Bryan Caplan  

The Intellectual Danger of Label-Avoidism

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In my defense of labels, I claimed that, "Will's implicit label is "label-avoidism."  Adam Ozimek at Modeled Behavior explains the unique intellectual dangers of this label:
[T]o define oneself as, for example, "of no party or clique", as Andrew Sullivan does, creates in others a social expectation of holding beliefs that defy parties and cliques. You may not be expected to take particular and easily predictable positions on every issue as you would if you had a politically well-defined label like, say, paleolibertarian, Christian conservative, or pro labor democrat.  But you are expected to regularly take positions that are idiosyncratic.

Take Will for example. He is one of my favorite writers and I think he has a great talent for peering deeply into an issue. But nowadays I expect Will's self-description as stridently not-a-libertarian who still steadfastly holds some libertarian positions to mean he will be boldly rejecting libertarian positions somewhat regularly, and embracing them other times. Will's label as a label-less individual is perhaps even more central to my expectations of him than ever, since this has become an important issue to him that he wishes to persuade us on. "Look at me", Will seems to be shouting sometimes, "I am no longer beholden to libertarianism!". I don't begrudge him his new found freedom, and am glad he feels unburdened of a bias, but it is a label he is wearing brightly.

Ozimek continues:

Perhaps Will's rejection of a label, or I should say his embracing of the label "label-less", is the most effective way for him to minimize his biases. For me, I think I feel the most pressure or bias from my "idiosyncratic" label, and my "neoliberal" and "libertarian" labels help counter that by aligning social expectations of my beliefs to what I approximately consider to be the truth, and so regularly believe. But "idiosyncratic" isn't a political ideology, it's an adjective. And try as we might we cannot label ourselves as "adjectiveless" or be "adjectiveless" people and writers.

If I were Will, I'd spend less time preaching against labels and more time trying to publicly bet overconfident labelists.  And I'd take great joy in goading, "Since you say you know, and I say I don't know, you should at least give me 2:1 odds."



COMMENTS (17 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

The way I approach it (I have a penchant for the "no labels" label myself) is rather than being anti-label, one should just pick a broader label. I'm firmly in the classical liberal tradition (although even THAT gets confusing nowadays since so many people act like "classical liberal" is synonymous with "libertarian"). Taking a "broad label" view rather than an "anti-label" view lays out the principles you think are important in approaching an issue that you will stand up for without defining you in contrast to any particular attitude. There is room for pluralism and idiosyncrasy in broad labels without necessitating defining yourself in opposition to something else.

RPLong writes:

Daniel, I think there is danger in that approach, in that it potentially turns into a debate about what the label actually means. (E.g. if "classical liberal" means something different than "libertarian," then who is right when using the label?)

The more widespread the plurality, the more meaningless is the label. More to the point, why use a label if there is any ambiguity about what it means whatsoever?

I think people like myself tend to think that encouraging plurality when it comes to labels doesn't just make things ambiguous, it flagrantly distorts the "truth." Example: How many politicians have you seen claim the label "centrist" or "moderate," when in fact they are anything but?

The goal of this sort of tactic is obvious: If I'm an extremist nutjob, I have every reason to promote myself as a moderate to make my ideas look more palatable or credible. If I were to claim that "all puppies should be killed" is a moderate stance, then suddenly I get to also claim that people who emphatically disagree are some sort of baffling, quixotic extremists. Now I own the debate.

See what I mean? Actually, this is one reason why I find it relatively important to apply labels accurately and profusely, whenever possible.

Steve Sailer writes:

My impression of Will is that his destiny in life is to write a metaphysically rigorous version of "Stuff White People Like."

MikeDC writes:

I'll start off being uncharitable, and say that as with most things I read by Mr. Wilkinson, I get a lot of sound and fury that, in the end, doesn't amount to much. He's clearly a very bright guy, but I rarely take away much I find of practical import.

Case in point here. The vast majority of the focus is on personal labeling, but the vast majority of the damage from "labels" is owing to their social application.

To wit, whether Andrew Sullivan thinks of himself as "of no party or clique", others certainly continue to, and hence apply labels to him.

As a thinker, to have no labels is to have no ideas. Now, one might disagree with the labels another gives you, but the proper response there is an explanation of how your views differ from the common meaning of the label. But it seems a profoundly cowardly solipsism that proclaims itself as some sort of thinker, writes to convince people of some philosophic truth, and then yourself disclaim to defend your work.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

RPLong -
re: "Daniel, I think there is danger in that approach, in that it potentially turns into a debate about what the label actually means. (E.g. if "classical liberal" means something different than "libertarian," then who is right when using the label?)"

Those are annoying debates, but as long everyone's clear on what it means. The nice thing is you usually don't get it from people outside the libertarian community (and the libertarians I generally interact with know what I mean). Now - if it descends into an argument about classical liberalisms that are not libertarian vs. classical liberalisms that are libertarian that sounds productive to me!

On the rest of your post... I guess... but I usually find the opposite, that it allows you to focus on ideas if you just note a broad label and acknowledge there can be disagreements on ideas within that label. Narrow labels enable the bickering. Non-label labels are just another label. Broad labels get past the bickering into ideas.

Anyway, I wouldn't know what narrower label to apply to myself anyway. "Left of center" is the weighted average I come out to, but averages can be misleading if distributions are odd.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

"As a thinker, to have no labels is to have no ideas."

This seems very wrong to me.

MikeDC writes:

@Daniel Kuehn

Could you explain why?

I didn't think my statement would be at all controversial. Humans, at least, have natural facility for language (which is ultimately the communication of labels) as much as they have to truck, barter and exchange.

At a deep, mechanical level, we can't communicate an idea without first labeling it ourselves, and no one else can understand it without labeling it themselves.

And of course, we regrettably stereotype. We economize and use labels imprecisely when we shouldn't. Thus, occasionally losing the subtleties of arguments. As a prescription against this human fault, Wilkinson's argument has value, but ultimately it does sort of come down to "don't stereotype, it makes you dumb".

Which is true, of course, but not particularly novel, and no more helpful than "eat right and exercise" in a general sense.

As an intellectual exercise, it's a complete red herring. A thinker who wants to contribute something of value needs to convince other folks he's right. This means appropriately and convincingly labeling his own thoughts and distinguishing them from others.

Which is, I concede, wholly thankless and often difficult. But that doesn't make it any less correct.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

So I guess I'm thinking about "labels" in the context that it's discussed here - broader group labels like "libertarian" or "conservative" or "leftist". This, if find, often works against "having ideas". Certainly we label particular ideas. I could be labeled a "Keynesian" because of certain ideas I have. But that didn't seem like the sort of label we were discussing.

Labels that we were discussing seem to work against communicating ideas. Bryan is a "libertarian". Why? He places great value on liberty. But I place great value on liberty too, so why am I not a libertarian? You quickly realize that these labels are actually stand-ins for a whole bunch of of ideas at once. And that means you can attach yourself to an "idea" without really thinking deeply about it. That doesn't seem like the right stance for a real thinker (which isn't to say a thinker can't label themselves with something like that - I just disagree there's this tight link, and I certainly disagree that you HAVE to have a label to have ideas).

Daniel Kuehn writes:

You can also noodle over lots of great ideas without being sure enough to commit to one. That seems fine to me (and even wise).

I also can think of a lot of people that reject labels but have lots of good ideas and are good thinkers. Gene Callahan immediately comes to mind. I'm not a self-effacing person so I'll mention myself too.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I think we're really on the same page - I was thinking in terms of the labeling in the post, and you're thinking more of just naming ideas which I think is fine and I'd agree necessary.

RPLong writes:
Labels that we were discussing seem to work against communicating ideas. Bryan is a "libertarian". Why? He places great value on liberty. But I place great value on liberty too, so why am I not a libertarian? You quickly realize that these labels are actually stand-ins for a whole bunch of of ideas at once. And that means you can attach yourself to an "idea" without really thinking deeply about it. That doesn't seem like the right stance for a real thinker (which isn't to say a thinker can't label themselves with something like that - I just disagree there's this tight link, and I certainly disagree that you HAVE to have a label to have ideas).

Daniel, this is the kind of reasoning my comment aimed to criticize. What you have done here is really redefine the word "libertarian" and then criticize it as a label for not conforming to your new definition of the word.

Anti-label-ism always does this. The only real "punch" it packs is to second-guess the meaning of commonly accepted terms. For my money, this is a bad way to structure a discussion.

After all, your beef isn't with libertarianism as a label. No, your beef is with the fact that you disagree with a belief system called libertarianism but you yourself still wish to be perceived as pro-liberty. You're uncomfortable with the idea that being at odds with libertarianism might imply that you're at odds with liberty.

But again, in choosing to think that way, all you're doing is second-guessing things at the definition stasis. Definition-stasis disagreements don't advance a dialogue. Everyone knows what libertarianism is. To question the definition of the label is to take a backwards step, not a forward step.

Left-leaning people have already usurped the label "liberal." Libertarians used to use that one. When it was usurped, somebody chose the word "libertarianism" instead. You can try to undermine the usefulness of that label if you want to, but the set of beliefs called "libertarianism" will still require a label so that people who talk about it will not have to keep redefining it at the outset of any discussion about it. So a new label will crop up to identify the concept, no matter how hard people object to "labels."

DThinker writes:

How about since you have so much free income that you want to spend much of it gambling, you have to give whoever you are betting 5:1 odds?

People with more income than they need will have a tendency to gamble. I am not sure what this proves.

Will Wilkinson is right. Labels should be used with caution.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

RPLong -
I'm not questioning the label, I'm just pointing out that it subsumes a lot of complications. You can agree it does that at least, right? That's all I'm saying. Getting defensive about labels doesn't make sense to me. They're tools for talking, and often they're blunt tools.

I'd be careful complaining about liberals stealing words... I'd personally turn that around and say that modern libertarians stole the name "classical liberalism". This is Alan Wolfe and many others' view too. People in the libertarian bubble think it's obviously true that "liberals stole "liberal"", but it's really not that obvious to a lot of us.

But what does arguing over those things get us? This is why worrying about the ideas are more important, and attachment to labels should never be too strong.

John Markley writes:

I like labels. In my experience, people who disavow them are at least as prone to things like bias, thoughtless rigidity, and tribalism as anybody else, and are if anything even less adept at avoiding their pitfalls- they're very bad at thinking about how their own ideology and assumptions influence their thinking because of their conceit that they don't have any, or at least have many fewer than average.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

John Markley -
This has been an enlightening discussion in that you (and a couple commenters before you) seem to have had experiences almost diametrically opposite of my experience. I never know quite what to think in those cases, except that something interesting is going on.

Your experience sounds like complete hogwash to me, but the thing is the feeling is probably mutual... which suggests that there's probably something wrong with both of our framing of our experiences.

RPLong writes:

Kuehn, I'm not being "defensive." I'm making an unemotional point: It is most often the case that when people "avoid labels," they actually seem to be quibbling over their own preferred definition of the label.

This would be a definition-stasis dispute. As definition-stasis arguments don't advance any debate about fact-stasis or quality-stasis discussions, then my position is that turning a discussion of labels into a discussion about what we want them to mean is an obstacle to productive intercourse.

As I said above, in order to discuss ideas, we must agree on what to call what. That's a label. You need labels to discuss ideas, otherwise we spend most of our time defining ideas rather than comparing/contrasting them.

I don't know, maybe you just prefer talking about ideas to making value judgments and taking a stance? That's perfectly alright, so long as you understand that quality- and policy-stasis discussions are impossible in that scenario.

More on Stasis Theory here: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/736/1/

Todd Kuipers writes:

My take on labels and -isms is they provide a set of hypotheses that I continually test against my perception of reality. The allows for the avoidance of dogmatism, and gives context to my beliefs, which remain unchanged in absence of evidence to contradict my self-selected labels.

A lack of -isms suggests you're avoiding having difficult and challenging conversations or you're currently incapable of communicating your beliefs to others in relatively simple terms.

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