On Thursday’s episode of Philosophy in Action Radio, I interviewed physician and activist Dr. Paul Hsieh about “Understanding the Three Languages of Politics.” The podcast of that episode is now available for streaming or downloading.

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Podcast: 3 July 2014

How many times have you been in political discussions with friends where you find you’re talking past one another? You’ll make points they consider irrelevant, whereas they’ll focus on issues you consider nonessential. Such problems can be overcome, at least in part, using Arnold Kling’s concept of the “Three Languages of Politics.” Paul Hsieh explained how freedom advocates (e.g., Objectivists and better libertarians), conservatives, and liberals tend to use three vastly different metaphors in political discussions, which can create unintentional misunderstandings and miscommunications. He discussed how to frame discussion points so they better resonate with those speaking the other “languages” without compromising on principles.

Dr. Paul Hsieh is a physician in practice in South Denver. He is the co-founder of Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine (FIRM). He has written scores of columns, mostly on health care policy, as well as articles for The Objective Standard. He blogs offbeat tech news at GeekPress.

Listen or Download:


  • About the “three languages of politics”
  • The differences in the three languages
  • The difference that the three languages make
  • Examples of the three languages
  • Conflict between camps
  • Alliances between camps
  • Political argument between camps
  • The debates over the Hobby Lobby decision
  • Using the three languages to become more persuasive
  • Caveats and cautions
  • Three take-home points


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  • William H. Stoddard

    I see the point of Paul’s strategy for addressing issues in terms of other people’s core concerns, but I think it’s a really tricky thing to do. It’s easy to get wrong and to have the attempt be totally ineffective or even backfire.

    A classic example, to my mind, is one of the conservative arguments about abortion, which amounts to “but we want to protect the unborn, who are a helpless and defenseless minority!” This looks to me to be an attempt to frame the issue as oppressed vs. oppressors, with the fetus as the oppressed and the abortionist as the oppressor. But it has gotten zero traction with progressives, and I think it’s pretty widely known to progressives as an unconvincing and even fraudulent appeal.

    I can give a more personal example that was directed at me: I wrote lately on livejournal about the Hobby Lobby decision and its cultural roots, and in the discussion that followed, one of the commenters, Wren Gayle Romano (writing as winterkoninkje) said to me, in part,

    “Economic transactions have consequences. In the limit: when a company refuses to hire women, they are compelling women to seek employment elsewhere. When a company refuses to pay women a living wage (including the coverage of healthcare, and other expenses), this necessarily impacts the economic transactions she can engage in. When a plurality of companies refuse to hire women (or will only hire them with inadequate wages), this compels women to only engage in economic transactions with those who can be hired (i.e., marry a wealthy man). … … … The freedom of one party to engage in economic transactions necessarily entails the compelling of others to not engage in correlated economic transactions. This is fundamentally unavoidable. And there’s nothing special about women here; the only thing that matters is the fact that pervasive sexual discrimination severely restricts women’s economic choices.

    “Given that you hold the freedom of economic transaction so highly, I’m curious how you resolve this conundrum.”

    Now, this totally bounced off of me; I didn’t immediately follow the structure of the argument, but I could see that it was obviously wrong. Applying Kling’s perspective to it, I think I can say that winterkoninkje was attempting to appeal to my belief in freedom of choice and free markets and voluntary economic transactions, but to use it to sell an “oppressors vs. oppressed” model: In effect, “Look, you want people to be free to be economically productive, but these people cannot find people to work for or buy from or do business with, so they’re not free, and to make them free, we have to regulate the market so that other people have to deal with them; they can only be free through the limitation of other people’s freedom.” And since my underlying model is that one person’s freedom does not limit another person’s freedom—and behind that, Say’s law, that one person’s productivity constitutes demand for another person’s productivity and thus enriches other people—that argument just totally bounced for me; in fact it seemed blatantly self-contradictory.

    So I think that framing an argument to appeal to the basic values of people you don’t agree with is really easy to get wrong. And it can come across like Lois McMaster Bujold’s joke, in one of the Barrayar novels, about people who are so militarized that they even waltz in march tempo. There’s a danger of seeming to be engaged in emotional button-pushing, or rhetorical trickery, or deliberate paradox that can’t be meant to be taken seriously, but in any case of Just Not Getting It. Kling’s advice is a good heuristic but applying it is a whole new set of tactical problems.

  • Sam Cox

    It seems to me that most if not all political issues have aspects that align with each of Kling’s axes (or languages) and people that “demonize” (Kling’s word) two of the axes are, in fact, discounting the aspects that align with those axes. For example, the Boston marathon bombing has legitimate aspects of discussion along each of Kling’s axes. Focusing on the aspects that align with just, for example, the Civilization-Barbarism axis has the effect of discounting other aspects and silencing discussion of them. It may even be that people devoted to a single axis don’t even see (or understand) the non-aligned aspects of a situation.

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