Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Narratives, the two stories of capitalism and the three languages of politics

My friend Robert Bidinotto has been writing about the importance of narratives in our lives and in politics. His general discussion is here: http://bidinotto.blogspot.com/2011/04/narratives-that-guide-our-lives.html. While his application to politics can be found here: http://bidinotto.blogspot.com/2012/10/election-2012-and-clash-of-narratives.html.

Recently I came across Jonathan Haidt's writing on the two stories of capitalism. (He is working on a book on the subject.) In one capitalism oppresses people; this story fuels the narrative of the left. You can hear it in the language of liberals like Elizabeth Warren. It might not be stated so boldly but if you listen closely the message is there: that capitalism thrives by exploiting people and that government liberates us from the handcuffs of inequality foisted upon us by the rich.

The other story, favored by the right, proclaims capitalism liberates people and that government oppresses by burdening us with rules and regulations. This story resounds especially strong within the libertarian and Tea Party.

I believe there is a third story in line with Arnold Kling's three languages of politics in which some claim capitalism civilizes us and saves us from barbarism. For examples listen to more traditional conservatives such as Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh.

I figure that Haidt would argue that ultimately this story boils down to liberation: capitalism saves us from tribalism and primitivism. Nonetheless, here is Haidt’s explanation of the two stories. I’ve provided several links after these quotes that explain Haidt’s ideas in more detail.
There has long been a thoroughly negative story about commerce, going back to biblical times, in which businessmen, traders, and money lenders are bloodsuckers who extort wealth from workers and customers without contributing anything of value. When mercantile capitalism came along in the 16th century, and even more so when industrial capitalism conquered the globe in the 19th century, the negative story began to animate left-leaning parties and revolutionaries in many countries—with history-shaping consequences for the 20th century. This is story #1: Capitalism is exploitation. It is a curse, a virus, a disaster for the poor and the planet. This story is still told today, as we saw in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But capitalism has also had its passionate defenders, most notably Adam Smith in the 18th century, who explained how capitalism achieves the magic of value creation (as in his famous example of a pin factory). The rising wealth, longevity, and living standards of the 19th and 20th centuries—even for the poor and working class—led to the formation of a thoroughly positive story about capitalism, told by economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. This is story #2: Capitalism is liberation. Free market capitalism is Prometheus, giving fire and freedom to the human race. In this story, it is left-leaning ideologies (socialism, Marxism, and the affection for big government) that continually attack human progress, disconnecting whole nations from the market and dragging them down into poverty for decades—until they see the light, as China and India did a few decades ago.


I mentioned Arnold Kling earlier. There is a lot of overlap between Haidt’s work and Kling’s three languages of politics. Kling argues that the language of the left centers on the oppressed versus oppressors axis. Conservatives argue along the lines of civilization versus barbarism. Libertarians see things in terms of liberty versus coercion. All three groups then will craft different narratives, each with their own favored axis and language.

How does this apply to us? I believe knowing about narratives and the kinds of languages can ultimately help us better communicate our ideas with those who disagree with us.