to defend his right to mock. He may think Marines leap on grenades and charge machine-gun nests out of a deep and abiding respect for Lockean contracts, but I think the evidence breaks against him.

So, soldiers are not inspired by copies of the Constitution in their pockets but by a drive to protect their friends and families from aliens.

I will stick with my position that the Tea Partiers make me a bit nervous, but the Progressives make me terrified. Both are too emotional for my taste. But it's the combination of emotionalism and hubris that is most toxic.

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Taimyoboi writes:

I'm not sure the soldiers, or Goldberg, think it's being down to protect friends and families from aliens. That's a subtle shift, and not an entirely fair re-characterization.

Will Wilkinson also makes a poor argument about counter-factuals. Just because we don't know the alternative is irrelevant. A soldier today is less likely to be "inspired" to make a sacrifice if Will Wilkinson's views about yester-years predominate. The inspiration may be a fiction and still preferable to reality.

Taimyoboi writes:

Ugh, typos. "...being done to protect..."

Taimyoboi writes:

Having reread Will Wilkinson's two posts, I think Goldberg's characterization of Wilkinson in your excerpt is actually quite good.

Wilkinson's view is a very neat and tidy explanation of the respective roles and duties of citizens and their gov'ts. Neat and tidy makes for good reading, but poor application in the real world.

agnostic writes:

I only make these continuing refs to North, Wallis, and Weingast since you're one of the few visible people who've read and internalized their framework...

Isn't it odd that the "soldiers died to protect your freedom" argument continues to be made in open access orders? As societies have progressed from limited to open access orders, war and violence have plummeted (you have to remember to measure rates rather than counts). So it's just not true that there are lots of well-armed bad guys waiting to invade us, destroy our land, and run off with our women.

Rather, we have the interconnected economy and the businesspeople and workers who make it work, to thank for our safety and prosperity. But praising businessmen is a much harder sell than praising soldiers.

If we think back to limited access orders, though, this mindset makes sense. There, the soldiers *did* protect us from would-be invaders. Indeed, that's all the elite did. The assumption that there are all sorts of violent bands just waiting to invade us only makes sense when the means of violence are diffused throughout much of society. True in a limited access order, but not in an open access one -- violence is consolidated into the military and police.

The only threat to our safety and freedom is from opportunistic violence from petty criminals. In that case, I think we do all recognize that the police protect us, and we're grateful as a result.

But the "soldiers died to protect your safety and freedom" now falls on deaf ears, aside from warhawks. Most of the rest won't risk ostracism by pointing out how silly that argument is, but still.

agnostic writes:

Just to make it explicit, I'm saying the beliefs about what soldiers do is hardwired and adapted to life in a primitive or limited access order. Since we've only had about 150 years of open access orders, and then only in part of the world, there probably hasn't been enough time or a strong enough of a selection pressure to shift our hardwired mindset to believe that soldiers don't protect us from an array of would-be invaders.

stephen writes:

I would say soldiers are motivated more by status then the need to defend anything.

SydB writes:

"I will stick with my position that the Tea Partiers make me a bit nervous, but the Progressives make me terrified."

I find this hyperbolically silly. Totalitarians terrify me. What you are terrified is a slight increase in the income tax rate, broader coverage for health care, etc.

And there is no slippery slope argument here.

Maybe you don't get out enough?

Dain writes:

Sydb, that's pretty funny.

My milieu is in Sacramento, California, the heart of the beast, so I see Kling's hubris and second his feeling of, well, ok, not terror, but dread.

The "identity liberalism," as some like political philosopher Adam Tebble has coined the concept, emerging in Holland and elsewhere in Europe has managed to bridge a deep respect for abstract, liberal traditions with nationalism (or continentalism). The latter is simply the most practical manifestation of the former in their minds. Ayan Hrsi Ali and others represent this.

SydB writes:

Wow. How did we get from progressives in the US to the anti-liberal policies of Europe?

What Kling seems to fear is his higher tax rate, a few more bucks going to energy research, and the bail-out (if that's what he means by progressives). (Though let's remember he had no problem with invading Iraq and suggesting we bomb Iran--talk about terrifying. And he once proposed seizing middle-east fields oil so they could be managed better).

My larger point: this realm--blogging, the internet, even the realm of policy organizations such as Cato--are a minor blip that largely feeds on itself. It's a cocktail party, and within the world of that cocktail party, progressives can be called terrifying (note he's not specific on what progressives are).

Outside that small bubble, it's just silly. Daily Kos is silly. The Corner is silly. And pronouncements that Progressives, whoever they may be, suits or geeks, are terrifying: also silly. This "debating whether a little bit of nationalism is a good thing" is mainly a form of entertainment. Golberg isn't a political philosopher. He's just filling his time. Trying to make a living. A bit of a clown. And over his head if you ask me.

The anti-muslim anti-liberal sentiments in Europe are wrong. But those sentiments are not helped by folks on the right who feed fear.

pj writes:

SydB, don't be obtuse. The whole thrust of the left is to deny others freedom of association: we have to associate with the state's educational system, fund science with the state's apparatus, get our health care from a state payer; and any alternative associational arrangement are first starved of resources, and then prohibited. First Christian associations were prohibited from receiving state funds, now Christians are being fined and sued for withholding cooperation from gays and others they deem immoral. At its logical endpoint, this is mere slavery. We are forced to work for the state, forced to associate with the state, and denied the liberty to associate with others.

If you don't want people to fear you, don't tyrannize them.

david writes:

So the libertarian position is now for Christian associations to receive state funds? Good to know.

SydB writes:

" this is mere slavery. We are forced to work for the state,"

The language seems way too extreme. All we're talking about is whether the government is going to take somewhere between 25% to 50% of one's income. That's pretty much all we're talking about. Paying a 50% tax rate is painful--I've experienced it--but I'm not a slave because of it.

shecky writes:

C'mon, SydB.Do you really want to deprive us libertarians of our hyberbolic rants about the tyranny, serfdom, slavery, etc we have to suffer at the evil hand of gubmint?

E. Barandiaran writes:

Two comments.
1. People seek emotional gratification in all activities. You may remember Harvey Leibenstein's attempt to introduce the idea of X-efficiency in economic theory (if I remember correctly he wrote in one of his books that he got the idea from Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace). Just last night I was trying to explain a Peruvian friend how his behavior (the recent expansion of his business in the terrible anti-small business environment of the Chilean economy) could be the result of seeking too much emotional gratification.

2. I fully agree with your last sentence: "But it's the combination of emotionalism and hubris that is most toxic." For a good example, I recommend to read the news about next-week Copenhagen Summit, especially in European newspapers. Even ignoring the prophets and the skeptics of AGW, it's surprising to see so much nonsense from scientists that were supposed to be less emotional and certainly much less arrogant.

guthrie writes:


I agree with you in principle, but the 'closed border' crowd has an easy out by pointing to 9/11, ie: 'Look what happened with our borders *almost* closed! What would happen if we didn't stop anybody?' (they have also cited the potential bomber who was caught coming across from Canada back in 1999). This would seem to answer the charge that our fears of 'invasion' or attack have more substance. What would you say to that?

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