Arnold Kling  

Choose Your Metaphor

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I suspect that a lot of the intractability of the disputes between people holding divergent political opinions reflects differences in the metaphors that we implicitly hold about government. It would be interesting to try to make these metaphors more explicit. I invite non-libertarians to play along.

I am trying to come up with a list of metaphors for government. For example, the hard-core libertarian metaphor for government is "Mafia" or "gang of thugs" or "protection racket." What this gets at is that people look to government for protection against organized violence, the threat of which comes from criminal organizations and governments.

The metaphor that folks like Patri Friedman and I use is "monopoly service provider." What this gets at is that representative democracy is, in our view, a much less effective tool for accountability than is market competition.

A metaphor that emerges somewhere in the Progressive/New Deal era is "countervailing power." The idea is that certain individuals and firms acquire power in the market, and "the people" balance that power with power exerted by government officials.

Another metaphor is the government as a civil engineer. Whereas a civil engineer designs road systems, the metaphorical civil engineer designs health insurance, housing finance systems, and so on.

I recommend The People's Romance, by Daniel Klein. Yes, I've recommended it many times over the years. But it is worth going back to every now and then. One aspect of the paper is that it describes the government as a drummer. In a band, the drummer's beat is the biinding force that holds the band together.

I also think that sometimes people treat government as a deity. We are supposed to place our faith in government, and even to worship public officials, in some sense.

Another metaphor for government is as a conscience. I think a lot people view acts of government as reflecting a higher morality than acts which take place in the market. It is as if our lower selves operate in the market, but allegedly our higher selves operate when we engage in politics.

Other metaphors?

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (34 to date)
SB7 writes:

I find governmant-as-parent or -patriarch to be pervasive.

Lee Kelly writes:

I would say the intractability of disputes has more to do with vested interests and tribal allegiances. The metaphors are something which come after and normally just serve to defend or attack the opposition.

In any case, politicians are snake oil salesmen, peddling their quack treatments to hopeful but foolish suckers (though most have college degrees if the media is any indication).

Matt writes:

I find "social saftey net" pretty loaded and annoying for a political metaphor. Who can oppose 'safety'? Who can oppose nets to catch people falling from very high and dangerous places?

Alex J. writes:

Communist government maps pretty well to an established church, though of course they themselves wouldn't think of it that way. Sinners -> Class Enemies. Prophecy -> Historical determinism. Clerisy -> Apparatchiki. Afterlife -> Withering away of the state. Heretics -> Dissenters. Sin -> False consciousness. Auto de fe -> Show trials. Confession -> Confession.

Alex J. writes:

Government as prison guards. Even if you were a prisoner, you might believe your prison to be a better place with the guards in charge rather than your fellow inmates. The chaos your government holds back might be internal or external.

Nick writes:

In the progressive view, government is a giant insurance company -- its role is to pool risks and pay out to those who lose out relative to others due to happenstance of birth, accident, etc.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Metaphors are just illustrations of very specific facets of government. I don't think any of them do a good job at presenting "what government is" in a holistic way.

One thing that a lot of metaphors - both laudatory and derisive - share is that they treat the government as some sort of distinct entity with its own will. It's a "gang" or it's a "champion" or to use Lee's phrase it's a "deity" or it's a "thief".

It's none of these things literally (obviously - that's the point of a metaphor!). But libertarians and non-libertarians alike often try to personify it and make it into some kind of alien entity.

I'm not sure that's quite right. It's like far leftists talking about "the market" as if it's some alien thing that "does stuff to us". Markets are institutions that we're a part of - not some external force. Markets are institutions where certain things get done and decided, and so are governments. If I had to pick a metaphor I'd pick a town hall meeting or a tribal campfire meeting (again to pull from Lee's comments). Sometimes not everyone has equal voice in such meetings, sometimes those meetings can make bad decisions, sometimes those meetings can make good decisions, etc. - but it's an institutional way of dealing with more social or collective problems that a lot of people have sense can't be justly or efficiently solved with other institutions.

Both "parent/patriarch" and "gang/theif" are too anthropomorphic for me and too biased for me. I do understand, of course, that my "metaphor" isn't really a "metaphor" so much as a simplified description. I'm personally OK with that :)

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Matt -
re: "find "social saftey net" pretty loaded and annoying for a political metaphor. Who can oppose 'safety'?"

Well that's the point of these exercises, isn't it?

Who can oppose safety?
Who can support gangs?
Who can support theives?

I agree with you, and that's why I said above that metaphors focus in on only one facet of government, but that's just the nature of the game. Any picture is going to be biased if you look at only one facet of it.

Don Boudreaux writes:

I've always been fond of Mancur Olson's "stationary bandit."

Lord writes:

The rule or standards setter and bearer. The common time setter. The custodian of customs. The arbiter of conflicting people and principles. The club association. The guiding council. The captain and ship of state. The defender. The orderer. The unifier for common purpose. The gardener.

another bob writes:

See George Lakoff's "Metaphors We Live By", specifically his 'Nurturing Mother' v. 'Strict Father' metaphors for views of government.

tch writes:

Ya, I don't realy consider the "mafia" thing a metaphor. In all the ways that I actually care about, it's a simple, actual equivalence that most people would rather not think about.

Les writes:

It isn't a question of metaphors. Its a question of conceptual differences, which cannot be bridged by language.

Daniel Klein writes:

Thanks Arnold for mentioning my "People's Romance" paper.

I relate Arnold's interesting post to two other papers of mine.

Arnold highlights metaphor. There is a lot of metaphor about ownership and property. Do I actually own my "social capital," and is it property of mine? If it isn't property, why do we call it "capital"?

And ultimate ownership configurations are contested and disputed, so in that sense my take on ownership is, to my opponent, mere metaphor.

Anyway, I think that different configurations of ownership are one way to frame the root differences that Arnold is addressing. My effort is here.

Arnold also says that some people see government as a conscience. Yes.

What liberals (like Arnold) need to realize is that the error is in finding a validator in government, not in searching and constructing a validator. That search is necessary and ennobling. Smith's construction was the impartial spectator.

Realize that the impartial spectator is not Joe's conscience. Rather, the impartial spectator is Joe's conscience's conscience's conscience's ... conscience.

My effort up this alley is here.

david (not henderson) writes:

Yup. The People's Romance is excellent (as is the associated Econtalk). While we're in the recommending mood, perhaps I might recommend to Arnold and everyone else two excellent books related to this topic: "Boundaries of Order" by Butler Shaffer and "The Rise and Fall of Society" by Frank Chodorov. Both have their minor flaws (the former's overly long and essentially unnecessary discussion of chaos theory and complexity and the latter's discussion of the "single tax") but the flaws are easily ignored and the books are nonetheless superb.

Faze writes:

Metaphors for the government we have and the government we wish we had. Church of the Civic Religion fits most governments and most governed. The government I wish we had is more like a stage manager, getting people on and off, making sure the props are in place, and the programs distributed, and not interfering in the drama taking place behind the footlights.

Various writes:

I have a metaphor, but it is for society and the economy, not the government: Is the economy more like a gold mining camp, or a fruit orchard? Folks favoring greater government involvement see the economy as a gold mining camp. The folks mining the gold tend to "get lucky" and strike it rich every so often. So you need an agent to distribute the gold between the lucky and the unlucky. You also need an agent to allocate labor, some to do the dirty work (say panning for gold). Importantly, the amount of the gold in the mine is fixed. Improvements in productivity may accelerate the rate at which the gold is extracted, but this only depletes what's left in later years. Productivity is not a large factor.

In contrast, libertarians see society as a fruit orchard. Without folks tending the trees, the orchard goes to pot. Individual initiative is more important than luck. Increased productivity produces more and better fruit. Fruit not harvested in the current year is lost forever, so there is great incentive to produce high quality fruit consistently and in large quantity.

stubydoo writes:

Insurance company with an army
(not really a metaphor though)

DougT writes:

Metaphores for government are as old as Plato: the "ship of state" with the leader as navigator/pilate; the "cave" with the enlightened leader bringing light and knowlege to the benighted prisoners; and of course Moses leading his people to freedom. (Sorry, that's Augustine).

Malcolm Muggeridge used to say that there is no new news, only old news happening to new people.

Lars P writes:

I thought the dominating metaphor for (democratic) government is that it expresses the Will of the People.

Maybe that's more of a Swedish than American perspective.

david (not henderson) writes:

Another couple of thoughts.

I don't really like the metaphor exercise - the things that sustain and make up government are too varied - but Ayn Rand's "Attilas" and "Witch Doctors" are worth a mention.

Another option: a feeding trough?

On the suggestion that people see government as a conscience, I think that this is far too noble a characterization. I think that, in reality, they see it as, amongst other things, a substitute for conscience: the government ought to do something! (so I don't have to). Not only that, but a conscience on the cheap - assuage your conscience but get someone else to help (or entirely) pay for it.

Phil writes:

I had a Letterman-style Top 10 list of attributes that distinguish government from a business that I pull out when I hear people get on the "New Public Management, run government like a business, think of citizens as clients" bandwagon. Over time that list has grown beyond 10. There are many, many metaphors that could be used. A lot are in the original post and some good comments are here, too. but most deal with government as a service provider or a regulator. One area not yet mentioned is government's role as referee.

The only way a free market can operate effectively is if the participants have faith in the consistency of the enforcement of the rules of the game. Government (courts, in particular) serve as referees for the marketplace.

Ray writes:

What about the "we as a society" metaphor? i.e., government as an expression of the will of the entire people

Bill Drissel writes:

Here's a metaphor for US, European and English-speaking govts: representative democracy.

A tiny oligarchy (maybe 500 people or fewer) persuade a plurality of voters to give the oligarchy power to do what a majority of the oligarchy pleases. Oh wait ....

Bill Drissel
Grand Prairie, TX, USA

Gian writes:

How about Govt as the Owner of territory?

This suits rather better than "monopoly service provider". And service provider notion seems to involve the welfare state distortion of Govt rather than Govt per se.

Troy Camplin writes:

Government is a social ape hierarchical power structure, where power is weilded for the sake of power. We see this in all primate hierarchies except one -- bonobos, which are a special case I will discuss momentarily. We used to think that the governing hierarchies of social mammals came about to ensure more breeding opportunities for the alpha, but genetic tests proved otherwise -- sometimes the alpha would actually have slightly fewer, as the rest were sneaking around behind his back, breeding with the females in the shadows. So that's not why the alpha male in mammalian hierarchies evolved. Nor, does it seem, to have to do with getting more food, as that distribution seems more or less even -- though the alpha can and often does get first dibs, and grants such favors to favorites as well. In chimpanzees, the alpha males lead war and hunting troopes -- which is actually dangerous, and exposes them to being more likely to be hurt. Alpha male apes also tend to grow much more massive in response to becoming the alpha. This is the origins of human governance, then, in ape social hierarchies. From what primatologists can tell, it seems that the hierarchy is simply power for the sake of power. It may contribute to protection against outside groups, but that seems to be the primary benefit to the group, which is often oppressed by the alpha and his followers. Of course, if the alpha is too oppressive, he may find a coalition that even includes the females overthrowing him.

Add language, and what you have are people grabbing power for the sake of power and using language to persuade everyone else that they are doing it for the benefit of everyone else.

Now, as promised, the bonobos. They are unusual in that the females are slightly larger, and thus the bonobos are led by females. There is less meat-eating, because the males hunt, but any meat they get, the females just take it from them. Almost all conflicts are resolved using sex. Yes, all conflicts. Sex is also used as a greeting and for trade.

Behaviorally, humans are closer to chimpanzees than bonobos, though.

Alex Korbel writes:

Very few Americans seem to think it odd, says Healy, “when presidential candidates talk as if they’re running for a job that’s a combination of guardian angel, shaman, and supreme warlord of the earth.”


Guardian angel = welfare State
Shaman = spiritual leader (give a soul and a mission to the country)
Warlord = world policeman

Arnold Kling writes:

Thanks for all of the interesting comments! This has been one of the best threads on any of my posts.

I am inclined to agree with Troy. My take would be a Hobbesian one, that the natural state of humans is this violent struggle for dominance. Institutions that have evolved to contain this violence have done much to increase well-being. The best institutions to date are what North, Weingast, and Wallis call "open-access orders."

The same sort of dominance-hierarchy game is played out in an open-access order, and as Troy says, the winners of the game are able to use language to establish legitimacy and manipulate people into giving them power. Still, if we're lucky, people can produce stuff without too much of it being stolen.

Cyril Morong writes:

See 3-26 "Week in Ideas" in ideas from the Wall Street Journal by David DiSalvo. They have short abstracts of recent research. Here it is

"Metaphors Matter

Most of us think little of throwing around metaphors in conversation, but a study shows how powerful they can be.

Researchers at Stanford sought to demonstrate how metaphors can change the way we think about a problem like crime. They asked 1,482 students to read one of two reports about a crime in a particular city and to suggest solutions. In the first report, crime was described as a "wild beast preying on the city." The second report was identical, except it described crime as a "virus infecting the city."

After reading the first report, 75% of participants suggested law enforcement and punishment as the solution, including building more prisons and bringing in the military when necessary. Only 25% suggested social or economic reforms. After reading the second report, 56% suggested enforcement and punishment, and 44% suggested social reforms. Researchers found that if the metaphor appeared early in the report, and thus framed the content, it swayed opinion. Placed at the end, it had no effect.

"Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning," Paul H. Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky, PloS ONE (2011)"

Daniel Klein writes:

I follow up the remarks by Troy and then by Arnold.

It is remarkable how we return to reflections about human nature and "the natural state of humans," as Arnold put it.

Smith countered the theory that the only reason we wish to be praiseworthy is that we wish to be praised with the idea that one of the reasons we wish to be praised is that we seek confirmation of our praiseworthiness.

In a parallel way, one reason people want power might be to effect movements towards universal benevolence.

According to Christopher Boehm and many others, benevolence was quite essential to paleolithic man.

We may strive for distinction. Smith says that men naturally play status games of wealth and power. He invites us, particularly in "Of Self-command," to play instead games of wisdom and virtue, and to find an exalted arbiter of distinction.

And it hardly makes sense to think that games of wisdom and virtue involve the abnegation of all worldly power.

Seth writes:

How about a flea market? The shoppers are special interest groups. The sellers are elected officials. What they're selling: stuff they stole from the rest of us.

Cyril Morong writes:

The Neurobiology of Narratives was a workshop just put on by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Here is the link and a description of the workshop:

The impact of narratives on human psychology ranges widely from what events we remember most easily to our choices about important foundational behaviors to include our degree of trust in others. Since the brain is the proximate cause of our actions, narratives have a direct impact on the neurobiological processes of both the senders and receivers of them. Understanding how narratives inform neurobiological processes is critical if we are to ascertain what effect narratives have on the psychology and neurobiology of human choices and behaviors,...

Troy Camplin writes:

Any degree toward which we have evolved toward universal benevolence has been in spite, not because, of the presence of government. Such emerged in the West in those places where government was weakened most. Government taps into the very worst of our human nature. Whether or not it is a necessary evil, we must never forget that it is first and foremost an evil. The worst in us attract us to it, and the worst among us become part of it as elected officials, or those who outright seize power. (Bureaucrats are often just looking to get a job, like everyone else -- but it's sort of like being a accountant for the mafia: it's a job similar to other accountant jobs, but not an honorable one.)

Akshay Alladi writes:

The Paul Krugman analogy: "An insurance company with an army"

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