ideological pluralism as an antidote to cliche

Although a group of like-minded people can be precise and intellectually rigorous, the combination of consensus plus rigor is relatively rare. When we disagree fundamentally, we face more pressure to define our terms and specify our assumptions, predictions, generalizations, and other aspects of our mental models.

For instance, I often find myself in conversations in which almost everyone shares a general distaste for what they call “capitalism” and wants to blame it for specific problems. Capitalism can mean a combination of: commodification (treating categories of things as exchangeable), property rights, market exchanges, debt, inheritance, financial instruments, capital markets, incorporated entities, state enforcement of certain kinds of contracts, general-purpose business corporations, bureaucratic corporations, professions such as law and accounting, economies in which the state sector is relatively small, international trade and foreign direct investment, and norms such as materialism, competition, or individualism (or conformity and subservience). Most of these components are matters of degree; for instance, a society can have a smaller or larger capital market. The various components can go together–and some thoughtful people see them as closely interconnected–but it is also possible for them to come apart. For instance, there have been many market economies without capital markets.

If capitalism is responsible for bad (or good) outcomes, we should be able to say which components are relevant and why. In a room full of people who dislike capitalism, it is often possible and tempting to avoid such specificity.

I’ve written before against the idea of viewpoint diversity, because I think that is the wrong way to conceptualize and defend pluralism. A better way may be to see disagreement as an antidote to clichés.

See also: trying to keep myself honest; defining capitalism; social justice should not be a cliché; on the proper use of moral clichés

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.