Saturday, January 14, 2012

The economic right's God and Nation thing

Why are so many of those who call for smaller governments and freer markets also religious, socially conservative, and nationalist? There are exceptions, but we often see all-encompassing political identities developing very broadly along the following lines:

For free market capitalism
For aggressive foreign policies
For strict immigration control
For assertive nationalism
For drug prohibition
For prostitution/pornography prohibition
For religious education
Against gay marriage
Against abortion
Against sex education

For more subtle or compromising foreign policy
For looser immigration control
For legalised abortion
For sex education
Against free markets, for government regulation and redistribution
Against aggressive nationalism
Against drug prohibition
Against prostitution/pornography prohibition
Against religious education

It always struck me that this was a rather arbitrary dichotomy. Could not one be in favour of free markets and secularism, sexual liberalism? Well one could and some people do. But the dichotomy persists, either side absorbing these apparently randomly-assigned attitudes to their identities.

Then I read this, economist Bryan Caplan discussing Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman was explaining that when people are faced with a difficult question which they cannot easily or immediately answer, they tend to substitute the difficult target question with a simpler 'heuristic' question. Kahneman's examples include:

Target question 1
How much would you contribute to save an endangered species?

Heuristic substitution 1
How much emotion do I feel when I think of dying dolphins?

Target question 2
How should financial advisers who prey on the elderly be punished?

Heuristic question 2
How much anger do I feel when I think of financial predators?

Do we all behave like this? I certainly think that I do. For example, see the difficult and complex question: 'Should foreign countries intervene when a government, like Syria right now, is violently oppressing its people?' There is a great maze of further questions to answer here. Is it legal under international law to intervene? Will the intervention succeed? Will there be unintended negative consequences? Will hands-off neutrality encourage oppression by tyrants elsewhere? Without the answers to all these questions I guess I simply translate it into the heuristic alternative: 'how do I feel about war?' The answer to that is immediate and easy: I don't feel good about it at all! So while I might rationalise my answer ('no, don't get involved') with a set of reasons, the core motivating reason for my reply is an emotional and deeply held value. I have discussed this inner irrational attitude towards war, and how it informs my stances on current events, on this blog before.

Anyway Caplan is excited by Kahneman's idea, and creates his own list of target questions and heuristic substitute questions. Caplan is a libertarian, favouring minimal government regulation or redistribution either in the economy or personal matters - just to warn you of the perspective he's coming from.

Target question 1
Does the minimum wage help low-skill workers?

Heuristic substitution 1
Would I be happy if employers gave low-skilled workers a raise?

Target question 2
Do anti-firing laws help workers in the long-run?

Heuristic substitution 2
Is it bad to be fired?

The target questions here are tricky. Maybe minimum wage laws do help low-skilled workers, and maybe they make them more likely to be made unemployed. Without great economics knowledge most people won't know the answer. But the heuristic replacement is simple. Do I want low-skilled workers to be protected from poverty? Of course, so to a minimum wage law: yes.

Remember that Caplan's perspective is that regulations like minimum wage or anti-firing laws are bad things which harm the economy as a whole and ultimately hurt the interests of low-skilled or vulnerable workers. He may be right or wrong, I'm not an economist so I can't argue either way. But for him, the left-leaning interventionist perspective seems easier for ordinary people to grasp, more pleasing to the heuristic substituted questions.

On another blog post Caplan argued that most Americans are actually social democrats who want government regulation and redistribution:
First, Americans only seem staunchly pro-market at the most abstract and symbolic level. On most specific policy issues, the pattern reverses. Americans favor as much or more government spending on almost everything. Only 41% of Americans are against or strongly against "control of prices by legislation." (GSS variable identifier SETPRICE) Only 21.3% are against or strongly against "supporting declining industries to protect jobs." (GSS variable identifier SAVEJOBS) Just 15.7% disagree or strongly disagree with the view that "America should limit the import of foreign products in order to protect its national economy."
Right, so this got me wondering. Suppose Caplan is correct that left-wing economic arguments are more pleasing and easier to grasp than right-wing arguments. The left, after all, can say: 'vote for us and we will give you free housing, education, healthcare and unemployment benefits if you lose your job'. The right-wingers are stuck saying: 'vote for us and we won't give you free housing, education, healthcare or unemployment benefits, but - trust us - you'll be better off without them'.

Perhaps the right-wingers are stuck with a more difficult justification of their policies, when the left-wing policies promise immediate and direct benefits. The right can argue that big wealth redistribution is harmful to the economy and will hurt the poor, but this wades into complex economics which most of us don't understand. The left have an easier time: give money and support to the poor. So long as they make it clear that the majority of voters are going to directly benefit, they seem to have a more powerful simple argument.

Then I thought, perhaps this is why so many right-wing movements are also associated with powerful, simplistic ideas in other areas. If the right cannot compete with the left in economic debates, they need some other powerful symbol to rally around. Religion, national identity, even the abstract notion of 'freedom' - these might be the simpler concepts that many voters have emotional connections with. So the right can create a new list of heuristic substituted questions for the more difficult ones. The following are my own:

Target question 1
Do you want universal healthcare?

Heuristic question 1
Do you prefer socialism or freedom?

Target question 2
Do you think the state should provide free education for all?

Heuristic question 2
Should the godless socialist government control what your child learns?

Target question 3
Should we cut spending on health and increase it on defence?

Heuristic question 3
Are you a patriot?

So my guess is that some on the right latch on to these simplistic ideas because their more complex economic views are not easy to defend. Far easier for American Republicans to denounce the Democrats as socialist Muslim hippie traitors than to actually go through Democrat economic programmes with a fine tooth comb and pick out complex concerns or apparent risks. The flag-waving and God-mentioning and name-calling might give the right the emotional edge that they lack with their economic ideas.


  1. Wow this makes so much sense to me... i've never understood it either! i feel like i have a much better grip on the connection between corporate personhood and jesus devotion in this country...

    i love the: "Should the godless socialist government control what your child learns?"

    i can totally see that being a ver batim of someones speech...

  2. Thanks phoeniX, glad you enjoyed that :)

    Well I imagine there are variations from place to place. Here in Ireland the dynamic has been a little different since we lacked a strong economic left-right struggle for most of Ireland's modern history.

    But the ideas I discuss here may be one of several reasons for the association between economic left and right with non-economic stances.


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