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Labels and Ideological Bubbles

When I engage in an ideological discussion I try to be sensitive to how I ideologically label the person with whom Im talking and how she labels me. Im not talking about dismissive or openly pejorative words (e.g., evil, stupid, silly), but proper terms of discourse. How we habitually label our opponents in ideological dialogue could reveal something unpleasant about the ideological world we inhabit.

Now, some people argue that ideas matter, labels dont. When were talking about a specific ideafor example military intervention in the Middle Eastthen yes, calling it liberal, libertarian, progressive, socialist, or whatever may add nothing to the discussion. But when referring to the worldview of a particular person or group of like-minded persons, especially in the context of a public debate, then how we label ourselves and others can matter a great deal. If the goal is to promote constructive dialogue, then its important to get the labels right.

We prefer in such cases to be called by the label that we identify ourselves with. I dont like being called a conservative or a liberal because those labels signify sets of ideas and policies, many of which I do not hold. I prefer to be called a libertarian. (Classical liberal might be better, but no one in the mainstream knows what that is.)

Colleagues Ive known for decades at my college assume that Im a conservative because Ive come out publicly against nationalized healthcare, from which they wrongly infer that I oppose same-sex marriage and that I support our troops in foreign wars. Readers ofThe Freemanhave, Im sure, had to defend themselves against the charge of being pro-business because of our skepticism of regulation and high taxes. We have to explain that upholding the free market is not a pro-business, pro-consumer, or pro-labor position (although the free-market position is, in a sense, pro all those things and more). That kind of mislabeling, however annoying, can be the result of an honest mistakeone I know I make myself.

Mistakenly mislabeling someone is one thing: conservative for libertarian, Marxist for progressive. Another is deliberately mislabeling your opponent, a trick that forces her to waste time defending herself against the false charge. But theres a third kind of mislabeling that reflects a deeper sort of error, one that issues from exclusivity and insularity.

Who Calls Herself a Neoliberal or a Statist?

Im reviewing a book about cities whose author uses the word neoliberal a lot. Its used mostly by Europeans on the political lefte.g., social democrats, progressives, socialists, greensto refer to people or groups who hold some sort of libertarian views. Ill explain in a moment why Im using scare quotes here.

From what Ive been able to gather from my European colleagues, however, no one actually identifies herself as a neoliberal. Neoliberal is apparently a term some attach to positions on the (extreme) right, which apparently includes people thought to have an anti-union or pro-business agenda. There are such people, of course, but theres a reason no one self-identifies as a neoliberal.

As Stanley Fish explaineda few years ago inThe New York Times, Neoliberalism is a pejorative way of referring to a set of economic/political policies based on a strong faith in the beneficent effects of free markets. So neoliberal is pejorative.

And before libertarians get too indignant, let me point out that we sling words like collectivist and statist when describing our opponents, and to my knowledge no one self-identifies with those terms, either. To be sure, among our ideological comrades, they may have a fairly clear meaning and may spark a certainesprit de corps. But consistently using a word over a wide range of venues to describe others, whenno one everuses that word to self-identify, is a pretty good sign that you live in an ideological bubble.

Evidently, while the author of the book Im reviewing says shes writing for an interdisciplinary readership, she takes it for granted that it will be an ideologically sympathetic one.

Anideological bubble, as Im using the term, is a social network with shared ideological understandings that closes its members off to others with opposing views. You can be a staunch market anarchist, for example, but still be willing to have a serious, civil conversation with people with whom you strongly disagree. Put simply, you live in an ideological bubble if the only people whom you will talk to seriously about ideology are those you already agree with.

An ideological bubble insulates us from real-time criticisms of our principles and positions, retarding our intellectual growth. It gives us a false sense of security and breeds self-satisfaction, off-putting harshness, and intolerancethings destructive to civility. Also, keep in mind that its often the bystanders to a debate whom we want to persuade, and they will consider our language and conduct when judging our ideas.

One of the things Ive learned frommy great teacher Israel Kirzneris that we cant realistically be aware of all of our current limitations because we simply dont know all that we dont know. We have blind spots, and that means intellectual bubbles of all sorts are inevitable. But that doesnt mean that they have to remain invisible to us. Kirzner also taught us that creative discovery is possible. The signs are there, and keeping an eye open to them will give us a chance to make them at least a little more permeable.

Find a Portuguese translation of this articlehere.

Sandy Ikeda is a professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author ofThe Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.He is a member of the FEEFaculty Network.

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