Will Wilkinson and Bryan Caplan have been going back and forth on the value of labels. In particular, Will is arguing that political labels are a detriment to clear thinking. Overall, I think both of them have some pretty good points. I do think Will is correct that for most people political labels make you dumber. I am frequently baffled by the sight of an otherwise intelligent person making a partisan knee-jerk defense or attack on a politician when they would obviously be taking the exact opposite position if the D were switched with R. I see this happen literally almost every single day, and it is an extremely sad sight, made all the more sad by it’s obviousness. This makes me side with Will (somewhat). Yet, as would be expected, I don’t think my own labels do this to me (much), and I do think they are useful, which makes me side with Bryan (somewhat). But there is one point I think is missing from the debate: a self-conscious lack of labels is in fact a label, and can be just as constraining of one. Let me explain.
Politics just is coalitional conflict. A political label puts you, like it or not, on a team in a number of disputes in which there are significant real-world stakes. People therefore tend to see their ideological affiliation as constitutive of their identity in a way their opinion about the ontology of mental illness (to use one of Bryan’s examples) isn’t… Other people are thus likely to see our politics as central to our identity, and to see our attributed identity through the prism oftheir politics. Self-labeling gives others permission to apply to us the label we apply to ourselves, and (here is something I believe!) who we are is to a large extent a complicated product of our reactions to social expectations.
But to define oneself as, for example, “of no party or clique”, as Andrew Sullivan does, creates in others a social expectation of holding beliefs that defy parties and cliques. You may not be expected to take particular and easily predictable positions on every issue as you would if you had a politically well-defined label like, say, paleolibertarian, Christian conservative, or pro labor democrat. But you are expected to regularly take positions that are idiosyncratic.
Take Will for example. He is one of my favorite writers and I think he has a great talent for peering deeply into an issue. But nowadays I expect Will’s self-description as stridently not-a-libertarian who still steadfastly holds some libertarian positions to mean he will be boldly rejecting libertarian positions somewhat regularly, and embracing them other times. Will’s label as a label-less individual is perhaps even more central to my expectations of him than ever, since this has become an important issue to him that he wishes to persuade us on. “Look at me”, Will seems to be shouting sometimes, “I am no longer beholden to libertarianism!”. I don’t begrudge him his new found freedom, and am glad he feels unburdened of a bias, but it is a label he is wearing brightly.
I consider myself something of an idiosyncratic neoliberal libertarian who is willing to admit a lot of uncertainty. Each of those four things creates some expectations (to the extent anyone expects anything of me), but I think they give me a fairly wide berth to accept claims across many ideological spectrums. I don’t think abandoning those labels would liberate me, because I don’t feel very constrained. I think a lot of libertarians and conservative couldn’t picture themselves agreeing that the minimum wage doesn’t lead to unemployment, and indeed at one time I also could not have done it. But I took a lesson from Robin Hanson and pictured myself walking around as someone who believed this, and adjusted my self-conception until I actually could do that. Now I sometimes earnestly consider it, rather than just reconvincing myself that my belief in the opposite is rigorous. I don’t think you have to do this with all literally absurd claims, but it should be possible for slightly plausible claims.
Perhaps Will’s rejection of a label, or I should say his embracing of the label “label-less”, is the most effective way for him to minimize his biases. For me, I think I feel the most pressure or bias from my “idiosyncratic” label, and my “neoliberal” and “libertarian” labels help counter that by aligning social expectations of my beliefs to what I approximately consider to be the truth, and so regularly believe. But “idiosyncratic” isn’t a political ideology, it’s an adjective. And try as we might we cannot label ourselves as “adjectiveless” or be “adjectiveless” people and writers.
For some perhaps the best course of action is to abandon labels with strong expectations for those with less. For others I think the best course of action is to truly be able to imagine yourself defying social expectations your labels create, and to practice doing so by thinking a lot about the areas where you are most likely wrong. Just don’t defy social expectations of your beliefs by re-labeling yourself as someone who defies social expectations of your beliefs, or you will end up biased against holding predictable beliefs. Idiosyncrasy can be a burden like that.
That is the epistemic case against abandoning labels. Now allow me to make the Straussian case.
There is a constant branding war over ideologies, which combined with the inevitability of labels and anti-labels leads me to wish to defend the label libertarian by attaching myself to it and steadfastly insisting it is compatible with reasonableness. I know many people have exaggerated and cartoonish images of what makes a libertarian, and many cannot imagine themselves as self-identifying as libertarians. Part of this is the fault of Ron Paul and other radicals. I think convincing people that their self-conceptions as reasonable people can remain intact while they also embrace the label “somewhat libertarian” or even just “sometimes agreeing with libertarians” is valuable for the cause of promoting liberty, especially smart libertarian policies.
On the other side of the spectrum, I want to sell radical libertarians on a more reasonable brand of libertarianism. This is an easier task for someone who truly sees themselves as a libertarian. It is also, I hope, valuable for the cause of promoting liberty, especially smart libertarian policies.
Let me end by noting that I expect Will, with his insightfulness and persuasiveness, to talk me out of half of this [this is my uncertainty label operating].