Right wing think tanks promote a lot of intuitive but messed up concepts that get uptake even in the left. I dissect them here and provide alternative ways of thinking about these concepts.
Propaganda is a powerful form of persuasion / way of shaping mindsets. Conservative intellectuals and think tanks have effectively spread concepts that are intuitive and have a kernel of truth to them. But in doing so, they lead us away from our morals, and in extreme cases can undermine the very values being appealed to (see: How Propaganda Works). Often this is done by being vague or imprecise in the concepts being appealed to, or by exploiting ambiguity in the meaning of words.
Recently, I’ve started to see these conservative concepts getting uptake on the left, which I find worrying. So I’m writing this post now to look at four different conservative (or centrist) memes, argue why they are not a good way of conceiving of the world, and provide an alternative way of thinking that is hopefully about as simple as the propaganda concept but more accurate.
This is one of the most basic, most widespread of manipulative phrases in the U.S. today, in my opinion.
What is the free market?
The concept of free market is very nebulous. It can be a political prescriptive ideal, one where the government should take a hands-off approach to trade restrictions, such as not implementing tariffs. This political concept is often conflated with a second concept, an economic concept of a perfect or ideal market. A perfect market for a good is one where trades are driven by the supply and demand of individual actors within the market (buyers and sellers of the good in question). If a market meets the condition of perfect free competition (a cluster of traits such as buyers and sellers can freely enter or exit the market), the market will be (Pareto) efficient.
As far as I can tell, the Wikipedia page for free markets is a good example of the conflation between these two concepts: the article starts off with a political definition (“free from any intervention by a government, price-setting monopoly, or other authority”), but switches to using the economic ideal market when discussing economic equilibrium (“under certain conditions of competition, the law of supply and demand predominates in this ideal free and competitive market”) without noting a switch has happened.
Kernel of truth:
I think the intuition of perfect market = free market = unregulated market relies on two things:
(1) The fact that perfect markets and unregulated markets are both “ideal” in some way — perfect markets make a lot of assumptions that put them at the far end of a spectrum that actual real-life markets will fall short of (“ideal” here meaning “the opposite of real”). On the other hand, unregulated markets are often touted as being the best kind of market (“ideal” here meaning “preferable”).
(2) The fact that perfect markets and unregulated markets both involve the word “free”. Perfect markets exist when there is completely free competition, while unregulated markets are free from regulations or constraints.
Also, the economic concept is connected to the political concept because the efficiency of perfect markets is often used to justify a policy of laissez-faire deregulation.
Why is the use of the “free market” to promote “unregulated markets” messed up?
In practice, the concept of the “free market” is used to make efficient, perfect markets synonymous with “unregulated markets”. However, these two things are not synonymous. In order to preserve or create the desirable perfect markets people want, government intervention is often needed. For example, free competition is a prerequisite to a perfect market. The presence of monopolies violates this prerequisite, and monopolies are capable of forming even in the absence of regulation (e.g. industries with high start-up costs). While government power can easily create and strengthen monopolies (for example, by adding regulation that makes it more difficult for new agents to enter the market), it is also one of the few ways of breaking monopolies as well (e.g. by breaking up a large company that is beginning to dominate the market and gain price-setting power).
Another example: the property of Pareto efficiency that perfect markets have is only guaranteed in the absence of externalities. An externality is when costs (or benefits) flow to a third party outside the scope of the exchange of the good. For example, the pollution produced by a factory can be borne by locals, rather than the buyers and profit-makers located possibly in another state or country entirely. If market actors had full knowledge of these costs, they may prefer a level of production/consumption different than the one the market-without-externalities actually finds optimal, leading to suboptimal efficiency overall. As such, the nice benefits of perfect markets don’t kick in unless, say, you use government regulation to incorporate externalities into the market generating them. Thus, government regulation can actually be a tool to expand the situations in which the free market is a good choice for distributing a particular good.
In summary, government regulation of markets helps the Free Market. This is unfortunately totally unintuitive.
Instead of / when you encounter “free market” you should:
Realize free ≠ unregulated. The libertarian view of the world is that we are a few unnecessary regulations away from achieving a perfect free market. But is this really the case? Think about the ways in which markets face challenges to free competition by things that exist in the absence of regulation, or how regulation can bring something closer to being a perfect market.
Unlike the other parts of this post, tribalism is propaganda that comes from the center, not the right. However, it has as many issues (in my opinion) as the other points of this post.
What is tribalism?
Tribalism is the notion that people’s behavior is strongly influenced by membership in a group, and viewing another group as “out-group”. Some of these influences on behavior can manifest as inconsistent behavior (for example, excoriating an opposing party politician for sexist comments while refusing to condemn people on one’s own side calling an opposing female politician a “corporate whore” (“it’s not sexist when one attaches the word ‘corporate’ to it, obviously!” /s)). Another example of tribalism at work would be people adopting a political position unthinkingly, simply because their wider “group” has adopted it as a political position.
Tribalism no doubt exists. However, the problem I have with it is when it is used from the perspective of the center to erase real differences between the politics of the left and right. This is a good example I found while Google searching (from this blog post):
Kernel of truth:
Human beings are certainly tribal, just in general. The idea that political parties are becoming tribes is an obvious extension of this, especially bolstered by worrying observations like increasing polarization of political opinion in the U.S. and (very likely related) increasing physical separation (segregation) between red (suburbs/country) and blue (cities) tribes. You also don’t have to look very long or hard to find a person who has a basic, surface-level understanding of politics, who doesn’t have an elaborate, well-thought-out intellectual theory of politics guiding their positions (in fact, their positions might be a contradictory mish-mash of things) but know very well who they’re supporting in the next election.
Tribal chauvinism can be scary — the ability to ascribe Deep Differences between in-group and out-group justifies (and thus creates) violence. People instinctively wish to bridge gaps between groups. Doing so stems future violence and can even be an ego boost to the person capable of doing so — being able to see how both sides are just tribal takes the person able to see it out of the realm of primitive partiality into the era of enlightenment and clear sight free from petty bias.
Why is the use of “tribalism” messed up?
There are at least three things messed up about analyzing political disagreement as largely tribalism.
First thing: it disrupts public democratic discourse by giving people the ability to dismiss people’s positions as born from blind, unenlightened loyalty rather than being sincerely held. The ability to say, “Well, you WOULD say that because that’s your tribe’s Doctrine” is not a good way to engage with fellow citizens’ opinions.
The concept of tribalism spreads a weird moralized amorality, where the ability to see the value of both sides becomes valorized more than the ability to take a side decisively
Second thing: it elides the very real differences and very real societal implications that different positions have. Whether Muslims should be banned, in my opinion, really really isn’t a matter of, “Well, you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to. Who’s to say what’s right, really?” The concept of political disagreement boiling down, ultimately, to tribalism spreads a weird moralized amorality throughout society, where the ability to see the value of both sides becomes valorized (morally lauded) much more than the ability to take a side decisively (such preference for one over the other is close-minded, unenlightened, tribal). I’m not saying being able to see the logic or reasoning behind the other side is bad — I will never ever turn my back on the importance of empathy. But if your idea of enlightenment extends to “seeing through the bullshit of each side impartially” and no further, not to being able to evaluate the merits and awfulness of various positions, choose a side, and fight for the more moral option, your ability to see free from bias serves you and no one else.
The example above finds it unusual that someone would uniformly choose politicians of one party after careful evaluation because the “quality” of candidates varies so much that there is likely to be overlap, which means that a straight ticket will probably select a bad quality candidate over a better quality candidate. However, this doesn’t really make sense to me as someone for whom political positions are the main criteria of “quality” in a candidate. The two parties agree on a lot, but on the issues they don’t agree on, it is very rare for me to agree more with the political positions of a Republican over even a very right-wing Democrat — my notion of “quality” does not suggest there is much overlap at all. It’s true that serious issues like corruption / criminal behavior might make me consider voting for the other candidate, or a very odd politician who runs on issues no other politician has a stance on might warrant a closer look. However, I think the view that political differences seem like the least relevant consideration only makes sense when you’re in the center.
In the place of political stances, there is an unspecific notion of “quality”, and as you can see in the post, the state of being indifferent to political differences is morally valorized.
Third thing: as someone who is not a centrist, I will tell you that you can have zero loyalty for a political party (in fact, actively have an antagonistic relationship with both), and still have a very clear preference for one party’s politics. Having a preference between two teams ≠ being guided by tribalist loyalties. It just means your politics are not located midway between the teams.
Instead of / when you encounter “tribalism” you should:
Recognize that the existence of tribalism as a psychological feature of humans doesn’t negate very real differences between political stances. Recognize that while it’s good deed to reduce partisan bias in the world, there are sometimes things much worse than being partisan, and sometimes doing the right thing means decisively taking a side and fighting for it, rather than saying “well, I can see the value of both sides”.
What is political correctness?
This term is overloaded. It has at least three different meanings:
(1) Speech specifically by/peculiar to politicians that is careful to reduce offensiveness, render speech anodyne, or minimize political consequences of speech. This can be euphemistic to soften harsh realities (referring to civilian casualties as “collateral damage”, war as “military action”, etc.). The substituted phrase means the same thing but is somewhat euphemistic in nature. Taking care to always call ethnic groups by their preferred name rather than one considered derogatory is another example of political correctness (African-American vs. Negro, Roma vs. gypsy, Native American vs. Indian, trans vs. transgendered). The substituted phrase means the same thing but is less offensive. It might even manifest as an avoidance of certain phrases altogether, e.g. Obama’s avoidance of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” is motivated by political strategy and perceived political consequence.
(2) Moral pressure from groups to adhere to non-offensive speech patterns. The act of holding public figures (not just politicians or famous people, but anyone speaking in a public venue) accountable for their speech is considered an act of political correctness. For example, when a scientist at the European Space Agency wore a t-shirt with scantily-clad women during an interview, the backlash from the public was often labeled as an example of political correctness, even though the person and the people criticizing him were not politicians and no speech was being consciously modulated, except maybe in the future, which leads us to…
(3) Sometimes as a result of political correctness-2, a kind of self-censorship where people change their public behavior so as not to provoke outrage or criticism. Note that this is similar to political correctness-1, but can be engaged by anyone, ordinary citizens, as opposed to politicians. Note that this can be accompanied by actual changes in attitudes (“I didn’t realize it was offensive, but now that I know, I will behave differently in the future”) or change in behavior without change in attitude (“I still don’t understand how it’s offensive, but I don’t want trouble, so I won’t make waves”).
Kernel of truth:
Everyone is familiar with the executive control needed when you’re very carefully managing your language so as not to say something offensive or just incorrect, or something that will lead to a heated argument. This results in stilted and affected speech as opposed to natural and unthinking speech. Everyone is familiar that not behaving authentically can serve as a block on forming genuine, intimate relationships with people. This feeling of social alienation is frankly kind of scary.
Why is the use of “political correctness” messed up?
I have two issues with the deployment of “political correctness”. First issue: it disrupts public democratic discourse by giving people the ability to dismiss any speech as dishonest (under political correctness-3). When you can’t tell if people are saying something because they truly believe it, or if they’re saying it because they’d be metaphorically lynched by their close-minded bubble, it’s easy to dismiss their opinion rather than to seriously grapple with a sincerely-held opinion.
Similar to political correctness are the cutting-edge right-wing propaganda concepts/buzzwords of “virtue-signaling” and “moral grandstanding”, or anger/outrage as “performative”, all of which attack moralized pronouncements as being insincere and cynical while declining to actually grapple with the stated moral position itself.
Second issue: I often see centrists accusing the left they disagree with of “political correctness gone mad”. However, they seem to do this without realizing that the right can and eventually will do the same thing to undermine those centrists’ own positions. The very processes by which centrists come to declare those to the left of them guilty of “political correctness” occur in the far right for positions to the left of them, including those centrists’ positions. I very rarely see people who deploy “political correctness gone mad” show awareness that eventually they may be discredited by their own tactics.
In any case, both issues are tied to how the main effect of accusations of “political correctness” is to discredit people (for being e.g. disingenuous, dishonest, etc.) not arguments or positions. This is not a tactic that is pleasant to experience, and it is not good for democracy.
Instead of / when you encounter “political correctness” you should:
Commit yourself to taking all opinions at face value, entertaining all serious public pronouncements seriously. When you see people calling something “political correctness gone MAD” say that you support the ability of people to voice their sincerely-felt political opinions in public and ask your conversation partner what they think of said political opinion.
What is free speech?
Everyone loves free speech. It is a right protected from legislative restrictions by the U.S.’s constitution. However, defining it is very difficult and contentious. In the weakest version of free speech protection, the protection of free speech defines a relationship between government and its citizens. Free speech protection is entirely targeted at tying the hands of the government to punish or limit people’s speech. A broader, person-centered view of free speech is that companies and groups of people can infringe free speech in ways that the government actually quite weirdly has an obligation to intervene on in order to protect individual freedom of speech. For example, a company laying off an employee because of something they said in their personal Twitter account is arguably a threat to that individual’s free speech. A group of users can launch a sustained spam campaign to make a person unable to use a blogging platform. Everyone knows that freedom of speech is important to preserve for a well-functioning society (it is often one of the earliest casualties in authoritarian regimes). The right uses this fear of authoritarianism and intuitive understandings of free speech, though, to paint leftists as enemies of free speech while simultaneously doing far more damage to free speech.
Kernel of truth:
The left can be intolerant of disagreement. Like with political correctness, people are familiar with the way that angry shouting does have a chilling effect on one’s willingness to express the same opinion again in public. This attack on free speech is so pure, so clear, so visceral — it seems like paradigmatic censorship. You say something; people scream at you; you decide not to say the thing anymore. You’ve been censored. If this repeats itself on a larger scale, a whole strand of controversial thought gets stamped out. RIP free speech.
Why is this use of “free speech” messed up?
Ultimately, I think the biggest problem with people’s deployment and analyses of free speech is that they ignore power relationships. The paradigmatic case of free speech suppression as angry people yelling at someone is not actually a very paradigmatic case of suppression, while other calmer and unemotional actions by powerful agents can be much more threatening to free speech.
For example: everyone was rightly angry when a professor swatted a camera out of the hand of a student journalist at the University of Missouri protests. But those same defenders of free speech who spread around the journalists’ story were strangely quiet when the Missouri state legislature cut funding from the University of Missouri related to the Click incident. In the second action, no person was shut up by angry, screaming voices. No one person was publicly censored or shamed. Yet the tactic of denying a state university funding as a way to punish the actions of a member therein (even though the person was already disciplined) is so much more fundamentally threatening to free speech in the university than the obvious violation of free speech that is hitting a camera out of a journalists’ hand or angry students shouting stuff at you is.
The second issue I have is in the way people use defense of free speech to be intolerant of moralized disagreement. I remember once reading a thinkpiece on how the left undermines free speech, in which the author likened moralizing speech to a kind of atomic bomb — a trump card or conversation-killer that immediately ends debate. I haven’t been able to find that thinkpiece again, but I think the view it contained is a fairly common view. For example, when the president of a Society of Christian Philosophers apologized for the hurt caused by an offensive talk by an invited speaker at a conference, the conservative response argued that it was denunciation, not mere disagreement, that constituted a threat on free speech (“if a Christian cannot defend orthodox Christian teaching at conference of Christian philosophers without being denounced (as distinct from argued with), we are in deep trouble”). Note: we are not talking about how the speaker was punished by losing his job, not being invited to speak, or facing legal action (because none of those things happened)1. We are simply talking about the act of denunciation, which even though issued by someone in a position of power translates into no other consequences or disciplinary action being taken. The painting of moralized disagreement as a special form of speech that undermines other free speech and thus is not worth protecting worries me. Part of living in a democracy is being able to deal with disagreement. It is important for debate to be able to take place over issues with a moral dimension to them; thus, the ability to tolerate moralized disagreement is essential to democracy.
The ability to tolerate moralized disagreement is essential to democracy.
To view denunciation as a per se harm to an individual’s rights absent any other consequences or harms (bullying, harassment, violence, unemployment, blacklisting, imprisonment, etc.) is to validate a fear and intolerance of moralized disagreement. Yes, it is painful to be accused of moral wrongdoing. But looking at it from the lens of nonviolent communication we need to understand what exactly we fear when we encounter moralized disagreement — is it harassment and violence? Punishment from the state? Or losing the support and acceptance of our friend group? These are very different fears. In any case, our dialogue on morally charged issues is much improved by communicating vulnerably and nonviolently what these fears are and the needs or values that they stem from. To fall back on saying, “You are oppressing me by calling me *ist when I’m not” is to (1) fail to tolerate moralized disagreement, and (2) obscure the reasons why people go silent in the face of moralized disagreement, and what the power relationships at play are.
Instead of / when you encounter “free speech” you should:
Ask who has power in a situation when determining where the threat to free speech comes from. Who actually has hiring/firing power? Look at the real consequences of speech. Recognize when fears of free speech suppression are driven by fears of moral disagreement or conflict rather than punishment.
↑ 1 If you read the actual apology, it is not even clear to me there was even a denunciation. The statement is a vague “we regret people were offended” faux-apology which is neither denunciation nor any recognition that wrongdoing occurred. This is neither here nor there, though.