Wednesday, March 05, 2014

On the Origins of Liberals and Conservatives

Chris Mooney reviews two books I definitely want to read:

Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences
by John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Alford

Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us
by Avi Tuschman

Both books seem to solve several problems we face in understanding human behaviors. Why are humans both xenophobia and xenophilic? What are humans both homebodies and adventurous?

This is portrayed as discovering the differences between left and right, but that is wrong. It is really discovering the differences between conservatives and liberals. You may ask, Isn't that the same? No.

Let is consider the differences between liberals and conservatives as laid out by Mooney:
  • more likely to take risks
  • "tend to score higher on one of the five major dimensions—openness: the desire to explore, to try new things, to meet new people"
  • outsiders and out-groups are enticing
  • more exploratory and cosmopolitan
  • egalitarian structure for power relationships
  • explore and change
  • xenophilic
  • favor diversity
  • sexual libertarians
  • "reciprocal altruism (which can be toward anyone) "

  • risk-averse
  • "score higher on conscientiousness: the desire for order, structure, and stability"
  • " have a greater focus on negative stimuli or a “negativity bias”: they pay more attention to the alarming, the threatening, and the disgusting in life"
  • outsiders and out-groups are threatening
  • more tribal
  • hierarchical structure for power relationships
  • hunker down and defend
  • xenophobia
  • favor uniformity
  • "want to seem to control and restrict reproduction (and other sexual activities)"
  • altruism toward kin
 Now, if we look at these two lists, we can see that the "liberals" list is an almost perfect description of libertarians. But the Left-Right divide is a bit more problematic.

On economic policy, the Left is almost by definition "risk-averse," favoring economic policies that keep everyone and everything stable and in their places. And while they talk a good egalitarian game, their actual policies favor nothing but hierarchical power relationships. The left -- in the U.S., at least (the left is unquestionably conservative throughout the non-Anglophone world) -- may be socially liberal, but on economics they are conservatives. And the right in the U.S. is the exact opposite (the right in the rest of the world is typically as illiberal as the rest of the world's left). How are we to make sense of that?

The Anglophone world emerges out of a common law and free trade tradition -- meaning, free markets and other kinds of social spontaneous orders are in a sense "conservative," insofar as they are traditional. Centralized government control over law and resources was what was "new," though it was the conservative position throughout most of the rest of the world (ancient Greece being one of the other exceptions). Thus, in Anglophone countries like Britain, the U.S., Canada, and Australia, the conservative parties are actually in no small part liberal parties, if we are talking about their economics. On social issues, they are unquestionably conservative. Look at conservatives' positions on gay rights, women's rights, and immigration.

Most of the rest of the world comes out of a more conservative set of institutions: hierarchical governments and legislation, with a great deal of government and legal control of the economy. In Europe, in the wake of the Renaissance, we saw the emergence of a strong liberal world view. And these liberals were almost all pro-market. They all promoted risk-taking, openness to new experiences and different peoples, cosmopolitanism, egalitarianism, change, and sexual liberation. Emphasis was placed on reciprocal altruism -- being good and generous to all others. Adam Smith's economics is reciprocal.

Also notice that these traits are the traits of entrepreneurs. A successful entrepreneur cannot be conservative. And starting a business is not the same as being entrepreneurial. You can start a conservative business -- doing what you think is safe to do. I would not be surprised if we discovered that those who start up conservative businesses tended to hire friends and family far more than do risk-taking entrepreneurs. One can probably also guess the politics of each.

This might also explain the seemingly strange phenomenon of so many successful entrepreneurs favoring Democrats in the U.S., seeming in direct opposition to their own interests. The Democrats are perceived to be liberal -- at least on social issues -- so those with a liberal bent are more likely to support Democrats (though I would argue they ought to lean more Libertarian, that being the only true liberal party in the U.S.). Equally, most small businesses are in fact conservative -- people opening businesses with proven track records of success -- which would explain why most small business owners vote Republican.

Thus we can see how a combination of the two dispositions -- liberal and conservative -- in combination with the unique institutional history of the Anglophone world gave rise to the odd economics-social issues pairings we see in those countries, but nowhere else.

And from a group selection point of view, we can also see the benefits of having both groups present -- as paradoxical tensions give rise to complex orders. The conservatives among our ancestors may have led them to establishing farms and cities, but it was the liberals among them that made those settlements cosmopolitan. And it was the liberals that led humans out of Africa in the first place.
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