Thing 1 and Thing 2 Sit Down To Talk

by Roger Koppl

Right in the middle of the book, Thing 1 and Thing 2 sat down to talk about a controversial topic.  It might have been politics or religion.  It might have been economics or, perhaps, global warming.  I don’t know.  Anyway, it was a Very Important Topic.   Just like you and me, Thing 1 and Thing 2 think in models, though not necessarily mathematical models.  Thing 1 thinks about the Very Important Topic with Model A and Thing 2 thinks about the Very Important Topic with Model B.  These models are in their heads.  Thus, Thing 1 cannot observe Model B and Thing 2 cannot observe Model A.  Thing 1 cannot observe Model B, so it must get along with a model of Model B, which we may call Model Beta.  Similarly, Model Alpha is Thing 2’s model of Model A.  Trouble is brewing for Thing 1 and Thing 2 because Model Alpha is crude and simple compared to Model A and Model Beta is crude and simple compared to Model B.  In fact, Model A and Model B are about equally sophisticated, which means that Model Alpha is crude and simple compared to Model B and Model Beta is crude and simple compared to Model A.  The trouble is that neither Thing realizes that its model of the other Thing’s model is not the real thing.  Thus, each Thing thinks it knows for certain that it is smarter and more sophisticated than the other Thing.  Each Thing thinks the conversation will go well if and only if the other Thing learns how crude and simple its thinking has been compared to the Superior Wisdom of itself, the smarter Thing.  But this result cannot emerge for both Things, so things will not well our for Things.

Thing 1 starts the conversation by noting that Model Beta implies X, which is clearly false.  Thing 1 is right to say that Model Beta implies X and right say that X is false.  But Model B does not imply X.  Thus, Thing 2 denies that it ever thought X and why in world would Thing 1 think such a thing?  Clearly, Thing 2 continues, Thing 1 needs some basic schooling.  Model Alpha implies both Z and W, which is a contradiction.  Thus, says Thing 2, Thing 1 had better work on its logic and think more clearly.  Although Z and W are contradictory, Model A does not imply them both, as Thing 1 understands clearly.  Now Thing 1 starting to wonder if Thing 2 has a screw loose or, perhaps, is dishonestly inventing supposed contradictions just to get the upper hand.  Thing 1 thinks, “Thing 2 is just insulting me and not even trying to be reasonable.”  Vexed by Thing 2’s complete stupidity, Thing 1 reminds Thing 2 that it has not countered the “proof” that Model Beta implies X, and lets Thing 2 know that it does not appreciate the smoke and mirrors trickery of trying to pretend that Model B implies both Z and W.  From here things only go downhill.  Each Thing leaves more certain than ever of its Superior Wisdom and Intelligence, and neither Thing has learned anything of value from the exchange.

How much better might it have been if Thing 1 and Thing 2 had put their objections in the form of self doubt and puzzlement!  “My dear Thing 2, it seems I do not understood you, because your model would seem to imply X, which (wouldn’t you say?) is probably not true.”   Thing 2 might reply that Thing 1 is clearly a moron to imagine the Model B implies X.  But if Thing 2 thinks – or just pretends! — that Thing 1 is not a moron, it might offer a more constructive reply.  “It seems I have not done a good job of explaining my model, dear Thing 1.  I see that Model Beta does indeed imply X, but that is not quite my model.  To infer X it seems necessary to assume Gamma, which I do not.  My assumption, however, is G, which is differs from Gamma in several important ways . . .”  Yes, Thing 1 and Thing 2 will have to sit longer, but at least something might come of it.  And all it takes is a bit of etiquette, which may now start to look like something more than being “nice.”  Etiquette is an epistemic virtue.

Etiquette always matters.  At this moment a bit of good will and high etiquette might help libertarians and progressives communicate.  We have both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.  And we have several voices calling for a Progressive-Libertarian alliance.  (See here, here, and here.)  Such an alliance might be able to do some good.  It will come to nothing, however, if Progressives and Libertarians act like Thing 1 and Thing 2.  No more name-calling.  No more insults.  No more presumptive superiority.  From now on, let’s listen to one another respectfully and try, really try, to see where our model of their model is too simple.  The stakes are high enough to give proper etiquette a chance to do its good epistemic work.

30 thoughts on “Thing 1 and Thing 2 Sit Down To Talk

  1. I couldn’t agree more.

    I have noticed that if I ask questions in this forum — because I recognize that I don’t fully understand the Libertarian or Free Market models that are frequently endorse here — I always get something like the “you are a moron” response.

    Whereas it seems to me that asking questions and getting answers is the essence of the claim made in the name of this forum: “think”

  2. Thanks for that, Dave. A thousand pardons for each time I may have been Thing 1 or Thing 2. It happens in both directions, of course. As everyone probably guessed, I was reacting to being called a moron (in effect, not literally) by more or less progressive types on another blog. It can and will happen even when we try to be polite. How much worse when we don’t try!

  3. I am curious about where we think this Libertarian-Progressive political alliance might lead. What would be the end game of such an alliance?

    It seems to me that we already have such an alliance in the form of a broad political agreement to continue the welfare state. Various interest groups want a little more here, a little less there, but for the most part in the west, we have a civil understanding.

  4. Huzzah! This really captures the state of political discourse in this country 9and on my Facebook feed!)

  5. Insightful and important. This indeed seems to capture much of the wheel-spinning and talking-past nature of econ blog commentary, while providing concrete measures to escape the rut. Bravo!

  6. K Sralla: That’s why we need to talk! Libertarians, and progressive have a common interest in peace and civil liberties, and in getting rid of corporatism and crony capitalism.

  7. I am often reminded about a group of theologians who get together with the goal of forming a new religion based on the ideals that are common to all. This good will lasts for about a minute before the meeting degrades into a doctrinal foodfight when someone asks what God will look like in this new religion.

    Cumbaya moments make everyone feel good until the details must be discussed. For instance, everyone agrees that the budget needs to be balanced. But then we are forced to ask how to accomplish this. One side says raise taxes, the other cut spending. Soon we realize we are back to square 1. The cumbaya moment has ended.

    The devil is in the details, and we must keep in mind that libertarians and modern progressives argue from a very different sets of ground rules. One view is based on strict rationality, and the other on strict compassionality. Both have the goal of individual liberty, but one stresses a positive liberty while the other a negative liberty. At the end of the day, the two will be hard to reconcile.

  8. I have nothing to say about progs/libs because I don’t know enough of US politics. But the first part of the post is an exceptional theoretical explanation for lots of things: the superficiality of political dialogue, political polarization, several cognitive biases such as the “smarter than thou” attitude, self-brain washing obtained by surrounding ourselves with people with similar models of the world…

    There is a related problem: agents with limited attention will need to focus on other “models” to improve their understanding. But how to choose them?

    I usually comfortably feel smarter than, for instance, conspiracy theorists, notwithstanding the fact that their model of a conspiracy is more sophisticated than mine. Beyond doubt, most models are *really* unsophisticated.

    On the other hand, even after many criticisms (albeit often manieristic) of general equilibrium models I read in the Austrian literature, and my own reflections about the subject, I do feel that it is more likely that there is something wrong in my understanding than in those of 99% of professional economists. For instance the “Grossman answered to Hayek” thesis is valid or not? I have no idea, but I’m quite sure it would be great for my understanding to think about it. It’s not 9/11 conspiracies, it’s “culture”: the difference is my own prejudice, however.

    There is probably no criterion (in Popper’s terminology) to judge a theory without studying it, but principles to select theories worth studying are necessary. What can be a good set of guidelines (“principles”) to avoid self-brain washing?

    I learned that things that are painful to read are usually an interesting read, because stupid things which try to be painful are more likely to result ridicolous.

    I still haven’t overcome my problems with boring books, however, so that i sometimes fear that potentially useful theoretical tools are out of my reach because their champions are boring writers (Raymond Aron, John Rawls, most law books). If boredom is correlated with the underlying ideas, it could cause bias.

    The “Thing” theory seems really interesting stuff in understanding the “sociology of ideas”. I may have been underestimating many people without acknowledging it. But maybe it’s the economically efficient outcome not to take them into consideration.

  9. Yes, but…it’s not just about intellectual discussions of competing models. When we’re doing that, then sure, let’s listen as well as speak, let’s seek to comprehend, let’s be polite. There remains the question of what action shall be taken or not taken in the world. If the progressives want more taxes, more government intervention in the marketplace, more printing up of fiat money to be spent by the politicians, etc — that is, if they want actions that we understand will be harmful to liberty and economic productivity and welfare generally, particularly in the long term — then they need to be opposed in no uncertain terms, and the public rhetoric may need to be a bit more emphatic.

    To put it another way, as a physicist I know that my next-door neighbor Mr. Wizard has not built a perpetual motion machine in his basement. It might be interesting to listen to his explanation in a friendly way, examine his equipment, and see where the trouble lies — but I don’t need to do that in order to advise people, rather pointedly, not to believe or invest in quackery.

    “Thing 1 vs Thing 2” is itself a model. Like any model, it has its potential shortcomings — in this case, I fear, a potentially misleading sense of symmetry between the contenders. But if my model of your model is not itself faithful to your model, Roger, I remain respectfully open to correction.

  10. Whenever I hear talk of a progressive-libertarian alliance, the needle on my Political Naivete Detector jumps from 0 to close to 100. Ralph Nader doesn’t want to get rid of the Fed in favor of free banking and monetary equilibrium but rather submit it to “democratic control.” By that, Nader means control by congressional and executive branch inflationists.

  11. Allan,

    I don’t think I said anything to the effect that liberals and libertarians should mortify their own opinions. I want Thing 1 and Thing 2 mend their rhetorical ways, but I also want them to sit down to talk. Indeed, that’s essential to my point, isn’t it? And when liberals and libertarians are talking to more moderate or conservative people (I think that’s your issue), we should not hide our differences from anyone with whom we are allied. Maybe I seemed to suggest otherwise, but if so, well, I didn’t mean to and wasn’t secretly adhering to any such idea.

    If you think “they” are building perpetual motion machines, then I think there may be a pretty good chance that your model of their model is too simple. It’s not that I am wavering on interventionism or something, it’s just that I do not think progressives are merely dumb or power mad or uninformed or anything like that. In this regard, I share the opinion of Jeffery Friedman, with whom I have disagreed on public choice theory. (See

    I don’t know if Senator Kennedy counts as a “progressive,” but I think his legislative career may help to suggest that there is potential in a libertarian-progressive alliance:

  12. Thanks Roger. Perhaps I’m the one who needs to clarify. What I’m saying does not require any mind-reading or characterization of people as dumb. I don’t have to inquire as to the ins and outs of the perpetual motion machine to know that it won’t work and to advise people not to buy into it. Nor do I have to understand the details of a progressive’s model of human action to know that increased taxes, interventionism, and fiat money are not the way to go. So, yes to respectful intellectual debate, but — when economic productivity and prosperity are at stake, and when people advocate counter-productive ACTIONS (whatever the underlying model thereof), then they need to be opposed in no uncertain terms. At that time, the rhetoric may indeed need to sharpen a bit.

  13. There’s a big difference between a tactical alliance on a well-defined specific issue between parties that otherwise disagree on most everything else, and an ongoing multiple-issue alliance and campaign that the phrase “Progressive-Libertarian alliance” summons up. The latter conception, at this particular time and in the context of the anti-capitalist crowds presently besieging Wall St. and elsewhere, whatever the benign intentions of its proponents, cannot but have the effect of promoting the reelection of President Obama, an outcome no libertarian in his right mind should support.

  14. “Economists can show to what consequences tariff barriers, quota systems, prohibitions, and autarky must necessarily lead. Anyone wanting to refute these results is welcome to use the tools of logical reasoning to do so. If he can, he is free to try and find the fatal flaw in the economist’s chain of reasoning. But if he cannot do so, whether because of incompetence or simply the impossibility of the task, he should keep quiet instead of blathering on about the superiority of “the irrational” in comparison to the supposed inferior results of the “merely” rational arguments of the economists.”

    See Ludwig von Mises, “The Cult of the Irrational,” [1935] in Richard M. Ebeling, ed., Selected writings of Ludwig von Mises (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, volume 2, 2002), p. 300

  15. K Sralla,

    Forgive if I’m being dense or obtuse, but I’m struggling to see how your quote from Mises links to the conversation here. Im the quote Mises seems to attack irrationalism, “the cult of the irrational.” Are you saying progressives blather about the superiority of the irrational? I think that might come as a surprise to many progressives! If that’s not it, then I’m just not connecting.

  16. The suggestion here, that Thing 1 and Thing 2 might benefit from more respectful sharing of views, relies upon an assumption which has not been expressed, unless I am mistaken. The assumption seems to be that the Things could agree upon one end toward which each would like to move; that the Things share a common purpose and only need to get over impediments in their communication.

    But what if Thing 1 is a fox and Thing 2 is a hen? Predation does exist in nature. Predation exists between people: between collectivists and capitalists; between herders and farmers as described by Franz Oppenheimer in “The State”. I suppose it rarely benefits a predator to listen tactfully to the views of the prey.

  17. Are you saying progressives blather about the superiority of the irrational?

    Yes Roger. That is precisely what I am saying. We all agree that the highest ideals of mankind can only be approached when poverty, sickness and war are eliminated.

    However, for the progressive, the means to that end most often invokes highly irrational policy responses that actually make matters worse. Despite it being pointed out that their prescribed policy responses are irrational and counterproductive, they most often choose to ignore the argument and continuing blathering about the superiority of the their high mindedness.

    Just ask yourself why the unions are rushing in to bolster Occupy Wall Street. If they had their way, they would form an unholy alliance that ushers in a wave of protectionism and more regime uncertainty in the name of the American worker.

    The devil is in the policy details, and we must keep in mind that libertarians and modern progressives argue from a very different sets of ground rules. One view stresses strict rationality, and the other on strict compassionality. Both have the goal of individual liberty, but one stresses a positive liberty while the other a negative liberty. At the end of the day, the two will be hard to reconcile.

  18. Do they produce anything that anyone is willing to pay for?
    (Marketed goods and services change the world for the better)

    Do they draw attention from people who invest their own resources to participate? (Hobbies and leisure provide self-actualization.)

    The libertarians (so-called) and progressives (they say) only want other people to change, and to change the world for them.

  19. Roger,
    It seems some basic questions for any such discourse should include:

    1. Do think that the State should have the authority and legitimacy to prison or even kill one individual to redistribute his/her income or wealth to another, if the first individual does not wish to consent to and resists having that which he has honestly earned being taken from him by State for purposes having nothing to do with protecting his life, liberty and property from the plunder of others? Why? And on what basis do you think the State should or should not have such authority and legitimacy?

    2. Do you think that the State should have the authority and legitimacy to interfere with, prohibit, or in any way determine the conditions under which to individuals peacefully and voluntarily choose to associate, interact, and exchange? Why? And on what basis do you think the State should or should not have such authority and legitimacy?

    3. Do you believe that each and every individual human being has essential and inalienable rights to their life, liberty, and honestly acquired property (meaning no murder, theft, or fraud)? Why? And on what basis do you think individuals do or do not have such rights?

    4. What do you mean by “capitalism,” “socialism,” “fascism,” “welfare statism,” “social justice,” “democracy,” “liberty,” “progressive,” “reactionary,” (and a variety of similar such economic and social terms)? Explain and justify the basis upon which you define these ideas and concepts in the way you do.

    May I suggest that discussion and discourse will bear little fruit, Roger, unless any “conversation” between “progressives” and “libertarians” begins with the clarification of these terms and ideas, and how the participants are defining and identifying themselves, and why and on what basis.

    Richard Ebeling

  20. First, two minor points. Thing 1 and Thing 2 may have sat down to talk for a great variety of reasons, not necessarily to agree on some common goal or action. Thing 1 and Thing 2 are more or less any two humans who neglect discourse etiquette for any reason. Any we will all do it at least sometimes even when we are trying to be polite, respective, humble, and so on. So my diagnosis of how communication often breaks down might be about right even if the libertarian-progressive alliance is really rotten idea. Second minor point: I think I’m just channeling John Stuart Mill’s defense of free speech.

    But I did express hope for a libertarian-progressive alliance, so let me get to the substance of your remarks on that front. I don’t think we need to agree on “one end” or “a common purpose” if those phrases are meant to say that all policy or political differences are effaced. The fox and the hen might both fear the bulldozer. There are indeed some pretty deep differences between progressives on the one hand and liberals and libertarians on the other hand. But I really don’t see why that means we can’t cooperate on peace, civil liberties, corporatism, and crony capitalism.

    BTW: I don’t personally care for the comparison of progressives to chicken-eating foxes. Most of those foxes thing their policies would make things better for most people, especially the least among us. It is not that they lack compassion or beneficence. It’s just that liberals and libertarians have a different social theory. (And let us not forget the example of Lupo Alberto, the wolf who loved Marta the hen!)


    Well, if “we” give “them” a harsh grilling, it might dampen their enthusiasm. Neither liberals and libertarians on the one hand, nor progressives on the other hand will forget their differences. But, again, cooperative action on common goals seems only reasonable given the threats posed by the current corporatist system. We can agree to disagree on irresolvable points, while working together urgently on peace, civil liberties, corporatism, and crony capitalism. Given the reciprocal lack of trust of many on both sides of the prospective alliance, a self-conscious adherence to discourse etiquette seems only reasonable.

  21. Roger,
    There are instances in which political policy issues may result in groups with differing political philosophies and agendas finding a common ground against a particular policy or government administrative stand.

    But . . . unfortunately, invariably the reasons for opposing a particular policy or government action can, and often are, radically different for different groups.

    For instance, back during the Vietnam War I was asked to participate in a panel discussion held by groups opposing the war. I was there to represent the “libertarian” opposition to the conflict.

    I made a point in my opening remarks to tailor my comments about reasons for opposing the war on grounds that I hoped would represent such “common ground.” That is,

    a) Against conscription as involuntary servitude in the service of government foreign policies the citizens of a democratic society may not agree with;

    b) The taxing away of the ordinary citizen’s income to cover the cost of a war, when the people of that society might consider there to be other more valued uses for their scarce resources and hard-earned money (and I made a point of not specifying whether this meant each individual making this decision, or some “social” collective decision for domestic spending by government to avoid controversy);

    c) The shared beliefs about the value and essential importance of civil liberties in a free, democratic society that were threatened by government wiretapping, surveillance, and arrests of those non-violently opposing government foreign policy and a war.

    The “lefties” of various strips on the panel, however, soon insisted that “capitalism” and profit-making greed were all behind the military draft, not spending money (via the government) on the “true” needs of the people; and the police state of “fascist” (read: capitalist) Amerika.

    It soon degenerated into a “discussion” (read: loud and rude attack on me) as a dupe and apologist for the exploitation and oppression of “the people” at home and abroad by trying to cover up for the “real” nature of capitalism by talking about “free markets” or “voluntary” exchange, or the importance of private property for securing liberty from government tyranny.

    Private property, unequal distribution of wealth, and market relationships were the ultimate culprits in “Amerika.” And injustice would only end when “social justice” and “economic democracy” prevailed over individual greed and profit.

    To be honest, Roger, from what I have read about the views of many (notice I did not say “all”) in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, these would soon be the same lines along which “common ground” would start to become quicksand under our feet.

    It is not sufficient to have “common enemies” as a basis of “alliances.” It is also necessary to build and have a common ground of understanding of how you got to where you are and where you want to go, if you are to have an direction at all in one’s arguments and policy prescriptions for social and political change.

    Richard Ebeling

  22. I like your model with four models: A, B, Alpha, Beta. It clarifies what happens when two parties misunderstand one another. I hope this model can be learned by many people.

    But, back to the rift between progressives and libertarians, I have spent half my life trying to devise ways to induce leftists to listen to me. Several times I have tried to be the first to listen to the opposite view, to be polite, to try to be sure I am not mistaken in my understanding of the leftist’s position. But the number of times when the leftist has reciprocated, showing willingness to consider my views, tallies close to zero.

    Can you report different experience, Roger? Have you succeeded, by being careful to be sure you understand the positions of progressives, in inducing progressives to consider libertarian views?

  23. Richard and Richard,

    You win some, you lose some. You cast your net and catch some fish, while other swim away. My personal experience seems to have been much better.

    Richard Ebeling: In my college years we had a teach-in when there was some noise about restoring the draft. I too made the cost argument on the draft (with which I now disagree, BTW). Representatives of the Spartacus Youth League literally lept up to interrupt me with derisive howls at our organizing meeting. The moderator quietly asked them to let me finish, reminding them that they would be permitted to speak when it was their turn. When it was their turn, no one interrupted them. In the end, the event came off just fine and we were able to cooperate on the common goal of defeating the (non-existant!) threat of a return to the draft.

    During my academic career I have had not had much trouble cooperating and communicating with more or left “left” colleagues, and I have been co-authors with a couple of them, one of whom has called himself a Marxist in public. I have also been derided unjustly and all that. I said above the my post was a reaction to such an episode. It seems only reasonable to shrug if off.

    Didn’t Hayek somewhere point out that liberals are always in the minority and must forge such political alliances as they can? The liberal or libertarian Radical Party followed this strategy under Pannella and their hard work gave Italy many desirable reforms, including divorce and abortion.

  24. I wish I shared you optimism and confidence, Roger.

    I have found over the years that most people consciously on “the left” care far more about power for their utopian dreams of social engineering (either extreme or moderate) than they care for the civil liberties to which they give lip-service.

    Almost always, when it comes to a trade-off between respecting personal freedom and playing at Adam Smith’s “man of system” who wants to move people around on the “great chessboard of society,” they will choose the latter.

    Those on “the left” seem to be compulsive (I won’t go as far as to say, “genetic”) meddlers in other people’s lives.

    And I know that many conservatives on “the right” are no better and no different when it comes to various social and “moral” issues that push their “buttons.”

    Though I would say this: I have more confidence in trying to persuade a person who at least claims to understand and appreciate the importance of individual rights and private property — even when he inconsistently defends it and sometimes supports their violation — than someone whose implicit starting point is that property is somehow inherently immoral and considers that inequality of income and wealth is, in itself, a mark of “social injustice,” regardless of the reason for that inequality.

    Conservatives are confused unfortunates (often very confused unfortunates) mislead by a variety of traditional and theological interpretations of man and the role of government in society.

    I also know that often the more intelligent people on “the left” are urbane, witty, and literate. Many on the conservative “right” are, well . . . not like that.

    But the fact remains, that “commies” are “commies.” And they usually seem unable to overcome their “commie-ness.”

    And Hayek’s point, to which you referred, is in his 1933 lecture on “The Trend of Economic Thinking.” He was referring to (free market) economists often finding themselves “in bed” with conservatives (in the European sense) who rarely really understood or shared liberal values and views on society and the economy.

    Richard Ebeling

  25. 1. Sit down and talk politely? Sure.
    2. Work together on issues where we agree? Sure, with progressives where we agree and with conservatives where we agree.
    3. Alliance? Sure, if it means #2. Otherwise, I honestly just don’t get it.

  26. Civility is important to help dialogue and cooperation; but what comes out in the Media doesn’t reflect average thing1 and thing 2, but the extremist thing 1 and thing2.

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