I would say a major weak spot of all three, qua political activists, is that they are typically bad at achieving their stated goals. Libertarian activism has mostly done a terrible job of advancing liberty, conservative activism has mostly done a terrible job of conserving civilization, and progressive activism has mostly done a terrible job of helping the oppressed. You can point to exceptions for all of these, but for every one of these there are like 10x as many instances of the activists trying to reproduce their prior success and failing or even backfiring.

The good thing is that there is far more advancement of liberty, preservation of civilization, *and* amelioration of oppression in recent history than can possibly be explained by political activism. It remains an underrated strategy to study why that happened and try and make more of it happen instead of doing conventional political activism. But conventional activism makes people feel more righteous and more responsible, so it will keep being overproduced.

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* Libertarians do not want to face the fact that humanity is not very libertarian

* Progressives do not want to notice that the true motivations for their 'caring' values are mostly proxies for something else - an essentally narcissistic desire to feel nice about themeselves in a cost-free way

* you misrepresent conservatism by defining it as implaccably opposed to social change. The 'father' of modern conservatism is Edmund Burke.....SLOW, CAUTIOUS change. My main beef with my fellow conservatives is the tendency of many to retreat into fatuous conspiracy theories. It is Cock-up not Conspiracy that makes for our human societal tragedy.

* Feminism cannot face up to the fact that young women are most sexually attracted to 'dark triad' type men.

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Liberals assume that everything good that has ever happened was the result of social reforms, but that's not actually supported by history. Most of the good things that have happened over the last 200-300 years were the result of science, technology, or socioeconomic changes that were not policies and no one opposed them, nor did anyone vote for them - they just happened. Nobody opposed water filtration or the polio vaccine. Conservatives oppose things, that's what makes them conservatives, but they have mostly opposed bad things and only occasionally opposed good things.

Conservatives have often opposed liberal social policies, but those policies generally had negative aspects that conservatives foresaw, so they weren't all wrong. Even civil rights laws had unintended consequences that most people would agree have been negative, though it may be hard to say publicly.

As to your other example - "equality" between men and women - that is so huge a thing that none of us can possibly say what it foretells, or even what it really means.

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Arnold wrote: "What conservatives are reluctant to discuss is what went right with social change up until the point when the claim it all started to go wrong." Here's a response: the civil rights movement led by MLK initially sought equal rights before the law by breaking up Jim Crow, which was a state imposed system of discrimination. However, it soon became apparent that this was not going to solve the many pathologies of black culture nor result in equality of outcomes. The movement was abruptly corrupted by being re-engineered into political allocation of preferences. The ideal of equal treatment became nothing more than moral cover for grift.

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Dec 8, 2023Liked by Arnold Kling

I'm late to the party, but I'll bite:

1. Libertarians don't want to discuss the importance of social cohesion and shared values. The "10% Bee" aspect of humans is something they don't care for and don't think much about, but its implications are far-reaching.

2. Conservatives don't question or acknowledge the degree to which their attitudes are grounded in whatever cultural practices happened to prevail during their formative years. In fact, I'm not even sure this qualifies as a thing which cannot be discussed. Most aren't aware of it in the first place.

3. I could write a dissertation on where I think progressive thinking gets stuck in the ditch, but suffice it to say that group differences are real and important, cultural differences impact individual and collective outcomes, and unintended consequences are real. Progressives seem incapable of acknowledging, much less grappling with any of the above.

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Dec 7, 2023·edited Dec 7, 2023

Libertarians do not want to talk about the patterns of who supports or opposes libertarian ideas, and relatedly, what is required to sustain the social conditions that support a critical mass of pro-libertarian sentiments and policies.

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"What conservatives do not want to discuss is the history of social change."

That's like seen vs unseen fallacy as a condition of history. One pays attention to the changes, but one doesn't even think about the billions of things that *didn't* change, but which could have and perhaps will soon in the infinitely vast space of human cultural possibilities. Is the score for this history -4, 6 out of 10, or a ratio of a million to one? Not to mention that the jury is always still out as regards these changes, and I strongly suspect that future human 'conservatives' will be more than happy to talk about many of them and how they rolled them back.

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How about the unsayables for Somewheres and Anywheres.

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Possible corollary (someone else may have made this point in a prior discussion): each tribe views the others through their own blind spot/the others' lenses. Progressives see conservatives as barbaric, threatening Enlightenment ideals and institutions; conservatives sees progressives as oppressors, using institutions of academia/media/law to keep others down. Libertarians view conservatives and progressives as blocking social change toward voluntary institutions and as oppressing individual choice.

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Progressives have built-in ascendancy because their rationales and policies are self-reinforcing. If the policy doesn't work, there is a ready answer: the cause must be inadequate funding. Big government by its nature creates entrenched constituencies and cultures of dependence.

Conservatives have built-in support. Status-quo bias in psychology is a real thing. News media thrive on fear. Big government appeals to conservatives, too, via entrenched entitlements for retirees and the military-industrial complex.

Thus, progressives and conservatives have a lot of overlap in big government. The conflicts between them are at the margins, never far from the median voter.

In my experience, among the three groups, libertarians are least likely to avoid open discussion that comes to grips with challenges, if only because they are few -- and splintered -- in a sea of mainly progressive and conservative discourses. Nonetheless, to quote Arnold Kling, libertarians, even when they aren't splintered, have no reliable political friends because they reject big government.

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A nifty summary - good work. Having grown up under the sway of a strongly conservative GOP dad, and worked for 35 years as a public school teacher and been immersed in the pervasive cultural POV that accompanies that (on the institutional level), I’ve had to navigate a lot of rhetorical truth-obstacles over the years, and I appreciate your ability to boil it down. Anyone who seeks a broad range of perspectives and input must also develop a keen BS detector and employee it rigorously. But it’s also clear you’re treading a narrow path to do so - a necessity, perhaps, because the weeds are so thick all around. Here’s a question: was that path wider in the past, or were those of us who remember when it seemed to be that way simply deluded? And is there actually any remnant of a universal moral dimension that might serve as a common point of contact between people from different camps?

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Well yes, but each tribe is a manifestation of what the other two tribes are NOT. That is, any one tribe doesn’t exert much thought toward what the other two tribes are saying. For example, conservatives don’t think much about and don’t want to talk about the truthful aspects of the progressive oppressor-oppressed axis. So on and so forth with the other two tribes.

Is this not more important than the weak spots proposed here?

By introducing these new weak spots, you’re saying that there’s only one weak spots that applies to each tribe. Shouldn’t there be at least two weak spots for each tribe? At least for the sake of your goal which is to get the tribes to be open-minded to the viewpoint of the other two tribes.

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I have noticed that free market economists tend to believe that trade will resolve all conflicts between nations. No country, they argue, will want to go to war with a key trading partner. Yet history is full of counter examples: Russia and Ukraine, France and Germany, Japan and China, the Union and the Confederacy.

Yes, global trade has eliminated any *economic* excuse for war, but all too many remain: fear, hatred, ethnic and religious differences, national pride and honor, territorial disputes, or just a leader’s need to distract citizens from domestic problems. But free market economists tend to shut down when such “irrational” motives are broached.

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No doubt all three could be expanded quite a bit but even though I believe I lean more libertarian than conservative or liberal, I thought libertarian was the one that your description begged for more. In particular, the difficulty for a libertarian society to care for those who temporarily or more permanently can't care for themselves.

As for conservatives, what you said seemed a bit harsh and off target. I think they can't point to a moment when things went off the rails because there is no such moment and any attempt to pick one is certain to fail. Whatever their failings, I disagree with that one being on the list. It is a strawman.

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Overall a great piece, weakest in your discussion of conservatism. “But if you look back in history, conservatives opposed such changes” - what are you talking about? This statement is so broad as to mean nothing. That said, I do grant your general point that conservatives lack a narrative that accounts for social change that they don’t wish to undo.

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>I say that libertarians use rhetoric that treats liberty as opposed to coercion by the state.

Liberty is more philosophically complicated than most libertarians understand:


Coercion is neither necessary nor sufficient to count as flouting someone’s liberty:


The state is only the foremost violator of liberty:


There are countless non-state violations that libertarians also condemn.

>Libertarians denounce those who disagree with them as statists.

It is probably clearer to describe them as “authoritarians”.

>I think that what libertarians do not want to discuss is the topic of social cohesion. They (we) take it for granted that you can have a society with minimal government and plenty of social trust and constructive norm-following. We assume that conflicts will be settled peacefully by private actors. I don’t think that we pay enough attention to the nature of conflict and why disagreements over values and competition over status have so much emotional salience that our ideals are unrealistic.

To have a libertarian society it is necessary to have maximal private property and free markets. But, of course, that is not sufficient. It is also necessary, first, to have a libertarian culture that approximately understands and wants a libertarian society. And the only way for that to occur is for a critical mass of intellectuals (in the broadest sense) to be converted to libertarianism. In recent decades the world appears to be travelling in that direction—but with a very long road ahead still. I don’t notice reluctance among libertarian intellectuals to discuss “social cohesion” (but I do notice a lot of reluctance to discuss liberty in philosophical terms).

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