Linguistic False Consciousness and the Myth of Modern Liberalism

I have an allegedly forthcoming essay in Reason that started out as a joint review of George Lakoff and Geoffrey Nunberg's new books. It transmuted into an account of the political upshot of Jonathan Haidt's work in moral psychology as an alternative to the semi-useless framing and narrative stuff. So, while I'm talking about Lakoff, here's a few paragraphs that dropped out as the focus changed.

“If Americans are to hold on to freedom as they grew up with it, as they have come to know and love it,” says a very alarmed Lakoff, “then they have to understand that there is a radically different and frightening notion of what extremists on the right call 'freedom' shaping our culture and political life. You can’t stop it if you don’t see it.” Lakoff calls for the liberating “higher rationality” only Lakoff's theories of “conceptual metaphor” make possible.

To Nunberg's credit, Nunberg and Lakoff have some sharp differences. Lakoff's argument builds on yet another exposition of his intriguingly comprehensive armchair theory of a metaphor-saturated mind and his astoundingly empirically ill-supported conjecture that at some deep, unconscious level we all understand the nation-state (a form of social organization about as primordial as barometers and pendulum clocks) as a family. Lakoff's upshot is that the split between the left and the right boils down to differences in ideal parenting style. Nunberg rightly calls bullshit and accuses Lakoff of making stuff up and projecting his pet presuppositions about conservatives and liberals into the mind. Nunberg notes there are lots of metaphors for the state—a ship adrift, an actor on the world stage, a city on a hill, a house with crumbling foundations—and there is simply no reason to think one of them structures our political thought. We should all thank Nunberg for suggesting that there is no thread, metaphorical or logical, that runs through the contingently evolving packages of partisan commitment. Decision: Nunberg!

However, their mutual quest to assuage Democratic disappointment through linguistic therapy overshadows their intramural differences. Squint and the pair look like low-octane liberal versions of communist philosophers Georg Lukacs and Antonio Gramsci, who in the 1920s sought an explanation of Marx's failed forecast that the working class would “inevitably” rise in revolt against its capitalist masters. Their answer was that the workers couldn't think straight, so thoroughly had the capitalists bewitched them. Through “hegemonic” control of popular mass media, state propaganda, and devious marketing, the capitalists made the proletarians frame their interests in the favored terms of the enemy—to develop a “false consciousness” that kept them complacent, commodified cogs in the machine, unable to see and unwilling to fight for their true good. Likewise, Nunberg and Lakoff argue that if it wasn't for the malign right-wing mental framework so many of us somehow got stuck with, voters would be falling over themselves to pull the lever for Democrats.


Lakoff and Nunberg's projects are largely animated by smug confidence that their university-issue leftism delivers the hard truth about the American system. “True, people aren't compelled by law to accept the jobs Wal-Mart offers them—they're legally free to take a couple of weeks in Gstaad or go sleep under a culvert, ” Nunberg writes, ridiculing the freedom of contract. Both assume that unless Washington guarantees the worth of our freedoms through large-scale regulation and aggressive redistribution, the liberal ideal of equal freedom will be empty—a cruel joke. Setting aside his aspirational cognitive science, that's the tired philosophical core of Lakoff's attempt to recapture the concept of “freedom” for the left.

And in an yet earlier version, I expanded on the the essentially anti-empirical character of Lakoff and Nunberg's politics. (Sorry for redundancy from bits that carried over between drafts.)

Nunberg and Lakoff are wholehearted adherents to what Brown political theorist John Tomasi calls the “myth of modern liberalism”: since classical market liberalism does not include government guarantees of material sufficiency, freedoms of contract and secure property are merely formal; unless Washington ensures the fair value of our freedoms through regulation and redistribution, the liberal ideal of equal freedom will be empty—a cruel joke.

Yet whether government attempts to guarantee sufficiency do more than relatively unfettered markets for the value of our freedoms is an empirical question about the best institutional means to shared liberal ends. Classical liberals (and that dying breed, the classical liberal conservative) have almost always defended the market on those terms, in reference to its benefits for everyone, including the least advantaged. Lakoff and Nunberg don't even engage that debate; their dogma precludes the existence of a question. But the same fight over the best means to liberals occurs in miniature among welfare-liberals, as illustrated by the recent Slate punch-up over the effects of Wal-Mart on the working poor between NYU economist Jason Furman and Nickel & Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich. Furman, defending Wal-Mart, calmly devastated Ehrenreich because he actually knew something about markets in general and Wal-Mart's impact in particular. Lakoff and Nunberg don't engage the intramural welfare-liberal debate, either. They're basically pop-socialist Ehrenriechs with linguistics Ph.Ds. Perhaps it is worth pointing out that bad social science is not exactly a problem of framing, rhetoric, or narrative. 

Clearly, I was not impressed by the books.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

30 thoughts

  1. I thought Matt’s piece was excellent. Obama voices many general aspirations that almost everyone agrees with, but more his specific points reflect an unrelective acceptance of Democratic orthodoxy that take no account of compelling facts and arguments to the contrary.

  2. truly devastating? i must be missing something… Is there supposed to be some incoherence in saying that the U.S. will recover and that there are things that need to happen before we get there? (We disagree with what he thinks needs to happen, but there’s no contradiction there.) Or some incoherence in the prez saying that he wants the U.S. to on the forefront of new industries/export more, and saying that we live in a globalized world? Or something not real about preventing layoffs that projections indicate would otherwise occur? Again, you may disagree with the content of Obama’s points, but at least from what you’ve quoted here, i’m not seeing incoherence unless you reduce Obama’s words to generalities. Clearly Welch thinks Obama is wrong about what the country needs, but instead of just stating his disagreement, claims Obama isn’t rational. looks to me like it’s Welsh spouting the fallacies. I think you may have quoted the worst chunk of the column.

  3. I fear that we are addicted to BS; vide the broad acceptance of “no one messes with” Joe Biden as well-qualified to take up the presidency if need be.

  4. the part about having a financial system without speculators is the real telling part. it’s as if ‘speculator’ is a moral distinction as opposed to a straight definition of someone who makes bets on the price of an asset.
    there’s parallels to be made to obama’s attempts at ethics reform. it’s all well and good to talk about removing influence peddling from washington; unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of crossover between people skilled at conducting public policy and those who’ve been lobbyists or consultants.
    if you want a viable financial system, it helps to have people who are good at making money. you can throw all the money changers out of the temple in a fit of righteous indignation, but then who’s going to keep your credit system running ?

  5. I have to agree with most of the above commenters; a case might be made that any public rhetoric by politicians contains inconsistencies, but Matt’s piece doesn’t come anywhere close to establishing that.
    Will, I think you might be seeing what you already believe (the inherent incoherence of much of liberal policy agenda?) rather than what Obama is actually saying.
    This is not a rousing defense of Obama’s speech, but the self-congratulatory tone behind your claims comes off pretty badly given the utter lack of substance behind the claim that Obama is flatly contradicting himself.

  6. All the incoherence is diffused with some proper context and basic appreciation for what he’s trying to say. For instance when he says “I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders” he means that he doesn’t want a future in which they largely take root beyond our borders at the expense of here — i.e. he wants the U.S. to be a top tier player on things like car batteries, but if Korea wants to compete as well that’s just dandy.
    Whatever you think of his ideas, to call the speech “incoherent” and “contradictory” on these grounds is a sad stretch. The AP’s factcheck is more useful.

    1. The context you describe suggests a view of economic development that is essentially zero-sum. How, exactly, would it be a bad thing if manufacturers in Korea started producing car batteries that were vastly superior to anything currently available? This zero-sum view makes perfect sense when wealth is distributed through political machinations, but it is completely incoherent when juxtaposed to the creation and accumulation of new wealth in the private sector.

      1. Individual cases like S. Korea making better car batteries better are beneficial. They already make better LCD/Plasma screens etc, no big deal. I see two points:
        1) At the point where more and more jobs “take root” outside of the US, that kinda sucks for us in terms of job quality. So kind of a “hey lets keep up and be part of the game” rhetoric. Take the batteries as a general example of not being behind the times in general (ties to improving quality of education maybe?)
        2) It’s probably also an attempt to show that environmentally friendly tech is happening elsewhere and it’s not just star wars or smoke and mirrors. Which to be honest, in some cases it is heh. Clean coil, biodiesel, etc. But you do have countries curbing pollution and making advances while still profiting.
        I tend to agree that the contradictions in the speech aren’t really contradictions – “we will get out of this” + “hey this is some serious shit to get through” is consistent. Granted I just read the blockquotes here and not the full article.

      2. Yep, I agree with all erutan says.
        Todd, you’re objecting to his idea of being specifically concerned about batteries as being bad/misguided, and I happen to agree with that. The point is more useful if the example is generalized as erutan suggests.. But our disagreement with his particular car battery idea doesn’t make it incoherent or contradictory, just unwise (in our view).
        To alphie below: Will summed the speech up as “Oratorywise, so good. Ideawise, so weak. Combination, so dangerous.”
        If the ideas were better the combination of using oratory to sell them wouldn’t be so dangerous. So clearly ideas matter. And what with Republicans being the party of “NO” for now I’m not sure why you think the contrarian market as a whole is depressed.
        What’s depressed is the market for ,intelligent, well-argued contrarianism, which is why I’m an avid lurker here. Unfortunately this particular post (and the Welch column) don’t have much merit, which is why I felt the need to comment.

      3. I thought I made the point that if you generalized Obama’s views on “car batteries” you come away with a zero-sum view of economics that contradicts the experience of specialization/globalization leading to tremendous increases in wealth and material well-being.

      4. Well you’re generalizing it in a way inconsistent with Obama’s meaning, which is that we should work harder to keep up with countries like Korea in areas like making batteries. There’s nothing zero sum about wanting the U.S. to work harder and be competitive in these areas. And in fact when different players such as a U.S. company and a Korean company compete well with each other at supplying the same products, efficiency increases and more wealth gets created by everyone who uses those products.
        Arguably any government subsidies for things like car battery manufacturers are likely to be a zero or negative sum monetarily, but not zero sum in achieving policy goals such as reducing carbon emissions. Whether it’s worth it depends on how highly you value those policy goals. Obviously many on the right value carbon emission harm at something close to $0, but a typical lefty like Obama sees things differently, and that difference is not an incoherence on his part.

      5. “Will summed the speech up as “Oratorywise, so good. Ideawise, so weak. Combination, so dangerous.””
        Will seems to be an example of Confirmation Bias in action these days.
        Make a few fact-free declarations, find a few people who agree with them, and pretend its something other than his own personal bias.
        Oh well, Andrew Sullivan quoted him, so it’s all good.

      6. > Will seems to be an example of Confirmation Bias in action these days.
        I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I do think this post and the column are an unfortunate example of confirmation bias…

      7. It might be worth reading the full article, since in the second half that Will didn’t quote, Matt goes into much more detail about the way that many of the economic activities that Obama castigates are actually essential to facilitating the kind of recovery and innovation he promises.
        As for the two points you made above, if Obama’s speech was merely intended as encouragement and opportunity to present reasons for optimism, I don’t think you’d hear many complaints. The problem is that he is advocating using other people’s money, acquired under threat of force, in ways not consistent with the guiding principles established in the Constitution meant to limit such exercises of raw political power.
        If he, or anyone else, thinks they can make a profit on more environmentally friendly production processes, they should be free to try as long as they use their own money, or money acquired voluntarily from an investor. When the president announces he is going to pick winners and losers, and then says that we will all be winners, things don’t really seem to add up.

      8. Ok reading now.
        The comments on CEOs not spending taxpayer money (TARP II?) for personal benefit seems more like responsible governance than anger/seizing the moment.
        save or create… well yeah. some spending will create, some bailouts/aid will save, cyclical effect of both. It does make it hard to measure, but you could never know how many jobs would have been created (disregarding save) in some alternate universe with differing legislation.
        carbon tax + family making less than 250k. it’s a fairly specialized case, but yes. re: tax cuts for corporations that outsource… corporations get taxed separately from individuals/families no?
        derivatives trader vs “rewarding executive” (taxpayer money going for bonuses, etc).
        given banks hoarding money / acquiring other firms while restricting credit flow out, tossing them money and expecting them to act in the public interest does seem kind of naive. there’s a difference between saying “zomg i hate banks they are evil and must die” and “hey maybe just tossing cash at them with no strings attached isn’t the best idea, given their incentives are for private gain and not public utility.”
        The writer hears what he wants to hear, as to an extent I do. I do think he’s kind of sensationalizing this whole schizophrenia thing.
        PS – acquiring under threat of force? Is the National Guard going to be raiding investment bankers homes? Or do you mean taxing in general?

      9. I agree that there is an element of sensationalism in both Matt’s column and Will’s response, but I don’t think they are wrong about the incompatibility of Obama’s goals and his announced methods. In particular, if Obama plans to more aggressively pursue the application of federal taxes to income earned in foreign countries by American-based corporations that has not been repatriated, he will provide greater incentives for American corporations to relocate to a more hospitable base country. He will not raise as much money as static projections would predict, and he will cause productive activity to fall worldwide.
        As for money being acquired under threat of force, I was referring to taxation in general. There is a box for voluntary donations to the government on your tax return. It doesn’t raise much money.

      10. It would depend on whether the increase in taxes was enough to cause companies to flee the country, or just rethink the degree of outsourcing. There’s a difference on taxing profits made in other countries and “ending the tax breaks for corporations that ship our jobs overseas” imo.
        I’m a bit baffled how this (or havng government sponsored R&D) is a raw use unconstitutional power…

      11. It all depends on how seriously you take the notion that the Constitution was intended to establish a government of enumerated powers for the benefit of a people with unenumerated rights. I see the 9th and 10th amendment as clearly saying that unless the power the federal government wishes to exercise is authorized in the Constitution, it cannot legally proceed. I can’t find a provision that sanctions the use of tax revenues to fund scientific research. This is the closest thing I could find “The Congress shall have Power…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” but I don’t see how that authorizes anything other than the granting of copyrights and patents.

      12. So you disapprove of his idea to spend other people’s money to subsidize this stuff, and I agree with you. But our disagreement with him doesn’t make his speech incoherent or contradictory.
        I read the rest of the column. There was some external information that contradicts some of what Obama said, which is good to know (like the factcheck I linked to)
        But never was it one “side” or “face” of Obama meaningfully contradicting the “other side/face” — and that’s the wrongful theme of this post/column.
        For instance when Obama says “If your family earns less than $250,000 a year you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime.” he doesn’t mean that there will never be any deduction and tax break changes. Freezing those as they are would be a harmful and unkeepable promise. He’s refering instead to just the overall bracket rates of people making under 250K.
        And when he says “I will not spend a single penny for the purpose of rewarding a single Wall Street executive”, he does not mean that no wall street executives will benefit from any of his spending; just that his purpose in doing these things that might benefit them will be something of more overarching interest to taxpayers, such as “keeping the economy stable”.

      13. I guess this is the logician in me speaking, but when I hear “you will not see your taxes increased a single dime” followed by a pledge to increase taxes, that sounds an awful lot like a contradiction to me. From a more literal perspective, it could be true that a family might not “see” a new line item on their sales receipts allocating a portion of the total cost to a new carbon tax, but that doesn’t mean that the price increase hasn’t occurred.
        Furthermore, if you think he’ll be able to avoid raising the bracket rates below $250,000 and keep his pledge to cut the deficit in half, you’ll have to show me where the $700+ billion in spending cuts are going to come from, because he’s not going to get all that money by raising rates on the top 2% of earners.
        Finally, isn’t the purpose of paying anyone anything to entice them to perform some action that you deem beneficial? If Obama is saying that he’s not going to be distributing money to people he likes just because he likes them, then ok, well, he’s telling us he’s not totally corrupt which is good to hear; however, if government money does continue to flow into Wall Street and the President goes on national television to respond to public protest, I doubt many people will be satisfied by the explanation that the bonuses aren’t meant to “reward” the bankers, but rather to “help” all of us. If, on the other hand, he is saying what I think most people heard, which is that banking executives are going to be treated like government bureaucrats in which their salary is more of a stipend than payment for a job well done, then I think such actions are again logically incompatible with the goal of “keeping the economy stable.”

  7. I don’t think it’s a matter of ideas, Gherald.
    It’s more about what sells and what doesn’t.
    The contrarian market is deeply depressed right now, but it’s still a market.
    Pity so many Contrarians are giving it away for free these days.

  8. Boy this is lame. You are criticizing a need for action. The only way for Obama to be confident by your lights is for everything to be already perfect. You are saying that “I am confident in America, because there is nothing left to do” would be the only acceptable, non-“contradictory” argument.
    Was that, say, Reagan’s logic … that one month into his Presidency all work was done, everything was perfect, and for that reason he could express confidence?
    Or was it because he was confident in a path, with work to do?

  9. The incoherence is obviously based on goals that cannot stand the scrutiny of real world economics. People do not behave as Obama and the Democrats (or Republicans for that matter) want them to and as long as they ignore human nature the confusion and contradictions will be visible for all objective observers to see.

  10. I get it. You don’t like the new president. Reading your blog, I get the impression that you don’t like much of anything. You live in a world where all decisions can be Monday-morning quarterbacked. Here in the tactile world someone has to clean up the mess left by a generation of bubble-economics so that knuckleheads like you can spend your days banging on a keyboard. If you don’t like it, then run for office yourself. Knob.

    1. Government stupidity got us into this trouble by inflating housing prices and now the answer (of course!) is more government stupidity.
      Obama is just digging a deeper grave that he wants us to all willingly jump into. No thanks. You and all the other kool-aid drinkers are welcome to jump in of course.

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