Co-blogger David Henderson recently posted about how political partisanship makes people more disposed to ignore or deny basic facts in a way that sports partisanship does not. I agree completely with what he says. In fact, I would say what he describes shows how many – perhaps most – people talk about politics in a way I will describe as political noncognitivism. To unpack what I mean by that, indulge me for a moment with a digression into metaethics. 

In metaethics, noncognitivism is a metaethical theory that differs from realism, antirealism, and subjectivism. Moral realists believe that moral statements assert propositions, and these propositions can be objectively true or false – that is, true or false independent of the attitudes of any subject. Moral subjectivists believe moral statements assert propositions that are subjectively true or false – that is, the truth or falsity of the statement depends on the attitudes of a subject. Moral antirealists believe ethical statements assert propositions, but those propositions are always objectively false, because there are no moral facts or moral properties. Noncognitivists argue that moral statements are neither true nor false, because moral statements don’t have any propositional content. Noncognitivism generally comes in two flavors – expressivism, and prescriptivism. The former says that what seem like propositional statements about morality really just express attitudes. To the expressivist, when someone says “It’s wrong to murder” what they are really saying is “Boo for murder!”, which does not assert a proposition, and is neither true nor false. Prescriptivists says that what seem like moral propositions are actually just commands, so when you say “it’s wrong to murder” what you’re actually saying is “Don’t murder!”, which is also neither true nor false and does not assert a proposition.  

That said, let’s start with something readers of this blog likely already know – the general public is wildly misinformed about issues of basic economics. And as Bryan Caplan has pointed out, the errors the public makes in their economic beliefs are not random, but systemic – they tend to lean in a very anti-market direction. A recent paper examining the phenomenon of “lay economic reasoning” points out one striking example of the gap between what is commonly believed and reality – “The general public believed the average profit margin made by American corporations to be 46.7%, while the actual average that year was just 3%.” That is, a typical member of the public believes that profit margins for corporations are over fifteen times higher than they actually are. This is not a small error. 

Over the years, I’ve encountered mistakes like this in conversations about economics many times. And I’ve noticed a consistent pattern in how people respond to the information. They might say “Corporations are making too much in profits!” Then, you ask them what they think corporate profit margins are, and what they should be. They respond by saying that corporations are making over 40% profit margins, and they think that a “fair profit margin” would be 5%. Now, suppose they discover profit margins are in fact 3%. What response would you expect? 

One response is to deny the basic facts, as David Henderson correctly points out. But that’s not the only response I’ve seen. Some people, when shown the data, will in fact admit they were wrong and that corporate profits are nowhere near as high as they initially believed. Now, if a person’s political views were meant to describe what they believed the facts were, the response consistent with their stated beliefs and the facts should be to decide that corporate profits are actually too low. After all, corporate profits, it turns out, are 40% lower than what they just declared was a fair rate! Yet I’ve seen this happen precisely zero times in my life.

It’s a similar story with taxes. Often I’ve heard people say something like “The top 1% doesn’t pay their fair share of income taxes!” Ask them what percentage of income taxes are paid by the top 1% and what percentage they think it should be, and they might say something like “the top 1% only pays 10% of income taxes and they should pay 25%.” And if you point out to them that actually, the top 1% pays over 40% of total income taxes, significantly higher than the amount they just said it should be, you see the same pattern. There is a zero point nothing percent chance they will say this means they top 1% are actually overtaxed, because it turns out the top 1% are paying significantly more in taxes than what they had just declared would be the “fair” rate. They will still go on insisting that the amount paid by the top 1% should be higher. 

I think this shows that a lot of people are political noncognitivists. People will say “corporate profits are too high” or “the top 1% doesn’t pay their fair share” without any reference to what those numbers actually are or even what they themselves think those number should be. When sports fans talk about how a game went down, they are asserting propositions, which makes what they say responsive to facts. But when political partisans say “corporate profits are too high” they aren’t really trying to assert specific propositions about the current state of the world and some alternate state they think would be better. This is why if it turns out the actual state of the world is superior to their stated goal by their own standards, they don’t cheer with victory – they simply move the goalpost while sticking with the original slogan. All the slogan was really meant to communicate is “hooray for the Blue Tribe!” 

I pointed to a similar way this thinking can manifest in a previous post where I was critiquing Yoram Hazony’s book on conservatism. Hazony claimed that free trade has reduced America’s manufacturing capabilities – and I pointed out that while America’s manufacturing employment has fallen, America’s manufacturing capabilities have risen, in the same way and for the same reasons that American agricultural capacity has risen even though agricultural employment has fallen. In both cases, technological improvements allow for much greater output to be produced with fewer workers. As I said in that post, “If the loss of manufacturing employment is truly Hazony’s concern, he’s unduly focused on what amounts to a trivial factor in that regard – he should be spending far more time attempting to put an end to technological progress itself. If, however, Hazony is concerned with manufacturing capabilities, as he says, then he has one less thing to worry about – America’s manufacturing capabilities have only been increasing.” Yet, the people who think American manufacturing is dying will often continue to say so even when they become aware that American manufacturing capacity is greater than ever. Claims about what manufacturing is currently like or how it should be are not what is actually meant by many people who express this concern – what they really mean to say is “hooray for the Red Tribe!” 

As a metaethical theory, noncognitivism is hopelessly muddled (and thankfully, not taken seriously by most moral philosophers these days), but I think there is a significant element of noncognitivism in most people’s political speech. People rarely update their stated political beliefs in light of new facts because their stated political beliefs were never meant to express propositional beliefs about the state of the world. They are simply a form of political, expressive noncognitivism – a declaration of attitude and alignment to a tribe.