The Far Left in A

The Far Left in A Nutshell — The antiglobalization postmodernist left is easy to understand if you see the position as a way to bring the following unstable convictions into equilibrium.
Old Left:
(1) Logic, reason and evidence (science) is good.
(2) Progress is good.
(3) Socialism is supported by logic, reason and evidence (it's scientific!).
(4) Socialism is good.
(5) Capitalism is evil.
Together with Unavoidable Data:
— Socialism is undermined by logic, reason and evidence (see Mises, Hayek, history).
— Capitalism leads to progress, while socialism hinders it.
Leaves these options for the leftist:
(a) Reject (3), (4), and (5).
(b) Reject (1), (2) and (3).
The PoMo left takes option (b), rejecting logic, reason and evidence (it's an oppressive, patriarchal, capitalistic construct, etc.) and rejecting the desirability of progress (let's have “sustainable” stasis instead.) Further, they must abandon the claim that socialism has rational support. Thus you get:
PoMo Left:
(1') Logic, reason and evidence (science) is a myth.
(2') Progress is destructive.
(3') Socialism is supported by ????.
(4') Socialism is good.
(5') Capitalism is evil.
But clearly, (b) is the much more desperate option. What about (3')? Having dispensed with rational grounds for support, how can one argue that this bundle of convictions isn't just arbitrary? Well, you can't. And, strangely, it seems that original impetus to support socialism came from a more or less earnest belief in the desirability of material progress. Giving up on the desirability of progress is like setting one's heart on driving to Miami, discovering that one has gotten on the wrong road, and therefore deciding that Miami's a lousy place to go. You'd think you'd just switch roads. Why did people do this?
My hypothesis:
The earnest, progress-loving left came to identify support for socialism and rancor against capitalism as the criterion for personal virtue. So people in this coalition built their identity around this attitude, took pride in themselves as moral, and identified as immoral outsiders people who supported capitalism. When the case for socialism collapsed, coalition members were faced with a crisis. First, their sense of identity and virtue was threatened. It is hard enough to admit that you were wrong when you thought you were right. It's really, really hard to admit that you were in fact bad when you thought you were good. Second, if one were to change one's mind about socialism, then one would lose one's network of social support, and that's frightening. So, anything that allowed the maintenance of one's sense of virtue, and one's belonging in the virtuous community, was welcomed — although from the outside, it appears ridiculous and desperate.
This suggests that the views of the PoMo left won't really stick to generations that came up after the theoretical and historical collapse of socialism — even though the PoMo left is largely in charge of educating the young. A vague feeling that leftishness has something to do with goodness does hang in the air, but the kids don't really grasp the animus against reason, progress and the market, and so they are relatively easily swayed by experience and argument.
Well, it's a big nutshell. What can I say?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

12 thoughts

  1. Thanks for the additional post, Will. And thanks for taking the time to hold the discussion in the first place.
    You’re right about my motives, here, too. This particular paper is going to seem mean and elitist to lots of people (even if it officially takes no position at all on how extensive bad voting is or on which demographic groups tend to vote badly). Yet it’s a piece of an underlying project the goal of which is to recognize the contributions to the common good made by everyday citizens as opposed to holding only community organizers, soldiers, and politicians count as exemplary citizens.

  2. So maybe the paper addresses this but what should someone do if they find themselves feeling as if they aren’t prepared to vote well but that nonetheless they are more prepared than a majority of other voters. Given that the vast majority of people will never stop voting for these reasons does it make sense to continue voting as long as you feel you’re in the top half of the electorate?

  3. From a quasi-Aristotelian perspective, could one not object that good voting, whatever that might mean, requires some sustained engagement with the act of voting? Surgeons, after all, do not develop the skills that make them good surgeons simply by doing well in medical school; indeed, they cannot become competent surgeons without years of training after medical school. One could try to make the argument that all good voters must at some point vote badly (perhaps many times), in order to become good voters–and that there is thus little reason to congratulate someone for not voting, if one values good voting.
    Perhaps voting is not like being a surgeon. But what is it? And in what sense does this type of action not benefit from practice?

    1. Tiberius,
      Wouldn’t one think that the practice isn’t the act of voting itself, but something like, for example, reading newspapers or discussing politics or general education or something along those lines?

  4. But what if Hanson is right? What if voting and politics have absolutely nothing to do with policy? Why then does it matter who votes? Are there still “bad” voters?

  5. On Hanson: If voters vote for candidates likely to enact harmful policies because of their desire to signal to others, then they vote badly. Perhaps voters don’t care at all about policies. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t bad voters. Quite the contrary–that’s one of the things that makes them bad.

    1. Ok, perhaps voters don’t care at all about policies, Jason. Let me think about that.
      If all voters are thus “bad,” and Hansonian signaling is inherent in democracy, then there will never be any “good” voters, will there? Or at least there will never be enough. And therefore aren’t you, Jason, basically castigating sparrows for being unable to do calculus?
      If useful or meaningful democracy is thus impossible, why bother to defend universal suffrage at all? Why not just call it empty, expensive theater and abandon it?
      So you would in fact be better off holding a salon in your living room,scrapbooking, joining the bowling league, or drinking wine in your garden while Rome burns in the distance, yes?

      1. Webgrrl, why would you assume that signaling is binary (you signal or you don’t) or that signaling is uniformly distributed (we all do it the same)?
        The available evidence is that some portion of our political views must consist of signaling, but surely some of us have a higher mix of in-group/out-group signaling in our political beliefs. Furthermore, signaling behavior is likely to incrementally distort astute policy preferences, not eliminate them entirely.
        If we can get those individuals to stay home. We should have less signaling-related inputs in our political process in the aggregate.
        Imagine a world where giving medical advice was considered both a natural right and public virtue. Wouldn’t you say that encouraging people without medical training (or emotional preferences for, say, faith-healing) to influence the healthcare decisions of others is likely, on balance, to result in more bad decisions about health? Would a policy of “if you don’t know what that lump is, don’t feel obligated to speculate” improve or impair the quality of medical discourse?

  6. The problem is the positive feedback loop. The more the Democrats convince ill-informed people to vote, the greater the collective power of such voters in every subsequent election. Encourage the ill-informed to vote. Expand government power. Increase the significance of the elections. Repeat.

  7. Yes, the problem has been the positive feedback loop. The more the Republicans convince the biased, bigoted, ill-informed, religious zealots (who make the ‘id’ of the Republican party) to vote, the greater the collective power of such voters in subsequent election to elect a incompetent candidate based on religious views (example: G.W. Bush). Encourage the bigots to vote. Expand government incompetence and corruption. Increase the significance of the elections. Repeat.

  8. I had thought that the empirics were that education and performance on basic political tests don’t have much of a predictive power (at least in a linear fashion) with political party, though they do have a lot of predictive power, just orthogonal to the right-left dimension. That is, adding extra education or political information changes preferences, but not systematically in favor of one party. Which seems to be entirely in keeping with what Brennan is saying (though not in keeping with some of the less sympathetic readings of what Brennan or Wilkinson are saying), unless I’m misinterpreting.

Comments are closed.