Bryan Caplan  

What Does Your Ideology Say About You?

Self-Control and Civilization... What Should Classical Liberals...

Speaking at the Public Choice Outreach seminar this afternoon, Robin Hanson repeated an hypothesis he's been entertaining for a while: Liberals are trying to show that they are caring; conservatives are trying to show that they are tough. Perhaps, but I'm skeptical.

For starters, when I looked at the connection between personality and partisanship, I basically found no relationship. I expected to see that on the Myers-Briggs Thinking/Feeling scale, Democrats would be more Feeling and Republicans would be more thinking. But they weren't.

Furthermore, when you look at how liberals and conservatives present themselves, it seems like both sides claim to be both caring and tough. Liberals proclaim themselves to be the "reality-based community." Conservatives write books like Treason and Godless saying that liberals are hateful people who like spitting in the face of their countrymen.

If I had to guess, I'd say that the main thing your left-right ideology says about you these days is just how traditional you are. When you find out that someone is conservative, you suspect that he is probably nationalistic, religious, etc.; when you find out that someone is liberal, you suspect that he is cosmopolitan and secular. Relatively speaking in both cases, of course.

Admittedly, though, my personal contact with both liberals and conservatives is very limited. So tell me: When you find out that someone is a liberal or a conservative, what do you infer? Inquiring minds want to know...

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COMMENTS (37 to date)
Omer K writes:

Hmm.. when I meet a liberal, basically I get the impression of someone who is a child. Someone who hasnt had any hard knocks in life and believes that if one only believes something that is all that is necessary for it to be true. The main difference between a child and a liberal seems to be a child doesnt affect the world as much.

Frankly Im libertarian, and cannot say Ive met many conservatives in real life.

david writes:

I think the split you defined holds true pretty well. Also, the people who defy stereotypes are the ones who don't mind being left out of the political conversation. In other words, a conservative, cosmopolitan, secular person is usually a person who doesn't mind being cut off from other conservatives (because of culture) and from other cosmopolitan, secular people (because of politics.) Likewise, a nationalistic and religious person would find themselves isolated as a liberal. Both would be politically ignored as aberrations, whereas a person who conforms to stereotypes can see him or herself discussed on television (as a member of a group) and feel powerful and connected.

James writes:

When I find out that a person is a liberal, I infer that if the conversation ever turns to politics, it will become very unpleasant. I'll argue that the minimum wage destroys jobs just as a higher price reduces the demand for any other good. The other person will argue that I'm a bad person who doesn't care about the poor, or that George Bush is a bad person who doesn't care about the poor, or that Condi Rice ...

When I find out that a person is a conservative, I infer that if the conversation ever turns to politics, it will become very unpleasant. I'll argue that the supposed effectiveness of the NSA monitoring our phone conversations by computer to detect terrorism is an illusion stemming from a base rate fallacy. The other person will argue that I'm a bad person who blames America first, or that Hillary Clinton is a bad person who blames America first, or that Michael Moore ...

david writes:

James, I infer that you are smarter than most of the people you meet and therefore must be very bad at meeting smart people ;-)

Swimmy writes:

I think being on a college campus skews things. The conservatives I meet tend to be the types who wear their politics on their sleeve. They know that they hate shrill feminists and hippie anti-war protestors, but that's about it. Since I stay fairly steeped in punk culture, the liberals I meet are, well, the type of people who think smashing Starbucks windows is going to change things. That is, they're completely incapable of discussing basic public policy but they know that they're angry about the way things are. So, at least in the world of college life, I see a solid split between apathetic and angry.

Of course, in the real world, things are a lot different. Those angry young punks get jaded fast, and those clueless young conservatives learn how much they hate taxes after making it into business.

The handful of non-professor adults I've met recently were a mix. Most of them were conservative. Some of them had seemed to settle into an "I've settled down and have everything out" philosophy. Others still were very inquisitive about life. The more people I meet, the more I agree with an old Joseph Epstein column. He said:

I don't happen to think that politics are always, or even often, a strong index of character, especially since so many people's politics don't really touch their lives. "He takes his politics from Moscow," an old put-down of fashionable left-wingers used to run, "and his cooking from Paris." For many people, political opinions are to be worn, like designer clothes, for their brand quality. But just as it wouldn't do to make a final judgment on a woman for wearing a DKNY T-shirt, neither is it smart to admire a man simply because he believes in the Invisible Hand of the market.

Brad Hutchings writes:

I infer that they take their politics too seriously. With liberals, it might be possible to form a friendship, because I can laugh at their silliest political ideas. With conservatives, I'm apprehensive, because in my mind, they are so close to being libertarians, but (a) they're occasionally economic imbeciles, (b) count on them 1/2 of them to be overt racists, and (c) their idols like Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh are annoyingly shrill.

Horatio writes:

Using the American definitions
liberal = leftist/socialist
conservative = neocon/fascist

When I hear someone is one of these I think, this is just another one of the sheeple. They can't think rationally about their own views and probably care little about human rights. If the demublican party changed its official position from policy x to policy y today, they would rationalize it in their mind by tomorrow. Even if the day before they were defending policy x from the attacks of a republicrat who supported policy y.

quadrupole writes:


Mostly, I find that most liberals and most conservatives I encounter don't think much or very clearly about their political views at all. It's almost come down to the blues and the greens (ie, about as rational as Justinian chariot team driven politics). About half the time one side opposes the other only because they are the other side. About half the time one attacks the other for things very similar to what their own leaders have done. Frankly it's really quite tiresome.

But every now and again one runs into a truely thinking opponent, and that makes it all worthwhile. I once passed a very pleasant evening talking to a socialist leaning graduate student who was studying the funding of education. We disagreed strongly about how education should be managed. After many hours of congenial explanation of our positions, we managed to agree as to the likely outcomes of each of our policies and work down to our key difference in values. His highest priority value was the political control of education, my highest priority value was the quality of education. This was our difference. Being two rational sorts of fellows, we concluded that there really wasn't much more to discuss, as our values in this case where irreconcilable, and not subject to dispute.

Gyanendra writes:

To me, if somebody watches Foxnews and listens to Rush Limbaugh: he's conservative. Somebody who hates Bush, Foxnews and Limbaugh is liberal.

When either of them behaves with me, I cannot find any distinction. Both may be nice or both may be not that nice.

Matt C writes:

I'm close to agreeing with Robin. Liberals want to be "caring and compassionate", conservatives want to be "practical and realistic". I think the toughness of conservatives is perceived as necessary, not as a primary virtue in itself.

This doesn't mean that liberals are more caring, or that conservatives are more practical. Only that this is how they want to see themselves and have others see them.

I agree that there are lots of other divisions that relate to the liberal/conservative split, such as urban/rural, devout/irreligious, hip/traditional etc. I don't know that caring/practical is necessarily more important than these others. Probably depends on what matters to your in-group.

pj writes:

The strongest indicator of whether someone is conservative or liberal is belief in Christianity, which means belief in loving God and loving neighbor.

Conservatives therefore are not nationalistic (a form of hatred of the other) but patriotic (a form of love of one's fellows). They favor cooperative, free institutions because love of others requires treating them as equals and cooperating with them rather than compelling them.

Liberals tend to see the world as somewhat malicious: they tend to believe that what works is often immoral and what's moral often doesn't work. Thus they give little shrift to morality and tend to focus on giving people what they want, which conservatives may often regard as appeasement of selfishness. Since they lack conservatives' moral objections to government, they tend to see government as the quickest, lowest-cost (to them) means of giving people what they want. Since they see morality as in competition with satisfying people, they tend to regard moralists as "uncaring," i.e. opposed to satisfying others' desires. This comports with their view that God, the moral lawgiver, was malicious in his design of the universe.

What do I infer if I meet a liberal? If they're 22, I infer that they grew up in a liberal household and went to liberal schools. If they're over 40, I infer they incline toward selfishness and amorality.

pj writes:

In short: Conservatives believe in loving others, and see morality as providing guidance as to the nature of true love. Liberals believe in giving others what they want, and see morality as an obstacle to the satisfaction of wants.

Jack writes: based community was originally coined by a conservative to describe people who were roughly liberals.

pj, do you know any liberals that describe themselves like that?

pj writes:

Jack - Yes.

Ronnie Horesh writes:

Ideologues of any kind are inflexible, resistant to facts that contradict their chosen ideology, and emotionally stunted because they choose not to encounter people, events or arguments that conflict with their viewpoint. Alternatively, they're just too busy with other things to take economics or policy too seriously. One thing is clear: ideology of any sort is a disastrous policy driver.

Kent G. Budge writes:

One thing is clear: ideology of any sort is a disastrous policy driver.

Oddly enough, you've just articulated Russell Kirk's view of conservatism. To Kirk, conservatism was the opposite of ideology. I'm not sure that's a very good description of a lot of the people who describe themselves as conservatives nowadays.

John writes:

In my experience, the thing that seperates Liberals from Conservatives is what makes them feel more pain.

Liberals feel more pain when people are suffering. Conservatives feel more pain when people are cheating.

Let's take an example: Mr X is a poor person, who is living in a rundown apartment, with little education and few prospects. Partly, it turns out, because he spends a fair amount of his money on lottery tickets.

Liberals would be more likely to want to help him with direct aid, because his suffering causes them to feel suffering.

Conservatives would be less likely to want to help him, because they would feel that he is "cheating" by spending his money on stupid, unnecessary things.

The other thing I've noticed is that Conservatives more generally believe that people can overcome adverse circumstances through sheer willpower; Liberals don't agree, feel that a person is more a product of their environment and genetic heritage and a helping hand must be provided to let the person overcome adverse circumstances.

On the first part, I am personally ambivalent, it is not for me to judge or ridicule what someone else finds painful.

On the second, I am greatly amused at my own personal dichotomy. Intellectually I "know" that there is no such thing as free will - we are all incredibly complex ambulatory automatons whose master control program has achieved self-awareness. On the other hand, I "feel" that I have free will, and find the idea that we are the product of our environment and genetic heritage to be anathema to the concept of individual liberty.

Now, to reiterate - these are general observations. Any individual datapoint may deviate from them in all sorts of interesting ways.

pj writes:

Ronnie - It would be truer to say that 'false ideologies are disastrous policy drivers, and most ideologies are false.'

John - You're close to insight but I think you need to analyze your examples a little more deeply.

Re your first example, suppose your suffering person is an alcoholic who craves alcohol but lacks the money to buy it because he is jobless. The liberal course is to provide him with money (perhaps through welfare). The conservative course is to encourage him to get a job. The rationale behind the conservative approach is that the fundamental cause of his suffering is selfishness which causes him to refuse to work and to devote his life to activities like drinking which please only himself. Conservatives believe that he would still be suffering as an alcoholic with money, and that the only way to end his suffering is for him to enter the culture of love. The liberal view is that there is no such culture to be found; therefore his alcoholic life may be as good as any, and one should give him what he wants, ameliorating at least the distress which comes from frustrated desire.

Re your second example, what conservatives believe is not in the effectiveness of 'willpower' -- that is actually a leftist belief, see, e.g., Nietzsche, darling of the left -- but in the essential goodness of Creation and humanity. Thus, conservatives believe that if one reaches out to other people with goodwill and generosity and a willingness to serve, they will reciprocate, and adverse circumstances can therefore be overcome; it is not 'willpower' that is needed, but the will to love. The contrary liberal view is that nature is 'red in tooth and claw,' and humanity largely indifferent to suffering and inclined to exploit the good; so love leads to distress, and humanity's best hope is a communal agreement to ameliorate suffering.

I should note that social surveys show that liberals generally self-report as much less happy than conservatives. If you are suffering yourself, you are much more inclined to elevate the amelioration of suffering, and much less inclined to attribute suffering to a personal failure to love.

But I am curious - how did you "intellectually" come to "know" there is no such thing as free will? All the evidence seems against such a proposition.

Jack writes:

Nietzsche the leftist?

Dezakin writes:

PJ: It seems your views on ideology are more an introspective justification of your own ideology, and elevation of your chosen ideological tribe.

"But I am curious - how did you "intellectually" come to "know" there is no such thing as free will? All the evidence seems against such a proposition."

That would be credible if we had any evidence at all. Free will is the illusion of subjective experience. When you look at the gears and levers that make the brain work the way it does
its a fairly static set of rules with the only allowable uncertainty coming from quantum randomness stirring the newtonian pot, with no evidence of any higher soul able to make a moral choice.

Robin Hanson writes:

FYI, I was referring in my talk to this study by Geoffrey Miller:

I agree that "tough" is not the best work to describe what conservatives seem to be signaling.

Ronnie Horesh writes:

PJ said:

It would be truer to say that 'false ideologies are disastrous policy drivers, and most ideologies are false.'

I think this raises the question of how the falsity of an ideology to be established. I would say the answer is not by its conformity with a prejudice, or by its internal consistency, but by its success in bringing about agreed, explicit outcomes. But why not just ditch the ideology and let these outcomes be the policy drivers? Regards

Omer K writes:

John writes:
Liberals don't agree, feel that a person is more a product of their environment and genetic heritage and a helping hand must be provided to let the person overcome adverse circumstances.

Liberals do not believe "genes" affect us at all. You give them more credit then is due.
Oh or they believe it, but cannot say it, seeing how it would demolish most of their excuses to play Saviour Knight on a white horse.

Mark Horn writes:

What I infer from liberals is a lack of trust of everyone except themselves. E.g. we must have social security because we can't trust individuals to save for their own retirement.

What I infer from conservatives is a lack of trust of everyone except themselves. E.g. we must have immigration laws because we can't trust people to grow their skillsets and get new jobs.

Liberals pay lipservice to serving others. Conservatives pay lipservice to trusting individuals. But as soon as each of them gets in power, it disappears.

What I think is really going on with politics in America is that those in power wish to remain there and they will appeal to emotions instead of reason for their policy choices.


neal phenes writes:

Mark Horn's final full sentence about the corrupution of power or those who seek such power is generally true and unfortunate. Therefore, we need to reduce the power of government so that neither side possesses much of it to make too much of a difference. The party partisans only see themselves as the better wielders of power (thus, No Child Left Behind or Campaign Finance laws. etc.).

I tend towards libertarian values and begin every analysis of public policy from that baseline. Then as I assess the issue, I find that the traditionalist view will carry the day more often. That brands me as a conservative among my lberal friends. Does that make me a conservative when I favor drug legality, abortion rights in the first tri-mester, complete first amendment freedoms?

While there are close-minded types in both camps, my experience is that conservatives will at least entertain fair and curteous debate on issues while liberals question one's motivations and morals.

Bruce Cleaver writes:

Dezakin -

Gosh, I hate to be the one to point this out (and I am getting off-topic), but

That would be credible if we had any evidence at all. Free will is the illusion of subjective experience. When you look at the gears and levers that make the brain work the way it does
its a fairly static set of rules ....

is self-refuting. If you truly have no free will, you cannot know what neurological research _actually_ says - after all, the interpretation of the researchers, peer-reviewers and readers of the neuroscience journals is pre-determined, and the actual facts might point to something entirely different. You cannot look into the 'gears and levers of the brain' and objectively evaluate the mechanics of it. Your opinion could be due to the fact that you had tea instead of coffee for breakfast....

Dezakin writes:

No. In any material universe where a brain is a product of natural laws, it has no choice. Its just following the laws to the next state. The only way you can argue a true free will exists is if there is a soul of some sort that gets to act independant of natural laws.

Bruce Cleaver writes:

You cannot assume materialism - you cannot assume anything - as that implies a choice in the matter.

liberty writes:

What about "libertarians" ? I don't think they fit the mold of conservatives, but most don't fit the mold of the liberal either, in that liberals of today are socialists of yesterday and do believe that central government (or worker's coalitions) should be the solution to the world's ills, while the libertarian belief is the opposite.

Left/socialist liberals are absolutley cosmopolitan intellectual bourgeois - they always have been. And guilt drove them in hordes into socialism, where they have remained.

Conservatives of Europe began as nobility, many religious but not fundamentalist, and wanted to conserve their place in the top echeclons of society - and they have remained there.

Conservatives of America - the classical liberal - was puritanically religious and wanted to conserve the founding father's small government and moral vision for America - and many have remained there.

The libertarian is the modern cosmopolitan, often non-puritan backlash against socialism and conservatism that wants to roll back the huge expansions of government that socialists (and to some extent the moral puritans) have thrust upon the core rights-protecting government that America began as - with the vision of the conservatives and the modern cosmopolitan outlook of the socialists, the libertarians do not fit your paradigm.

James writes:

Conservatives insist on formatting the idea of what a Liberal is to mold their argument towards what is wrong with society.

Liberals hesitate to fight back thus allowing the middle 20% to be molded by the ideas of the Conservatives.

liberty writes:

>I'll argue that the supposed effectiveness of the NSA monitoring our phone conversations by computer to detect terrorism is an illusion stemming from a base rate fallacy.

You'd be wrong, I think. Humans and computers have different but both very capable pattern-recognition abilities, and data mining in huge pools of information that a human alone CANNOT do is incredibly well done by a computer. Patterns are found and a needle (in the haystack) can then be located. Companies and government have been using the technique successfully for some time. "Able Danger" may in fact have been onto the 9/11 plot before it happened. Data mining is an important tool - and one that need not infringe upon our liberty or privacy.

liberty writes:

>His highest priority value was the political control of education

Wow! They usually don't admit their dictatorial motives that fast! Nice work!

Glen writes:

The difference between 'conservatives' and 'liberals' is about what type of nanny they want. Maybe the type of nanny they want has to do with their upbringing and the social circles they now hang with.

Tom writes:

Two cliches that seem to fit:

"Liberals think Conservatives are evil; Conservatives think Linerals are stupid"

and "If at 20 you're not a liberal, there is something wrong with your heart; if at 40 you're not a conservative, there is something wrong with your mind"

Eric H writes:

Leftists are frequently trying to signal that they are smart - they have considered all the alternatives and have concluded that their set of policies are the best for everyone.

Rightists are trying to signal that they are decisive - they have considered the *relevant* facts and alternatives and determined the most practical set of policies for everyone.

They are frequently both wrong, though occasionally one or the other is right. They are most dangerous when they agree.

They are usually wrong in that they have stacked the deck by throwing out alternatives before they start, or by weighting decisions arbitrarily. Leftists favor the theory of the second best: Good or Service X cannot be provided by the market because of some market failure, therefore it must be provided by the government, and nevermind government failure, don't worry about the dynamic results, and don't forget that markets must be compared to perfection. Rightists favor the quickest, most expedient solution also without considering what will happen dynamically: Behavior X must be stopped, so deploy policy Y and assume it will work, nevermind the incentives, don't worry about the costs in terms of respect for the law or for institutions.

BTW, notice also that I have implied that leftists concentrate on material problems (goods & services) while rightists concentrate on behavior (morality, patriotism, law abidance).

jl writes:

Ambrose Bierce had it figured out. A conservative is one who is enamored of existing evils, as contrasted with a liberal who wishes to replace them with new ones.

And while I'm at it, what, exactly is an "idealogue"? In common usage, I suspect it refers to someone who holds a strong opinion that is different from mine. Not very useful, I'm afraid.

barbar writes:

I've noticed that people who disagree with me politically are stupid morons who might think they mean well but are horribly misguided and self-righteous. Surely I don't have to specify my political beliefs -- you guys all know where I stand.

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