The limits of political labels

Political labels change the way you think about yourself.

I have criticised professional politicians for “wearing the T-shirt”: adopting a frame of thinking dependent on the political brand they espouse.

Discussionsrecently have argued that labeling yourself with a particular political orthodoxy wrecks your intellectual capacity.

The argument is that labeling is important to self identity (and therefore I argue is also critical to political campaigning!) but that it also confines freedom of thought and solutions.

I think the confines suggest that political parties should do less self-labeling, or labeling of opponents, and more freedom of thinking. They should expect their people to critically question, and demand evidence. The leaders should not use or license rhetoric and broad happy talk. 

So let’s look at why labels are dangerous.

First off, we need to acknowledge that political labels are pretty crap descriptors of the myriad possibilities of human belief.

Bryan Caplan says it’s impossible to accurately label himself, which is what I suspect is true of most people:

I’m a libertarian, a natalist, an atheist, a credentialist, an economist, an optimist, a behavioral economist, an elitist, a public choicer, a dualist, a Szaszian, a moral realist, an anti-communist, a pacifist, a hereditarian, a Masonomist, a moral intuitionist, a free-market Keynesian, a deontologist, a modal realist, a Huemerian, a Darwinian, the other kind of libertarian (=a believer in free will), and much more.  I could spend hours adding additional labels to the list. 

Then there’s the limiting confines of a label in that they create an “us” versus “them” narrative. It has been argued that “stories” we tell ourselves embed cognitive biases (see good-versus-evil stories on IQ).:

Will Wilkinson remarked:

People call me libertarian but I don’t in part because I’m not one, but mostly because I suspect that accepting any such label dings my IQ about 15 points.

Bryan argues that labels stop you being clever:

Labels can blind us to counter-evidence.  Good-versus-evil stories give us an excuse to damn the messenger instead of considering his message. 

Bryan likes us versus them narratives because they are self affirming:

“Because when I review my life’s work, I realize that I owe my life’s work to my labels and stories.  You don’t have to be a libertarian to appreciate The Myth of the Rational Voter, but without my libertarian goggles I would never have conceived the project.  

Will Wilkinson argues that

"political ideology [is] rather more central to our self-conception than our positions on obscure philosophical questions.

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… 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 he admits to the dangers of labeling, and the freedom of thought that’s possible once you don’t feel so obliged to the team:

almost as soon as I left [CATO], I found that I was noticeably less reflexively defensive about anti-libertarian arguments. I found it easier to the see merit it in them! I feel sure that much of this has to do with the fact that at some level I had recognized that my livelihood depended on staying within the broad bounds of the libertarian reservation, and that this recognition had been exerting a subtle unconscious pressure on my thought.

So it appears that labels are necessary for communication and expression. We have to define ourselves so others will understand us. We have to define ourselves so others will VOTE for us (and in effect for themselves).

Labels are ill-fitting, so they cause problems for accurately assessing issues and solutions, and for representing the interests and attitudes of those within their ambit.

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