Are You Progressive, Conservative, or Libertarian?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Arnold Kling, in his book The Three Languages of Politics, argues that there are three dominant political viewpoints: progressive, conservative, and libertarian. Each of these three view the world along completely different axes. Kling explained these three axes in an interview with economist Russ Roberts:

So what I claim is that Progressives organize the good and the bad in terms of oppression and the oppressed, and they think in terms of groups. So, certain groups of people are oppressed, and certain groups of people are oppressors. And so the good is to align yourself against oppression, and the historical figures that have improved the world have fought against oppression and overcome oppression.

The second axis is one I think Conservatives use, which is civilization and barbarism. The good is civilized values that have accumulated over time and have stood the test of time; and the bad is barbarians who try to strike out against those values and destroy civilization.

And the third axis is one I associate with Libertarians, which is freedom versus coercion, so that good is individuals making their own choices, contracting freely with each other; and the bad is coercion at gunpoint, particularly on the part of governments.

When I heard Kling say these things, it really resonated with me. The first thing that popped into my mind was the debate over gay marriage. Progressives see the entire debate in terms of gay people being oppressed. Conservatives see the debate in terms of millennia-old traditions being overturned. Libertarians see the debate in terms of gay people’s freedom to do what they wish.

The problem, says Kling, is that since each of these three groups are speaking a completely different language, they just talk past each other and fail to substantively engage. Coming from a conservative viewpoint, I can definitely see how progressives only want to talk about the oppression of gays, and libertarians only want to talk about the fact that gays should be able to freely do whatever they like, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.

What’s interesting about the gay marriage debate in France is that a group of Progressives have stood up to denounce gay marriage. Why? Because they claim it will oppress children of gay couples, children who will be denied either a mother or father.

Do these three political languages resonate with you? How do you think the gay marriage debate is playing out among Americans? Vote in the poll and leave a comment.


24 thoughts on “Are You Progressive, Conservative, or Libertarian?”

  1. This is incredibly good point. I think generally I agree with this, at least for myself. I’m all about equality in how we treat people. I have two things to say. The first is that anyone claiming to be progressively against gay marriage has all their work ahead of them. As an individual, I can adopt whomever I like, without a spouse of either gender. This denies the children a mother figure. (In my case) If I then marry a guy, it doesn’t take away a mother, they never had one. It only adds a second parent. In addition, there have been a sufficient number of studies to show that children raised by gay parents tend to be no worse off than those of straight parents. Indeed, sometimes even better, since the gay couple will have to think about their financial situation in a more serious way than a straight person, the gay couple that adopts is disproportionally wealthier and in a more stable environment than the average straight parent. The librarian and progressive viewpoints both can’t object to gay marriage. Especially since bringing up kids and marriage are two completely different topics.

    That said, the conservative viewpoint doesn’t really do much. For a long time slavery was acceptable, longer than it hasn’t been. So the conservative view by this definition supports slavery. Old ideas don’t make them right. Ideas are right based on merit. Certainly age can be a part of it, but shouldn’t be the main point.

  2. I guess progressives can oppose gay marriage using the same ‘think of the children’ argument that people used to oppose mixed race marriage in past decades. Equally, conservatives can be seen supporting gay marriage using conservative arguments. Marriage is a millennia old institution, and allowing gays to marry is arguably strengthening that institution and also encouraging gays to act more ‘conservatively’ by settling down and being more ‘establishment’.

    So have we actually SEEN conservatives supporting gay marriage? Yes.

    Gay marriage in the UK has been introduced by the Conservative party (albeit to some opposition from members). Leader David Cameron, who is a Christian, gave what strike me as pretty Conservative reasons for his support:

    “There’s something special about marriage. It’s not about religion. It’s not about morality. It’s about commitment. When you stand up there, in front of your friends and your family, in front of the world, whether it’s in a church or anywhere else, what you’re doing really means something. Pledging yourself to another means doing something brave and important. You are making a commitment. You are publicly saying: it’s not just about me, me me anymore. It is about we – together, the two of us, through thick and thin. That really matters. And by the way, it means something whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man. That’s why we were right to support civil partnerships, and I’m proud of that.”

    Australian PM Kevin Rudd is another Christian Conservative who supports gay marriage.

  3. You have to be careful with your terminology. Kling is specifically defining progressive, conservative, and libertarian along the lines delineated in the blog post. Just because a politician or political party uses these words to label themselves is completely irrelevant to his point.

    I think it would be safe to say that David Cameron does not fit under the conservative label, according to Kling. In fact this statement is a giveaway, “That’s why we were right to support civil partnerships, and I’m proud of that.” Cameron is framing the gay marriage issue in terms of oppression, i.e., using progressive language.

  4. Sean, you are a perfect example of someone who is failing to understand the language of viewpoints different from yours.

    Conservatives don’t believe that ALL traditions must be kept at ALL costs. Conservatives give tradition the benefit of the doubt because anything that has stood the test of time is generally more valuable than those things that have not stood the test of time. Nasim Taleb makes the exact same point in his book Antifragile. The reason Plato is still studied 2,000 years after he wrote is because his ideas have stood the test of time. I can guarantee that the Twilight series will not be read 2,000 years from now.

    If a certain institution has been around for centuries, then the conservative thinks we ought to look long and hard at it before we discard it. Sometimes traditions need to be discarded, but conservatives want to be extremely cautious when doing this, because the unforeseen consequences of throwing out the wisdom of our ancestors can be disastrous.

    That is why you see conservatives demanding to see data, evidence, proof, that society, as a whole, will benefit, when the government endorses same-sex marriage. Progressives and libertarians generally don’t care about seeing this evidence because it just doesn’t matter to them, as they see it as an oppression and freedom issue.

  5. I guess we see things differently here. What I see is conservatives ignoring the data and evidence that doesn’t support their opposition to gay marriage, and clinging to discredited arguments such as the Mark Regnerus study.

    Were Conservatives asking for data when slavery and mixed race marriage were discarded?

  6. Can you give me your opinion on something, Bill – according to Kling, what’s the Conservative view on slavery? When considering whether or not slavery should have been abolished, is the Conservative way to evaluate “data, evidence, proof, that society, as a whole, will benefit”? If so, and the data showed that non-blacks would actually benefit quite a lot by having a black slave underclass providing virtually free labour, would that mean that the conservative conclusion is that slavery should have continued, and anyone who opposed slavery wasn’t a true Conservative?

    (I’m assuming you agree that the fact that the party that then called themselves the ‘Republicans’ were the opposers of slavery is irrelevant to my above question/point).

  7. Your last paragraph suggests that for something to be accepted, it should have to prove itself beneficial to society. You as a conservative think some freedoms should be predicated on their usefulness to society. I must disagree. It is not society we should support, but the individuals that comprise it. Society doesn’t have feelings or rights, but people do and should.

    I don’t think the problem is just that though. I agree that the establishment can sometimes be correct, but the new data coming out suggests that gays getting married doesn’t destroy society. The US government, by the way, has already recognized this, and endorsed same sex marriage, thanks to the Supreme Court.

  8. You know what, it doesn’t. I misread the quote. I thought it said, “civil rights,” not “civil partnerships.” I can’t really see which political language he is using, based on the quote you provided.

  9. I am not an expert in the kinds of arguments that were used for and against chattel slavery in the southern US back in the 1800’s.

    What I find more interesting is the fact that on every issue, there are at least three ways to look at it – progressive, conservative, and libertarian. As a conservative, I have great sympathy for both progressive and libertarian views. I don’t like oppression either, and neither do I want individual freedoms taken away.

    But my first question on most issues is going to be to ask , “What guidelines have our forefathers given us on this issue?” Depending on the issue, the answer may be, “not very much.” In that case, I’m going to quickly move on to oppression and freedom as ways to weigh the issue at hand.

    I’m guessing you don’t really care that much about tradition and don’t consider it to be something weighed when making decisions about political issues. Would that be correct?

  10. There is no data of any statistically significant size that settles this issue. Gay marriage is far too new a phenomenon and we won’t know the consequences for decades. As a conservative, this scares me to death, as we are tinkering with one of the most fundamental and longest-lasting human social institutions in existence. History is littered with social experiments like this that blow up in the face of the society that embarks on them.

    But for those who are progressive, none of this matters. It’s all about a small group of people who are perceived as being oppressed. Libertarians aren’t really for gay marriage. They are apathetic, but they definitely don’t like it when they perceive conservatives telling people what they can and cannot do.

    Ultimately, even though conservatives have better rational arguments, it won’t matter. Oppression is what people care about on this issue, and that’s what will win out. I know I am fighting a losing battle, but oh well. God will honor my efforts.

  11. I don’t know that you can say conservative have better rational arguments. You don’t have an argument that it’s bad, you’re simply being cautious, which is a good thing to some extent. But the Christian institution of marriage and the legal definitions are quite different.

    Marriage in the US law does one thing, which is affords rights to people. It has nothing to do with God. That said, of you as a Christian don’t want to say it’s recognized by God that’s fine. But neither is the marriage of someone who got married divorced and remarried.* Yet, I don’t hear Christians up in arms about that nearly as much as homosexuality. They’re both sins. I don’t think anyone’s going to force a preacher to marry two people before God. That would be just as reprehensible. But Legally these people should be afforded these rights. I’d like to know what exactly it is that you are opposing when you say you oppose same sex marriage. There are two different things here, and I think what we’re talking about needs to be cleared up.

    *Matthew 5:31-32-Clearly the only way to have a divorce is if the other person cheats, but that’s not the legal guideline, many do it for other reasons.

  12. I couldn’t make such a sweeping statement. My attitude to tradition regarding treatment of gays is probably similar to your feelings about tradition when considering slavery or anti-miscenegation laws.

  13. My point/question didn’t concern which arguments were used against chattel slavery in the 1800s. I wanted to know how you think the abolition issue of that time fits into Kling’s definitions.

    How would the ‘Conservative’ of Kling’s definition weigh up the issue of whether slavery should be abolished? As I read it, according to Kling, the Conservative should evaluate “data, evidence, proof, that society, as a whole, will benefit” before saying it should be abolished.

    Is that how you, retrospectively, see the slavery issue, or would you have been a Progressive on this issue? In other words, would you have figured that the benefit to whites of keeping slavery was not particularly relevant to the question of whether slavery should have been abolished?

  14. To me, the slavery in the American south was wrong for many reasons. Most of the slaves were kidnapped, which is obviously wrong. They were treated in many cases with great cruelty by the traders and their masters, which is obviously wrong. And finally, they were treated like objects instead of subjects made in the image of God.

    My guess is that there were conservatives on both sides of the slavery issue. The type of slavery seen in the American South was in many ways a new form of slavery without precedent in the ancient world. Conservatives could have pointed to many other examples of earlier civilizations that did not allow that kind of slavery.

  15. By the way, most black people I know are deeply offended when someone compares gay marriage to slavery, or gay marriage to the civil rights struggle in the US. Slavery and civil rights had to do with people being discriminated against because of their skin color, not their behavior or choices.

    The gay marriage debate is about a small group of people who want society to actively promote and endorse their particular sexual behaviors and choices. They are asking for a brand new “right” that has never been given to anyone in history before the last couple decades. Big difference.

  16. Christians have stood up against no-fault divorce, pornography, gay marriage, polygamy, and everything else that tears apart the nuclear family. Why? Because as the family goes, so goes society. Destroy the family, destroy the society. If you haven’t heard Christians talking about these things, you must not be paying attention too closely. I am a Christian and I hear us talking about these things all the time.

  17. That probably reflects the circles you move in. Black people are welcome to be offended by the comparison, but that says nothing about whether the comparison is valid or not; the size of the minority is not relevant either. Regarding it being a behaviour or choice, one could equally refer to mixed race pairings as a behaviour or choice – they chose to pair with someone of another race.

    I don’t see how any of that affects my point.

  18. Wasn’t no fault divorce introduced by Reagan. Was he not a Conservative by Kling’s definition either?

  19. I’m actually very glad to hear you’ve seen more consistency than I have. As a Christian, you’re clearly in a better situation to explain what the Christians you’ve talked to generally believe. I was basing my claims on what actually been done legally. In general, legislation against gays tends to be more prevalent than legislation against the other types of behavior you indicated above.

    At any rate, I think that was the less important point to address of the two I brought up. It’s actually rather imperative for this conversation that we get clearer definitions of what each person really means when they say marriage. I tend to refer to the legal rights afford in marriage, but in my experience, Christians tend to mean something more. They are usually more objecting to the state suggesting that God should sanctify sinful behavior.

    I’d like you to please explain exactly what it is you are objecting to before when get too into the whys of our arguments. It seems silly to have a discussion in the comments of this post when everyone means something different. (I’d like to extend this invitation of explanation to Andrew and Lothar too, since they’re also talking on the subject.) This way, we can all talk about the real issues, and stop arguing about the definition of words. I feel like that’s best left to another website.

  20. I think he’s using Conservative language, for the reasons I already outlined in my first post. “Marriage is a millennia old institution, and allowing gays to marry is arguably strengthening that institution”. I interpret Cameron’s words to mean that he doesn’t see allowing gays to marry as threatening the institution of marriage, any more than allowing women to vote threatened democracy.

  21. “They are asking for a brand new “right” that has never been given to anyone in history before”

    No, they’re asking for exactly the same right that you and I currently enjoy – the right to marry their partner.

    “Slavery and civil rights had to do with people being discriminated against because of their skin color”

    How is that different to discriminating against gays because of their gender? If, for example, one of those two women trying to get married was a man, then you’d not oppose them getting married, right?

    “not their behavior or choices.”

    You might as well say that kicking Rosa Parks off the bus was due to her behaviour/choice of sitting at the front of the bus. No-one said she couldn’t be black, just that she wasn’t allowed the choice of where to sit on the bus. Therefore is was her behaviour being discriminated against, not her colour.

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