Myth of Left and Right
(Note: Bryan Caplan release his post on this book at same time as mine.)
In their recent book The Myth of Left and Right, two professors who are brothers say that most of us see left and right as denoting stable principled philosophical essences, while in fact the positions associated with left and right are mainly tribal.
That is, there are two main parties, with “left” and “right” positions just denoting whatever those parties have supported lately. When those parties change their positions, everyone quickly changes their minds about which positions are on which side. Most important positions have in fact switched sides in history, and there are a great many diverse theories about what is the left-right essence, none of which gets much support from the data.
This is on the whole correct, and nicely illustrates a key concept of the sacred: instead of directly pledging ourselves to the people of our tribes, we prefer to indirectly feel bound to those who see something sacred the same as us. Once upon a time, we might have felt bound to those who revered the same sacred tree. Now we feel bound to those who revere our end of the political spectrum. In both cases, we pretend that it is a thing outside of us that we care most about, while in fact we mainly use that external thing to bind us together.
The least plausible claim in the book is that left vs right is 100% tribal, and 0% essential. This claim seems at odds with my experience, and these quotes:
During the 1930s and 1940s, [US] national politics was primarily about just one issue - the size of government. … At that point, there was just one issue that bound together the people, ideas, and institutions of each side. For a brief moment in American history, the political spectrum effectively modeled a single dimension of politics. (p.24,25)
Many of those who cling to essentialism do so on the grounds that even though left-right terms are not perfectly predictive, they are predictive with a high degree of probability. (p.90)
This issue could have been clarified if the authors had compared left-right to other kinds of “ideologies” that divide and unite us, such as, religions, professions, artistic genres, generations, genders, etc. They could have said which of these had how much of an essence, versus being a cover for tribal affiliations.
Consider an analogy: There is no doubt that national borders are pretty arbitrary, mainly resulting from historical accidents of war and diplomacy. But national borders also have more than random associations with rivers, mountains, and other elements of geography. So its crazy to say that national borders have no essence. Yet quite reasonable to note that they are mostly arbitrary.
Here is a discussion Bryan Caplan and I had with the authors about their book: