Where the state came from

One of the questions that led me to libertarianism was “what is the state?” More than that: Where did it come from? How it works? What’s the use? Analogous questions would be “what is politics?” and “what is economics?” If my classroom experience serves as a yardstick for anything, the overwhelming majority of people never ask these questions and never run after answers. I do not blame them. Most of us are very busy trying to make ends meet to worry about this kind of stuff. I even sought an academic training in politics just to seek answers to these questions. For me it’s nothing to have answers, after all, I’m paid (albeit very poorly paid) to know these matters. Still, I wish more people were asking these types of question. I suspect that it would be part of the process to review the political and economic situation in which we find ourselves.

Many times when I ask in the classroom “what is the state?” I receive in response that Brazil is a state. In general I correct the student explaining that this is an example, not a definition. The modern state, as we have it today, is mainly the combination of three factors: government, population, and territory. The modern state, as we have it today, can be defined as a population inhabiting a specific territory, organized by a centralized government that recognizes no instance of power superior to itself. Often, in the academic and popular vocabulary, state and government are confused, and there is no specific problem in this. In fact, the two words may appear as synonyms, although this is not a necessity. It is possible to distinguish between state and government thinking that the state remains and governments go through.

The state as we know it today is a product of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age. I believe that this information alone should draw our attention enough: people have lived in modern states only in the last 500 years or so. Throughout the rest of human history other forms of political organization have been used. I am not saying (not here) that these other forms of organization were better than the modern state. I am simply saying that the modern state is far from being natural, spontaneous, or necessary. Even after 1500 the modern state took time to be universally accepted. First, this model of organization spread throughout Europe at the beginning of the Modern Era. It was only in the late 18th century and early 19th century that this model came to be used in the American continent. The modern state spread globally only after the decolonization movement that followed World War II. That is: the vast majority of modern states are not even 70 years old!

What is the purpose of the state? At least in my experience, many people respond by “providing rights” or “securing rights.” People think about health, education, sanitation, culture, security, etc. as duties of the state towards society. It is clear that many people think about health, education, housing, etc. as rights, which in itself is already questionable, but I will leave this discussion for another time. The point I want to put here is that empirically states have only cared about issues like health and public education very recently. In the classic definition of Max Weber (late 19th century), the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In other words, virtually anyone can use violence, but only the state can do it legally. That is: the primordial function of the state is to use violence within a legal order. Other functions, such as providing health and education, came very late and only became commonplace with the welfare state that strengthened after World War II.

I find it always interesting to see how we live in a young world. Basically the entire world population today lives in some state and expects from this state a minimum level of well-being. However, this reality is only about 70 years old. The idea that we need to live in states that provide us with a minimum of well being is not natural and far from obvious. To understand that the modern state is a historical institution, which has not always existed, it is fundamental to question its validity. Moreover, to note that the functions of the state that seem obvious to us today did not exist 70 years ago leads us to question whether it is valid to expect things such as health and education from the state.

My personal perception is that the modern state (defined by territory, population, and government) is better than any alternative that has already been proposed. However, the state of social well-being is only a sugar-watered socialism. Socialism, by definition, does not work, as Ludwig von Mises very well shows. Partial socialism is as likely to function as full socialism. Expecting the state to use violence within legal parameters is valid and even fundamental. But to expect that this same state may successfully diversify its activities entering the branches of health, education, culture, etc. is a fatal conceit.

The problem with conservatives in Latin America

Shortly after the declaration of independence of the USA, in 1776, several independence movements in Iberian America followed. Basically between the 1800s and the 1820s almost all of Latin America broke its colonial ties with Spain and Portugal, giving rise to the national states we know today, from Mexico to Chile. This disruption of colonial ties, however, was only the beginning of the process of formation of Latin American national states. The borders would still undergo many transformations, and especially there would be a long and tortuous task of forming national governments in each country.

In general there was much influence from the USA and the French Revolution in the formation of Latin American national states. The constitutions that emerged on the continent were generally liberal in their essence, using a theoretical background similar to that which gave rise to the American constitution. However, in the case of Latin America, this liberalism proved to be only a veneer covering the surface. Below it Latin America was a region marked by oligarchy, paternalism, and authoritarianism.

Using Brazil as an example, one can observe how much the French Revolution was a strong influence on Latin America. In the Brazilian case, this influence was due to the fear that there would be a radicalization of liberalism that guided the process of independence, leading to a Jacobinism such as that which marked the period of Terror in France. The fear that a Brazilian Robespierre would emerge at some point forced Brazil’s founders to cooperate in such a manner that the formation of the Brazilian state was more conservative and less liberal.

One problem with Latin American conservatism lies in what it retains in trying to avoid liberal radicalization. There is a conservative Anglo-Saxon tradition identified primarily with Edmund Burke. As in Latin America, Burke was critical of the radicalization of the French Revolution (with the advantage that Burke predicted radicalization before it actually occurred). However, Burke had an already liberal country to conserve. In his case, conservatism was a liberal conservatism. In the case of Latin Americans, preserving meant maintaining mercantilism and absolutism, or at least avoiding a more rapid advance of liberalism.

Another problem with Latin American conservatism is to confuse Rousseau with true liberalism. The ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were behind the most radical period of the French Revolution. Burke criticized the kind of thinking that guided the revolution because of its abstract nature, disconnected from the traditions. But this was not really Rousseau’s problem. His problem is that his ideas do not make the slightest sense. John Locke also possessed an abstract but perfectly sensible political thought. Rousseau does not represent liberalism. His thinking is a proto-socialism that we would do well to avoid. But the true liberalism of John Locke and the American Founding Fathers still needs to be implemented in Latin America.

In short, the problem of conservatism in Latin America lies in what we have to conserve. My opinion is that we still need to move forward a lot before having liberal societies that are worth thinking about being preserved. Meanwhile, it is better to avoid the idea of a Latin American conservatism.

The Roots of Truth and the Roots of Knowledge

John Oliver raises a Hayekian point on the roots of knowledge:

Just because they believed you and you believed them, doesn’t make it true! This isn’t like Peter Pan where believing in fairies will keep Tinker Bell alive. This isn’t a magic thing Peter, she has Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

He’s rightly picking on Donald Trump, who has a) been a particularly bad epistemologist, and b) should be held to a higher standard because he’s the president.

But the truth is that we’re all in the same boat: we believe what we hear from what we believe are reputable sources (because we heard those sources were reputable from sources we believed to be reputable). Most of our knowledge we take on faith from other people. In essence, we can’t simply know the truth in a vacuum; we depend on the context created by our culture, language, and personal experience. It’s only by trusting others that we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

What’s so special about science is that the standards are higher than in other domains. Knowledge has been carefully curated over generations by fallable humans engaged in a particular subculture of society. To the extent science makes good predictions, it creates value in society, and to the extent it can verify and capture that value, its practitioners get funding and get taken (mostly) seriously by the educated public.

You might notice that there are many places where science can go wrong. And the history of science is replete with blind alleys and shameful episodes. But also glorious advances in our knowledge, capability, and humanity. The same is true of all areas of life that deal with knowledge from politics and journalism to how you clean your kitchen. To the extent we see both competition and cooperation (in a variety of institutional forms) we will tend to see knowledge and truth converge. (I think.)

In this respect, we’re all, essentially, in the same boat. We should expect fallability and adopt a humble attitude. As surely as I want to believe John Oliver’s portrayal of current events (most of the time), I’m not about to fly to DC to check things out for myself.

Because, this isn’t about belief, it can’t be… Faith and Fact aren’t like Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. When you confuse them it actually matters. Real people get hurt when you make policy based on false information.

We face trade offs when it comes to knowledge. Received wisdom might be correct enough to operate a bed and breakfast. But we’ve created real fragility in our political system by vesting so much power in the White House. It means that the standard of truth has to be so high that not even a crazed billionaire hell-bent on becoming president (a segment of society usually celebrated for their levelheadedness!) can be trusted to pursue.

Let me sum up:

  1. Our knowledge is always based on the trust we place in others. As such we can be more or less certain about any thing we might know. I am very certain (0.99×10^-100) that gravity exists and keeps me rooted to the earth, but less certain (0.05) that I am organizing my bookshelves correctly.
  2. We can, and do, have different standards of truth in different areas of our lives. I don’t make any important decisions that don’t account for the severity of gravity. But I’m not going to sweat it if I put a new book on an inappropriate shelf.
  3. We absolutely need to hold our government to very high standards. Nuclear weapons are scary, but lesser powers also call for very high standards. The level of certainty I’d insist on for nukes is at least an order of magnitude higher than the level for regulating pollution. But the level of certainty for the latter is orders of magnitude higher than might be possible under alternative arrangements.
  4. At the same time, we have to accept our own fallability, particularly when it comes to our ability to accurately know the truth. But that’s no reason to be nihilistic; it should inspire a striving for constant improvement in general (while making the appropriate trade offs on the margin).

Carta de Voltaire dirigida a Rousseau, em resposta a ele

Um excelente texto mostrando o contraste entre dois conceitos de liberdade. Voltaire representa a liberdade do liberalismo clássico: o indivíduo deve ser livre de constrangimentos externos, ser livre para buscar sua concepção individual de felicidade. Rousseau representa outra concepção de liberdade: o indivíduo só será livre se acatar um conceito de felicidade que os demais irão lhe impor. Rousseau está por trás de basicamente todas a ditaduras estabelecidas desde então, principalmente as de esquerda, formadas por pessoas de bem que sabem o que é bom para os outros, que falam que o capitalismo só cria problemas e que deveríamos fazer um governo mais “democrático”. Em outras palavras, pessoas chatas, agressivas, que não respeitam as decisões alheias e sentem uma incontrolável vontade de ensinar para os outros o que é bom.

30 de Agosto de 1755

Recebi, senhor, vosso novo livro contra o gênero humano, e vos agradeço por isso. Vós agradareis aos homens, sobre quem fala vossas verdades, e não os emendará. Ninguém poderia pintar um quadro com cores mais fortes dos horrores da sociedade humana, para os quais nossa ignorância e debilidade tem tanta esperança de consolo. Ninguém jamais empregou tanta vivacidade em nos tornar novamente animais: pode-se querer andar com quatro patas, quando lemos vossa obra. Entretanto, como já faz mais de sessenta anos que perdi este costume, percebo, infelizmente, que é impossível recomeçar, e deixo essa maneira natural àqueles que são mais dignos que vós e eu. Já não posso mais embarcar para encontrar os selvagens do Canadá, em primeiro lugar, porque as doenças de que sofro me prendem ao redor do maior médico da Europa, e não encontraria a mesma assistência junto aos Missouris. Em segundo, porque a guerra está sendo travada lá naquele país, e o exemplo de nossas nações tornou os selvagens quase tão perigosos quanto nós. Devo me limitar a ser um selvagem pacífico, na solidão que escolhi, perto de vossa pátria, onde vós devíeis estar.

Concordo convosco que a literatura e as ciências causaram ocasionalmente muitos danos. Os inimigos de Tasso fizeram de sua vida uma longa série de infortúnios. Os de Galileu fizeram-no gemer dentro da prisão, aos setenta anos de idade, por haver entendido como a Terra se movimenta; e o que é ainda mais desonroso, obrigaram-no a desdizer-se. Desde que vossos amigos começaram a publicar o Dicionário Enciclopédico, os rivais os desafiam com o tratamento de deístas, ateus e mesmo de jansenistas.

Se porventura eu puder me incluir entre aqueles cujos trabalhos não trouxeram mais do que a perseguição como única recompensa, poderei mostrar-vos o tipo de gente perseguidora que me prejudica desde que produzi minha tragédia Édipo; uma biblioteca de calúnias ridículas impressas contra mim. Um ex-padre jesuíta, que salvei da desgraça total, me pagou o serviço que lhe prestei com um libelo difamatório; um homem, ainda mais culpado, imprimiu minha própria obra sobre o século de Luís XIV com notas nas quais a mais crassa ignorância vomitou as mais baixas imposturas; um outro, que vendeu a um editor, usando meu nome, alguns capítulos de uma pretensa História Universal; o editor, ávido o suficiente para imprimir esse amontoado de erros crassos, datas erradas, fatos e nomes mutilados; e, finalmente, os homens covardes e vis o suficiente para me responsabilizar pela publicação desta rapsódia. Eu mostrar-vos-ei a sociedade contaminada por este tipo de homens – desconhecido em toda a antiguidade – que, não podendo abraçar uma profissão honesta, seja de trabalho manual ou de serviço, e desafortunadamente sabendo ler e escrever, se tornam agentes literários, vivem de nossas obras, roubam os manuscritos, alteram-nos, vendem-nos. Eu poderia lamentar-me porque fragmentos de uma zombaria, feitos há pelo menos trinta anos, sobre o mesmo sujeito que Chapelain foi burro o bastante para tratar seriamente, circulam hoje pelo mundo, graças à traição e avareza desses infelizes, que misturaram suas grosserias às minhas pilhérias, e preencheram as lacunas com uma estupidez equiparada somente à sua malícia e que, ao cabo de 30 anos, vendem por toda parte um manuscrito que é apenas deles, e digno tão somente deles.

Eu poderia acrescentar, em último lugar, que roubaram uma parte do material que eu juntei nos arquivos públicos para usar na História da Guerra de 1741, quando era historiador da França; que venderam a uma livraria de Paris esse fruto de meu trabalho; que nessa época invejaram minhas posses, como se eu estivesse morto e pudessem colocá-las à venda. Eu poderia mostrar a ingratidão, a impostura e o roubo me perseguindo por quarenta anos, do pé dos Alpes ao pé do meu túmulo. Mas o que eu concluiria de todos esses tormentos? Que não tenho o direito de reclamar; que o Papa, Descartes, Bayle, Camões e centenas de outros sofreram injustiças iguais, ou ainda maiores; que este destino é o de quase todos daqueles que foram inteiramente seduzidos pelo amor às letras.

Admita, senhor, que estas coisas são pequenas desgraças particulares de que a sociedade pouco se apercebe. Que importa para a humanidade que alguns zangões roubem o mel de poucas abelhas? Os homens das letras fazem grande estardalhaço de todas estas pequenas querelas, enquanto o resto do mundo ou os ignora ou disso gargalha.

De todos os desgostos afetando a vida humana, esses são os menos graves. Os espinhos ligados à literatura, ou um pouco menos de reputação, são flores quando comparados aos outros males que a todo momento inundam a terra. Admita que Cícero, Varrão, Lucrécio ou Virgílio não tiveram a menor culpa nas proscrições. Mário era um ignorante, Sila, um bárbaro, Antônio, um crápula, o imbecil Lépido leu um pouco de Platão e Sófocles; enquanto Otávio César, covardemente apelidado de Augusto, esse tirano sem coragem, agiu apenas como um assassino detestável no momento em que privou a sociedade dos homens de letras.

Admita que Petrarca e Boccaccio não fizeram nascer os problemas da Itália; que as brincadeiras de Marot não produziram São Bartolomeu, e que a tragédia de Cid não produziu a guerra da Fronde. Os grandes crimes são cometidos apenas pelos grandes ignorantes. O que faz e fará sempre deste mundo um vale de lágrimas é a avidez e o indomável orgulho dos homens, desde Thamas-Kouli-Kan, que não sabia nem ler, até um oficial de alfândega, que não sabe nem contar. As letras alimentam, endireitam e consolam a alma; elas vos servem, senhor, durante o tempo que escreveis contra elas. Vós sois como Aquiles, que se encolerizava contra a glória, e como o padre Malebranche, que, com sua imaginação brilhante, escrevia contra a imaginação.

Se alguém tem o direito de queixar-se da literatura, sou eu, porque em todos os momentos e em todos os lugares ela serviu à minha perseguição; mas deve-se amá-la, não obstante o mau uso que dela fazem; como deve-se amar a sociedade na qual tantos homens maldosos corrompem os suscetíveis; como deve-se amar a sua pátria, mesmo que ela nos trate com alguma injustiça; como se deve amar o Ser Supremo, apesar das superstições e do fanatismo que desonram tão freqüentemente o seu culto.

M. Chappuis disse-me que vossa saúde anda muito mal, deveis restabelecê-la na terra natal, aproveitando junto à sua liberdade, beber comigo o leite de nossas vacas, e passear em seus campos.

Muito filosoficamente e com a mais alta estima, etc

On the trade off between the rule of law and lower taxes

The recent Carrier deal has caused some controversies in liberty-oriented circles. For example, The Mises Institute published a defense of the deal, arguing (along other lines, please read the article yourself):

there is nothing inherently wrong with an administration focused on keeping jobs in America — especially if this is accomplished by relieving tax and regulatory burdens.

The point I wish to make here is a general point, so I won’t go into the specifics of the Carrier deal. Among other reasons: I don’t know the specifics of the deal (I don’t know the content and I don’t know how the deal came to pass.) What I wish to do here is to argue the general case on how to view these kinds of tax exceptions.

The point we ought to remember, I think, is that there are a trade offs between two important liberal values, although they are important in different ways. On the one hand, we have the idea of rule of law, the idea that the law is general, not specific, applies to everyone rather than some, and that it’s not designed to favor some because it should serve an open-ended order. Things that contribute to such a legal order are ipso facto prima facie good, things that take away from such a legal order are ipso facto prima facie bad.

On the other hand we have the idea that taxes are bad. Things that lower taxes are prima facie good, things that increase taxes are prima facie bad.

But neither of these things trump all other considerations. Let me give you two examples.

  • Suppose there was a law that said that the taxes on, for example, business started by family members of politicians are automatically exempted from taxes. Would this be a good law?
  • Suppose there was a law that said that everyone has to be drafted and has to serve mandatory military service overseas, except the family members of politicians. Again: would this be a good law?

In both of these questions, the answer depends on the liberty-inspired framework you use to answer the question. If you think the value of the rule of law outweighs the value of individual liberty of those family members (who are, after all, not responsible for the actions of their political family members) than you think these are bad laws. If you think the increase in individual liberty for those family members is more important than the violation of a rule of law principle, than you think these are good laws. My point is not to say how one should determine this, my point is that there are two liberty-inspired frameworks that can justify an outcome, and both of these frameworks are relevant in determining what kind of laws we ought to support.

To make the issue slightly more applicable: is the increased damage on the rule of law (created by allowing a specific exception on the general laws on taxes) larger or smaller than the benefits that allow a company to have less taxes?

Some people have tried to argue by analogy – for example, comparing it to the draft. The problem is that analogies quickly run into the problem of changing the relative values of the two important concepts. For example: is it a good thing that women are exempted from the draft? Yes, this seems like obviously a good thing. Would it be a good thing that male children of politicians would be automatically exempted from the draft? This seems like less obviously a good thing.

Would it be a good thing if white people were automatically exempted from the draconian drug laws? Maybe it would, but maybe that also lowers the chance of getting rid of the drug laws altogether. Different margins matter in these kinds of evaluations.

The wrong thing to think is that all policies are pro tanto good just because they increase liberty on some margin for some people, especially if this allows for the prolonging of bad policies by the current ruling class. Some policies can be bad on some margins and good on others and reasonable people can disagree whether the complete net effect of this is good for all.

Maybe it’s a good thing that some people are exempted from evil laws (such as taxes), but it’s not good that the political class gets to choose who does so. Because those who will be exempted will be those who are connected to the political class. So one can absolutely like lower taxes, oppose politicians’ power to choose who is exempted and oppose that, and still be happy for a company that they got a tax cut. (Unless, of course, the company itself is evil. This is certainly possible if they are partners in, for example, the wars that the USA commits.)

So tl;dr. As I posted somewhere on facebook:

Rule of law and lower taxes are two good things. A president (or important person connected to the ruling class such as the president elect) getting to pick and choose winners isn’t desirable, but a tax break is. A higher tax isn’t desirable, but a rule of law is.

Trying to argue the case based on principle seems wrong. It depends on the margins. In the case of the draft, the margin *against* rule of law seems important enough to say it’s a clear victory for liberty to not have women included.

In the case of tax breaks, this is less obvious and reasonable people can come out on different sides of this, I think.

Socialism is just a new form of slavery

When Fidel Castro died he was totally alone. It doesn’t matter if relatives or friends were standing beside him: in the end, we are all alone. We experience the world through our sense of perception. Of the things themselves we have no experience. On the other hand, all humans have perception of themselves. We just know that we are. This self awareness is a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. Castro’s death already received a lot of attention, but I believe it is a moment really worthy of reflection. Under his half-century regime millions died or suffered, and it’s always important to remember that we are talking about a little country, an island in the Caribbean. Cuba was one of the most prosperous nations in the Americas, and today it is one of the most miserable.

It is really sad to see that most of my colleagues are unable to call evil by its name. In the mid-nineteenth century Karl Marx predicted that capitalism was going to collapse because of its internal contradictions. He was not saying that he wanted capitalism to collapse. He was saying that this was a scientific fact, as sure as the next eclipse predicted by an astronomer. Capitalism, of course, didn’t collapse. Marx’s economic theory was simply nonsensical, and was contradicted by logic and facts. But Marxists couldn’t admit it. Instead they replaced economics with culture, and the working class with Others as the oppressed. Blacks, women, Native Americans, underdeveloped countries and many others became the new oppressed class. Fidel Castro fit beautifully in the Marxism of the New Left. He was the charismatic dictator of the charming island nation of Cuba. The US, ruled by leftists in the 1960s and 1970s, was unable to give a consistent answer to it. Latin America, ruled by dictatorships that the left called “right” (no one wants to take their dictators home), was also not in place to contrast the evils of the Castro regime. A perfect storm.

Castro, for all we know, died with no regrets for the evils he committed in life. Political commentators say that history will judge him. But this is a lie. History can’t judge anyone. Only people can judge people. And it is fundamental that political commentators today judge Castro for all the evil he has done. Castro didn’t kill people in Cuba only. He supported, in one way or another, brutal regimes all over the world, mostly in Latin America. To this day he is partly responsible for the evils of Foro de São Paulo. But many political commentators insist in the lie that in Cuba there’s true freedom: they have enough to eat, universal healthcare and universal education. Why would they want freedom?

Freedom is the fundamental state of human beings. We are, in the end, all alone. Of what goes in our hearts, only we are aware of. Sometimes not even us. All of us make choices based on knowledge that’s unique. Circumstances of time and space shape the choices that we make. And life is made of choices. Marxism, socialism, and all forms of statism go against these fundamental truths.

People in Cuba are not free. They are all slaves to the Castro family. Some people want to have life in a cage, as long as they receive food every day. Of course this is a lie. In order to live in a cage you need to have someone outside the cage bringing the food. Someone has to be free. This person becomes your slave as well, and this constitutes a fundamental contradiction of socialism: Alexis de Tocqueville mentioned that socialism is just a new form of slavery. In slavery someone is forced to work for somebody else under the threat of physical violence. Under socialism everybody is forced to work for everybody else. Let’s hope that Castro’s death may help put socialism in the past, where slavery is, and that Latin America may finally see the light of freedom.

Identity Politics, the Alt-Right, and Empathy in Cultural Discourse

“Identity politics” have been an intensely large obsession of the American left or the past forty or so years. Academic leftists have devoted their entire careers and even the organizations of their departments to studying notions of identity and the specific history and interests of certain identity groups—such as women’s studies, African-American studies, and other similar programs. The Democratic Party has put special emphasis on mobilizing various minority groups based on identity, focusing on “Women’s issues” such as abortion or “the needs of the African-American community” such as police reform or “gay rights” to get a certain of segment of voters to turn out in elections.

Yet, with the election of Trump, many moderate leftists are questioning the utility of identity politics. Mark Lilla had a prominent recent piece in The New York Times declaring the “end of identity liberalism.” Lilla’s main criticisms of identity politics focus on it as a “strategic mistake” in electoral politics and how it has made liberals and progressives “narcissistically unaware of conditions outside of their self-identified groups,” particularly white, middle class, working men in the Midwest. Matt Yglesias, meanwhile, responded by sounding off that all politics is identity politics, people always organize themselves in interest groups, writing that “any plausible account of political behavior by actual human beings needs to concede that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity rather than detailed policy proposals.” The left, he says, can’t abandon identity politics because “[t]here is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.”

Those on what is traditionally considered the “right” end of the political spectrum (ignoring the specific phenomena of Trump voters and alt-righters, that is) tend to be dismissive of the whole project of identity politics. This approach is embodied by Robby Soave’s recent article in Reason claiming that identity politics is just a form of tribalism that seeks to subvert individual rights and overall social welfare to  the tribalist demands of some salient group people self-identify with. Soave also sees the rise of Trumpism as itself a form of identity politics for white men, a claim which I’ll address at length in a moment.

What is one to make, then, of identity politics in the Trump era? First, it seems there is considerable confusion about what identity politics even is in the first place. Lilla, for an example, seems to imply that the left’s obsession with appealing to minority political coalitions is merely a strategy for winning elections. Soave thinks it’s pure tribalist and collectivist ideology, and Yglesias defines it so broadly that any political mobilization at all is considered identity politics. How are we to understand what operative definition of what is commonly called “identity politics” is most useful, or at least is closest to how its commonly used in political discourse?

Lilla and Yglesias understanding, it seems, misses the point about why so many leftists are so passionate about identity politics. People who are interested in cultural dramas and issues related to group identity are not just Democratic strategists in campaign war-rooms, but, as I mentioned earlier, academics, and “true believer” bleeding-heart progressive activists. It seems to me that identity politics—at least at first (and still is in the minds of the true believers post-1960s progressivism)—is not about an election strategy. It’s certainly become that for Democratic strategists, but it originally was motivated by the old liberal concern with ending the misery for stigmatized groups. Identity politics is not merely a political strategy, but a strategy the left used for getting rid of racism, homophobia, and otherization of outgroups in society at large.

The idea is like this: try to get, for example, white people to sympathize with black people by getting whites to recognize that black people have their own meaningful web of cultural associations which is just as valid as those of the dominant culture. Its roots are in cultural studies academia, such as the writings of Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser. Essentially, identity politics is rooted in philosophical attempts to end prejudice through emphasizing “cultural recognition” of despised groups. As Richard Rorty wrote in describing this strategy:

It helps, when trying to recognise a common humanity in a person of another gender, class, or ethnicity, to think of them as having as rich an inner life as one does oneself. To picture such an inner life, it helps to know something about the web of memories and associations which make it up. So one way to help eliminate prejudice and erase stigma is to point out that, for example, women have a history, that homosexuals take pride in belonging to the same stigmatised group as Proust, and that African-Americans have detailed memories of the battles which make up what Russell Banks calls “the three hundred year War Between The Races in America” – the sort of memories whites are currently learning about from Toni Morrison’s novels. It helps to realise that all such groups wrap a comforting blanket of memories and traditions, customs and institutions, around themselves, just as do classical scholars, old Etonians, or members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

Thus treating identity politics just as a way to get electoral coalitions out to vote, and also (as Soave does) as simply tribalism ideology when it was started as a strategy to mitigate tribalism, misses the point about why the left is so passionate about these cultural issues. It isn’t simple collectivism nor Machiavellian political strategy, but (hopefully) genuine concern for stigmatize groups that mobilizes this obsession.

Of course, as Rorty well-recognized, this way of ending prejudice is not the only way nor is it the most effective. First, it does make the left appear as this overly sensitive “politically correct” group of elitists who care little for the concerns of working class whites. As Rorty wrote that the left’s preoccupation with cultural identity politics would mean “the straight white male working class in America may find it tempting to think that the leftist academy is uninterested in its problems.” Indeed, most of why Lilla is concerned that identity politics has failed so spectacularly as an electoral strategy is that it has isolated progressives from middle America.

More importantly, however, is that emphasizing cultural difference has failed spectacularly at its initial aim of ending prejudice. The whole point of Soave’s Reason column is that leftist identity politics has become its own form of tribalism and have given rise to the right-wing identity politics of Trump. Not only have leftists often gotten so caught up in the identity politics language game that they call their own (such as Bernie Sanders) white supremacists for not playing along, it has created its own prejudice backlash. If your way of getting straight white males to recognize non-straight white males as worthy of equal treatment is to say “Those who are unlike you have different cultural values that are worth being celebrated and protected,” the response of straight white males is to say “Do not I also have a different culture worthy of being celebrated and protected?”

Indeed, this type of rhetoric is at the heart of the rise of the alt-right. It isn’t mere hatred of others that is animating this new populist, fascist movement (though that is certainly a concerningly large part of it), it is that they are making this hatred seem legitimate by couching it in terms of advancing “white interests” in a very similar rhetorical manner that the left has pushed the interests of minority groups. Richard Spencer’s “mantra” for the alt-right is “race is the foundation of identity” (emphasis mine) and calls himself an “identarian.” Even outside the small niche of the alt-right, average Trump voters often say they want a way to express and defend their identity—whether it is in the form of white nationalism or in forms of defending Christian “religious liberties” as its own identity coalition against gay rights.

Soave is correct that left-wing identity politics has given us this right-wing identity politics, and it is something Rorty himself saw as a potential consequence of this approach. In his 1998 book Achieving our Country, he explicitly predicted that the white working class would become disconnected from the academic left, and would “start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots[.]” He also predicted that when this strongman assumes office, “gains made over the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out.” It is no coincidence that this sounds quite a bit like Trump.

It’s not surprising that emphasizing differences between the majority and a scapegoated group would mean that the majority group would start taking “pride” in its difference from the scapegoated. Of course, anyone who understands systemic power structures or how sociological hierarchy works understands why this response is not the same. There is a difference between cherishing the cultural differences of a scapegoated minority and using institutional power to coercively protect the cultural interests of the majority group at the expense of the minority. But you can’t expect a white adolescent basement-dwelling troll on 4-Chan or even a working class white voter from central Michigan to understand and fully internalize that difference, and they are likely to be very reluctant or overtly hostile to acknowledging it. All the alt-right has done is take identity politics and turn it against its original aim to advance the exact tribalism leftists have been trying to use identity politics to end.

A better strategy the left could have used was the strategy the old left used through classical feminism, abolitionism, the sixties Civil Rights movement, or some new progressives through the more pop-culture current of the gay rights movement. Rorty describes it beautifully:

Another way is to get the prejudiced to see the stigmatised as having the same tendency to bleed when pricked as they themselves: they too worry about their children and parents; they are possessed by the same self-doubts, and lose self-confidence when humiliated; their difficulties in moving from one stage of life to another are much like everyone else’s, despite the fact that their life-chances may be minimal. These ways of emphasising commonality rather than difference have little to do with “cultural recognition.” They have to do with experiences shared by members of all cultures and all historical epochs, and which remain pretty much the same despite cultural change.

There’s no real way for bigots to co-opt this approach to advance their bigotry. In fact, it explicitly avoids framing the discussion not as some necessary “culture war” between an oppressive majority and an oppressed minority as current identity politics rhetoric implies and alt-right identitarians have assumed as their rallying cry. Instead, it emphasizes the need to end culture wars in the first place by progressing people’s sentiments to stand in solidarity with an ever-growing chunk of humanity—it seeks to replace simple identity with empathy.

Is this approach still in the vein of “identity politics” as we currently understand it? If we take Yglesias’ understanding, sure it still “concede[s] that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity,” but it seeks to make salient aspects of group identity as banal as possible, to make people stand in solidarity based off empathy for everyone’s common human shortcomings rather than based off who they happen to be culturally similar to, to make one’s ingroup as inclusive as impossible. It certainly isn’t tribalist or collectivist as Soave is concerned. Though it still recognizes diversity as important, Rorty still explicitly says that we should see this diversity “as a diversity of self-creating individuals, rather than a diversity of cultures[.]” This liberal (and classical liberal as I see it as drawing off of Hume, Smith, and Mill more than anything) vision is one that is both pluralistic and individualistic.

Is this, however, a winning electoral strategy, as Lilla is concerned? I’m not sure. Tribalist urges of racism are certainly very powerfully woven into how humans have psychologically evolved, and perhaps in our current broken discourse of race relations it isn’t the best electoral strategy. There is, however, some reason for optimism; popular support for gay rights is at an all-time high, after all, and this was probably more a function of the victory of emphasizing the similarity of love between gays to that of straights then getting straight allies to march in gay pride parades. Regardless of electoral outcomes, shouldn’t the goal of civil discourse not be to win elections, but to ensure the most just, peaceful, and prosperous civil society—the zero-sum game of coercive politics be damned? Leftists should try to change the current broken discourse, rather than try to work within it to gain political power.