Tractable and Ornery


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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44 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    a pet — a kept man — a sheep — a tool.

    By all means, let’s avoid language that leads to foregone conclusions.Report

  2. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I think your description of the tractable is a strawman.

    I know no one who fully believes in everything in the tractable description paragraph. It very much seems like a parody of a Democratic party supporter in my eyes.

    The truth is that everyone is onery or tractable based on different things. It is interesting that the views you described as tractable seem to largely go for Democratic goals. And that is a parody of being “PC”. What is wrong with wanting to talk about people in a dignified and decent way. When people describe themselves as anti-PC, it often sounds like they are ornery and refuse to learn anything new or about not using old and derogatory terms for minorities.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      One wonders how Tractable ever does anything like voting, enacting new laws, or getting rid of old ones, since Tractable just goes along, just obeys. Obviously, Ornery is not the one pushing things along, so Tractable must be somewhat more complex a personality than he or she is made out to be here.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      “The truth is that everyone is onery or tractable based on different things”

      Isn’t that what the post says explicitly somewhere?Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Funny, I read tractable & I see all the good little conservatives happily doing whatever the government needs to fight the war on drugs or terror.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Brilliant. Bravo.

    (My own take is between the two inclinations when faced with the idea of change. Is your inclination to say “the sky is the limit!” when you think that something is going to change? Is your inclination instead to say “they’re going to screw everything up and make things even worse”?)Report

  4. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Nice. Tractability and orneryosity are yin and yang, yes? Where does that leave the guy who kept never raised an eyebrow?Report

  5. Avatar Chris says:

    Another thing: I highly doubt that Tractable, even as presented here in his pretty much logically impossible for, cares all that much about biopower. In fact, biopower works, in this facile world, because tractable doesn’t care all that much about biopower, which allows power to exploit Tractables… tractability.Report

  6. Avatar Major Zed says:

    That’s certainly one of the principal components, but is it the first? Plausible. You can easily find examples of liberal orneriness and conservative tractability, so either some commenters protesteth too much or you didn’t balance your examples sufficiently.Report

    • Seeing as Jason provides specific examples of both liberal and conservative tractability, I suspect it is the former.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Libertarians, of course, are immune to tractability, the clearly inferior temperament in this schema.Report

        • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

          No we aren’t, we just tend to be more ornery about a wider range of topics.

          And who is to say that tractable is inferior? Our military would not work without a good deal of tractability, same with a lot of other institutions. Sometimes tractability is just a quick way of saying, “pick your battles”.

          Pure tractability/ornery is the sin – when all you can say is yea or nay, then you have a problem.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            Well, obviously I was being a *little* facetious saying it says that libertarians are completely immune. But I’m not gonna buy any BS trying to cover for the fact that this article clearly suggests that orneriness is better than tractability (though it doesn’t say that the best thing is to have no tractability, and I didn’t say it did); that tractability above whatever basic level is necessary to just keep society together is at least pathetic, and possibly a threat to ornery people’s dignified self-sufficiency; that people do tend to be either mostly tractable or mostly ornery – that these are not just tendencies that can coexist (though they are that), but that in fact they are types (“And they each describe an entirely plausible disposition, which puts them well ahead of our dispositional politics usually so described.” My emphasis.); and, by pointing out that of liberals and conservatives at least have significant tractable tendencies, but not mentioning libertarians while of course leaving unsaid that the author is a prominent libertarian (yes, that’s actually something that he is), that libertarians tend to be ornery in the sense described (which in any case is not a crazy thing to just think has a tendency to be true based on lived experience).

            You can say you don’t think it’s necessarily the case that one is preferable to the other as a trait as both are necessary, but this article also posits types. Tell us, Scientist, do you honestly have no preference between being described as more tractable than ornery or more ornery than tractable? Actually, worry not about that, because the issue is not how you feel. The issue is what the article says. And there’s no ambiguity in it (whether or not the author thought there was).

            “The tractable disposition works like this,” said the Academic. “We are all a part of a really big thing called society. To make it work, we have to make some sacrifices. The good citizen will make those sacrifices, and he will make sure that everyone else darn well knows that he’s making them. He wants to be the orderly subject of a well-run government. To be governed is to be comfortable, and he wants everyone to know it and to agree.”

            “An example?” asked the Skeptic.

            “Politically correct language,” said the Academic. “The ultimate expression of tractability. If someone said tomorrow that ‘left-handed’ were a term of abuse, you can be sure that by Monday, the tractable among us would have purged even the thought of that term from their very minds. Is it a term of abuse? It hardly matters.

            “Good government, to them, is to a high degree about good political manners. About voting, obeying the laws, picking up litter in the street, and paying your taxes on time and in full. If the government calls on you — say — to give up your guns, or recycle, or stop smoking pot, the proper response is to obey. Not to question, but to obey. Why? Because that’s what makes things run smoothly. And when things run smoothly, things go better for us.

            “The tractable subject sees the cold, sterilized armamentarium of Foucauldian biopower—yes, even that—and declares to himself and to others, ‘Here, fellow citizens, here is a game that I can play. And I’ll be really, really good at it. For the good of everyone. Now watch!’ And he dutifully pees in a cup.”

            “What about ornery?” asked the Capitalist.

            “The ornery soul takes to his dictionary and looks up the words ‘armamentarium’ and ‘Foucauldian.’ It’s not that he’s stupid, mind you. Even if he knew the words quite well already, it’s bad form not to let the gears grind at least a little bit. Then he declares the tractable fellow emasculated. Or he just smacks him upside the head. Which amounts to the same thing.

            “To be an orderly subject of a well-run government is to be a pet — a kept man — a sheep — a tool. Good government is about a timid government. If the government tells you to stop smoking pot, well, you darn well should smoke pot. At least once, anyway, to confound them all.”


            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

              You are correct that I identify more closely with ornery than tractable. You are incorrect when you claim that I had meant ornery to be clearly superior.

              I am in fact made very uncomfortable by the way that these two vaguely reasonable abstractions put me in the company of conservatives. If forced to choose between conservative and liberal, and if given no other alternatives, I’d pick liberal.

              My purpose in writing was to replace one very clunky pair of abstractions — liberal and conservative — with another that might do about as well. Which is to say that these don’t really work either. Nothing does the job altogether well. If it helps, consider that “Tractable and Ornery” is well-paired with “Plain Dumb Luck.”Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Another fun dynamic is the “we need to change things *BACK*” dynamic.

    Sometimes the law, whatever it is, is new enough that it’s possible to change things back to the way it was before, kinda. The 18th Amendment is as good an example of this as we’re going to get. Someone ornery would be able to throw his back behind changing it back.

    But if the 18th Amendment stood for 100 years… we’d no longer be changing it back. We’d just be changing it.Report

  8. Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

    I missed theseReport

    • No, not trolling. Trying to get people to think differently. At least once in a while.

      That’s all, I swear.Report

      • Avatar MaxL says:

        It worked. I saw bright red right away. But I did give this some thought, and I am wondering if the word you were looking is “persuadable,” rather than tractable. There is something to the argument that liberals, as much as we are interested in self government/organized resistance and the idea that liberty for ourselves is exactly equal to our tolerance of it in others, we have a habit of of both reducing political debate to policy debate and, within that debate, beginning a lot of sentences with, “You have a point there, but”Report

  9. Avatar Major Zed says:

    I waited to see if anyone else would dump this can of worms onto the dinner plate. Obvious similarities to the libertarian/authoritarian axis of the World’s Smallest Political Quiz at

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Heh. That’s an interesting test. If a person disagree with TotalIndividualFreedom, they’re 100% big government statists. That collapses quite a large spectrum of disagreement, no?Report

      • I don’t much care for that test, to be honest.

        One thing the tractable/ornery distinction does seem to do is to place libertarians in the same camp as conservatives. I otherwise tend to resist that classification, but sometimes the shoe does fit.Report

        • Avatar Major Zed says:

          So you’re saying Ornery/Tractable is not orthogonal to Liberal/Conservative and is not parallel to Libertarian/Authoritarian as posed by the WSPQ? Is your concept of Conservatism more like William F. Buckley Jr.’s “standing athwart history yelling Stop”? And, finally, is there something else about the WSPQ that bothers you? (Have I reached my question limit? OMG, that’s another one!)Report

      • Avatar Major Zed says:

        @Stillwater – did you actually take the quiz and see the scoring? Because 8.6% of possible answers map to Libertarian; the same number each to Authoritarian, Liberal, and Conservative. The remaining 65% of possible quiz answers map to Centrist. Give it a shot.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          I did, but not honestly. I gamed it a bit. I answered “Agree” to all the questions and got a 100% libertarian. When I answered “maybe” to all of ’em the answer was perfectly centrist. And when I answered “disagree” to all of them I got 100% statist. It just observing that the test viewed disagreeing with individual freedom, even slightly, as implying statism.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      If we could get Bill Clinton to honestly take that test, I wonder if we could all agree to agree that he is what it would say he is.Report

  10. Hmmmmm…

    I agree “liberal” and “conservative” are labels that are, at best, limited and limiting, and do not always suffice when describing the political behavior of people. I’m not entirely sure “tractable” and “ornery” work much better, though. There seems to be very little space in that construction for “sensible.”

    Within this frame, the Law is treated as something to which one reacts, rather than something in which one participates. It is as though our legal system was handed down from on high, like the Ten Commandments descending from Sinai, rather than something created and re-created and re-created again with our participation. Perhaps the latter is a hopelessly starry-eyed way of viewing it, but that’s my take in any case.

    So while I behave in ways that, using the terms in the OP, seem consistent with tractability, it’s really not because I simply bend to the law as received wisdom. It’s because it makes sense for me to do so. I pick up litter because I don’t like messy shit cluttering up the sidewalk. I vote because I understand voting to be a tiny discrete act that contributes to an aggregated result. “Manners” has little to do with it. “Good sense” does.

    Where in your paradigm would you put someone who complies with laws he finds reasonable and sensible and chafes against those that he does not. Is “sensible” the happy middle place, supplanting that elusive beast “centrist”? Because I don’t do things just because I’m told, most of the time. I do them because they comport with how I understand things to work better for their own sake.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      Personally, I saw this as a stark example of a false dichotomy that Jason thought would illustrate how stark the existing false dichotomy is.

      We just pay less attention to the existing one, because fish. Water.Report

      • Ah, well. If it was an intellectual exercise in false dichotomies, illustrating the flaws in the one by swapping in an equally flawed new one, then it was quite successful.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I can dig that, since labels tend to make people essentialists about whatever categories they denote. There is a lot of research on that phenomenon (I’ve done some myself). But I don’t think that’s a real issue here, because most of the commenters here seem to be aware of nuance and diversity along the liberal-conservative axis.

        What I saw Jason doing was creating a “new” political axis, or a “new” political dimension. I use the scare quotes around “new” because I don’t think his axis/dimension is all that new, really. It’s one that is actually pretty explicit in our current political discourse, and I think it’s actually as, if not more distorting than the liberal-conservative or left-right axis, because I don’t think it reliably captures much of the diversity in the current political discourse.Report

    • Avatar Damon says:

      For a long time now, I’ve preferred the term “statist” and “non statist” to the more conventional Demo/Repub or Liberal/Conservative labels. Seems more accurate.Report

  11. This was enjoyable, Jason. Obviously, there are problems with the tractable/ornery paradigm, but your post demonstrates the usefulness of trying to think about politics in ways other than just the conservative/liberal dynamic or Democratic/Republican dymanic.Report