Bryan Caplan  

Labeling the Ridiculous

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Jonah Goldberg's critique of the "No Labels" movement is a cogent defense of stereotype accuracy and a model of elegant ridicule.

Stereotype accuracy:
If I tell you I'm a conservative Republican, you'll have no idea what my views are on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or beef jerky, but you'll have a good idea of what I think about taxes and foreign policy. No, partisan labels aren't perfect; both parties have ample disagreements within their ranks on pretty much every issue. But they're better than nothing. They're clarifying, not confusing. In other words, labels aren't "meaningless" as so many self-described independents claim, but meaningful. If anything, what's meaningless is the claim that you don't believe in labels when obviously anybody who speaks intelligently about anything must use them.
Elegant ridicule:

What no-labelers really mean is that they don't like inconvenient disagreements that hinder their agenda... When they claim we need to put aside labels to do what's right, what they are really saying is you need to put aside what you believe in and do what they say. When activists say we need to move past the partisan divide, what they mean is: Shut up and get with my program. Have you ever heard anyone say, "We need to get past all of this partisan squabbling and name-calling. That's why I'm going to abandon all my objections and agree with you"? I haven't.


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
jeff writes:

Have you ever heard anyone say, "We need to get past all of this partisan squabbling and name-calling. That's why I'm going to abandon all my objections and agree with you"? I haven't.

This kinda happened in 1872, when U.S. Grant was the Republican nominee for president, a faction called the "Liberal Republicans" broke away and nominated Horace Greeley, and the Democrats were so eager to see Grant lose that they endorsed Greeley and the Liberal Republican platform even though Greeley had been trashing the Democrats for years.

Grant won in a cakewalk.

Neal W. writes:

I agree with Jonah. However, I still think that parties should not be indicated on ballots. Why? It will increase the average intelligence of voters since less educated voters will have to research in order to know who to vote for. I assume that they will prefer to stay away from the polls than to do their homework, or not do their homework and vote randomly.

Mercer writes:

"But they're better than nothing. They're clarifying, not confusing. In other words, labels aren't "meaningless" as so many self-described independents claim, but meaningful."

I think Goldberg's use of the fascist label is worse then nothing.

"When activists say we need to move past the partisan divide, what they mean is: Shut up and get with my program."

Partisans also use labels to get people to "Shut up and get with my program." Anyone who thinks tax cuts don't pay for themselves is a Marxist. Anyone who questions affirmative action is a racist.

The last time the GOP controlled the government the result was a poor economy and an expensive, stupid war. Anyone today who questions more tax cuts and an aggressive foreign policy is denounced as not a conservative. Goldberg certainly does not question either policy. Unless you liked the results of the Bush years you should not support his attacks on heretics of current GOP dogma,

mick writes:

Mercer, the idea is that they are avoiding substantive debate by making their own opinions beyond controversy. As far as socialism goes, government ownership of the means of production is the literal definition of socialism. Marx himself would have recognized the takeover of GM as a socialist measure. This is when you have to use a few swamps and caste your race card.

Evan writes:

I'm glad to see somebody else has noticed the same thing I have. I've often been angry about politicians who say we need to "put aside our differences to get things done." They can't seem to comprehend that, from a lot of people's point of view, the bad consequences of inaction are not nearly as bad as the bad consequences of the things that they want to get done. So "putting aside our differences to get things done" would result in worse consequences than continuous squabbling,

Mercer writes:

"government ownership of the means of production is the literal definition of socialism. Marx himself would have recognized the takeover of GM as a socialist measure. "

The takeover of GM would be socialist if Obama wanted it to stay government owned. That is not what he is doing.

Would Marx have recognized the government giving billions of dollars to big banks as socialist? If you think Marx would have approved then you can call Obama, McCain, Palin and Bush Jr socialists.

Hyena writes:

What we need is greater label fragmentation. Everywhere else that we have fragmented labels, we see progress because with fragmentation comes specificity and specialization. There's no excuse for not having it in politics.

mattmc writes:

I try to avoid labeling people and stereotyping, but I would reject the label of me as a "no-labeler". In fact, Goldberg's argument tremendously suffers from being an overly general label based criticism that invents a false label, "the no-labeler," and uses it as a strawman, inventing false beliefs of the no-labeler.

In reality, the problem I have with partisan labeling is that it simply conveys less information than a set of position statements.

Of course, also in reality, the reason politicians don't mind partisan labeling very much is that their primary concern is power. Power comes from the group membership, so the need to hold back on one's actual positions in order to remain flexible enough to commit to the right set of positions that allows one to gain power makes labeling a very convenient way of not stating what you are actually going to do.

Tracy W writes:

Mercer: Partisans also use labels to get people to "Shut up and get with my program." Anyone who thinks tax cuts don't pay for themselves is a Marxist. Anyone who questions affirmative action is a racist.

These to me sound like they're intended to be garden-variety insults, rather than labels specifically. People might as well call someone an idiot as a Marxist. I've been called a racist for arguing against more government spending on schools, which makes me think that "racist" is turning into a random insult.

Anyway, I doubt very much that these labels actually succeed in getting people to shut up and get with the insulter's program. Tax increases are a live object of political debate, and affirmative action is still a controversial program.

Unless you liked the results of the Bush years you should not support his attacks on heretics of current GOP dogma,

This is a false dilemma. Just because a person makes one argument that you think is bad, doesn't mean that therefore you are obliged to disagree with them on everything. To put it into the cliche, if Jonah Goldberg said that 2+2 = 4, would you therefore argue that I'm obliged to disagree with him?

Hyena: Everywhere else that we have fragmented labels, we see progress because with fragmentation comes specificity and specialization.

Can you give some examples of this? And, in particular, what makes you think that the fragmentation drives specificity and specialisation, as opposed to the specificity and specialisation driving label fragmentation?

To take an example, say I have one notebook. I can refer to it as "my notebook". Then I acquire another notebook. At this point it's very convenient to find a way of distinguishing between the two notebooks. "My new notebook and my old notebook". Or "My practical notebook and my day-dream notebook". Or "My red notebook and my blue notebook". In this case, specificity drives label fragmentation.

Hyena writes:

Ms. W,

Fragmentation drives specialization because it allows us to think about how something is different and then build on it. You're working from an observational perspective where your considerations are wholly exogenous to the object observed.

Example: if you designed computers, the terms "laptop" and "notebook" are themselves tools for developing, they organize thinking. More so if we add "tablet" as a catrgory. Because this process is opaque to you, the whole verbal world around these objects is Linnaeic, descriptive merely without a constructive component.

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