Arnold Kling  

Political Dispositions

Populism, Left and Right... A Proposal for Masonomics Fiel...

Daniel B. Klein takes a shot at something I have tried to do, namely, sort out the dispositions of progressives, conservatives, and libertarians.

The configuration presupposed by social-justice leftists and social democrats generally is that all resources in society are ultimately owned by society, the state, the people, the polity

For progressives, there is a "we" that the state represents and speaks for. If, as Klein argues, "Man is a meaning seeking animal," then progressives find meaning in the state.

Klein explains conservatism as follows:

If we have a contract with the spirit-lord, and that contract says we are not to snort cocaine, then our snorting of cocaine violates commutative justice, for it violates the contract. When the government prohibits the snorting of cocaine, it is enforcing that contract, not violating our liberty--just as laws against fraud are not a violation of our liberty.

The role of the state, in the conservative view, is to enforce norms and laws that have a prior origin. For religious conservatives, that origin is divine. In theory, a secular conservative could find the roots of those norms in tradition, or cultural evolution.

On the issue of respect for tradition, in a to-be-published essay called "Clever sillies: Why high IQ people tend to be deficient in common sense," Bruce Charlton argues that high Openness, which means lack of respect for tradition, tends to be correlated with high IQ. This makes intellectuals, including libertarians and progressives, prone to over-estimate the value of their ideas and to under-estimate the wisdom embedded in tradition.

an increasing level of IQ brings with it an increased tendency to use general intelligence in problem-solving; i.e. to over-ride those instinctive and spontaneous forms of evolved behaviour which could be termed common sense.

...When problems are analyzed using common sense 'instincts' the evaluative process would be expected to lead to the same answers in all normal humans, and these answers are likely to be stable over time. But when higher IQ people ignore or over-ride common sense, they generate a variety of uncommon ideas. Since these ideas are only feebly-, or wholly un-, supported by emotions; they are held more weakly than common sense ideas, and so are more likely to change over time.

...Because evolved 'common sense' usually produces the right answers in the social domain, yet the most intelligent people have personalities which over-use abstract analysis in the social domain, this implies that the most intelligent people are predisposed to have silly ideas and to behave maladaptively when it comes to solving social problems.

The way I would put this is that tradition is usually the best guide. Clever innovations can improve on tradition, but they do so with much less frequency than intellectuals implicitly believe. Think of a new idea for social policy as if it were a new business--the chances are that it will fail. Yet the intellectual is disposed toward trying to implement this new idea. Unfortunately, when the state is the vehicle for implementing the idea, the failure is not isolated, as it is with a failed business start-up. Instead, it is a failure that is widespread and long-lasting.

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The author at The Center Way in a related article titled on innovative government writes:
    I like this thought on “experts” who have new, innovative ideas for government policy: The way I would put this is that tradition is usually the best guide. Clever innovations can improve on tradition, but they do so with much less frequenc... [Tracked on October 20, 2009 9:26 PM]
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Yancey Ward writes:

Everyone should read that last paragraph a dozen times remember it.

taimyoboi writes:

"Clever innovations can improve on tradition, but they do so with much less frequency than intellectuals implicitly believe."

I think nowhere is this more evident than on a college campus at a top institution. Pool a generation's brightest and most of that intellectual energy is channeled towards some really asinine goals (free speech codes, divesting Coke...).

I also wonder how much room there is for improvement on tradition. Has human nature really changed so much in the past couple thousand years that there is room for modification?

Lord writes:

The problem with this is it assumes an unchanging world that liberals want to force change on whereas the reality is the world is changing all the time and conservatives are as activist as liberals in the pursuit of policies but to prevent or slow down that change. Liberals may push to accelerate change faster than necessary, while conservatives push to retard it more than necessary.

nick writes:


Some traditions for consideration:

genital mutilation
minority persecutions
human sacrifice

No room for improvement, you say?

nick writes:


You are right regarding assuming a changing world. However liberals are only social progressives. When it comes to economics both parties are reactionary. The only difference is liberals want to turn back the clock to 1950, conservatives want to turn it back to 1900. The most difficult thing is for people to understand a paradigm shift. People think that new problems can be addressed by old ideas and frameworks when this is not always true

taimyoboi writes:

No, not really. Humanity has a penchant for sin, and I don't see us improving on that in the near future.

fundamentalist writes:

Klein is clever, but Hayek already said the same thing in "Fatal Conceit." In it, he wrote that intelligence is highly overrated, especially by intelligent people. Hayek favored social experiments, but at the individual level, not at the level of the entire society. Society has improved over the centuries, as Nick points out, but with careful experimentation.

Peter Thoenen writes:


Who says that getting rid of what you quoted was actually an improvement? I mean outside our highly bias moral and cultural relativism could an independent neutral amoral judge really say the West's banning of these traditions really made us any better or that a lack of banning would have made us worse. Please don't confuse your bias with fact; that is the attitude those you probably rail against held back in the colonial days and used justify oppressing them.

Nick writes:


Actually that is a good point,I would like to think slavery is something which an amoral judge would agree we are better off without, but as you point out, its impossible to know.

Chris writes:

Shorter last paragraph:

Make sure you understand why a tradition or condition exists in the first place before you try changing it.

I've discovered this more and more, most human actions are logical once you understand what the actual motivations behind them are (whether the individual or society is aware of them is irrelevant).

P writes:

The real reason people with high IQs lack common sense is neurological. You can't be cerebral without sacrificing cunning. It takes real live brain matter to support each. Unless you've got a second brain hidden somewhere, you can't get around this tradeoff.

The extreme form of this can be seen in the autistic brain. While autism is just a behavioral profile at present, the brains of high-functioning autistic people have been studied enough to reveal a pattern of early abnormal overgrowth in areas implicated in the things autistic people do well: art, music, mathematics, etc. The price they pay is a corresponding undergrowth of the white matter linking the neocortex to the rest of the brain. (There are other abnormalities as well.)

The neocortex is responsible for executive function, working memory, and generalization, among other things.

Generalization is how we acquire biases. Autistic people are bad at this. That means they lack prejudice, which is what we call the biases we don't like. The ones we like, we call common sense.

If you want to get some idea of what the world would look like if we overcame bias, go to a group home for autistic adults.

Maddog writes:

“Bruce Charlton argues that high Openness, which means lack of respect for tradition, tends to be correlated with high IQ. This makes intellectuals, including libertarians and progressives, prone to over-estimate the value of their ideas and to under-estimate the wisdom embedded in tradition.”

The high openness component of this quote is important but misses the primary way individuals attain common sense. Common sense is not attained by reducing ones openness but by gaining experience performing difficult, and physically dangerous tasks. NFL quarterbacks quickly learn after being drilled a few times, or they fail. Laborers quickly learn after a co-worker is injured in a nip to be watchful. Traditionally farmers were considered people with a high common sense quotient because the job was so dangerous. This mind set is the foundation for common sense.

An excessive openness can make transfer of this common sense skill to other areas like political decisions more difficult. So can very high intelligence. High intelligence requires very high experience levels to offset the over/under estimation problem.

Remember the very core of our current education crisis is driven by the fact that clever intellectuals are crafting and implementing fancy new ideas in education and implementing them at will. Unsurprisingly, children educated in the 1960 test better than children tested today. Surprisingly we don’t return to the educational mechanisms of the 1960. We have been fooled into thinking that intelligence is the Holy Grail, and that experience is not as valuable.

Ultimately we should look for persons who have solid intelligence but significant experience performing difficult or dangerous tasks. Intellectuals, academics, and the like are anathema to such positions.

Clever innovations should only be considered after they have been vetted by a number of individuals with a very high level of common sense and then fully debated by the public over a long period of time. The pre public vetting just makes sure the politicians don’t look like fools by rolling out dross like the current Cap and Trade bill or National Health Care.

James A. Donald writes:

People whose jobs involve direct contact with reality, have more accurate perceptions than those whose job consists of writing and reading stuff.

If I try to explain to an intellectual that "stimulus" is unwise, because we don't want jobs, we want creation of wealth, and it is most regrettable that creating wealth usually seems to involve a disturbing amount of work, by giving the example of stimulating the economy by hiring some people to dig ditches with teaspoon, and others to fill the ditches in, the intellectual will never get it. I explain to a farmer, he will get it. Of course he will, because he has an unlimited supply of chores.

Bo Zimmerman writes:

What Nick points out with his list, in my mind, is that classical liberalism was and (except for the items on that list) remains a radical idea that rubs both the left and the right the wrong way.

So, are we better off than we were 250 years ago? You mean, are we materially better off today than we were under a vestigially feudal, burgeoning mercantile, and vastly poorer society of subsistance farmers under the heel of rich property owners kept in place by laws of primogeniture, among others? Are you kidding? No, really... is this a question you REALLY can't figure out?

I highly recommend "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" by Gordon Wood. Awesome book.

The Solution is Simple

Neither intelligence nor tradition deserve slavish devotion. Each can add something to solving a problem. Intelligence needs experimental support; tradition needs an explanation.

Schooling should provide some practical projects, not just science kits that always assemble nicely. Building something from scratch is eye-opening and mind expanding. There are so many things that interrupt the work or that can go wrong.

A classic story. A mother was cooking a ham for dinner. As usual, she cut off three inches of the ham before putting it into the baking pan, as she had often seen grandma do it. Her daughter asked her why. So, she phoned grandma, who said that her pan and oven were so small that she had to cut the ham to fit.

The following comment by Joe Y is eloquent. It is an insight into the simplistic view that many intelligent people have of the world, an explanation of why hope and change is so attractive, and an evaluation of President Obama's abilities.

[edited, excerpt] The oddest thing about this election, was the continual leitmotif of Obama’s genius, from people that should have known better. People like Obama, of which I know and am related to far too many, are unable to seriously consider that there is any job (oil company CEO, football coach, running the local post office) that they cannot do as well or better than the person currently in the role, should they ever exert the effort to do so. It’s not a matter of faith, as faith requires a conscious effort; rather, it is a prejudice in the true sense of the word.

They believe that the government is better at running the country, because the solution to the problem, whatever the problem, is just so obvious. Deeper considerations are foreign to them, not because they are stupid (quite the opposite), but out of a prejudice that the they can see the solution to any problem. That is why they attack people who disagree with them as stupid, morons, and idiots.

[Joe Y's comment is originally from, Feb. 20, 2009.--Econlib Ed.]

Nick writes:


Sorry I guess I don't follow what you mean. You are saying classical liberal position has complete moral objectiveness and therefore would be ok with slavery?

I mean as I understand it in the JS Mills sense of classical liberalism is that the overarching idea is anything goes just so long as you aren't hurting or coercing anyone else (through force). I would consider everything on my list as falling into either category.

I do agree with you its an idea which seems roundly rejected by both the mainstream right and left in america.

Dr. T writes:

"The way I would put this is that tradition is usually the best guide."

For two hundred years, our tradition is to chop away at liberties (except for ending slavery), chop away at federalism (which is, for all intents and purposes, dead), and bring the government into more and more aspects of our lives.

I think this tradition stinks, and I don't think it's the best guide for those wishing to improve US society.

Conservatives want things to be the same as when they were 16-years-old. Left-wing, social democrats want things to be the same as when they were 4-years-old, with government pinch-hitting for parents. Libertarians want things to be the way they were in 1800, with appropriate modifications for modern society. Only the lefties have a chance of getting what they want.

Bailey Carlson writes:

Despite associating myself with the "left", I think he's dead-on. However, he lets his bias show through a little too much by being so darn scary! Taking a few risks with tradition here and there, even according to him, can have great improvements on society. Here we are after all, and we're not cave men, and we're not even as spooky as we were 50 years ago. I doubt he'd say all the progress we've made in the past several centuries is negative.

The conservative/liberal ideological separation is how much is too much or how much is too little (change or challenge to norms). His argument appears to be ANY in the State is simply too dangerous, but I'd go back to my point that the State has changed plenty over the past milliennia (from feudalism to representational democracy) and I assume he see's that as a good thing. Am I missing something?

Kent Lyon writes:

"The role of the state, in the conservative view, is to enforce norms and laws that have a prior origin. For religous conservatives, that origin is divine. In theory, a secular conservative could find the roots of those norms in tradition or cultural evolution."

The conservative would appear to embody common sense (was Thomas Paine a conservative?--I think not). Actually, the secular conservative could use reason, and start with the axioms of governance which are stated in the Declaration of Independence, the core of which is the axiom of "Natural Right" which has been discussed at least since Socrates. Natural Right can have a divine provenance or a secular one. Indeed, the Greek philosophers essentially used a secular origin to establish their arguments. See "Natural Right and History" by Leo Strauss. Yes, I know, Straussians are not popular with anyone. The whole point of being an intellectual is to analyze the basis of society, to attempt to arrive at the most effective approach to the arrangement of society. That has already been done, at an extremely high level, over the course of 3000 years or more, via the rise of deductive reasoning in ancient Greece, and the whole of Western history culminating in the Age of Reason, at which point the Founding Fathers of America translated that reasoning into the highest form of governance ever devised by mankind, which has not been surpassed, in fact, seriously degraded, since the founding. The Declaration states the axioms, just as Euclid's Geometry states its axioms and then proves it theorems, and in fact, is a perfect logical system. The axioms of the Declaration, 5 in number as the Axioms of Euclid's Geometry (1.All men are created equal. 2. they are endowed with Natural Rights. 3. Governments are formed to protect those rights. 4. The government derives its just powers formt he consent of the people. 5. When the government abuses its power, it is the obligation of the citizens to replace that government) form the basis on which to construct a Constitution. The Consitution promulgates the theorems and implements them in governance. This founding was the equivilent in governance of Euclid's Geometry in deductive reasoning, the most perfect system thus far devised by the mind of man. It grew out of both experience and reason, indeed, it applied reason to experience. It was not entirely the product of cultural evolution or tradition, although it embodied those, but lifted them to a higher plane with the application of reason. The founders were conservative intellectuals (particularly Madison) and their good ideas, derived from Locke, Montesquie, etc., as well as from Judeo-Christian tradition, created a synthesis that sets the standard for the ages. Progressives simply don't like the founding, and are opposed to individual liberty, and wish to substitute the power of the state (e.g., power to themselves). Klein allows that Progressives have a point, but in fact they do not. Their point has been radically disproven, but progressives refuse to admit that 2 + 2 = 4, and want to remake the world in a way that defies both common sense and reason, e.g, the intellect. That path leads to tyranny and the loss of liberty, as has been repeatedly demonstrated historically.

Ironist writes:

Nick & Peter, Your response to taimyoboi illustrates the limitations of intellectuals. You calmly debate whether or not slavery is justifiable. Unconsciously, I suspect that you are identifying with the slaveowner. Suppose that you are the slave, or the person whose genitals are to be mutilated, and then consider arguing for the usefulness of those "traditions". Where is your empathy? The Golden Rule is a good guide. The use of force by a person for his/her benefit cannot be considered in the abstract, divorced from any moral sense or evaluation, IMO.

mike@pvl writes:

In talking with progressive sociologists and political scientists it seems like a key distinction is that they view the economy as something the government controls. On the other hand, most libertarians I know view the government as a sector of the economy, which no one controls. Debate quickly descends into a "divided by a common language" situation where communication is difficult because of these assumptions.

Troy Camplin writes:

Conservatives believe order in the natural world, including human social behavior, is controlled from the top-down, but that order in the economy in particular emerges from the bottom-up. Progressives/Leftists believe order in the natural world emerges from the bottom-up, but that all things human are ordered and thus should be controlled from the top-down. Libertarians believe order at all levels emerges from the bottom-up. There are also issues of misunderstanding the difference between rules and laws.

caveat bettor writes:

It still seems like a pro-procreation system (survive to propagate the species as the main goal or outcome) is still much crueler than a pro-Creator system (from whom certain inalienable rights are derived). For instance, how does the debate on rape go, regardless of whether it is from our cortex scanning for mates or from our culture serving up the typical music video because it supplies an economic demand?

A pox on all political houses. I'm a libertarian (at least I scored a 42 on that test Caplan linked to), but I'm clinging to my faith at the same time, wherever Pascal's Wager happens to be trading right now. Whoever can explain the Higgs boson and what light is can probably also tell me from where orders emerge. And right now, that's nobody walking the planet.

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