Labels and Ideological Bubbles

Be Mindful of How You Label the People with Whom You Disagree


When I engage in an ideological discussion I try to be sensitive to how I ideologically label the person with whom I’m talking and how she labels me. I’m 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.

Getting the Label Right

Now, some people argue that “ideas matter, labels don’t.” When we’re talking about a specific idea—for example military intervention in the Middle East—then 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 it’s important to get the labels right. 

We prefer in such cases to be called by the label that we identify ourselves with. I don’t 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 I’ve known for decades at my college assume that I’m a conservative because I’ve 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 of The Freeman have, I’m 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 mistake—one 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 there’s 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?

I’m reviewing a book about cities whose author uses the word “neoliberal” a lot. It’s used mostly by Europeans on the political “left”—e.g., social democrats, progressives, socialists, greens—to refer to people or groups who hold some sort of “libertarian” views. I’ll explain in a moment why I’m using scare quotes here.

From what I’ve 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 there’s a reason no one self-identifies as a neoliberal.

As Stanley Fish explained a few years ago in The 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 certain esprit de corps. But consistently using a word over a wide range of venues to describe others, when no one ever uses that word to self-identify, is a pretty good sign that you live in an ideological bubble.

Evidently, while the author of the book I’m reviewing says she’s writing for “an interdisciplinary readership,” she takes it for granted that it will be an ideologically sympathetic one.

Our Ideological Bubbles

An “ideological bubble,” as I'm 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 intolerance—things destructive to civility. Also, keep in mind that it's 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 I’ve learned from my great teacher Israel Kirzner is that we can’t realistically be aware of all of our current limitations because we simply don't know all that we don't know. We have blind spots, and that means intellectual bubbles of all sorts are inevitable.  But that doesn’t 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 article here.



October 2013



Sandy Ikeda is a professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

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November 2014

It's been 40 years since F. A. Hayek received his Nobel Prize. His insights, particularly on the distribution of knowledge and the impossibility of economic planning, remain hugely important today. In this issue, we look back on the influence of his work. Max Borders and Craig Biddle debate whether liberty must be defended from one absolute foundation, further reflections on Scottish secession, and how technology is already changing our world for the better--including how robots, despite the unease they cause, will only accelerate this process.
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