Bryan Caplan  

Left and Right: A Socratic Dialogue

Don't change the forecast; cha... Feldstein's Insight on Standar...
[Backstory: Greek luminaries Socrates, Pericles, and Leonidas have time-traveled from ancient times to the 21st century.  A few months after immersion in the modern world, Pericles is a convinced member of what modernity calls "the left," while Leonidas is an equally staunch member of "the right."  Socrates, in contrast, finds 21st-century political thought shallow and confused.  But perhaps it's his fault...]

Socrates: Quite an intellectual journey, my friends.

Indeed, I can't believe how much I've learned in so short a time.

Leonidas: Well, I've learned a lot.  Pericles seems dumber than ever.

Socrates: Gentlemen, please - let's be civil.  As you know, I'm baffled by your sympathy for either of these strange schools of thought.  In fact, I struggle to figure out what even defines them.

It's not so hard.  Leftists like me care about everyone.  Rightists like Leonidas only care about people like themselves. 

Leonidas: [harumphs] You don't "care about everyone."  You only care about people on your side - and you expect the rest of us to foot the bill.

Socrates: And who exactly is on your side?

I don't know what Leonidas is talking about.  Everyone counts in my book.

Leonidas: Really!  How about people who cherish the traditional family?  Traditional religious believers?  Rural whites?  Cops?  Front-line soldiers?

Pericles: This identity politics game you're playing is only an attempt to distract people from the real issues: inequality, corporate power, structural oppression.

Yeah, yeah.  Your virtual signaling is only an attempt to distract people from the real issue: liberals like you run government half the time and culture all the time.  No wonder the world gets more leftist with every generation.

[sigh] Since you two seem to have lost the ability to converse with each other, perhaps you'll let me direct the conversation?



Very well.  One common view is that leftists favor a larger role for government, while rightists favor a smaller role for government.

Sure, because only government - rightly guided - can address the real issues of inequality, corporate power, and structural oppression.

I guess some rightists favor smaller government, but most of us are just pragmatists.  The military is definitely "big government," and if the whole government worked as well as the military, I'd be thrilled.  When I actually looked over government budgets, I discovered lots of big programs that are well worth the cost: Social Security, Medicare, education, police, and much more.

Socrates: I see.  Another common view is that the left cares more about the poor, and the right cares more about the rich.

More or less.  I don't intrinsically care less about the rich; I just think they already get a lot more than they need or deserve.

I don't know any rightist who says, "We've got to stand up for the rich."  I care about middle and working class people who play by the rules.  If we can help them by taxing the rich more, great.  But I don't trust leftists to do that.  When they say, "Let's tax the rich to help the poor," they mean, "Let's tax everyone who plays by the rules to help everyone who doesn't."

How about the theory that the left is heavily guided by smart, well-educated, reality-based thinkers, while the right follows the lead of flamboyant demagogues?

There's little doubt that leftists dominate academia, the media, and science, especially the highest levels.  Leading leftists disproportionately come from these well-educated fields.  Are they especially "smart" and "reality-based"?  I don't know how to prove this to outsiders' satisfaction, but it seems a reasonable inference.   

Scientists are great within their specialties, but when they talk politics, I don't see that they know any more than anybody else.  The media and the rest of academia seems even worse.  They may have lots of book smarts, but they're lacking in common sense.

According to a very smart fellow named Scott Alexander, "Rightism is what happens when you're optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you're optimized for thriving in a safe environment."  Is he correct?

Pericles: I don't think we're in a "safe environment"!  The world is a lot richer than it was in ancient Greece, but there's still pervasive insecurity due to inequality, corporate power, and structural oppression.

And I think the modern environment is pretty safe - as long as you follow the rules.  Or at least that's how it used to be.  People like Pericles feel like they can make up the rules as they go along.

Socrates: So what's the gravest danger facing society?

Climate change.  Global capitalism is slowly cooking the planet.

I say: Islamofascism.  Though I'm tempted to respond "leftists," because they're the ones who won't let us decisively address this looming danger.

Another really smart guy named Robin Hanson argues that left/right strife reflects a primordial forager/farmer conflict.  A summary, if you'll bear with me:

And here is the key idea: individuals vary in the thresholds they use to switch between focusing on dealing with issues via an all-encompassing norm-enforcing talky collective, and or via general Machiavellian social skills, mediated by personal resources and allies. Everyone tends to switch together to a collective focus as the environment becomes richer and safer...

People who feel less safe are more afraid of changing whatever has worked in the past, and so hold on more tightly to typical past behaviors and practices. They are more worried about the group damaging the talky collective, via tolerating free riders, allowing more distinct subgroups, and by demanding too much from members who might just up and leave. Also, those who feel less able to influence communal discussions prefer groups norms to be enforced more simply and mechanically, without as many exceptions that will be more influenced by those who are good at talking.

I argue that this key "left vs. right" inclination to focus more vs less on a talky collective is the main parameter that consistently determines who people tend to ally with in large scale political coalitions.
Pericles: I'm a big fan of dialogue, but not because I feel "safe."  As I said, I think the world faces serious - and maybe even existential - problems.  We need dialogue because it's the only viable way to wrest control of our society and our world back from moneyed interests.

Leftists' idea of a "dialogue" is them talking down to the rest of us, and shaming anyone who fails to loudly applaud.  I'd love to have a series of frank discussions - discussions where the answer is genuinely up for grabs, and pragmatism prevails.  And we really need such them, because Pericles is right about level of danger we're all in.  He just can't see that people like himself are a big part of the problem.

Hmm.  Before we move on, let me share one last theory by a noticeably less brilliant thinker named Bryan Caplan.  His story: the left is anti-market; the right is anti-left.  He elaborates:
1. Leftists are anti-market.  On an emotional level, they're critical of market outcomes.  No matter how good market outcomes are, they can't bear to say, "Markets have done a great job, who could ask for more?" 

2. Rightists are anti-leftist.  On an emotional level, they're critical of leftists.  No matter how much they agree with leftists on an issue, they can't bear to say, "The left is totally right, it would be churlish to criticize them." 
Pericles: Rather simplistic.

Socrates: I know.  Caplan even calls it the "Simplistic Theory of Left and Right."  So is he correct?

Pericles: Of course not.  Leftists are rarely "anti-market."  We're just highly dissatisfied with the way unregulated markets work.

Socrates: Is the poor performance of unregulated markets an ephemeral coincidence?

Pericles: No, it's a timeless problem.  Heard of market failure?

Isn't that precisely what an anti-market person would say?

I don't want to abolish markets; I just want vigorous government corrections and vigilant government oversight.

Caplan never accuses the left of favoring the abolition of the market.  He merely claims you feel a lot of resentment toward it.

Well, there's lots to resent!

Yea - and I resent the implication that I'm an anti-intellectual rube.

Socrates: Does Caplan so accuse you?

Leonidas: Implicitly.  I hate the left, but only because they keep pushing society in the wrong direction.

Socrates: But you seem to embrace many ideas once seen as leftist, like Social Security and Medicare.  Why make the sweeping claim that the left "keeps pushing society in the wrong direction" when you embrace so many of their brainchildren?

We're pragmatists on the right. We're happy to adopt left-wing ideas that actually work.

What about those small-government rightists we mentioned earlier?

The right is a big tent.  I don't agree with them, but they've got some interesting ideas, too.

Socrates: So what unites you and the rightists you disagree with? 


Perhaps Caplan's half-right.  It is hard to name anything Leonidas and Milton Friedman share - except resentment of the left.

Right back at you, Pericles.  What do you and Hugo Chavez share - except resentment of the right?

Caplan would say they share a resentment of markets.  How is he wrong?

Chavez may be on the left, but he goes too far.

Socrates: Likely.  But Caplan's theory really doesn't speak to who's correct.  He's merely proposing a political taxonomy.

On the surface, perhaps.  But there's a hidden agenda.  Caplan's Simplistic Theory insinuates that both left and right are shallow and confused.  But only one of our sides has these defects.

For once, I agree.  The left is shallow and confused.

No, the right is shallow and confused.

Socrates: Friends, you're both tremendously convincing.  What you lack in logos, you make up in ethos.

[unamused] Very funny, Socrates.

In other words, you agree with Caplan.

Agree?  Not exactly.  As he openly admits, Caplan theory is simplistic.  That means "simple to a fault."  The Simplistic Theory leaves many big questions unanswered.  But... unlike the competition, at least it satisfactorily answers some of my main questions about modern political thought. [shudders]

COMMENTS (11 to date)
A Country Farmer writes:

A bit strange to invoke Milton Friedman - talked a big game but implemented withholding! David Friedman would be much better.

RPLong writes:

Prof. Caplan, you are really good at writing these dialogues. If you considered writing a book of them, or putting together a video or podcast series based on them, or etc., you'd have me as a customer for certain.

Weir writes:

It's a mistake to get hung up on how people see themselves or on the arguments they come up with.

In reality a human being is like the piece of paper in Wittgenstein's little fable: "You sometimes see in a wind a piece of paper blowing about anyhow. Suppose the piece of paper could make the decision: 'Now I want to go this way.' I say: 'Queer, this paper always decides where it is to go, and all the time it is the wind that blows it. I know it is the wind that blows it.' That same force which moves it also in a different way moves its decisions."

People think their decisions are their own, and that people have perspectives, and we believe this or that, but it's closer to the truth to say that our genes have opinions, and that my consciousness isn't located somewhere behind my nose but a lot further back. What actually matters is millions of years of evolution, but also the momentary smell of my garbage in my nose. That's one of Robert Sapolsky's examples. The smell of garbage makes people right wing. Then you smell petunias and you become left wing.

People make speeches, but that's on the surface, and that's ephemera. What's really happening is going on up at the other end of the puppet strings, way up in the shadows, not in the spotlight. An actor performs the lines, but the playwright is their author.

Suppose the actor thinks he's coming up with all these lines on his own. You deceive yourself the better to deceive others. That's the reality. So you tell yourself that your support for land use restrictions has nothing to do with making yourself richer at the expense of the poor. You tell yourself that you don't actually believe in segregated schools.

Kristian Blom writes:

We need more of this type of perspective. Are you at the point where you see the endless dualism as futile and your piece is saying that human truth depends on degrees, time, place and people?

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

it's closer to the truth to say that our genes have opinions

In opinion of your genes?

Incurian writes:

Well now that I've heard Socrates make the same argument, I buy it.

LD Bottorff writes:

There is a lot of ammunition for humor here. As a devout right-winger and military veteran, I have to laugh at any right-winger who says if the whole government worked as well as the military, I'd be thrilled.

Weir writes:

John Tooby makes a distinction between coordinating with reality and coordinating with others. If I say something that is true and insulting, that's one example of the first strategy. If I say something that is false and flattering, that's often the second strategy. You can say something, and even believe it too, and if it's socially desirable to say and believe it then that's an optimal strategy. You can thrive and prosper because your delusion is one of the optimal delusions.

Isn't that how Hugo Chavez made himself and his family so insanely rich? Isn't that how lots of ordinary people, people who say Hugo Chavez went too far, nonetheless thrive and prosper, without having to admit to themselves that in practice and in reality they believe in segregated schools and in class privilege and in enriching themselves at the expense of everyone else?

Hugo Chavez and Genghis Khan and Joseph Stalin are just at the extreme end of a continuum. Man's inhumanity to man includes both the mortgage interest deduction and the Holodomor. The alternative to enriching yourself at everyone else's expense is the price system. If people want vigorous government corrections and vigilant government oversight to lift some prices and lower other prices, then that's the continuum. Joseph Stalin himself was just a thief to begin with.

Reality is measured and communicated through the price system. But reality isn't everything. People want to ally themselves with others and make villains of still other people, and the socially optimal choice of villains changes from one environment to another. If you come from a wealthy family in Moscow in the 1930s you can use words like kulak or saboteur. If you come from a wealthy family in San Francisco in the 2010s you can talk about the corporations or Wall Street.

BC writes:

I'm not sure that I would characterize the Right as "embracing" Social Security and Medicare. Many "pragmatists" on the Right may refrain from trying to dramatically alter Social Security and Medicare because they think doing so is politically infeasible, not necessarily because they have adopted them as "left-wing ideas that actually work". George W. Bush proposed some privatization of Social Security. Paul Ryan proposed reforming Medicare with vouchers. Many on the Right would favor increasing contribution limits on IRAs and 401(k)s.

If Caplan thinks that the Right "embraces" Social Security and Medicare though, then I can understand why he claims that the main feature of the Right is that they are anti-left.

SaveyourSelf writes:

Bryan Caplan wrote, “the left is anti-market; the right is anti-left.”

That’s really funny. Thanks for that. On the same subject, I prefer this take: [It didn’t originate with Hayek, but he repeated it in, Road to Serfdom] ==> “We’re all socialists now.”

Thaomas writes:

Observations from Pericles coach:

Good initial framing of the issues: who counts in the respective objective functions?
Good call by Pericles on who engages in “identity” politics, but done is such a sway as not to challenge the insinuation that Liberals (“leftists has connotations of one extreme of Liberal thought) “do not care about traditional religious believers, cops, front line soldiers, or rural whites.”

Also the “real issues” are probably better characterized as rising inequality of income and wealth (within the US, the world is another matter), and efforts to make incremental improvements the lives of low and middle income people while growing the economy so that everyone, even the high-income people that Leonidas seems to value, will have better lives in the future. The vocabulary about corporate power and structural oppression are best left for internal discussions with others within the huge gamut of Liberal thought.

It was probably a mistake not to challenge Socrates that the size of government is a fundamental difference between Pericles and Leonidas. He should say something like, “when we can make incremental improvements the lives of low and middle income people while growing the economy with a smaller government, we favor smaller government.” Pericles might agree that he sees increasing complexity in the world economy raising more and more issues that will require government to deal with externalities (climate change, biodiversity) in the immediate future, but the role of government in the economy in the aggregate is just the result of our efforts to solve policy problems one at the time. Pericles might also point out that notwithstanding their claim to want smaller government, Lonidas’s friends are willing to use a larger government to achieve ends such as deporting hard working immigrants, fighting their “Wars on Drugs, Terror and Crime,” and tax subsidize favored corporate interests. Size of government is a dependent not and independent argument in the Liberal objective function.

On the “Liberals are smart” issue, I think that Pericles might have been a bit more specific in pointing out that Liberal politicians tend to draw on subject matter experts in designing health insurance or climate change or immigration policies. The area where this is less true, trade, they don’t end up with smart policies.

No need for Pericles to add “Capitalism is cooking thee planet,” to his threat assessment, although he would have to admit that reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change will require some adjustments in the incentives to the net emission of CO and other greenhouse gasses. If Leonidas or even some of Pericles’s own friends think this means the end of Capitalism, that is their problem.

Pericles is on his on in his opinions about Alexander and Hanson. His coach finds some insight in both.

Although it does not sound like it would have persuaded Socrates, Pericles might have tried saying that his willingness to regulate the resource allocations and income distribution effects of certain market outcomes in order to “make incremental improvements the lives of low and middle income people while growing the economy,” does not imply antipathy to "markets" or “Capitalism” unless that is Socrates’s definition of antipathy.

Pericles should reply to Socrates that in addition to not sharing the Chavez-Maduro "resentment of markets" (see above) -- does Socrates think “resentment of markets” is what characterizes the Chavez-Maduro regime? -- Pericles does not share the Chavez-Maduro way of “expressing” its “resentment” – violent repression of anyone who criticizes them and Socrates ought to be ashamed of himself for suggesting any affinity.

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