Arnold Kling  

The Great Books of Liberalism and Conservatism

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Tyler Cowen finds the most interesting part of the analysis of Carl T. Bogus (whose name reminds me of the old commercial, "with a name like Smucker's, it has to be good").


Conservatives have big appetites for ideology; liberals don't. There are, of course, taxonomies of conservative schools of thought. People on the right classify themselves as libertarians, neoconservatives, social conservatives, traditional conservatives, and the like, and spill oceans of ink defining, debating, and further subdividing these schools of thought. There is no parallel taxonomy on the left. Maybe, in part, it is because a central tenet of liberalism is that ideology should be eschewed in favor of the supposedly enlightened, pragmatic approach of making ad hoc judgments about issues.

I am going to make tendentious claim here. That is, I think that conservatism requires more effort in using what Daniel Kahneman calls "System 2," the deliberative, logical brain. Liberalism relies more on System 1, which deploys intuition, emotion, and heuristics. Among the most prominent heuristics is "We care about the less fortunate. Conservatives don't." Liberals tend to play that one as if it were their trump card.

Are there conservatives who rely on intuition, emotion, and heuristics rather than logic? Absolutely. Do liberals use logic? Sure. If you think in terms of statistical distributions, liberals and conservatives overlap considerably in the extent to which they use reason vs. emotion.

But at the highest levels of discourse, as found in the books that Professor Bogus identified as iconic for each side, I do think that the pattern holds. The conservative books are concerned with a chain of reasoning. The liberal books are expressions of outrage. In that sense, I think that they appeal more to System 1 than to System 2.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (34 to date)
Chris writes:

Prediction: this post will provoke highly-emotional responses from liberals.

Rick Hull writes:

Fantastic insight! Perhaps it's not "true", but it sure seems explanatory.

Rick Hull writes:

Ridley's *ideas having sex* comes to mind, as well.

The Sheep Nazi writes:

Second prediction:along with calm,reasoned responses from conservatives! So it will be easy to tell who is who...

Daniel Kuehn writes:

This seems wrong to me. You don't think modern libertarians, for example, often say "We care about liberty. Liberals don't"?

YOU'VE said things like this on this very blog.

I think you're demonstrating massive confirmation bias here, Arnold.

I think Bogus might be right that there's a little more taxonomizing on the modern right. I don't think that means anything in particular and I think Bogus is way off base when he tries to extrapolate what that means - but you're sounding exactly like him here.

Mike Rulle writes:

Agree. I also think it is the reason that, over time, liberals have been winning the argument in the political sphere. Your example, "We (liberals) care about the less fortunate. Conservatives don't." is almost as much believed by Conservatives as Liberals. Hence "compasssionate conservatism". Versus "uncompassionate" conservatism?

In the rhetorical sphere, liberals do have an advantage. They seek to directly help people. Conservatives resort to mysterious "invisible hands", "local knowledge", "spontaneous orders","creative destructions", all pretty arcane and complex assertions. Smith himself was not a particular aesthetic fan of the capitalist class, but seemed to justify them on almost utilitarian grounds. The paradox of self interest leading to the greatest good does seem awfully convenient to liberals who view conservatives with skepticism.

The problem, using myself as the experimental evidence, is we have been raised to view the world the liberal way; thus fighting the almost always present internal shadow of liberal guilt. Our educational system needs to create a positive view of business and the moral nature of its creativity, begining at an early age. We clearly do not do this.

Our founders stressed liberty and freedom as the higher moral good, itself a relatively radical concept. This is not what has been taught in schools anytime in my life (I grew up in the 50s and 60s).

Today, liberals have created a parody of their own message which has given Conservatives a window of opportunity. But we need candidates who are proud to present the counter message. The current GOP crop has made a decent rhetorical effort at the freedom and liberty message. But "caring about others lite" (the liberal way) is not going away anytime soon in the GOP.

Alex J. writes:

All those aligned with the state face the same direction. Those opposed to it all face in other directions.

chipotle writes:

Kling's claim is beyond ridiculous; it's pretty close to the opposite of the truth. I could write a long essay on why but I don't have the time at the moment.

Instead let me point you to a prolific and respected political scientist (currently at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, formerly at the Brookings Institute and American University) who wrote a long, well-documented book on why the reverse of Kling's hypothesis in this post is true.

Dr. Kling: if you know something you're about to say is tendentious, you should not say it and instead modify your claim until it is closer to the truth or jettison the comment outright. I apologize for my pedantry but this sort of thing drives a former informal logic instructor up a wall.

guthrie writes:

@Daniel

Can you point to any passages where Arnold has said as much?

@Alex

I'm stealing your line!

Vipul Naik writes:

Both Arnold and chipotle may be right (!) It all hinges on how you define "conservative"

Intellectual "conservatism" construed broadly enough to include classical liberalism, Burkean cautious conservatism, libertarianism, and anarcho-capitalism, certainly involves much more "System 2" than many forms of intellectual liberalism.

Chipotle may be right about populist conservatism, though. Populist conservatism, as seen in the US, for instance, involves a mix of appeals to God and patriotism, exceptionalism, and pessimism, along with some strains of intellectual conservatism.

The gap between intellectual and populist "conservatism" may in this sense be greater than the gap between intellectual and populist "liberalism."

I think intellectual "conservatives" operate within intellectual circles, where they are in the minority, so they have to articulate their ideas using explicit System 2 style reasoning. Populist conservatives, whether talk radio hosts or politicians, are usually preaching to the choir.

andy writes:

I would say on the lower level you get a lot of emotion on both sides. Left-wing people are more persistent in their total ignorance of the distinction between 'right', 'liberty' and 'regulation'; on the other hand I am not sure right-wing people fare any better - it might be that they just accent the individual a little more, therefore they end up arguing slightly more consistent positions?

On the high level it seems to me that liberals are unaware/deliberately ignoring/unable to grasp/consider unimportant the 'meta-problem' of dispersed knowledge and political incentives. I would like to see some liberal to seriously adress Russ Roberts's line from the rap video: "With political incentives discretion is a joke." Do you know some liberal actually adressing this?

I just remembered a logic class - the professor jokingly told as, that most population stops at logical statements with 3 quantifiers; students of mathematics are sometimes able to grasp 4 quantifiers... Could it be that a very significant number of people is simply unable to grasp the concept of recursion?

And reading Dan Klein's question about interpersonal utility hints at the fact, that a big majority of people thinks in emotional (you KNOW, dollar means more to rich than to poor person) - system 1 - and not logically (what the heck does it mean 'means more to rich than to the poor)? Actually, what surprised me at this discussion (Bob Murphy/Gene Callahan/Daniel Kuehn) is that although it is perfectly possible to maintain that inter-personal relationship is meaningless AND yet prefer some kind of help to the poor, yet most people want to think their moral position is not ad-hoc, and therefore decide to drop the logic...

Miguel Madeira writes:

Well, if we define "conservatism" in the sense of Burke, De Maistre, Bonald, Chesterton,(Russel Kirk?) etc, I think that is exactly the opposite - the central point of conservatism is exactly the idea that societies can't be ruled by abstract reason and the backbones of society are the prejudices, feelings, shared traditions and religious values, not "reason".

Edmund Burke about the revolutionaries:

"The geometricians and the chemists bring, the one from the dry bones of their diagrams, and the other from the soot of their furnaces, dispositions that make them worse than indifferent about those feelings and habitudes which are the supports of the moral world. Ambition is come upon them suddenly; they are intoxicated with it, and it has rendered them fearless of the danger which may from thence arise to others or to themselves. These philosophers consider men, in their experiments, no more than they do mice in an air pump, or in a recipient(131) of mephitic gas."

Miguel Madeira writes:

A point that complicates these discussion is the very bizarre way that words like "liberalism" and (specially) "conservatism" are used in US.

The US meaning of "liberal" is strange (and, in many issues, the opposite of the meaning of the word in the rest of the world) but at least is consistent - a "liberal" is what in the rest of the world is called a "social-democrat".

The worse problem is with "conservative", because its meaning is less consistent - sometimes "conservative" means the same thing as in Europe (family, religion, authority, law and order, patriotism, small town, rurality, distrust of reason and Enlightenment, etc.), other times means a thing similar to classical liberalism, and other times some other variation.

And perhaps the 1st conservatism and the 2nd conservatism are totally opposites in the reason vs. emotion axis.

[See Pournelle Chart]

TylerG writes:

Arnold,

It's funny that enraged progressive commentators have levied the accusation of confirmation bias against you because I would have argued Carl Bogus (an appropriate last name indeed) committed this sin to begin with. Note that Carl doesn't even ask himself to begin with why it is there is so much more 'taxonomy' on the right than the left. That's because the current paradigm of classifying political philosophies is still the linear right vs. left. Naturally, this doesn't correctly account for the variety of heterogeneous values and beliefs across the political spectrum. For instance, despite being entirely anti-ethical on the principles of individualism, for example, libertarianism and conservatism are still indiscriminately lumped together as 'right wing' philosophies. In theory, both are suppose to converge on matters of economic freedom and championing free market principles(note that this hasn't worked out in practice as per the most recent evidence of the 2000-2008 republican administration). Yet mainstream political classification arbitrarily gives precedence to the latter cleavage instead of the former.

I suppose what I'm arguing is that the excessive taxonomy on the 'right' is a reflection of how obscure and misleading the traditional linear notion of 'right vs. left' really is. As a result, libertarians and conservatives both get the short end of the stick since guys like Bogus can make the spurious interpretation that this is because they are too ideological and not pragmatic enough.

Henry writes:

Pretty much all you're doing here is revealing your greater identification for conservatism over liberalism. This view is very common to practically every opinion ever: "My side is logical, theirs is emotional." Which is right? It's hard to know because a) it's hard to remove the goggles of ideology when evaluating statements and b) it's easy to cherrypick the most rational of your thinkers and the most emotional of theirs.

TylerG writes:

Edit: I did read through the comments before posting, but I should note that commentators Miguel and Vipul appear to be making the same point as me essentially; Carl Bogus statement is really more about the ambiguous nature of political labels rather than having anything to do with how pragmatic or ideological any group is.

Pandaemoni writes:

Most of what I've read suggests that both conservatives and liberals generally use System 1 to set their beliefs and then subconsciously use System 2 to provide a logical justification for those beliefs after the fact. Perhaps it's just that liberals require less System 2 post hoc rational justification because their positions are more emotionally satisfying to start with.

It's the moderates of all stripes that are the System 2 thinkers.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

TylerG:

re: "It's funny that enraged progressive commentators have levied the accusation of confirmation bias against you because I would have argued Carl Bogus (an appropriate last name indeed) committed this sin to begin with."

Since I'm the only one here that mentioned confirmation bias, I suppose I should respond to this.

- First - why do you call me "enraged"? I just want to get a sense of if there's any content to that, because I wasn't enraged so if there was a way I could change my commenting to reflect that that would be great. Or will you call all disagreeing commenters "enraged" so it's not worth the effort of adjusting my writing style?

- Second - why do you think I'm a "progressive". I've never really considered myself one, and thinking Arnold made a bad argument isn't proof I'm one.

- Third - while I don't think it amounts to a "sin" I agree with you that Bogus exhibits some confirmation bias as well. The only thing I've endorsed in Bogus is that the right does seem to do a little more self-taxonomies. The rest of what he wrote is pretty unconvincing in my opinion.

- Fourth, I think you have a really good theory of why the taxonomizing is so thorough.

Arogun Olayinka writes:

We are free spirits, not mindless automotons, what we choose to do with that freedom is a whole other ball game

iamtheeagle.blogspot.com

Kevn Harris writes:

For gods sake - Libertarianism is not a sub-set of conservatism no matter what Ron Paul may think - it is the exact opposite.

John David Galt writes:

"System 1" and "System 2" is putting it too nicely. We think before speaking; they feel, then shoot from the hip.

Lori writes:

The current generation of libertarians are not effectively differentiating themselves from conservatism, at least from my perspective.

As for "We care about the less fortunate. Conservatives don't" being used as a trump card, I've seen it done, but I don't think it's the main one. I suspect you're zeroing in on that one because you see it as easier to shoot down. Lately it's been more along the lines of, getting our side organized is like herding cats, because we're such independent thinkers, while conservatives are natural authoritarians who are naturally very disciplined about things like staying "on message," and things like not storming out of the electorate (or the two-party system) because some Republican politician let them down.

Evan writes:
Are there conservatives who rely on intuition, emotion, and heuristics rather than logic? Absolutely. Do liberals use logic? Sure. If you think in terms of statistical distributions, liberals and conservatives overlap considerably in the extent to which they use reason vs. emotion.

But at the highest levels of discourse, as found in the books that Professor Bogus identified as iconic for each side, I do think that the pattern holds. The conservative books are concerned with a chain of reasoning. The liberal books are expressions of outrage. In that sense, I think that they appeal more to System 1 than to System 2.

I agree with several other commenters, especially Vipul Natik, in that while this may be true for the highest levels of discourse, on the lower levels liberals and conservatives both use Type 1 discourse.

@Vipul Natik

Chipotle may be right about populist conservatism, though. Populist conservatism, as seen in the US, for instance, involves a mix of appeals to God and patriotism, exceptionalism, and pessimism, along with some strains of intellectual conservatism.
The gap between intellectual and populist "conservatism" may in this sense be greater than the gap between intellectual and populist "liberalism."
I agree with this entirely. I think that this is because populist conservatism is based on the knee-jerk "change is bad" reaction, while intellectual conservatism is based on the intellectual realization that change can often be dangerous. Intellectual conservatives tend to applaud the noble ends of the left while lamenting the ineffective, boneheaded means they use to accomplish those ends. Populist ones oppose the means and the ends. Populist conservatives think liberals are evil, intellectual ones just think liberals are well-intentioned idiots.

Needless to say, I have even less use for populist conservatives than I do for liberals.

For gods sake - Libertarianism is not a sub-set of conservatism no matter what Ron Paul may think - it is the exact opposite.
I agree. I think libertarianism's emphasis on rights tends to be more along the liberal's alley, the difference lies in the exact types of rights libertarians believe we have. I know my conversion to libertarianism occurred when I took my anti-authoritarian leftist impulses and applied them to the government instead of to corporations.
Miguel Madeira writes:

About having a bigger taxonomy of rightist currents - if it is true, it is an american excentricity; in Europe, the divisions at the left, between "third way" socialists, "old left" socialists, greens, renewer communists, orthodox communists, trotskyists and anarchists are much more clear and strong that the divisions on the right, between liberals, christian-democrats, conservatives and nationalists (who, in many countries, coexist in the same parties and make governamental coalitions more easily).

Daniel Kuehn writes:

John David Galt -
Says the guy who makes a zinger comment with absolutely no evidence of having thought before writing.

You're not selling your claim very convincingly.

John M writes:

Conservatives speak from reason and logic? Progressives emotional and illogical? That's a new one on me. First, let's get rid of the connection between emotion and illogic. One might be emotional even while being logical, if he or a loved one were in pain. In fact, someone speaking from reason and logic about an important subject might get very emotional when others show themselves oblivious to the point of not comprehending a plain direct statement.

As for Conservatives being rational, reasonable, logic based? Excuse me, but does that describe Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michelle Bachmann, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and the like? On the other hand, progressives like Paul Krugman, Glenn Greenwald, Yves Smith (Naked Capitalism blog), Rortybomb blog (whose real name I can't recall) sound quite reasonable and fact-based.

Who's being reasonable and reality-based? Al Gore along with thousands of climate scientists (and the basic physics that if you reduce heat outflow below heat inflow, you warm up)? Or contrarians like Richard Lindzen, who belongs in a special place in Hell for lying to the public about his field of expertize. Who is reality-based? One who cites the huge universe discovered by astronomers where what we see occurred literally thousands, millions, and even billions of years earlier, and uses those facts to denounce the idiotic notion that the universe is only 6000 years old? Or someone who jumps hard on that person, insisting that the Bible is correct and that God created the universe 6000 years old. (And that Armageddon will come, causing stars to fall to earth like overripe figs from a fig tree in a great storm.)

Conservatives gave us zombie lies about Freddie and Fannie and anti-redlining laws causing banksters to slice and dice subprime (liar) mortgages, stuff them into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) which they unloaded on unsuspecting investors, then purchasing hit-jobs/insurance/bets-on-MBS-failures/credit-default-swaps (CDSs), and overall maintaining far too low capital for their activities.

Did Conservatives expose outright mass lawlessness such as robo-signing?

Conservatives gave us the notion that someone making a billion-dollars a year has worked ten thousand times harder than someone working 80 hours a week making less than $100,000. A Conservative Senator gave us the notion that $400,000 or $500,000 a year is lower-middle-class.

Overall, ever since Reagan's "Morning in America," conservatives and Republicans have learned that they can get away with saying things that have absolutely no connection with reality.

TylerG writes:

Daniel,

I inappropriately overgeneralized with the 'enraged progressive' characterization. That being said, I'm just a bit disillusioned with some of the opposition (admittedly to be expected with this vitriolic subject) to Arnold's post and perceived lack thereof to Bogus. Bogus makes the careless mistake attributing excessive taxonomies to 'an appetite for ideology' without any other consideration (re: mine and other commentators arguments from above). On the other hand, Arnold at least grounds his suspicions in scientific theory and goes through the effort of making all the necessary disclaimers (i.e. there difference is negligible within both political bases for the most part, there is considerable overlap etc etc). That's not to imply he's immune from any confirmation bias, but I guess I just don't see that much of a similarity between the two.

Shane writes:

Reading the Facebook updates of a Marxist friend who is trying to organise a wide left-wing movement I see her struggling to unite the highly fractured left-wing subgroups. There are multiple organisations and movements featuring green, anarchist, social democratic, Castro-communism, trade unionist, soviet, etc. and they are constantly arguing and splitting.

So they seem to be just as fractured as the right.

My own guess was that those at political extremes tend to be highly principled, in the sense of being unwilling to compromise at all to attain a common goal. As a result they remain in tiny and fairly insignificant groups while the centrist parties, who are pragmatic and willing to compromise, always end up in power.

Roger writes:

Great discussion all,

My question: What IS the fundamental ideology of the left? In their words. I fail to see it anywhere, and when I ask those of the left they usually change the subject or go into policy recommendations.

I am exaggerating a bit, but sometimes it seems to be "let's solve problems with a strong, centralized, compassionate state."

Could anyone guide me to a clear, concise foundational ideology of the left?

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Miguel Madeira writes:

"My question: What IS the fundamental ideology of the left? In their words."

In my words (I am somewhere between anarchism and council communism) - the left-wing is defined by the ideia that "inequalities of wealth and/or power could and should be eliminated or, at least, reduced, by collective action"

If you want an idea unifying left-anarchists, communists, socialists and 19th century "radical liberals", it is that.

But probably these means that there is, at least, 3 different ways of being right-winger

1 - you can be against collective action (the classical liberal position?)

2 - you can be against the idea of changing a society that is the product of an history of centuries (the conservative position?)

3 - you can be, by principle in favour of unequality, even if you are a collectivist and a revolutionary (the national-socialist/fascist position?)

Roger writes:

Thanks Miguel,
That is the most direct answer I have ever gotten to this question (I've been asking it a lot lately). Bravo!

David C writes:

Alternative supposition: theory vs. empiricism

Conservatives prefer to construct a theory and then look for evidence to support it.

Liberals prefer to look for evidence and then construct a theory to support it.

Both approaches can be flawed.

There is more taxonomy on the right because taxonomy is a form of theory construction, which conservatives prefer.

Miguel Madeira writes:

To David C

Well, if there is the case, this mean that the political spectrum is totally turned upside down

After all, in are (or were) the conservatives who are supposed to be empiricists (defending that the best institutions are the institution that have passed the "test of time", instead of being the institutions more in accord with some abstract theory), while the left-wing desires to build a perfect society from "tabula rasa" (the "year zero" of khmer rouge), totally deducted from logic and abstract thinking (a good example of left-wing though in action was the french revolutionary calendar, with weeks of 10 days).

In some ways, the thought of Edmund Burke is nothing more that the empiricism applied to politics.

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