Arnold Kling  

How do Political Beliefs Change?

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Robin Hanson writes,


it looks bad to admit we do politics to selfishly show off, instead of to help society make better policy. So we are built to instead talk, and think, as if we do politics for its influence on policy; we are built to be self-deceived about how politics matters to us.

Robin asks what leads people to change their minds about political issues. He concludes,

What facts could pedophiles or polygamists teach us to change our minds about them? The idea that we choose our coalitions to identify with impressive allies seems a less troubled explanation. Impressive gay activists made gays into impressive allies; pedophiles will not gain approval until their activists are similarly impressive.

Somehow, homosexuality went from being low-status to high-status. Robin is saying that if pedophilia or polygamy could cross that chasm, then political rights for pedophiles or polygamists would be a popular cause.

Over the past year, the status of private-sector leaders has gone down (think of AIG or General Motors). The status of political leaders has gone up (Obama vs. Bush). As a result, the progressives are on the march.

From the perspective of what I call civil societarianism, heroes are those who dedicate their own resources to pursue worthwhile objectives, using private businesses, schools, and charities. Villains are the progressives who insist that the pursuit of worthwhile objectives requires confiscating the resources of others.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (13 to date)
Eric writes:

"What facts could pedophiles or polygamists teach us to change our minds about them? The idea that we choose our coalitions to identify with impressive allies seems a less troubled explanation. Impressive gay activists made gays into impressive allies; pedophiles will not gain approval until their activists are similarly impressive."

I find this statement quite disingenuous unless Robin is really that dumb. There’s a clear legal/moral distinction to be drawn between consenting adults (gays and polygamists) and pedophiles, which involves sex with those who haven’t developed the rational faculty to make voluntary choices. Should we as citizens be worried about those who want to legalize sex with animals or reintroduced slavery? Apparently so according to the brilliant logic of Robin Hanson.

Peter Twieg writes:

Eric -

But the essential point is that people's opinions of responsive to more than just simple displays of pure reason. As long as the arguments in favor of pedophilia (or some other unpopular view) were not patently terrible and absurd - which they probably wouldn't be at the margin - then there's significant room for other social factors to influence people's views.

I agree that the logic behind an argument is important, that you probably couldn't leverage these tactics to reintroduce slavery - but is this because the logic of these arguments are just so offensive, or because we live in societies that tell us that it is?

Eric writes:

Peter,

Why is homosexuality always used as the slippery slope starting point leading to despicable behavior such as sex with animals or infants/children unless you assume homosexuality is fundamentally immoral? I think it’s naïve to think it’s an honest thought experiment rather than a preconceived bias against homosexuals.

kebko writes:

At first, I thought the comparison was ill-advised, also, since bigots use the slippery-slope comparisons to talk down homosexuality. But, maybe Robin was thinking of Plato & the Greeks, and how man-boy relationships were a status marker for them. The difference on that issue between the Greeks & us is a product of status more than ideology, isn't it?

Zac Gochenour writes:

@Eric- I think you misread Robin. He is not making moral judgments here. Remember this is all in the discussion of how politics is not about policy.

If politics is not about policy, whether or not some behavior is illegal is not actually about whether or not it is immoral. Of course, people will say it is about morality, but it isn't.

Instead of talking about sexual behavior/orientation, I prefer to talk about drug prohibition. What seems more plausible: that marijuana is illegal and alcohol is not because marijuana is vastly more dangerous than alcohol, or that marijuana users are low status?

Also, consider that the preferences of the very low status are often labeled as mental diseases. Was homosexuality removed from the DSM because of a scientific finding, like autopsies of homosexuals, that showed a lack of evidence for the "disease" of homosexuality? Or did homosexuals simply increase their status?

John Swanson writes:

Eric, I think the key point is that, say, 80 years ago, homosexuality would have seemed just as horrifying and immoral as pedophilia. Just as we can't imagine any good arguments in favor of the acceptance of pedophilia today, we wouldn't have been able to imagine any good arguments in favor of homosexuality 80 years ago. So the question is: what happened in the past 80 years that favored homosexuals but not pedophiles? One possible explanation (Robin's) is that the status of homosexual activists has convinced us that homosexuality now deserves respect.

Personally, I don't know what to think. Is certainly seems entirely obvious to me that the arguments against homosexuality really are less strong than the arguments against pedophilia. But of course my brain is biased.

Eric writes:

“Now that homosexuals have made progress, let’s contemplate how rapists, pedophiles, and bestially activists might make progress”. Saying that these activities are currently being suppressed just like homosexuality was and may be accepted some day is a pretty absurd thought experiment. Are we to believe that Robin would be morally neutral on such prospects? I think we’ve reached a point in history where the resurrection of some activities such as sex with infants, animals, and rape is not going to happen and not worth contemplation. Drug users as a consituency is a valid analogy. Pedophilia was a poor choice so Robin is being insensitive at best.

Grant Gould writes:

Pedophilia was a poor choice so Robin is being insensitive at best.

Um, Robin is almost the definition of insensitive. You sort of have to take that as read when reading anything Hanson.

Troy Camplin writes:

Though one could perhaps argue the age limit down to puberty, I think the fact that we are talking about an adult involved with a child sexually would be at best a hard sell. The important thing for people on an issue like this is that of liberty, and the child does not have the liberty to make the kind of choices necessary for pedophilia to become acceptable.

As for polygamy, I think if they made the argument that the government has no business giving privileges to people regardless of marital status, then the issue would disappear. The same with gay marriage, by the way. From a purely religious perspective, a marriage is made when two people with a recognized authority perform a wedding ritual. Thus, gays can of course marry, and more than two people can marry. The issue comes down to receiving the proper government document, which should be available to all adults equally. But even if they are not, the removal of any privileges biased in favor of married couples would do away with the issue entirely.

Tracy W writes:

As for polygamy, I think if they made the argument that the government has no business giving privileges to people regardless of marital status, then the issue would disppear.

However, a fair few people think that the government should give privileges to people based on marital status.
For example, marital status changes who your next-of-kin is, which is useful in determining medical decision-making rights. It also affects inheritance rules, if a country has an estate tax then it strikes many people as very unfair that the surviving spouse should have to pay the tax on joint marital property. Perhaps this could be solved by countries not having estate taxes, but then other people argue that estate taxes are fair, and of course repealing an existing estate tax would require some other adjustment in taxes or in government spending that would likely gather some opposition.
Also a majority of people in rich countries think that:
- immigration into rich countries should be limited
- married couples should be allowed to stay together
Which argues for special immigration rights for married couples.
Now you could argue that immigration into rich countries should be unlimited, but people have been making that argument for a while anyway without any noticeable impact on public opinion.

For these reasons I don't think that merely making the argument that marriage shouldn't come with any special status would make the issue disappear, as there are a lot of laws built up on the basis that marriage does come with a special status, and those laws haven't disappeared in the face of counter-arguments. So why should polygamists changing their arguments suddenly cause such laws to disappear or become non-contentious?

Troy Camplin writes:

It should be part of an overall argument regarding rule of law. Under rule of law, there can be no privileges of any kind to anybody -- otherwise, you're not under rule of law, but rather under arbitrary decision-making. How many of your examples hold up under rule of law where nobody gets any sort of privileges, where everyone is truly equal under the law?

John Random writes:

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John writes:

I think that someday in the future, analysis will show that Homosexuality went from low-status to high-status because of the perceived relative wealth contrasts between homosexuals and heterosexuals. More specifically, firms started marketing to homosexuals because there was a belief that homosexuals had more disposible income. Homosexuals became a very very popular social group for the purpose of marketing goods and services. This effect strengthen homosexual activism.

If other social group activists can demonstrate a greater appeal for profit oriented firms, their issues will also be legitmized.

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