Bryan Caplan  

Are Political Labels Uniquely IQ-Draining?

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My Review of Groseclose's Left... Economic Activity, Outsourcing...
Will Wilkinson replies to my defense of labels against his attack:
Bryan has sort of wrongly inferred that my aversion to specifically political labels flows from a much more general aversion to naming one's convictions. At the limit, Bryan makes it sound as though I have a beef with the whole idea of self-predication. I don't. I am an Earthling, a chordate, an Iowan, a compatibilist, and I'm not afraid to say so!...  But I think there's definitely something special about political ideology which tends to make it rather more central to our self-conception than our positions on obscure philosophical questions.
The "something special":

Politics just is coalitional conflict. A political label puts you, like it or not, on a team in a number of disputes in which there are significant real-world stakes. People therefore tend to see their ideological affiliation as constitutive of their identity in a way their opinion about the ontology of mental illness (to use one of Bryan's examples) isn't. People advertise their politics by putting Che Guevara and Murray Rothbard on t-shirts, but they don't much advertise their metaethics with Kant gear... Other people are thus likely to see our politics as central to our identity, and to see our attributed identity through the prism of their politics. Self-labeling gives others permission to apply to us the label we apply to ourselves, and (here is something I believe!) who we are is to a large extent a complicated product of our reactions to social expectations.

Will greatly overstates his case.  At minimum, he should have said "politics and religion."  There's a good reason why the subtitle of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind is Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.  Namely: People forms emotional coalitions in both areas. 

But it gets worse.  While few people form emotional coalitions about abstruse subjects like meta-ethics, the reason is simply that few people care about the issue... if they're even aware the issue exists.  If you look at the subset of people who actually care enough about meta-ethics to have a position, though, the analogy to politics and religion is strong.  People who believe in Kantian meta-ethics get emotional about their stance, and socially affiliate with like-minded people.  Verily, with my own eyes have I seen meta-ethical coalitions in conflict.

I freely admit that there's some variance.  Consider Will's list of labels: "an Earthling, a chordate, an Iowan, a compatibilist."  No one cares about or affiliates on "Earthling" or "chordate."  Many people do care about and affiliate on "Iowan," but probably not Will.  "Compatibilist"?  Few know the term.  But if you're able to explain compatibilism and its alternatives, you probably have some emotions about the topic and form some social bonds with like-minded intellectual allies against your wrong-headed opponents.

My point, to repeat, is not that people should ignore the dangers of emotional or social bias.  The dangers are all too real, and lead many astray.  But avoiding labels - political or otherwise - is a futile cop-out.  The right lesson to draw is that people should choose their labels carefully.  Those who choose well don't just acquire insight.  They also join the Coalition of the Insightful - the social network of people in the know.  How can you distinguish the Coalition of the Insightful from the Coalition of the Not-So-Insightful?  There's no recipe, but you have to try.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Ken B writes:
While few people form emotional coalitions about abstruse subjects like meta-ethics, the reason is simply that few people care about the issue

I am unclear how this is a point against Wilkerson.

Tom West writes:

The trouble with joining the "coalition of the insightful" is that once you're there, you're pretty much guaranteed not to get out (at least not easily). Every pressure is towards not having any insights outside of those the label approves.

On the other hand, what's the alternative? Not using any labels at all probably makes you lonely, ineffective, and very insightful :-)

RPLong writes:

I establish my beliefs first, and join with like-minded people second. Notice how Wilkinson's point would make perfect sense if one does the opposite. If you choose your coalition first, and your beliefs second, then you are almost certainly lowering your IQ by out-sourcing your beliefs to the group.

Based on what I'm reading, this whole issue sounds like a litmus test for how influential groups are on your own personal beliefs. If groups influence you a lot, you'll probably see things more like Wilkinson. If groups exert little or no (positive) influence on you, then you'll probably fancy yourself more like Caplan.

I absolutely abhor groups, and not surprisingly find myself agreeing with Caplan *completely* here. But what's more amazing to me is that if I imagine myself as someone for whom group interaction is vital, Wilkinson's point starts to make a lot more sense to me.

Ken B writes:

I for one rather cheerfully embrace a common political label (I'll name it below). I do so in part because it helps clarify succinctly which issues I care most about, and partly because the label confounds many expectations, which has a value.
I am pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, against school prayer, for easier immigration, pro free trade, pro drug legalization, atheist.

The label I embrace is of course 'right wing'. I want less government, and a strong defence.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Labels really can be tough at times. Even though I don't endorse public schooling, neither do I endorse private schools or homeschooling as the 'solution'. Instead, I would prefer community wide lifelong work/education. How does a person put that into a label?

Ari T writes:

Again, why don't natural scientists use them? In fact almost in any knowledge industry such as stock market, people shy away from coalitions. Coalitions tend to develop institutions who start to protect their self and their core beliefs.

Take for example politics. Instead of allying yourself with label, you could just say this is my position given my current knowledge or lack of thereof. To me, labels seem more about group affiliation than truth.

I don't see why we should endorse people to signal their "side".

I'm curios to hear Robin Hanson's thoughts on this!

Kit writes:

Futile in what sense? Cop out in what sense? If refuting labels pushes against a tendency toward tribalism, that's quite powerful stuff. If members of a particular tribe--the one that feels it has a right to the label-rejecter--find this upsetting... well, we could have predicted that. What seems to me a lazy cop out is merely choosing from the sad pool of labels available even when they aren't helpfully descriptive.

Evan writes:
But it gets worse. While few people form emotional coalitions about abstruse subjects like meta-ethics, the reason is simply that few people care about the issue... if they're even aware the issue exists.
People will form strong emotional coalitions even about things that have no real world influence and make no factual or normative claims. Take any popular fiction series with multiple romantic interests and people will get into vicious arguments over which relationships are the best ones. Or start an argument about which fictional character/army would win in a fight. Or if one franchise is a ripoff of another. And then there's sports fans....

I have to say though, I kind of like irrelevant coalitions. They provide the fun of conflict but rarely have the disastrous real world consequences of political and religious ones (though it's not unheard of).


@Ari T

Again, why don't natural scientists use them?

I've heard stories of natural scientists having labels. There's Copenhagen vs. Many Worlders in physics, back in the 50s there was Solid Crust vs Continental drift, in the 80s and to the present paleontologists got into heated debates about whether it was an asteroid or something else that killed the dinosaurs. There was also that whole sociobiology kerfluffle in the 70s, although that had a strong political tinge to it. And then there were the Bone Wars...

You're definitely right that those labels weakened the quality of the discourse, however.

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