Triaxial Epistemology

By way of Popehat, Arnold Kling on a root problem with contemporary political discourse, summarized in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Kling’s three “languages” are ways of talking about politics and government, and they align roughly with the progressive, conservative and libertarian viewpoints. Progressives, Mr. Kling thinks, typically express opinions using an “oppressed-oppressor axis”: societal problems are envisioned mainly as forms of oppression of the weak by the strong. Conservatives favor a “civilization-barbarism axis” and worry about how to defend traditional values and institutions. Libertarians use a “freedom-coercion axis” in which the threat is governmental encroachment on individual choice.

Sometimes you’ll come across a framing so neat and concise it’s hard to imagine how you made such a mental hash of the problem yourself before. As here, at least for me. Of course we’re all talking past each other, and of course everyone else’s axis of political conflict countenances evil, because their axes miss the point completely. You’re moving on the irrelevant X axis, when what matters is how much Y you have, and who the hell are those people over there talking about Z?

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Teasing out from here, it would seem that progressives were focused on power, conservatives on morality, and libertarians on choice.

  2. It seems that the miscommunication comes when you talk with people who insist there is only one axis when all three are important and have value.

  3. I posted this on the fp, please forgive; I repost here to be part of the axis of conversation:
    Burt, thank you for this; it’s awesome. I frequently find myself challenging some folk here, Roger, Jason in particular. This isn’t always because I disagree with them, I often think I actually agree on some core central idea, but I’m challenging the language and perspective.

    That said, I do take so umbrage with ‘oppressed/oppressor’ axis for liberals; because ‘oppressor’ suggests active agency to oppress; and I don’t think ‘oppressing’ is the goal so much as a side effect. I’d prefer an axis of opportunity, perhaps disadvantaged/advantaged.

    This helps me to more clearly think through that language; to perhaps frame it in ways that help us find the centers of agreement.

    And an question; are there axis of understanding/conversation that we’re missing?

    • Privileged/oppressed might be better. That same objection stuck in my craw.

      • I was thinking screwed/screwed, because I think there’s an awful lot of emphasis by progs on the privileged actively screwing over the poor, particularly in any discussion of economic matters.

    • “This isn’t always because I disagree with them, I often think I actually agree on some core central idea, but I’m challenging the language and perspective.”

      I find myself in this position, too. I become so fixated on the way that some people advance their arguments that I’ve come to the point of almost never responding to them. And I’m not referring to the trolls or the outrageous bigots, but the ones who really have something important and valuable to say.

      Of course, maybe I’m guilty of similar sins too.

    • My pithy attempt at clarifying the left axis was to call it the “greedy and the needy”

      “In reviewing history and modern society, it is clear that the most useful distinction is between the oppressors and the oppressed. The greedy and the needy. There is more than enough for all of us, but everything is thrown out of whack by the greedy taking more than their fair share and exploiting the needy…”

      Saul Alinsky calls it the “haves and the haves-not.”

      “The setting for the drama of change has never varied. Mankind has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores.”

      • I’ve never read Alinsky, so I cannot speak to that, but I find problems with “have/have nots” if it’s simply an accounting of physical stuff.

        Opportunity? Then I definitely think there’s the have and the have nots.

        • Alinsky would agree…

          “On top are the Haves with power, money, food, security, and luxury. They suffocate in their surpluses while the Have-Nots starve. Numerically the Haves have always been the fewest. The Haves want to keep things as they are and are opposed to change. Thermopolitically they are cold and determined to freeze the status quo.

          On the bottom are the world’s Have-Nots. On the world scene they are by far the greatest in numbers. They are chained together by the common misery of poverty, rotten housing, disease, ignorance, political impotence, and despair; when they are employed their jobs pay the least and they are deprived in all areas basic to human growth. Caged by color, physical or political, they are barred from an opportunity to represent themselves in the politics of life. The Haves want to keep; the Have-Nots want to get, Thermopolitically they are a mass of cold ashes of resignation and fatalism, but inside there are glowing embers of hope which can be fanned by the building of means of obtaining power. Once the fever begins the flame will follow. They have nowhere to go but up.

          They hate the establishment of the Haves with its arrogant opulence, its police, its courts, and its churches. Justice, morality, law, and order, are mere words when used by the Haves, which justify and secure their status quo. The power of the Have-Nots rests only with their numbers. It has been said that the Haves, living under the nightmare of possible threats to their possessions, are always faced with the question of “when do we sleep?” while the perennial question of the Have-Nots is “when do we eat?” The cry of the Have-Nots has never been “give us your hearts” but always “get off our backs”; they ask not for love but for breathing space.”

  4. I never know what to think of such attempts to distill complex, diverse sets of world-views into an extremely limited space with 2 or 3 axes, and I’m even more befuddled by further attempts to place particular clusters of world-views within those sets onto single axes within that space. In my experience, they’re never based on any sophisticated analysis of empirical data, but are instead abstracted by someone who sees the space from a particular vantage. As a result, I never find them to be particularly accurate, but that may just be because my mind doesn’t work so reductively. We saw this a few years ago with Lakoff from the progressive side, and I found it equally problematic then. We’ve seen it over the last few years with Haidt, who admittedly does have a more sophisticated empirical approach than Lakoff (and, I suspect, Kling), but even that tends to leave me feeling less than satisfied.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s some value as a sort of first-pass to think about complex things this way, as long as the next step is to start to recognize how and where these simple classifications breakdown. Because I suspect, for example, that you will find a strong “progressive” presence on the “freedom-coercion” axis, a strong libertarian presence on the “civilization-barbarism” axis, and maybe even a bit of conservatism on the “oppressor-oppressed” axis (just ask the Evangelical Christians), and so on. In fact, I suspect that much of what the other two axes are about relates to the “freedom-coercion” axis, and that the “oppresser-oppressed” axis is less a separate axis than a way of looking at freedom and coercion.

    And having written this, I feel like I’ve already gotten bogged down in weeds that should have just been pulled at the start. We have three world views that arose out of the same intellectual tradition, with extensive overlap in values, and with ideas about what the world we live in should look like that are highly similar. I suspect that much of the reason these groups spend so much time talking past each other has less to do with ideas and more to do with the nature of social groups, which includes power and in-group/out-group dynamics that make talking to each other difficult, along with some key differences in the sorts of personalities that the different groups attract (for various reasons not entirely tied to their ideas).

    • Chris, what you’ve said here is all reasonable.

      I think Kling’s point is useful because humans aren’t always reasonable, they often in tribal language and secret handshake. Distilling complex political views into what Lakoff called frames — and this is one way of framing political communication — helps us undersand the secret language.

      If I bring up regulatory capture or corruption as a problem of income inequality, and Roger starts throwing in terms such as ‘top down’ or MFarmer (I miss him) calls me ‘statist,’ Kling gives me some shorthand method to examine the conversation from a cross-axis perspective; did my words provoke an automatic response that a top-down initiative is required in response? That may be what I mean; but it may not; but something about what I’ve said has provoked this assumption, and so curtailed communication. Inversely, when Roger starts talking about localized regulation and I immediately respond ‘pollution,’ the same lack of communication happens; I know Roger has repeatedly said he believes environmental regulation matters, and matters greatly.

      So I guess this is useful for clarity. It is a shorthand, a stereotype, but those are very much part and parcel of communication to begin with. I think this is one that might help break barriers to meaning down, rather then continually building barriers up.

      • Zic, I think you’re right, so long as we discard our orienting stereotypes as soon as we get into the tall grass of actual ideas and people.

        Have you read Lakoff’s Moral Politics? It’s basically a slightly more empirically based version of this from a progressive perspective. It was all the rage on progressive blogs back in ’04 and ’05. Even then Senator Clinton was a fan.

        P.S. Did I ever mention that it always makes me happy to see that you’ve responded to one of my comments? If not, now I have.

        • Yes, I have. I probably remember very little of what I read then, however, I suffered severe brain inflammation at the time.

          My complaint with Lakoff (and much of the writing done in this area) was that it’s from a perspective, a political pov; distillation to alleviate what he perceived as liberal weakness, and so not well suited to objective analysis. It’s very difficult to push against your own biases.

          • Definitely. And I think it led too many progressives down the wrong path, particularly in its argument that progressivism was empirically true because of dine research in developmental psychology.

        • And P.S., thank you. You’re very tolerant of and indulgent to me, rather like an adult who always takes time to listen to a small child and answer them respectfully.

          I’m grateful.

    • Yeah, I don’y know whether it makes Kling overly civilized, an oppressor, or someone who’s trying to eliminate our freedom to have other sorts of values.

    • Well, in one sense, everything comes down to the freedom/coercion axis since oppression entails coercion as does barbarism. I think the disconnect in language arises one level below (above?) all this stuff. On certain types of problems, libertarians are essentially saying to conservatives and liberals “let’s allow freedom to run it’s course!”, while C’s and L’s are saying, wrt to those same problems, Let’s Not!

      I think you’re onto something very interesting when you reduce all these political disputes to the freedom/coercion axis, tho. That’s a good insight.

  5. It would be churlish and pedantic to point out that “triaxial” doesn’t mean “having three axes”. But that’s how I roll.

  6. All of the stuff in the quoted paragraph is probably broadly correct. Zic is probably right that oppressor/oppressed is not the best description for the liberal worldview. Privileged/Unprivileged or Advantage/Disadvantaged (or displaced) might work better. I don’t think that the tech people currently flooding San Francisco are actively or intentionally trying to displace long-time communities but they have that effect and they psychologically convince themselves that this is okay through various neo-liberalisms.

    The problem with the analysis just like the problem with “The Righteous Mind” is that we don’t get any tools on how to stop speaking past each other. So it seems like all we can do is admit that we are on different axis’ and leave it at that.

    • they psychologically convince themselves that this is okay

      They convince themselves that it’s okay to live in a particular place just because the landlord is willing to rent to them, and because they’re willing to pay the rent. But clearly they’re deluded.

      • Gotta agree with Brandon here. Also, keep in mind that no individual moving into a neighborhood displaces a community, so no individual who occupies (legally) a vacant dwelling has any cause to think his actions aren’t perfectly legitimate. Collectively they may, but unless we’re going to start engaging in the use of collective guilt, none of those individuals needs to convince themselves of anything.

        We could turn this around and say that black people who move into a white neighborhood and collectively displace the white community “psychologically convince themselves that this is okay,” but then we might have to stop criticizing the former community for engaging in white flight.

        It seems there’s a privilege/unprivileged axis at play here in determining whether a particular phenomenon is acceptable or not.

        • Isn’t this sorta the definition of externality? Tech folks moving into SF isn’t wrong, not by any means. But it does have negative externalities, which people should feel justified in concerning themselves with.

          I think the issue arises when people pretend the negative externalities don’t exist or that they are not a problem. There is a concern about people being priced out or otherwise displaced from their local communities. And the effect isn’t limited to those who live there. Neighborhoods risk becoming less vibrant and enjoyable for visitors if they lose their local flair.

          My stance is that we shouldn’t shame people for living where they want to live, but there is a reasonable conversation that can be had about the impact of their decision. Of course, we need not assume that all “gentrifiers” are of the same mold or that all signs of gentrification are one in the same.

          Boston (and I believe DC) had recent battles when Whole Foods tried to move into an urban community. A particular brand of liberals argued that they were trying to gentrify these neighborhoods and force out local businesses and residents. Local residents largely responded with, “What… we don’t deserve overpriced organic produce?” The degree of paternalism was really unfortunate, though the intention was one I might more broadly agree with.

          So, yea, gentrification is tricky, to say the least…

          • It’s sorites: one wealthier person moving into a neighborhood with a particular character that he enjoys, but doesn’t contribute to, makes everyone better off: himself, because he like his new surroundings, and everyone else, because he brings money in. Likewise the second person and the third. But if enough move in, they start to displace the people who made the neighborhood what it was, and now everyone is worse off: the older residents get pushed out by higher rents, and the newer ones have lost what attracted them in the first place. You can’t blame anyone, because no individual has a reason to think “I should stay put, because if I move, I’m the one who creates the tipping point”. It’s a negative-sum result caused by transactions which are individually positive-sum.

            White flight is, of course, a poor analogy, since it’s voluntary, where being pushed out by higher rents is not.

          • I am starting to think that when people look at trends, regulations, etc they tend to focus on different negative externalities and causes based upon their ideological outlook.

            So people who are a bit weary of gentrification see the negative externalities. People who are not stress the benefits. This is probably more of a cognitive blind spot and sorting than anything else.

          • Mike,

            As far as I can tell this is how gentrification works.

            1. Take a poor and largely neglected and often (but not always) minority neighborhood. Examples include Williamsburg in Brooklyn (which was a working class neighborhood for most of its history), Carrol Gardens/Park Slope (old school Irish and Italian working class, dock workers largely), or the Mission in San Francisco (Latino)

            2. First-Wave of Gentrification tends to be artists or sometimes creative class professionals of sorts. Artists were initially attracted to Williamsburg in the 80s and 90s because of the abandoned and shuttered factories that offered often illegal but roomy live-work spaces. These were artists who were too young to take advantage of SOHO lofts in the 1970s. However, Carrol Gardens and Park Slope was “discovered” by families who were outpriced of Manhattan but did not want to move to the suburbs. They discovered (at least a few decades ago) that you could get a really nice fixer-upper brownstone to move into.

            3. Eventually buisnesses come in and/or start catering to the new crowd.

            4. While it is still relatively cheap, young college grads and professionals move into neighborhood apartments. This happened in Brooklyn around the late 90s and early aughts when I graduated from college. More and more of my contemporaries just starting seeing Brooklyn as the place you went because most of Manhattan was too expensive and there were a lot of cool bars, restaurants, and other things catered specifically for their cultural leanings and likes.

            5. Then for the most part the older residents are forced out.

            At a certain point, I don’t think people are “missing out” on what the neighborhood had to offer and people move to said neighborhood because it is filled with nice restaurants, bistros, cafes, boutiques, upscale grocery stores. There might even be a bunch of the old school establishments that survive through a combination of nostalgia and learning to cater to the new residents. Carroll Gardens still has some of the old school Italian bakeries, butcher shops, and restaurants. However now it is combined by having a Barney’s on Atlantic Avenue. Once you get a Barney’s you are probably at the ne plus ultra of gentrification.

            I say this all slightly hypocritically because I have largely lived in and liked gentrified neighborhoods for most of my adult life. I loved living in Carrol Gardens and it was pretty gentrified in 2006-2008 and now it feels much more so. I picked my apartment in SF because it was a ten minute walk to my law school but certainly having Divisadero gentrify makes it nicer.

          • The problem with some gentrification objection is the presumption that all gentrifying forces are necessarily from outside the community. That isn’t always the case. It isn’t always white folks moving into brown neighborhoods.

        • James,

          I have a very complicated and liberal guilt relationship with gentrification for reasons explained below to Mike.

          And generally privilege is a concept that grates on me because I think people use the term too freely and often incorrectly especially on the Internet.

          • “And generally privilege is a concept that grates on me because I think people use the term too freely and often incorrectly especially on the Internet.”

            Can you elaborate?

          • Kazzy,

            I generally see “privileged” used in a way that is more meant to silence debate. “Shut up you are privileged” is not a good rhetorical tool. Just like “Shut up you anti-American commie librul” is not a good rhetorical tool.

            And then there are the times on the when someone who is from a legitmately not privileged background gets called out for supporting privilege or what not. I once ran an election for a community-supported and generally left-wing radio station in New York. The station was hip, cool, and relevant during the 1960s but now has an audience that is almost all over 60 and former militant radicals from the 1960s that never moderated. They also tended to not have much but the radio station and fought bitterly over it. There were two factions that constantly vied for control of the board. They were roughly known as the “black faction” and the “white faction”. This was a misnomer though because both factions were pretty diverse. But the members of the “white faction” that were people of color got called rather nasty names. I did not like this.

  7. It’s not clear to me how all this sorts out: the WSJ link is behind a paywall and I don’t have the book. But I get the gist of the dialectic, to use the Marxist definition: the sorting-out of what’s true in opinions.

    Our opinions, especially our negative ones, are the sum of the injustices we’ve witnessed.

    Until I was perhaps 25, I would have called myself a conservative. This was hardly based on some civilisation versus barbarism basis. I didn’t (and still don’t) approve of tinkering with working machinery without a good reason: that’s conservatism, retaining what’s good and right about American culture. I want an America which holds true to William Penn and the Spirit of 1776 and George Washington and Madison and Lafayette. All these men looked back in time for inspiration and warnings, not forward. If they weren’t perfect men, they were worthy examples, even in their imperfections and hypocrisies. They tried to be good and wise.

    In the 1960s, I felt Liberals were missing the point: these angry souls had no conception of how bad things were elsewhere in the world, how dangerous revolutions were when unguided by wise reformers. And sure enough, the Radical Liberal ethos of the soixante-huitards and the hippies and the antiwar crowd faded away in a welter of mutual recrimination. The Radical Left were against many things: what they were for remained a mystery.

    America’s still never really addressed the issues of poverty and discrimination effectively: we’re more divided now than ever. The Liberals presumed mankind was good and he is not. Madison knew better. The Liberals made many noble arguments against inequality but they never solved the problem. That failure arose from an improper definition of both the problem and the solution

    I became a Liberal anyway. With the election of that skeevy bastard Richard Nixon, I sensed the conservative ethos had lost its way. But with the election of Reagan, I knew conservatives had lost their consciences. Bush41 wasn’t so bad, he was an improvement on either Nixon or Reagan, but with the election of Bush43 I knew the conservatives were not merely self-deluded but were hell-bent on the wholesale destruction of anything resembling actual conservatism.

    The Conservatives, like the Liberals of the 1960s, thrived only in opposition. Once they had some power, they squandered and abused it.

    The Libertarians, for all their idealism, have never had any power and have therefore never squandered that power. Only those who understand the nature of political power will ever get any of it. The Libertarian arguments remain blissfully unsullied. But again, even more so than the Liberals and the Conservatives, the Libertarian presumes mankind would good, if only he were freed from tyranny.

    Our arguments always seem strongest when we’re in opposition. Epistemology seeks knowledge and truth but politics thrives on ignorance, bias, error and lies. We do not progress on the basis of ideals. The worst evils arise from the best of intentions. Progress can only arise when we’re sick of the evils of the status quo.

    Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

    • “Only those who understand the nature of political power will ever get any of it. ”

      That the ones who get it tend to be self-serving scum well versed in the art of lying suggests enough about that nature.

      If mankind were good, there’d be no tyranny. That we are flawed still does not serve as explanation of how declaring some domination “legitimate” is supposed to help anything. I’d rather seek to make the cost & difficulty of domination so high to those who attempt it as to make it undesirable to bother.

      • The exercise of power of any sort is amoral, not immoral. Mankind is not good and seems to prefer tyranny to the other options on offer. The sooner we dispense with the notion of man’s intrinsic goodness, the better: man is good, mostly (if not exclusively) because he fears the consequences of justice.

        Leadership is the province of the ambitious. Insofar as a given leader is guided by the principles of long-term rather than short-term benefit, even the most self-serving scum will serve the purpose. In our republic, we tried to give the politicians sufficient breathing room to do the needful, granting them power for set periods of time. But nowadays, no sooner are they elected than they must continue to raise money for their next election in the stupidest of Caucus Races since Alice in Wonderland.

        Small wonder all we seem to get are whores and lying scum. We’ve never allowed our politicians the luxury of actually governing. They’re perpetually on the stroll like so many prostitutes.

        • So how in the hell do you make those with political power fear the consequences of justice to the same degree as everyone else?

          The question strikes me as equivalent to being asked to draw a square circle. Only way I see out is to not allow the power in the first place, & further actively nullify & dismantle any concentrated power where it emerges, regardless of root.

  8. I found myself thinking back to this post when I read about the Stockholm riots. You can see an example of Kling’s thesis here:
    “Sweden’s centre-right prime minister, Frederik Reinfeldt, blamed ‘hooligans’ but also talked sympathatically of the difficult ‘transition period between different cultures’. Meanwhile politicians from the Swedish Left, which ruled the country for most of the post-war period, blamed the trouble on social spending cuts introduced by Mr Reinfeldt, whose Moderate Party vowed to trim – though not slash – the welfare budget when he took office in 2006.”

    It also explains the solutions offered by the right and left parties. The right wishes to keep the barbarians out while the left wants to alleviate their oppression through expanding benefits.

  9. All three axis involve control or lack there of. If we resign to believe that men are evil, the only end is everyone at each others throat. That doesn’t end well. I think Madison and others realize this.
    There is no checks and balance to limit ambitious people from assigning themselves more control in the name of good. Precedence falls toward the build up of control. It always attempts to stack up to the clouds and falls in stellar fashion. The common person is only set to be angered by the stacking.

    There is no automatic harmony, but why the hell do we keep expecting a different outcome by the same type of systems?

  10. Only three? There may be three that jump out at Kling based on today’s politics in the US, but there are a lot more than three. There’s exploitation-sustainability on the environmental left. There’s always a nationalistic element to US politics, involving a civilization-barbarism axis that would define civilization as English-speaking people and American-made goods, a very different definition than the average conservative. I daresay that race and sex activists would see the oppressed-oppressor axis differently, and we’ve seen some of the tension on that point in the 2008 primaries.

  11. The more I think about this, the less right it seems.

    Progressives argue a civilization-barbarism axis. The barbarians they guard against are redneck, racist gun-and bible-clingers. Their barbarians are anti-science and pro-war. Civilization includes universal health care and access to education and opportunity.

    Conservatives talk about an oppressor-oppressed axis. The oppression comes from the ruling clas in Washington. The Founding Fathers rose up against oppression and created systems that are supposed to protect us from oppressive government.

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