Intro. [Recording date: December 5, 2017.]Russ Roberts: My guests are Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay.... Our topic for today is an essay they have written. The title is "A Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity".... It's quite long. I found it to be worth the read. It's extremely provocative. And it's a very interesting take on ideology, politics, daily life, and particularly the current situation around the world in the political realm and the nature of discourse. So, our topic today is going to be that essay, which focuses on what you call modernity. Helen, let's start with you. What do you mean by 'modernity'?
Helen Pluckrose: Well, I think we used that term because it is so general. Because, there is, goodness knows, the Scientific Revolution. There's the Enlightenment. That, to sort of pick on one of those things and describe it as the catalyst of the Great Change is too simplistic, really over 500 years, taking in a number of factors from the reclamation through, you know, through the Age of Reason, the Scientific Revolution, and various other developments that time. Things gradually changed. We gradually moved from an epistemology of faith and narratives to one in which science and reason and came to dominate. So, modernity is, the much-more, sort of overarching description for that period of change.
Russ Roberts: James, what would you like to add?
James Lindsay: From my perspective, we use the term 'modernity' to sidestep saying 'enlightenment'/'liberalism.' Which would be a kind of liberalism in the Jeffersonian or Millian sense, because that term has become politically charged, especially in the United States. Liberalism is seen as the enemy of conservatism. Which is sort of one of the big themes of the essay.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to read a list that you made in the essay, to summarize modernity, which reinforces what you both just said.
- A profound respect for the power of reason and the utility and strength of science;
- An unwavering commitment to the norms of secular democratic republics, including rule of law, and an abiding belief that they are the most beneficent political force the world has known;
- A keen understanding that, whatever and however group dynamics may influence human societies, the atomic unit of society to be defended and cherished is the individual;
- An earnest appreciation that the Good is best achieved through a balance between human cooperation and competition brokered and mediated through the interplay of institutions that work on behalf of public and private interests.
On the surface, those seem all undeniable. Who would be against those, Helen? Who is against that?
Helen Pluckrose: On the surface, most people claim not to be against them. Some of the now-extreme post-modernists will tell us that this is all a white supremacist, patriarchal system. But, for the most part, people are sort of tacitly in support. However, a lot of the things that are coming out of their discourses are explicitly against the, against individuality. Primarily there's an awful lot of collectivism and group-identity politics going on, in both extremes at the moment.
Russ Roberts: Well, let's start with the post-moderns. What's their main critique of what you are calling modernity? And, why are they, say, opposed to modernity?
Helen Pluckrose: Well, they see that as the time of Western Domination. And, there's a lot of truth in that. Because, Yes, slavery and colonialism did take place within this time. They tend to see the West as, as the ultimate evil, at the moment, because they are talking about discourses of power. They are very [Sucodian?]. Where, reality is constructed by systems of power and the West has dominated, they want a kind of reversal, and to bring out these sort of alternative ways of knowing and these suppressed voices. Which could be women; or it could be previously colonized countries or other kinds of minorities. And this leads sort necessarily to condemning modernity--condemning enlightenment, liberalism, condemning even a sort of, even democracy. Where, everything is culturally constructed in a way to give white westerners power. So, they are very skeptical of it. I mean, it's quite common to hear 'the myth of enlightenment progress,' and 'modernity'--'the modern project has failed,' because they see it as having failed on this ethical, pluralist level.
Russ Roberts: Well, yeah, and it's not just white westerners. It's white male westerners. Right?
Helen Pluckrose: Yes.
Russ Roberts: The oppressed groups--it's a long list. We won't list them here. But there's a group of oppressed folks, and they've been oppressed by the white male westerners. But there's also a philosophical viewpoint underlying the postmodern critique of modernity, which is their version of truth. How do you see--how does that play into the political perspective that they bring?
Helen Pluckrose: Well, because they see knowledge as a construct of power. Obviously, they--science and reason are the way that white male westerners have constructed knowledge. So the reaction to that is to try to break down these boundaries. And bring up other ways of knowing--which are often cultural narratives, which are lived experience; and of minority groups. I mean, some--it's even been suggested, you know, witchcraft, and--ach--and other, form--all kinds of epistemologies. And including faiths, of people of marginalized groups, not white western Christians obviously, but other faith groups. And this is the form of sort of pluralism that post-modernism is in favor of. Nothing is objectively true; but everybody has their own truths. Because white westerners have dominated with their truth in the past, this must now be subordinated to the truths of marginalized groups. So, that comes down very much against objective truth in any form. And against reason, against science.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It reminds me of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' So, anything that's anti-Western colonial, intellectual enlightenment, like witchcraft, must be good. Which is a strange perspective. But this episode is not strictly about post-modernism. And perhaps we'll have a post-modern voice on this program at some point to defend it.
Russ Roberts: But, let's turn to the pre-moderns. And, James, what's the pre-modern critique of modernity? And what's wrong with it?
James Lindsay: So, ultimately, I think, the pre-modern critique of modernity--so pre-modernism, I should say is sort of the far right, so very conservative, take on how the modern project is failing. So, it's rooted often in religion. It's--or the collective experience or the common sense--everyman is how we word it in the essay. And so, it seems to be that their critique is largely based in a lack of trust from modern systems and institutions. Rather than feeling like the power dynamics have oppressed various groups that need to be brought back to power or to be need to forwarded like the post-modernist seeing, the pre-modernists see that the questions have really been settled: we have kind of a golden era, at some point in the past. And, it's up to certain types of, I guess, extremely conservative thinking, Paleo-Conservative thinking really, in order to try to defend Western values and preserve what is so that we can maintain and keep that Golden Era. So, it's kind of an attempt to situate--if you don't want to use a post-modern word--the focus of power in the traditional Everyman as the, so the dominant groups historically are under the project of modernity. And so, their primary concern is that traditional values in particular are going to slip away under the progressive project or that we will erect economic institutions that lead to ruin, and so on. So, that's the primary concern from the pre-modern side, as far as I can tell. And I'm not a pre-modernist. And so have a little bit of difficulty understanding their worldview. I haven't to live with a lot of them, or around a lot of them. Living in the Southeast United States.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. You are in Tennessee. Is that correct?
James Lindsay: I am in Tennessee. The county I live in is extraordinary conservative.
Russ Roberts: And, Helen, where do you live?
Helen Pluckrose: I'm just outside of East London.
Russ Roberts: So, this is a very international episode. I really like that. I'm in the center of the United States power nexus, in Washington, D.C. You're lost, James, in the backwoods of Tennessee; and Helen's the cosmopolitan Londoner.
Russ Roberts: I want to go back to you, James. You are critical of Hayek in your essay. What do you see as Hayek's failing?
James Lindsay: Well, Hayek--and Helen will actually have more to say about Hayek than I will--but, Hayek was thoroughly modern, through and through; and it's a shame we didn't have space to devote a little bit more discussion to his position, because we came off a little unfair, I suppose, to him. But--we've oversimplified. It's not so much Hayek, who did have some concerns ultimately about the application of over-rationalized knowledge, or even rationalism on some level. It's more the way that the pre-modern people have taken Hayek and championed him as this kind of, you know, ultra-free-market sort of philosophical champion. That's more what we were speaking to. And, like I said, it's unfortunate we didn't have more space to give. But, as you noted, the essay is already over 9000 words. It's an extremely long read. And, adding more depth there--we initially did; and then we ended up taking it out because it was just a little bit too much. But, Helen may actually have more things to say about Hayek than I do. She's a little more philosophically grounded.
Russ Roberts: Helen, do you want to add anything?
Helen Pluckrose: I think we [?], as James pointed out--but the criticism that we had most, that essay--I mean, from the people whose thinking we respect. So, you don't just want to call us Far Right or Far Left loons. We're both, apparently. Has been in the rather summary way that we've dealt with Hayek. And what I found with him is that the most reasonable thinkers can take him, and do take him, as a warning against over-confidence or naive trust in expertise or rationalism as a reminder of the importance of fallibilism and of local knowledge. That's great. But it's similar, in a way, to post-modernism, where the most reasonable of those will remind us of our biases, remind us of our cultural influences, and warn against being too certain of anything. And, we are all for not being too certain of anything. But, when we get a lot of the--because obviously we are both quite active on Twitter and social media, and we get a lot of answers to our essays as well--when we get really extreme libertarians who are fundamentally opposed to expertise in every form and just simply don't think that there can be expert knowledge, and a really full-grounding traditionalist and their own sort of narratives, often religious but not always, then we do find that they are using Hayek quite a lot as a justification for doing this. So, he may not have approved of that at all. But that is what tends to come across.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's life.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to try to defend the Hayekian perspective for a minute here. And I concede--you've conceded that you may have been too critical. But, at one point you write in the essay, "Liberty and individuality are cornerstone values of modernity." So, I would argue that liberty and individuality are the cornerstones of my worldview. So, why aren't you just plain old classical liberals? Whether you are Hayekian, or Smithian, or Millian, or whatever -an you want to be? Why don't--since you are big fans, each of you, of liberty and individuality--what bothers you about the libertarian or classical liberal project that you think is anti-modern? I guess that's the right way to say it. Helen?
Helen Pluckrose: I'm not--in my biography on Twitter I have used the word 'classical liberal' to describe myself. I have tended to come away from that now and say 'universal liberal' or 'enlightenment liberal,' because I've been misunderstood to have libertarian economics. And I don't actually have a comprehensive economic position. I am in favor of a mixed economy; and it's not a typical[?] my area of my expertise. So, I don't have a problem with the libertarians who fall within the classical liberal tradition, culturally, who don't oppose science or reason or who don't deny expertise in all forms. And very many of them don't. I mean, here in England, which sometimes is confusing to Americans, a lot of libertarians are Leftists. And, so, they fall quite close to the Center-Left-Liberal position, except that they tend to be in favor of Brexit; whereas the Liberals tend not to be. So, it all gets quite sort-of melded in the middle. But, if you ask me, do I have a problem with classical liberalism, I certainly don't. [?] Some classical liberals have expressed opinions that I don't agree with because they come more further right than I do.
Russ Roberts: So, let me talk about my own views for a second; and then, Jim, you can react to it. I see myself as a classical liberal. But each time that you talk about science, I get a little uneasy because I think the modern project--the part of modernity that I'm uncomfortable with in 2017--is probably the over-reliance on science and the overconfidence in our ability to understand the complexity of the world. It's a very Hayekian view; you mentioned it earlier, I think, James, and said it very well. So, I consider myself--well, except for the fact that I'm religious: I'm a religious Jew, which is kind of tricky, so in that sense I'm definitely a pre-modern, but I don't use that in any of my political--I don't think I use it in my political viewpoint. I'm very liberal socially--to the left socially in American politics, very much a libertarian there--on drugs, gay marriage, etc. So, I'm curious, James, if you have a bone to pick with any of that, is there, in your feeling about--you know, putting aside my personal religious views, which I know you're not, it's not your thing--but as a political animal, my version of classical liberalism and my muted respect for science--am I an anti-modern?
James Lindsay: Um, well, I don't know enough about you to qualify you as an anti-modern. Because, I think that's actually, the way we use it, a fairly serious charge. To be an anti-modern I think you really actually have to be on the lunatic fringe, Left or Right. We don't mean to lump in religious people or mainline, roughly mainline, libertarians, or any of these kinds of worldviews. So, I doubt that you're anti-modern. I do have a little, I guess, concern about your skepticism of science; but science should have skepticism built into it. So, that's, um, not an unreasonable position; nor is it, you then, anti-scientific. I think that we have kind of a situation where we have two modes of human cognition and experience going on at once. And the individual liberty side of what's often billed as classical liberalism, while it's incredibly important and cornerstone to modernity and modern values and freedom and liberty and successful economic systems and all of this--at the same time, we also, are very social animals. And groupishness is part of us. And I think that the full-out classical liberal technology, if you will, from the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries, wasn't aware of the depth of moral psychology and moral sociology in the way that those actually interplay in human dynamics. And so, I feel like there needs to be a little bit more understanding of--not necessarily embracing of--the concept of group dynamics, as well as individual liberty. So, that's not to say that I'm in any way a collectivist. I think it's more along the lines of what we said in the essay: that the atom of the modern society is the individual. But if you look at how molecules are created, we often hear from the Right that the family becomes, you know, the fundamental unit of society. I don't even think that's right. I think it's the social networks that we create around ourselves, a little bit bigger than the family, become the fundamental unit of society. But those social networks have strong moral norms, moral behavior, moral--I keep using the word 'moral.' I'm sorry. So, they have strong moral norms. They have tendencies to become naturally and not necessarily in negative ways, we usually say, 'tribal.' And those have to be recognized in a way that even, you know, something very advanced like Millian utilitarianism can't quite capture. An excellent book I've read on this topic is Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes, which says that we need to, for kind of everyday purposes, use kind of more of our moral intuition side of thinking, which is going to be more tribal and groupish. But then, when we need to sort out problems between groups of individuals, whether it's libertarians, or liberals, or conservatives, and liberal Jews and Christians, or whoever it happens to be, we need to then slip into a meta-moral mode that's based on Mill's utilitarianism. And I think that that's actually right--that we have to take in both sides at the same time. And I feel, personally, that classical liberalism, as a political philosophy, hasn't had the opportunity to address that as fully as it needs to be. So, that's my reservation with classical liberalism. On that end [?]. The rest was just to say that I, like Helen, agree that a blended economy and a regulated capitalism is required in order to create an effective economic system. So I'm a little bit skeptical of, especially, you know, where I live, Southeast, the majority of people calling themselves libertarians--I've finally realized that I live in a bubble in this regard. But, the majority of them strongly align with Randian objectivism, which I think is a little bit extreme as far as the individual factor goes. And, so, I can't really get on with Ayn Rand's vision and its influences on libertarianism. So, I'm a little skewed in my view. I didn't realize that until recently, because I thought I lived in libertarian mecca. But apparently it's kind of crazy libertarian mecca.
Russ Roberts: Well, it's one flavor. You know, we had Jennifer Burns on recently, who wrote a very thoughtful biography of Ayn Rand, which I recommend that episode to listeners, and your book. And we also had Josh Greene on talking about that book as well, and that was very interesting. He's much more of a utilitarian than I am, but it's a provocative viewpoint. An interesting viewpoint.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk for a minute about tribalism, though, because I think you raise a great point about dynamics and groupthink and what is good and bad about groupthink, the way norms emerge is often, sometimes at least, a good thing. But it can be a bad thing. It can have norms, as we've talked about before on the program, that are racist. Or sexist. But, the point that you make that classical liberalism hasn't really grappled with that I think is a fair take. So, I want to get your perspective on tribalism generally. And we'll use that as a segue to, later on, talk about the current state of the world, which I find increasingly tribal, or at least feels that way. So, let's talk about tribalism, and why it seems to be rearing its head now. And seems to be, along with partisanship, which you do write about in some detail--what's going on there? How should we think about tribalism and partisanship in a world where you want science to try and--one of you said, both of you I think, mentioned the word 'narrative,' as part of our pre-modern nature. And I think narrative remains the essential human way of understanding the world. It's, of course, terribly flawed. And when it's supported[?] by science, it's less flawed. But, we tell ourselves narratives all the time. We tell ourselves narratives to make ourselves feel good, to help us understand the world, to help us--to console us. So, what are your thoughts on that, how we should think of that as a modern? How should we think about tribalism? Helen?
Helen Pluckrose: Yeah. I agree absolutely with the idea of narratives. And recently we both gave a talk to the U. of Sydney. We were talking--well, I was talking--about the need to regain some narratives. Because, post-modernism--and I'm sorry to keep returning to it; I won't keep doing that--
Russ Roberts: No, you can. It's an important part of this conversation. And it's not something we talk about on the program. And I think it's something, people who know nothing about, should get to know a little bit about it. So, go ahead.
Helen Pluckrose: Yeah, because we're skeptical of meta-narratives. That was the defining feature of it, according to Lyotard [Jean-Francois Lyotard]. And so, we lost the grand narrative with post-modernism. And, the criticisms of modernism has been that the narratives were too naive, too simplistic. Then post-modernism over-compensated. So, now there's a suggestion of meta-modernism, which would address both of these problems and avoid the naivete of modernism and the cynicism and superficiality of post-modernism by restoring narratives, but also remaining slightly skeptical of them. It's, it's--
Russ Roberts: It's nuanced.
Helen Pluckrose: Yeh--
Russ Roberts: But I like it.
Helen Pluckrose: It, it--but, yeah. But when you read about meta-modernism, it really seems very much like post-modernism. So, what I argued for is that: Yes, we need to respect the human need for meta-narratives. But, we can make them rooted in truth and in reason. Or, we can have our narratives which we can understand as having emotive or moral significance, but which are actually true. I think it's very important to sort of separate what is known to be true, even provisionally. Obviously, we don't--science everything is only known to be true provisionally. And what is meaningful to us. And so I was a little bit concerned earlier to come back to what you said, when you said 'I'm a religious Jew, so I'm a pre-modernist.' But, that is not at all what either of us meant to suggest. Within--this is in relation to the tribal thing that you were talking about. James and I are both, obviously, atheists. We don't tend to take that as an identity and I'm quite opposed to taking that as an identity. But, the idea that we don't--a common goal here with liberal in the broadest sense, rationalist, religious people, Christians, Muslims, Jews, whoever, is a worry. So, I would say that, to be thinking, 'Well, I'm a religious person, so, therefore I'd be a pre-modernist' is not at all what we were suggesting.
Russ Roberts: It's just, I mentioned it, I brought it up because it comes up--religion comes up a little bit in your essay. And it tends to fall in the pre-modern camp, overwhelmingly. And I also will confess: I really like Kipling's poetry. So, that's another pre-modern aspect of my--or anti-post-modern, at least, aspect, of my kitbag.
Russ Roberts: But, going back to the tribal--this meta-narrative idea I think is a really interesting idea. I think you have to concede that people like narratives. I think you have to grind the--I think you make a powerful and important distinction that it's important to have different narratives for different parts of your life: some grounded in science; some don't have to be. My marriage--I idealize my marriage, to some extent, I suspect. And I think that's a good thing. I don't keep data on it. I don't run any regressions. And I encourage that. I don't think it's a good idea to scientifically analyze one's marriage or one's love for another person or my connection to my children, or a whole variety of things. And I have a meta-narrative about those that are, that is not scientific. And I think that's really good advice. But, when I think about getting into an airplane, I'm really focused on the scientific part of the narrative; and that's one of the reasons I'm not afraid to fly. So, that's good. But, anyway, do you want to add anything about narrative, tribalism, and what's going on there? How we ought to think about tribalism and the modern ideology? Complicated.
James Lindsay: Yeah. Well, I think so. I've done a lot of my last few years' worth of research on tribalism, actually. And so, it's kind of an interesting topic for me. I think that what we're actually talking about, in a sense, we are talking about the human desire to use narratives and to cast things in stories and to understand things in ways that aren't always scientific, as you just said. And I agree with you broadly on pretty much everything you just said, about your marriage and different aspects of life. But, ultimately, the sort of science goes, speaking as a narrative--I think of science more as an information gathering tool. So, if you needed more information, say, about your marriage or your relationship with your children, not necessarily science in the sense of hard data and doing statistics on it, although maybe depending on the circumstances--but, the scientific process of knowledge acquisition. Which is to put forth ideas and ask critical questions in order to find out what is as close to true as we can find out, is the way that you'd want to go about it. Like I said: If you felt like there was maybe a problem or something and you needed to sort out how you can deal with that by gathering more information. So, as far as tribalism narratives go, we're talking ultimately--and I hesitate to use this word, but I think it's the right word, or this term--it's human nature: we are drawn to narratives. We are also drawn to people who think like us, who share commonalities with us. We form moral groups with them at every level. Your family, for example, is a moral group. You have certain norms of behavior that are perfectly acceptable with your family that you wouldn't--and I'm not saying that they're more licentious, or less. It's just that you'd behave in a certain way with your family that you wouldn't necessarily behave with other people. And you often get to feel this, for example, if you have two social circles that you bring into the same area and you all of a sudden realize the people from this one circle and the people from the other one are going to be a little bit awkward with each other--they don't know each other. And in particular what you're going to find is that there are breakdowns in shared language, in humor--we call these things inside jokes, for example. So, we very readily form what could be called--not quite in the way Joshua Greene uses the word--but we very readily form moral tribes, or actually, the term in moral psychology is moral communities, that can become tribal in nature if they become really deeply entrenched or become highly sacrilized[?]. And so, because this is a fundamental part of how humans interact in a social sphere, I think that's ultimately what I was talking about when I said that classical liberalism did not fully--and even the Enlightenment. I've even wanted to call this observation the 'error of the enlightenment'--that, these views about human tribal behavior in the social universe are ultimately not as well-addressed in classical liberalism as they need to be. So, that would be my primary statement. The final[?fundamental?] reality is: We are going to form tribal alliances. We are going to form them in small ways, like our families and social networks. We are going to form in big ways, around ideologies or even just teams. So, sports teams--recently I saw a paper saying that we're actually not very good partisans--or, that's not right--we're not very good ideologues. We are very good partisans: We form our--we're very good at playing along with our team, say, the conservative team, the Republican team, the Democrats, the liberals, the libertarians. But a lot of people within these groups, as evidenced very quickly by talking to them, don't have the slightest idea what they are talking about in terms of a coherent ideology, a conservative ideology, so to speak. So, what they are really doing is forming a tribal identification. And there are a number of ways that we do that; and we don't have to get into the full details of all that. But, the important part, the takeaway here, is that this is a fundamental way that human beings act socially. And therefore any political philosophy we're going to have that's going to work optimally, has to take that into account to the correct degree. And it's just a matter of finding out what those truths about human behavior are and what the right degrees are, and then coming up with a system for managing them. And so, to return to science, the broadly construed concept of science, being 'Let's put forward ideas. Let's let anybody criticize them. Let's try to be careful and assume that we're wrong,' and so on. And that, 'Anybody should be able to get the same results--it's not dependent on whether you are black or white or whether you are a Jew or a Muslim,' or whatever you happen to be: 'Let's put our ideas out there according to this structure and then hopefully we will be able to, over time, converge closer and closer to whatever these truths are, and strategies for working with them.'
Russ Roberts: Well, I love what you said. My only--the nit that I would pick is that at one point you said we have to figure out how these things work and then manage them. I don't think we're very good at managing these tribes in any dimension whatsoever. They emerge without anyone's centralized control. And different tribes rise up--different forms of identity, different forms of group of identification from sports to religion to politics, etc. I can't help but mention that a friend of mine was recently frustrated that she had to bring a snack to her child's--one of the clubs at school that her child was in--and she was making the snack herself. And, when asked why she wasn't buying it, she was, 'Well, I would normally just go to Walmart and get it, but I can't do that.' She said, 'I can't do that,' meaning, 'If I bring a snack from Walmart to my kid's class, I'm in trouble. I will be ostracized. I will be judged.' And that's a fascinating thing, in 2017. It's only certain parts of the country, obviously. But, that's a form of tribalism that we don't normally think about. And, as you say, it's a moral tribe, a moral community that's at work there.
Russ Roberts: I want to introduce someone's ideas who I talk about a lot on the program, which is Arnold Kling. And Arnold Kling created a taxonomy of thinking about the modern political world which I found very helpful. And the reason I liked your taxonomy is it seems to add some things that his doesn't. So, Arnold looks at--he says basically there's conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. Each of them look at the world through a very specific lens. Conservatives look at the world through--the world is a fight between civilization and barbarism; and we've always got to come down to defend civilization. The Liberals see the world as a war between the oppressed and the oppressor, and you always have to stand up for the oppressed. And, the Libertarians see the world as a fight between coercion and freedom. And I think that's generally true. At one level. I mean, it's a very powerful set of lenses, and we'll put up some links to the episode I did with Arnold, his book, and an essay I wrote on it. But, the point is that, I think I see your view as a different taxonomy; but it's related, in the sense that--the way I see your view is that the Pre-Moderns are the Conservatives who have gone too far in their defense of civilization. The Liberals are the Post-Moderns who have gone too far in their feelings for the oppressed. The Libertarians could be okay but they've got their own issues--which, I don't even want to think about what's wrong with the libertarians, or right about them; as I say, I have an essay that I'll put up [a link to]--but, we have our own issues. But, I think you are on to something different than what Arnold was getting at, in that--I'm just taken by your Pre- and Post-modern versus Modern taxonomy. Other than making that observation, I'll let you react to it, and whether you see any--how you see your work in relation to Arnold's, if you can on the spot. Helen?
Helen Pluckrose: I think that's very interesting. I think that--yeah. In those definitions I would fall somewhere between Liberals and Libertarians. And I think that this is what is important here. Because, when we're talking about the Pre-Moderns and the Post-Moderns, then yeah, we are talking about the authoritarians and the zealots on the extremes. So, within the, the Pro-Moderns that we're talking about, we will find plenty of conservatives, plenty of liberals, and plenty of libertarians. I think--I don't know. I find myself at a bit of a loss because of the different understanding of Liberals, Liberalism between America and the United Kingdom. Quite often, the idea of liberalism is closer to a moderate Libertarian-ism [?]
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, let me add a different point, actually, and then I'll let you react, or James. I think I have a better thing to say about your work and Arnold's and how they interface. Arnold's observation, which I think is very deep, is that liberals have trouble understanding what conservatives are talking about. Conservatives have trouble figuring out what liberals are talking about. And Libertarians don't understand either one of them. And vice versa. And I think that's a deep point. And it explains why you get into a shouting match sometimes at a party, because you just don't use--you are just using a different lens. And I think if you absorb Arnold's viewpoint, and his construction of these different views, to me at least it allows for a lot of serenity. Because you realize that most people aren't evil. They are just using a different pair of glasses. They are seeing, they are focusing on a different piece of elephant--the trunk--and you are on the side of the elephant. And so you are seeing it really differently. But I see your essay actually as making a further point that I see now, which is: It's not just that they don't understand each other. They are at war. It's obvious that liberals and conservatives are going to disagree and spar over politics. But, what I mean is that, what I take as one of the fundamental lessons of your essay, is that the Pre- and the Post-Moderns want to destroy Modernity. It's not just, 'Oh, we don't see policy the same way you do. We want a bigger welfare state,' or 'We want more economic freedom,' or 'We want a bigger defense, more defense spending because we are worried about attack.' You're making the point that Modernity is really at risk right now. That's the way I understand your essay. Is that a fair reading? James?
James Lindsay: Yeah. That's exactly right. The key word that Helen brought up was 'authoritarianism.' So, the people that we would classify as 'anti-modern' are the ones who are--whether liberal, conservative, or libertarian--which--it sounds paradoxical but believe me, I'm surrounded by them, to say libertarians who are also authoritarian--
Russ Roberts: At least, self-identified. It's bizarre to me--
James Lindsay: Yes--
Russ Roberts: but, okay, I'll take that.
James Lindsay: It sounds like an oxymoron. But there are people who are so far into what they call a libertarian mindset, which is what they really mean an anti-government mindset, that they've become anti-government authoritarians. And, the extremes here bend toward authoritarianism. This is often captured by an idea that's called 'Horseshoe Theory'--although you need three legs on the horseshoe if you are going to talk about this, in terms of three political orientations. Which, by the way--these are backed up as three distinct moral predilections according to moral psychology--libertarian morality, liberal morality, and conservative morality have clear definitions that are distinct under Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph's, as it's called[?], moral foundations theory. And so, the idea with Horseshoe Theory ultimately is that, up on the back side--I'm sorry; I don't know the parts of the horseshoe any more; I looked it up at one point; I don't remember what they are called. But, on the rounded back side of the horseshoe, you are bending toward a construction toward liberty, individual liberty in particular. And then, on the ends of the horseshoe, down at the feet of it, maybe that's what they're called--we're bending toward social authoritarianism. In fact, the main dimension that these people are engaged in is what's called 'authoritarian conventionalism'. They believe that their views should be conventional within their own group, and conventional to everybody else. That's the technical term under Bob Altemeyer's construction of authoritarianism. And, that's the ultimate war--is that we now have, because of what we called in the essay, 'existential polarization,' where each side sees the others as a true, complete threat to our current social order, or even way of life, or even an existential threat to our humanity by causing its collapse, we have people that have gone so far down their respective paths and have become so rigid that their prescription is the one true way to solve all of humanity's problems, that they've become violently authoritarian. Incidentally, they don't like each other at all, and argue incessantly amongst each other. And then this creates even more drama, almost like a superpower--we did call it a superpower in the essay, saying that these people have this ability to take people that are somewhere near the middle, the so-called center, and skew them to one side or another out of abject fear that the world is going to end, the sky is falling, because those people over there, whether it be the libertarians or whether it be the liberals, whether it be the conservatives. And so, that, I think is ultimately the dimension that we're really concerned with. So, I don't disagree with the taxonomy--you said Crane[?] gave. I don't disagree with that at all.
Russ Roberts: Kling--
James Lindsay: Kling. I don't disagree with that at all. In fact, I think it's quite profound, as well; and I think he's really onto something. On the other hand, I think that our ultimate struggle right now for modernity, which is under threat, is that it's under threat from people who have become very authoritarian in their worldviews. Which has been increasing in recent years, recent decades, because of this growing sense of polarization that I believe has now become existential polarization.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about that for a minute. Helen, do you have a thought on the--why--it feels that way, and maybe that's just because we're spending too much time on Twitter. Which I know I am, and I think you've semi-confessed you are. Do you really think that the world is more polarized right now, this self-righteous fringe of each side of the Horseshoe, the Left and the Right--let's leave the libertarians out for the moment, but just--the Post-Modern Left certainly has an authoritarian bent. The Pre-Modern Right certainly has an authoritarian bent. Are they just louder and more audible than before? Is it really a serious threat?
Helen Pluckrose: It is a serious threat--
Russ Roberts: It feels like it is. I have to confess, I'm worried about it. I wonder.
Helen Pluckrose: It's a serious threat because people believe it's a serious threat. And that is part of what we were trying to say in the "Manifesto," is to get people to realize just how fringe these ideas are. Because, what tends to happen is that, like, moderate Right-wingers will see the extremes of the Left and become convinced that this represents the Left. And that the whole of the Left has to be opposed drastically. This is an existential threat. And the moderate Left will do the same to the Right; and they will see the alt-Right [alternative Right] or the far Right as defining the Right. And so, when they are talking on social media, or when we're reading analyses of politics, then we will hear, 'The Left does this,' and 'The Right does that.' As you saw, we had a little graphic in our essay, which just sort of demonstrates it, that these are the fringes. And most of the people in the middle in this graphic are saying 'Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.' Except that because of the existential--the perception of this existential threat right now, people are internalizing. They work the most faulty narratives of their own side in order to defend against what they see as the existentially dangerous threats on the other side.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; when you point out to them that--and many of these people are not on the fringe of intellectual life. They are just on the fringe of the political spectrum. They are at the center of intellectual life, often. And you point out to them and, 'Boy, you're awfully over-confident,' and they say, 'Well, we have to be. The world's going--we have to stand up to the evil.' And they never imagine the possibility that they could be part of the problem, or that the evil that they're worried about maybe isn't so evil.
Helen Pluckrose: Well, this is what we are essentially trying to say to people, is: If you are a Leftist and you are worried about what's going on, you're natural ally might not be the Far Left. It might be the Moderate Rightists. And so, we wanted to try and refigure the way that people were thinking, and the way that the polarization was growing, by reframing it not as Left versus Right, but as the defenders of Modernity against the anti-Modernists who are, essentially, the same. They don't present exactly the same problems to society, obviously. But their thinking and their threat is very much the same. So, if we can get people to sort of step down from the polarization by seeing that they actually have a great many more allies within the spectrum, if they can stop seeing it within this very Left/Right polarized terms.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. James, in the essay you write that--I'm going to step back here for a second and re-cover some of this ground because I think it's, again, very novel. You write "Partisanship Is Modernity's Weakness" [a section heading--Econlib Ed.]. Why should that be? And, what do you mean by that?
James Lindsay: We have this problem where modernity itself, as you indicated, is going to, is always going to spin off. When you give people individual liberty to pursue their own values, it's always going to spin off competing groups. And those competing groups are able, often, to form partisan--to form tribes. And at the grandest scale we are going to end up with a two- or three-part--and in the American system--usually a two-part system, in which it's one side versus the other. And libertarians often see themselves as somewhat distinct from conservatives; but I'll tell you that liberals do not see libertarians in the United States as distinct from conservatives. Like Helen said: Americans are often confused by the idea that there's a Libertarian Left in the United Kingdom. So, often--and the reasons are, I mean, quite straightforward based out of our voting systems and all of this, and we can get into that whole thing: that divergers'[?], law, about voting and it's all political, very, talking about why we end up with a two-party system; and if you try to break a big coalition you become politically weaker than the other side, so it's not really that great of an idea to do it too often. So, for instance, if the Libertarians were to fully split off from the Conservatives, conservative politics would get crushed by the Democrats, until somehow one or the other become strong enough to become the new Conservative Party. So, we often end up with this partisanship that then leads to team playing, which leads to people no longer thinking about the issues in any level of depth. Not that they've really, you know, historically done so. Not to say that we're--I don't want to harken back to some lost age of enlightenment where the common man was deeply invested in political thought. Because that typically wasn't the case. That would be completely a-historical--
Russ Roberts: yeah--
James Lindsay: to claim that. But, the invitation to join a team and just ride it--you know, to just party-line vogue, for instance--just go down and say, 'Well, I don't care who is on the Republican ticket; and I don't care what they stand for, what they say. I vote Democrat. Period.'--is a very, very scary temptation[?]. And it's ultimately the weakness--I say of Modernity, but in this aspect, I actually mean of Democracy as a part of Modernity. So, we hope for the best for having divided powers, which help tremendously, and by having in the United States so many different districts: Many of the states that have certain degrees of power both in the House and in the Senate, and so on. And we kind of hope for the best. But, there are real challenges that come up. And obviously one of the biggest challenges is the inability to speak across these partisan divides. And then, the invitation under certain societal stresses, to become more and more existentially polarized--where you feel like 'The Conservatives are ruining the world,' or 'The Liberals are trying to destroy Western Civilization.' Which are both things that I hear, routinely, in the circles that I run in.
Russ Roberts: And we may get emails to this episode, comments and emails and tweets that say, 'But they are'--whichever side they're on.
James Lindsay: I wouldn't be the least bit surprised. Maybe the bulk of the emails.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Helen, why do think this partisanship has increased? Why do you think the center isn't holding maybe the way that it did in the past?
Helen Pluckrose: I'm thinking more from a European perspective. But I've found that Jonathan Haidt recently wrote--well, maybe a year ago now--wrote a wonderful essay saying when Nationalism beats Globalism. And, from our perspective over here, there is a great sense of existential threat due to the refugee crisis.
Russ Roberts: Yep.
Helen Pluckrose: And at the same time, our Left has essentially, the United Kingdom anyway, has essentially disintegrated, leading to a surge to the Right. So, I think that--Jonathan Haidt, what he spoke about was an authoritarian button that gets pressed where we may have a sense of an existential threat--
Russ Roberts: Yep--
Helen Pluckrose: and this has caused Moderate Conservatives and even Centrists to suddenly become much more Nationalistic, even to the point of xenophobia. Because of the refugee crisis. And then, in reaction to that, the Left, who have just dismally failed to address genuine concerns about it, have just sort of doubled down and responded to the surge to the right and the sort of populist nationalism with accusations of bigotry. And it just sort of escalates from here, with the people getting further and further away from understanding each other. And the problem that's actually in play. And, I think to a certain extent, but you two are my better about this, that this is also happening in America, but with sort of different, quite different dynamics.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It is happening in America. And it is--it's just slightly different issues. But they are not unrelated. It's a--it's partly just--you could call it a fight for the "soul of the nation." We're kind of a country that want to be, should be, think we were. But, James, I want to let you comment on--you can either agree, or extend, or disagree with what Helen said. But I want to toss in the phenomena of social media. Which I find a temptation to blame for a lot of this. And I don't know if that's--that seems a little bit too simplistic for me. I'm a little bit worried about it. But it might be true. So, what are your comments on that?
James Lindsay: So, broadly I agree with what Helen said. I think, in the United States at least, there's been a dynamic that's driven polarization where I don't know and I don't want to try to figure out at the moment. And don't want to point fingers--almost he-said/she-said, spiraling anger began. But, some time in what appears to me to be roughly the 1990s, late 1980s, possibly, there seems to have been this increasing dynamic in the mediasphere to fragment and to write in the media and leftwing media and each side to essentially blame the other. They then--and this will tie in to social media also--they then seem to have engaged, or this seems to have been a very popular form of engagement with this partisan media environment--and maybe that just arose because of the accessibility of cable and radio bandwidth and all of that becoming easier as technology progressed--
Russ Roberts: part of it--
James Lindsay: through the 1980s and 1990s, I think.
Russ Roberts: as the first step--
James Lindsay: Yeah. But, at any rate, it became very, very fashionable. Because we would call it click-bait[?clique-based?] now, or outrage farming, or something like that. Because it became very fashionable to find the most extreme lunatic on the other side from your own, and then present them as if they are typical, in order to fear monger, or to whip up a base, or to radicalize. And this works. This has been--you know, I know that for instance Fox News got accused of it several years ago, of looking for the most lunatic liberal they could find, or to put a guy up there in the most--you know, bizarre, stereotypically, maybe almost hippie outfit there, or something--to say something crazy and then be like, 'Well, there you go, Audience. This is what the Liberals look like and think.' And this was, this is a form of not exactly journalism that I think has driven a lot of polarization. Because, from what I understand, one of the stronger effects, on social media in particular, that drives polarization is this weird combination that it facilitates, just like the cable news facilitates, that you can sort of find yourself in a bubble where you can present views that are very likely to go unchallenged. And then, if you really want to get people worked up and to support your cause, you can then throw out something that causes a lot of cognitive dissonance, and trigger the so-called backfire effect. From what I understand this is hypothesized to be one of the strongest drivers of polarization rising out of social media. It's not that you go on your social media and you've carefully manicured it so that it's, you know, say, 'Liberal, liberal, liberal, oh, I agree, I agree, I agree.' And everything is just la-la-land, you know, liberal bubble, and so you get skewed from reality. It's that most of your experience is that. So, you feel like this is a very popular, common--or everybody, kind of right-side-of-history opinion. And then, all of a sudden, you know, the 10th post or 6th post in your feed is this person saying something from the other side. Either it's somebody on your team, so to speak, repeating it to outrage the fact--
Russ Roberts: to mock it--
James Lindsay: or it happens to be your crazy uncle that you have to be friends with, who has put some--you know, idiot view from your perspective. And so, you see this, 'Oh, the whole world thinks kind of like I do.' And then, 'The other side says this absolutely radical stuff, so we've got to fight.' And this effect seems to be one of the primary drivers of polarization that rises out of social media. And so, whether social media is a huge driver of this or not, I think is unclear. But, I share your suspicion that it is. And I would guess that what I've just described is something close to its mechanism of action. I know that it's how I'm most likely become--just being self-reflective--to become kind of radicalized and motivated--
Russ Roberts: angry--
James Lindsay: Angry. Yeah. Outraged. 'Oh, look what these idiots on the far--,' I mean, even it's possible, but this is why I have such a view against these so-called anti-Modern people. I see them on the Left and Right all day long, and it's like, 'Aahh, come on.' And I'm, I've got say something about these people. And so, I have a feeling that may be kind of what we're all feeling. Because I think the feeling is just more common than just the 3 of us. I feel like, that this is possibly the dynamic that plays in on social media. But, also, it played on increasingly partisan news programming and the blending of, you know, news and opinion that has kind of dominated journalism for the past couple of decades. Because it sells.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. No. It's the dark side of capitalism. For capitalists like me, I think the media marketplace is designed to make people angry. Not to inform them. And we still have an illusion--it's dying, by the way, I think, this illusion. But we have an illusion that there's things called 'journalism' and reporting and investigative reporting. Of course, there still is some. But it's dying. And Fox News is an example of that death, for sure. My parents, who watch it religiously have a strange view of data. Of what's true about the world. They've been scared. They are in their 80s. I'm sure it's true of people who watch CNN (Cable News Network). I know it's--I don't watch much, I don't watch cable. I get my cable from my parents. But I do get the New York Times, and the New York Times has been doing this for the longest time. On the other side. And it goes back to the morning talk shows, where people will, in my view--maybe I'm wrong--but I think they deliberately pick unpleasant representatives of the "other side" to make them look foolish or dangerous. Because it creates more entertainment. And we have this illusion that news is for making us citizens, better citizens. To me, it's just a form of--it's just a different form of NFL Football [National Football League Football]--with a smaller chance of concussion but an equal chance of brain damage of a different kind. So, I do think it's a very--and I think social media is just a new, the latest extreme.
Russ Roberts: We've got a little time left. So, what's to be done? You spent some time in the essay on that. What do you advocate? You don't have to have a solution, of course. Could just be we've got to watch it play out, and no one can, of course, do anything about it. But, we had Megan McArdle on here recently talking about the Internet shaming phenomenon. And I wrote an essay in response to that phenomenon to some extent, but also just to this general, this polarization issue. And there are some obvious things, like: Be civil. Megan and I talked about that. But, I'm curious what you see as a road to a healthier discourse and less outrage and anger. Helen, why don't you go first?
Helen Pluckrose: I--I tend to think that--well, in the "Manifesto," we spoke about the attempt not to polarize, to meet against--across the divide. And I think, you know--I understand certainly the problem with social media, that it is an aggravating factor for the problems that we are having at the moment. But, what is aggravating is our own flawed thinking, and our own, ever-increasing sort-of tribalism. So, I think that the way forward is for those of us who are concerned about the extremes to try and expand our own circles. To expand what we can and can't tolerate. So that the people on the Moderate Left can have some alliances with the people on the Moderate Right. Because, we are seeing a narrowing--a real sort of demand for purity. I was arguing with the alt-Right today, where people were--women--a woman was being accused of being a feminist, and a man of being Jewish, because they disagreed. We see this on the Left as well, where there is a purity--you haven't used the right terminology for this sort of trends identity. And I think we have to try and reverse that. And we can do that on the level of the individual. If each person can try to see where their borders are, and try to expand them--try to expand their minds a bit, the sort of range of people, and the range of ideas that they are willing to accept. And when we're talking to each other, as well, if we can take responsibility for our own mistakes: If we find that we have been wrong, if we can say, 'I was wrong about that. Thank you. That was helpful.' Just anything we can do to try to reduce the polarization and the categorization that we are having at the moment; and if we can get more charismatic people to be more accessible. I mean, this was Matthew d'Ancona's book, which had--I recently read. And he was about the post-truth society. And he was talking about the way to get--to get people united in favor of truth, and reason. And he was talking about actually getting more onto social media. Getting the charismatic scientists, the rationalists, the experts to be more accessible; not to spurn sort of public--a social media or any sort of public engagements or may retreat to their sort of library towers, but to sort of get out there and be more accessible. Talk to people of different kinds. And just try to make more alliances. Try to re-establish the expectation that you will, that conversation will be civil: it will be reasonable, and it will include evidence and argument. And we can all do a little bit of that.
Russ Roberts: Hear, hear. James, you want to close this out?
James Lindsay: Sure. I think, to say two things. I think that the first is that, while we should be broadening our circles, we should also be learning to ignore people. To develop the skill to detect when somebody's being an extremist. When somebody will say--as Helen pointed out--is saying, 'Oh, well you used the wrong categorization for trans-people,' or whatever, 'therefore, you're this terrible trans-folk sexist.' Whatever happens to be--they're going to come up with a million epithets. That person should be seen as, essentially, excluding themselves from the adult table. They are sitting at the kids' table. We don't have to engage with them. I use the Mute Button very liberally for such people on Twitter. I don't hesitate, 'Oh, look at this. They decided to fling epithets.' Mute it. I'll never hear from him again. I'm not going to go review that. I have thousands of people I've muted. I'm not going to look through and say, 'You're out. Who needs to be unmuted?' So, learning to ignore people is actually going to be a crucial part. Rather than feeling this need to promote those people's views by saying, 'Hey, look how wrong this person is,' and then promote it by retreating it or quote-tweeting it or screen-shotting it or trying to generate outrage with it. There's a fine line between making a point from it and then promoting it in order to garner tribal outrage. And I think that learning to quell the instinct to promote that kind of stuff and just to ignore the extremists--because they aren't bringing themselves legitimately to the table of knowledge pursuit--is a first step. Second step would be to, as Helen indicated, to form these kind of alliances. Friendships, even. My dad actually had a really interesting view he shared with me when I was a teenager about politics. I never knew growing up whether my dad was conservative, liberal, or libertarian. I had no idea. In fact, I don't plainly know now. He's done quite the good job of hiding it, or maybe has a nuanced view; but that's the one I'm going to advocate for. He told me, when I was a kid, was to realize that the various political positions are like the parts of a car: The Liberal side--to highly oversimplify--is like the gas pedal; the Conservative side is like the brake pedal. And you need the Libertarians--I guess, to extend his analogy, because he didn't include them--are kind of like the steering wheel to keep you in your lane, the lane of, you know, liberty. You need all of those parts for the car to operate correctly. And so, rather than seeing Conservatives as being this horrible group, or the liberals as being out to destroy society, or libertarians as being pie-in-the-sky idealists, you can see their contributions as being--as you said--like the elephant: part of a bigger truth. And, not only that but as integral parts to figuring out the problem we're all interested in, which is a problem of society itself. So, you know, it's easier for me, for instance, to stomach something that seems a little bit too conservative for me taste to remember that this is a person just advocating that maybe we need to put on the brakes, as a society, a little bit. And, that I consider that. And I would encourage people to think that way. You know: What value is there here? Is it possible that we need to put the brakes on some of this? On the other side, Liberals: Maybe we need to step on the gas a little bit. Maybe we need to get somewhere a little further along the road. And so on and so forth. So, I think that learning to see each side--whether it's Liberal, Conservative, or Libertarian to draw this dichotomy--as trying to contribute something valuable. That encourages both humility and open-mindedness. And I think that those factors will allow people to become a little bit more willing to make friends and alliances, and to hear people out, and to consider; and then to engage in this liberal knowledge production strategy, where we put things out there and debate them, and try to retain the merits rather than, you know, diving into our own camps and saying everybody else is just dead wrong.