Paul Krugman and David Brooks. The Language Prison That Traps Liberals and Conservatives

How narratives influence our actions

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By David Sloan Wilson

Regulation is one of the most charged words in politics. If you’re a conservative, then you’re likely to think that regulation is a bad thing that erodes personal responsibility and prevents the free enterprise system from working its magic. If you’re a liberal, then you’re likely to think that regulation is essential to prevent the inefficiencies and abuses that pervade modern life.

Actually, if you’re a liberal, you’re unlikely to use the word regulation at all. Conservatives have largely won the battle over its meaning, stigmatizing it for everyone. Conservatives will get votes by calling for less regulation. Liberals won’t get votes by calling for more regulation, so they are forced to tiptoe around the word to make their arguments.

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I’m neither a liberal nor a conservative. I’m a biologist. A biologist must use the word regulation because life depends on it. The processes that cause such things as our hearts to beat, our lungs to breathe, and our brains to think are regulated in a thousand different ways. No regulation means dying for an organism. But it’s not a matter of “more” or “less” regulation. It’s a matter of just the right kind of regulation for each and every process.

Politics has become pathological to use the word regulation as it does. In this series of essays, I will review how the word is used in biology and why it should be used in the same way for the regulation of human society. Applying biological concepts to human society is fraught with difficulties, but some things are so elementary (at least in retrospect) that they are unlikely to be wrong. So it is with the nature of regulation, or at least so I will argue.

Before we can think clearly about regulation, we need to think clearly about another important word: narrative.

A narrative is a story that organizes our experience and compels certain actions. We need narratives, because the real world is too complex to comprehend without simplification. Narratives are invariably distortions of the real world because otherwise they could not perform their simplifying function. The simpler and more compelling a narrative the better–but only if it compels us to do the right thing. When a narrative compels us to do the wrong thing, then it traps us like a prison that we cannot easily escape because of the way that the narrative has structured our experience.

The only way to break out of a narrative prison is to challenge and replace the narrative. The new narrative will also be a simplification, but one that is hopefully better anchored in reality and compels us to do the right thing.

When we examine the current liberal and conservative narratives about regulation, we see two prisons. Each is compelling, in the sense that any reasonable person who accepts the story will be driven to act in a certain way. Each is a prison, in the sense that the actions motivated by the narratives won’t solve our current problems. We need to challenge both narratives and tell a new story, more firmly anchored in reality, that leads to more effective action. Centering the political concept of regulation on the biological concept is the beginning of a new story.

Two opinion pieces, one by the liberal commentator Paul Krugman and the other by the conservative commentator David Brooks, which appeared on the same day (June 14, 2012) in the New York Times, illustrate what I mean by narrative prisons. Krugman’s piece is titled “We Don’t Need No Education” and criticizes the conservative policy of reducing the size of government.

According to Krugman, “Conservatives love to pretend that there are vast armies of bureaucrats doing who knows what” but that “in reality, a majority of government workers are employed providing either education (teachers) or public protection (police officers and fire fighters).” He then cites “a lot of evidence” that cutting public jobs hurts rather than helps the economy, especially during hard economic times. An effective narrative can’t review the evidence in detail, so instead we get conclusions that are impossible to assess based on the information given. Cutting public-sector jobs has not stimulated private-sector jobs during this recession. The conservative prescription has proven to be disastrous for European countries that have followed them to the letter. The bottom line: the conservative policy of reducing government will result in fewer teachers, firemen, and policemen and will put the economy in a tailspin. Tellingly, Krugman does not use the word regulation.

Brooks’ piece is titled “What Republicans Think” and begins with the claim that from Eisenhower through George W. Bush, Republicans have accepted the 20th century concept of the welfare state. “Sure, they wanted to cut taxes and devolve power, but in practice, they sustained the system, often funding it more lavishly than the Democrats.” What’s new is that many republicans have reached the conclusion that “the welfare-state model is in its death throes”. Brooks also uses the problems in Europe to support his position. According to him, European nations are failing not because they are following the conservative prescription, but because they are the first welfare states to collapse, soon to be followed by the USA unless something is done. “Successive presidents have layered on regulations and loopholes, creating a form of state capitalism in which big businesses thrive because they have political connections and small businesses struggle.” For Brooks, regulation contributes to unfairness and reducing it will “spark an efficiency explosion, laying the groundwork for an economic revival.”

I invite readers of this essay to read the pieces by Krugman and Brooks and ask themselves the following question: How would a reasonable person who accepted the narrative provided by each author vote during the upcoming presidential elections?

The answer, of course, is that 100% of reasonable people who accepted Krugman’s narrative at face value would vote for the Democratic candidate and 100% of reasonable people who accepted Brook’s narrative at face value would vote for the Republican candidate. Never mind that both authors used the same evidence (the economic problems in Europe) to support their positions. I didn’t even bother to recount the rhetorical flourishes that portray the other side as stupid, dishonest, and even diseased. This is what I mean by narratives as like prisons that confine reasonable people to certain actions by organizing their experience so that no other options appear reasonable.

Krugman and Brooks are better than most political commentators, and even they are narrative prison-keepers.

A new narrative is needed that is more firmly anchored to reality and that allows reasonable people to use their own intelligence to decide how to act. The way to begin crafting a new narrative is by asking how the word “regulation” is used in biology. Think of it as your “get out of jail free” card.

To be continued…

Originally published here.

17 December 2015

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  • David Colander

    I liked David’s discussion, and look forward to the next part. I deal with the narrative problem by distinguishing different types of regulation–rules based regulation, and principles based regulation, and distinguishing the amount of discretion various levels of the system are given. The meaningful debate is about the nature of regulation, not about regulation.

    • Swami Cat

      Agreed, and I would strongly encourage Wilson to read your book on these issues before writing his next column. I think you and Kupers have done an amazing job of delineating how to think about rules in complex systems such as economies and societies.

  • Bruce Nappi

    David starts out in the title by posing a, “Language Prison That Traps Liberals and
    Conservatives.” I want to support this statement, also from a biological position. But in my case, I’m referring to new research.

    In short, most use of language in human culture is seriously flawed. Sure, we have jokes like, “the greatest barrier between the U.S. and the U.K. is a common language.” But ignoring the
    repercussions can lead to tragic results.

    Starting with David’s test word, “regulation”, the Oxford dictionary defines it as: “A rule
    or directive made and maintained by an authority.” The first thing an astute reader would pick up in this definition is how broad it is. So, couldn’t ALL of the “laws” in a country be considered “regulation”? In fact, that is the case. Wouldn’t this include driving on a particular side of the road? How about sending someone to jail for stealing or murder? How about ruling that all people must be treated equal under the law? Why would any person NOT want such “regulations”? So, what has the conservative side done to obscure this and control the perceived definition of the word?

    There is a newly emerging understanding of how humans learn language. This theory states that language is initially learned in infancy, not as a logic tool, but rather as simple sound patterns that cause others to act to satisfy physiological and emotional needs. This is actually similar to the learning model proposed by Pimsleur. It is only after a large vocabulary relating single word-sounds with emotions are learned, that we learn to connect words, through a translation process, into “logical” groups. These groups are what I call Single Sentence Logic (SSL). In modern communications, they are also known as “sound bites”. At that point, the logical connections are still very “loose” or even erroneous. Regional and cultural differences introduce additional variations. Not until “the age of reason” are humans able to learn finer word distinctions and combine multiple words to express complex concepts. I highlighted “able” because it has also become clear that the ability of humans to use words, and deal with their multiple definitions and fine details, has a very broad variation in accuracy and repeatability. This variability is further stretched when logic needs to be maintained over a group of sentences, paragraphs and separate writings. Looking at observations of U.S. society and education, language skills have never been very strong, and are now in serious decline. This has accentuated the critical importance of the primary association of word sounds with emotion.

    What we see as common practice in politics is to use the principle of SSL, and the emotional connection humans have with individual words, to narrow the meaning of those words. As David states, this is done with narratives. BUT, the narratives are very narrow and selected to associate the word with a targeted emotion. In the case of regulation, the conservative link is: regulation = government oppression.

    But to make the case for this emotional connection, the term
    “government oppression” is actually one step away from the primary emotion. It
    is just another term like “regulation”. The primary emotion is FEAR. And we see
    that emotion being stoked over and over again in current politics.

    The point of this comment is to support David’s identification of the importance of narrative, but to suggest that the key to changing public sentiment does not lie so much in “logic” or even “reality” ( though that would be helpful ), but in addressing human FEARS. It’s about emotional peace. We should also NOT deliver the new narratives in the same format as the term we are trying to address. I.e. the narratives can’t be delivered as pulpit harangues or political preaching. They would become narratives like, “How do you feel about regulations that protect you from farmers selling bacteria laden food? Don’t these protect you? How do you feel about the laws (notice the introduction of a contrasting word) that gave women the right to vote? Would you want those taken away? Don’t you think laws protecting your right to vote are in your best interest? Why would you want those REGULATIONS to be taken away?

    I discuss this issue in more detail at under the Language tab.

    • I wonder how you would understand the relation of personal narratives, or even collective narratives, to the problem of reproduction, socialization decisions of children including curriculum decisions, and how to navigate the danger zones in families and marriages?

      • Bruce Nappi


        You have clearly summarized the major obstacles that have kept the “population control” issue a TABOO subject for over 20 years. The comment I presented directly applies. From the beginning of civilization, and continuing to present time, the survival of people into old age was critically dependent on children and family support. So, any challenge to existing approaches is immediately mentally tagged with fear. In many cultures, this also implies the importance of MALE children. In those situations, killing female children, while suppressed, is still frequent and overlooked by society. I bring this point up to stress, that society already has deep precedents of drastic responses to cultural crises.

        To your point, I would first make a general statement that we should be rigidly bound to reality and honesty. There is no room for misleading people, which current society is rife with. The second point is to bring to open discussion, the FEARS that drive current practices and beliefs.

        For example, why do families in Africa, India, AND western society, still have large families? Sure, they will all say “we like it”. But there is always a much deeper reason related to the welfare of the parents and grand parents. China can provide a wealth of narratives about this because they have been the most responsible country on the planet with their 20 year commitment to a ONE CHILD FAMILY policy.

        The way I would “understand” the narratives is: a. describing the “new” realities of life on the planet – the approaching resource depletions; b. the role of population in this; c. the need for cultures, both large and small, to start a discussion about how best to provide the needs of our aging members; and d. to explain how the planet, through our culture, will cause GREAT HARM to children newly born into the new world. Each of these narratives needs to include two aspects: how we need to change culture to provide SAFETY for aging members; and how culture needs to change its attitudes about reproduction to reduce the SUFFERING and EARLY DEATH that new children born into the world will unavoidable face if the changes are not made.

        As I noted in my comment, the statements I just made should be seen as “observations”, that would be presented as narratives. They should NOT be directives. The decisions would come based on QUESTIONS posed to people: what would you do about this? How would you handle that? This is not a process to force people to specific actions. It is a process to draw out a
        comprehensive set of reasons and logic.

        One more point. The world needs to get away from the idea that there will be only ONE approach. This is a MAJOR FLAW in how current democracy is implemented. It is the flaw referred to as the TYRANNY OF THE MAJORITY. There should be many approaches. For example, people who still have the desire for a “large family” might fulfill this desire by forming a “family” of 6 children and 12 adults. I can hear the screams. But, somehow, in a traditional family, or in the case of adoption, the husband and wife fully believe that their children are “shared”. The Kibbutz had its place as did the Harems. And they actually coexisted in the world, as long as each didn’t know about the other. I discuss this further on the “Family” tab at A3Society (dot) org.

    • Greg Davidson

      In the battle of narratives, history shows that fear is a powerful (and sometimes dangerous) motivator. Donald Trump and to a lesser degree the other Republican candidates are tapping into fear and converting it in to anger, and reaping the appreciation of voters who prefer to be angry over being scared. This narrative cannot be countered by facts, because ultimately it is an emotional transaction. The counter-argument is an emotional truth: Trump’s support is driven largely by fear, or more bluntly, by cowardice. Cowards value talk of “winners’ because they feel like losers. For them, fear trumps facts. And so the right response is not fact-checking, it is calling them out for what they are.

      • Bruce Nappi


        Very insightful comments. You said, “…tapping into fear and CONVERTING
        it in to anger…” I discuss a mechanism for this conversion process in an
        article on medium about the “Seven Deadly Sins” (7DS).
        (Short clarification here – the 7D “Sins” in ancient Hebrew were NOT a “religious” issue, i.e. transgression against a supernatural edict. They were
        strictly considered serious socially disruptive behaviors.)

        You then said, “voters who PREFER to be angry over being scared.” This simple, but profound observation ties a lot together. My article discusses how the emotion of FEAR plays such a strong role in behaviors selected by evolution. So, my understanding would be that much of the behavior we see is NOT preference, but rather, a subconscious drive. Given the criticality with which issues are presented, the drive can easily be dominant over conscious preference. We are seeing the dominance of the “Stone Age” brain when confronted with a complex issue – fight or flight.

        One more point here. You said, “…the right response is not fact-checking…”. When a brain is already in overload with complex “facts” that it can’t resolve into a “peaceful” visualization, adding more facts, right or wrong, will not help. This describes the ineffectiveness with many people of efforts like Al Gore’s, as well researched and accurate as his points may be.

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  • Jan de Jonge

    I think that “regulation” has another meaning in the USA compared to the EU. In this USA it is related to the power of the state, in the EU it is more connected with protection of consumers and producers. The austerity policy implicated deregulation; the main reason was the rising public budget. The deregulation shifted the burden from the taxpayer to the consumer. The ordinary citizen did not gain; on the contrary he/she is facing higher costs and a lesser quality of the services.

  • Fred

    “A new narrative is needed that is more firmly anchored to reality and
    that allows reasonable people to use their own intelligence to decide
    how to act. The way to begin crafting a new narrative is by asking how
    the word “regulation” is used in biology”

    A good starting point would be to deal more openly with the “reality” that nature “regulates” population fairly ruthlessly and the signs are that mankind’s turn is coming. This is the elephant in the room that everyone knows is there, but cannot discuss rationally (emphasis on “rationally”).

    Liberal narratives orbit around the “if things continue as usual we are doomed” meme while conservatives are sure that we must repent of our degenerate ways or the apocalypse awaits. Both have much in common with both ghost dances and cargo cults with the liberals more like the ghost dances and the conservatives leaning to the cargo cults.

    I think an intelligent ET would conclude that we are heading for a population collapse, but that if we can avoid an all-out nuclear launch by the major powers life will go on. I am sure the thought of dealing with this reality rationally will absolutely horrify the bien pensant, but I think it offers the best chance of avoiding the apocalypse.

  • Emmef

    I think there are (at least) two distinctive types of regulation.

    One is to set rules that all actors must obey. This has the problem that these rules cannot be applied to new situations or implementing them becomes indecisive, impractical or prone to abuse.

    Another is to set (abstract) goals and use feedback. Feedback can correct a situation ad-hoc and if similar situations appear more often and the feedback is successful: one can shape law accordingly. But that law should be interpreted in the spirit of the law, not to the letter. A constitution could be the start of the abstract goals.

    • Duncan Cairncross

      Interestingly that is the way “Procedures” should be written
      You start with a “Why” statement – this procedure is intended to do…..
      Before you get into the “How”
      IMHO this is incredibly important

      Legislation here (NZ) also starts with the “Why” statement – and the courts use that in determining exactly how the legislation is applied