Why People Are So Divided on Immigration (Hint: We Speak Different Political Languages)

People tend to talk past one another and rarely, if ever, achieve a real meeting of the minds on political controversies.

It's no secret that Americans are divided politically. What's especially curious, though, is the fact that people tend to talk past one another and rarely, if ever, achieve a real meeting of the minds on political controversies. Empirical researchers are studying this—Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is one very important contribution—and as a way of organizing our thinking on rhetorical and political division, I think Arnold Kling's short book The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides is especially insightful. It has recently been republished and made available for $0 in multiple formats, including as an MP3 audiobook by the Cato Institute, and it has a lot to teach us, I think, about all the ways people are reacting to the "migrant caravan" of asylum-seekers at the US border. I hope that by adopting Kling's framing we can add light to a discussion where there is right now mostly just heat.

Three Ideological Framings

Liberals frame issues in terms of the struggle between oppressors and the oppressed. Conservatives frame issues in terms of the struggle between civilization and barbarism. Libertarians, meanwhile, frame issues in terms of the struggle between liberty and power.

Kling asks us whether we are really trying to understand and influence one another or whether we are just seeking status within our own political groups. He considers three groups in American politics: liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. Liberals frame issues in terms of the struggle between oppressors and the oppressedConservatives frame issues in terms of the struggle between civilization and barbarismLibertarians, meanwhile, frame issues in terms of the struggle between liberty and power (or coercion).

These different framings lead us to different ways of thinking about policy issues. Importantly, Kling notes that there isn't a "right" or a "wrong" framing that applies to literally every issue, and he argues that the Civil Rights Era is most usefully understood through the liberal "oppressors versus oppressed" framing. It's entirely possible that the most appropriate framing differs from issue to issue.

But we would do well to understand these framings if we are going to make progress. In this respect, Kling relies on his EconLog co-blogger Bryan Caplan's idea of "The ideological Turing Test," which is explained in the video below from the Institute for Humane Studies. A liberal, for example, has passed an Ideological Turing Test if she can successfully pass herself off as a conservative or a libertarian. It's a pretty high epistemic bar, but it's one we should reach for nonetheless.

Applying the Turing Test to Immigration

How, then, do we understand what is happening along the border, and how do we understand the political rhetoric and division regarding the migrant caravan? I think Kling's framework provides a very useful way to understand. For liberals, the struggle between oppressors and the oppressed is obvious: armed American border agents are oppressing some of the world's most vulnerable by closing off points of entry and firing tear gas at women and children trying to cross the border. Clearly, someone can only think otherwise if they are some combination of stupid and corrupt.

For conservatives, the struggle between barbarism and civilization is also obvious. If law and order matter, we cannot simply allow anyone who wants to cross the border to do so. Can we expect civilization to endure, a conservative might ask, if we flout the rule of law and forsake the legal processes that are in place to control immigration? Do we have a nation if we don't have a strong border? Moreover, might we run the risk of descending into a barbaric war of all against all if people can just come across our border and get free stuff? Clearly, someone can only think otherwise if they are some combination of stupid and corrupt.

For libertarians, meanwhile, the situation along the border is obviously best interpreted as a struggle between liberty and coercion.

For libertarians, meanwhile, the situation along the border is obviously best interpreted as a struggle between liberty and coercion. Restricting voluntary capitalist acts between consenting adults—those who wish to hire and those who wish to be hired, for example—is per se objectionable. The consequentialist libertarian can point to the exercise of force along the border as a resource-wasting, impoverishing policy that limits the division of labor and leaves us poorer than we would otherwise be. The rights-emphasizing libertarian can point to the exercise of force along the border as illegitimate interference with voluntary interaction between migrants and those who wish to hire them, rent to them, care for them, or otherwise associate with them. Clearly, someone can only think otherwise if they are some combination of stupid and corrupt.

I hope you can see how these alternative framings jar with one another, though in the case of immigration specifically, there is a clear affinity between the liberal and the libertarian framings. It's unlikely that we are going to have a real meeting of the minds among people who disagree about the very kind of problem we face. Instead of jumping right to the assumptions of stupidity and ill will, Kling suggests that we first seek to really understand one another's ways of framing the issue, and not just superficially. If we can pass Caplan's Ideological Turing Test, we are on our way to genuine understanding and, I hope, much more productive dialogue and much better public policy.

Disclosure: I have received compensation from the Cato Institute, the Institute for Humane Studies, and Liberty Fund for articles, lectures, and such, but nothing in connection with this article.

This article was reprinted from Forbes.

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