Myth America

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Arnold Kling drew my attention to a new(ish) book, The Myth of Left and Right: How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America by brothers Verlan and Hyrum Lewis. He links to sorta-reviews from Bryan Caplan and Robin Hanson. (Both of those reports link to a video interview Hanson and Caplan had with the brothers, which I haven't watched.).

I've long wondered how relevant the seating arrangements in the 18th-century French legislature could possibly be to today's politics.

Caplan summarizes:

The thesis of The Myth of Left and Right: Despite much pretense, neither “left” nor “right” are remotely coherent philosophies. There is no foundational leftist premise from which leftist conclusions flow, nor is there any foundational rightist premise from which rightist conclusions flow. Ideologies don’t just change mightily over the long-run; they change sharply even from one election to another. For intellectually irrelevant reasons.

The Lewis brothers do not defend the moderate position that the two main ideologies fail to make perfect sense. In both print and in-person, they affirm that the two main ideologies make no sense at all. Our political polarization rests on a giant collective delusion.

And here's Hanson:

That is, there are two main parties, with “left” and “right” positions just denoting whatever those parties have supported lately. When those parties change their positions, everyone quickly changes their minds about which positions are on which side. Most important positions have in fact switched sides in history, and there are a great many diverse theories about what is the left-right essence, none of which gets much support from the data.

This is on the whole correct, and nicely illustrates a key concept of the sacred: instead of directly pledging ourselves to the people of our tribes, we prefer to indirectly feel bound to those who see something sacred the same as us. Once upon a time, we might have felt bound to those who revered the same sacred tree. Now we feel bound to those who revere our end of the political spectrum. In both cases, we pretend that it is a thing outside of us that we care most about, while in fact we mainly use that external thing to bind us together.

Both Caplan and Hanson are skeptical about the Lewis's absolutism. And it's good to be skeptical. But I'm kind of intrigued by emperor-has-no-clothes arguments. So I will try to check out the book someday.

Last Modified 2024-01-11 3:00 PM EDT