Bryan Caplan  

Haidt and the Moral Foundations of the Welfare State

Choose Your Battles... Open Borders Bingo!...
Great questions from Sebastian Nickel:
I recently asked whether accusations of excessive "selfishness" are to be understood as accusations of insufficient "altruism", or rather as accusations of insufficient "groupishness".

A related question: When Jon Haidt asks questionnaire respondents questions meant to gauge how much they care about "the poor", where "the poor" specifically refers to "the *local* poor" (in the respondent's country), should he really chalk those answers up just to the "Harm/Care" foundation, or should he also attribute them to the "Loyalty" foundation? (Especially if other questions were to reveal that the respondent in question is happy to sacrifice interests and rights of foreign poor people when they see this as benefiting local poor people?)
I've previously challenged Haidt's view that liberal ethics hinge on Harm/Care and Fairness (here and here, along with Haidt's reply).  But Sebastian now makes me think that Haidt's analysis is more wrong than I realized.  Consider Haidt's words:
yes, liberals can do ingroup, but mostly just contra conservatives and racists. And they don't do it terribly well. The Democratic Whip has a much harder job than the republican Whip. Social conservatives take to it so readily. Liberals and libertarians can do it, but not as readily or as reliably. Liberals in particular are universalists; they are morally opposed to tribalism, although they can kinda do liberal tribalism. So yes, liberals would consider voting for a republican as a kind of treason.
With Sebastian's questions firmly in mind, Haidt's claims seem fanciful.  What percentage of self-styled liberals are genuine "universalists"?!  5%?  2%?  You could say that liberals have relatively inclusive definitions of citizenship, but when they say "the poor," they still almost always mean "our country's poor."  This is plainly true for average liberals.  But despite honorable outliers, even elite liberals like Paul Krugman and Michael Lind heavily prioritize relatively poor natives over absolutely poor foreigners.

The best response to Sebastian, I suspect, is that there is a big difference between people's surface and deep justifications for the welfare state.  The surface justification is the rationale people blurt out when they're first asked; the deep justification is the rationale they embrace if pressed.  For conservatives, the surface and deep justifications for the welfare state align: Loyalty to fellow citizens.*  For liberals, in contrast, justifications diverge.  They start with Care: "We have to take care of people."  When pressed, however, they retreat to Loyalty: "We have to take care of our people." Caring for our people imposes immense suffering on foreigners?  Oh well, every country does it.

If you know of facts relevant to Sebastian's inquiries, please share them in the comments.

P.S. I'm off to GenCon, so I won't be posting again until next week.  If you see me in Indy, please say hi.  Or join either of my two games - there are still plenty of spots.

P.P.S. If you think normal conservatives oppose the welfare state, you are badly failing the Ideological Turing Test.

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Tom West writes:

I think it's simpler than that.

For whatever reason, observing suffering causes liberals more distress. If it's far away, then you won't observe it much at all. The closer to home, the more you observe (through media, personally, etc.), and the more distress it causes.

Thus, you naturally are more concerned about local poverty than poverty farther away. It's not loyalty, it's simply distress reduction, which we like to fashion as "caring about others".

And as I've said before, open immigration is *really* difficult for liberals, because it's likely to bring more poverty closer to home, while making major reductions in over-all poverty. It's about as direct a contradiction between our rationalization and our reason as you get.

The danger (and this applies to any political stripe) is that while you can use people's rationalization to persuade them to do a lot of things they'd rather not, but feel they ought to, if you push *too* hard, you end up stripping the rationalizing veneer off, and you get reversion back to the simple instincts (stripped of morality) that motivates us all.

Chris H writes:

I'm not sure that your position is all that credible Tom.

Consider first the relative isolation from the poor America's elite, both liberal and conservative, have been experiencing over the last few decades. Charles Murray does a good job talking about this in Coming Apart. Increasingly the major policy decision makers, large business leaders, academics, and top journalists live in areas well isolated from America's poor, in "super" zip codes surrounded by other super zips or at least zip codes of above average influence. The interactions with America's poor by well-educated elites are increasingly transitory and at a distance. Not unlike the interactions with the global poor many (perhaps even most) of these same people have. Poverty isn't so much a part of lived daily experience, but a part of what comes up on the news or maybe the occasional beggar passed by either in their home town or in their overseas vacation.

Ultimately I don't find it very credible that in an age of increasing isolation of the educated elite from American poverty, while increasing global travel and ease of accessing international news increases exposure to non-American poverty, that this is a distress reaction from exposure. I think more likely some version of in-group loyalty really is driving the difference in concern levels. There's just more of a sense of "no poverty should happen to Americans/in America" rather than "no poverty should happen where I see it."

Steve Reilly writes:

Another example of elite liberals preferring local (comparatively well-off) poor people to those in really poor nations is Rawls. I was surprised when I read him on immigration. No more veil of ignorance, just arguments like "immigration encourages people in poor nations to not improve their country".

Steve Roth writes:

I would question whether anyone is a "genuine" universalist. Group loyalty is pretty much unavoidable in humans (and arguably some amount is morally unavoidable.) Haidt is talking matters of degree.

Pointing out that conservatives are self-aware and unapologetic non-universalists may be true, but it's hard to see how it makes them more admirable than self-delusional but well-intentioned wannabe universalists.

On the immigration question, Bryan Caplan is arguably well out into the admirable universalist spectrum -- both full throated and quite aware. But his displayed good will does not say anything dispositive about the efficacy of his prescriptions.

In defense of liberals, I think that they, in their (our) loosey-goosey way, intuit something that has legs, and that conservatives don't much consider: that the well-being of the middle and lower classes in developed countries is also determinative, in the long run, of global well-being. The general economic theory of that isn't very hard to explain.

Which brings me back to the point I tweeted you recently:

@BrankoMilan: To "preserve good aspects of globalization: redistribution within rich countries."

This is the takeaway from that slide deck, and you didn't address it in your recent post on Milanovic's work. You asked instead:

"So has the global economy "hollowed out"?"

Which Milanovic answers and displays explicitly with a huge NO. The global middle class is clearly rising. But he also shows that the developed-world middle (and lower) class is declining -- in his opinion (and mine) at cost to the whole pie, and all boats.

I've love to see you address that central point from Milanovic head-on.

Now you could say that I'm just justifying my (admittedly) self-serving, tribal obsession with the American middle and lower classes, rationalizing my contradictory, self-aggrandizing non-universalism by suggesting that their success will be the world's success. But even if that's true (which it certainly is to some extent), that doesn't mean I am (or Milanovic is) wrong.

vikingvista writes:

Tom West,

If by "simple instincts" you mean something along the lines of "more basic particular emotional response that is learned and not innate" rather than some inborn human genetic trait, then I think you are on to something.

The reason I doubt the latter, is that people are different in this regard. For example, my gut reaction to my own sadness in seeing someone suffering has never even in my earliest memories been to grab some unrelated non-suffering stranger by her throat and snatch her property. But this does appear to be the gut feeling of many people, at least when comfortably masked by the use of proxies and pre-established systems.

The empathy may be innate, but the knee-jerk reaction (e.g. to take it out on an innocent--"kick the dog" or "punch the wall"), I believe is learned, though perhaps learned at a very young age.

Steve Roth writes:

Which reminds me that I don't know if I've ever shared the following with you, which for me tops the list of The 231 Greatest Reasons to Have Children.

My daughter, when she was about 15:

"Dad, just because you admit you're a hypocrite doesn't make you any less of a hypocrite."


But I think she's wrong.

Anyway, thought you'd find it amusing.

MikeP writes:

The danger (and this applies to any political stripe) is that while you can use people's rationalization to persuade them to do a lot of things they'd rather not, but feel they ought to, if you push *too* hard, you end up stripping the rationalizing veneer off, and you get reversion back to the simple instincts (stripped of morality) that motivates us all.

What a conservative thing to say.

Frankly, I think the "reality-based" community could use a healthy dose of this.

John Thacker writes:
The Democratic Whip has a much harder job than the republican Whip.

Surely some of the recent primary election seasons should cast doubt on this assertion? I think that there's very strong ingroup/outgroup effects among Democrats to support the party line.

Greg G writes:

Whether they admit it or not, just about everyone is more concerned with local problems and local suffering than distant problems and distant suffering. Political philosophy is the wrong place to look for the reasons for that.

Evolutionary pressures and practical constraints on what you can actually do about those problems are the reasons for the tendency to focus on the more local.

Jeff writes:

Not sure I agree with this very much. Suppose you really don't have much in the way of tribal loyalty and you want to help people of all stripes. You realize that you cannot help everyone, so you have to pick some to help and some to leave to fend for themselves. The logical boundary to draw is at the nation-state, it would seem, simply because you can influence government policy to do the good you want it to do in your country in a way that you can't anywhere else.

Opposition to open borders among universalists I think is therefore a result of two things:

a)they think the welfare state genuinely is absolutely necessary on both a moral and practical level. Open borders would swamp it, spreading the resources we have to devote to it too thinly, resulting in the welfare state providing meaningful help to almost no one. Again, this is morally and practically untenable. A big tragedy of the commons, basically, that needs to be prevented.

b)these people simply do not understand the benefits of higher labor mobility and free trade. Ask these folks why Mexico is poorer than the US and you will not get a coherent answer. Ask these folks why free trade leads to greater prosperity than protectionism and the answer you're likely to get back is "wait, it does?" They don't recognize that shutting people out of the labor market really harms them because they simply don't have a good grasp of the economics. In fact, they may even believe they're doing both the native and non-native poor a favor by restricting immigration because they're preventing a "race to the bottom" in the market for wage labor.

It's simply wrong to impute tribalism to these folks' motivations. They're working from a different set of assumptions than you are and this leads them to different conclusions.

vikingvista writes:


"simply because you can influence government policy to do the good you want it to do in your country in a way that you can't anywhere else"

Is that your experience? If so, perhaps you are among that tiny cadre of politicians, popular pundits/entertainers, or major campaign contributors. My experience is that I have effectively zero influence on any of the governments lording over me, which is the same as my influence on foreign governments. And in spite of what they might feel or like to believe, that is what I observe with all of the individuals whom I have ever personally known. I suspect it is true of 99.999+% of all individuals.

Both home and abroad, the only real influence I have at all, is on the individuals or small groups that I choose to interact with. This is as true fostering a local child or trading with a local merchant/consumer as it is my sponsoring child abroad or trading with foreigners.

So I see no effective distinction between my overlords and the overlords of others, regarding my influence.

Jeff writes:


Sorry, I was not speaking for myself there; I should have made that more clear. I was speaking as if I were a progressive universalist. I'm quite aware that I personally have no meaningful influence on government officials or policy. However, given that there are many more liberal universalists than libertarians like myself, collectively, yes, I believe they do exert a great deal of influence over government policy.

Of course, why they seem to exert more influence than conservatives, who are apparently better at groupishness (see Haidt's comments on how hard it is to be a Democratic vs. Republican whip), is a question worth pondering. But the twentieth century seems clear enough: liberals seems to get their way, sooner or later, and the rest of us get to harumph about it.

D writes:

"The Democratic Whip has a much harder job than the republican Whip."

It should be pointed out that Democrats are generally made up of various "takings coalitions" - ethnic groups, feminists, unionists, etc. - rather than a unified group. They are only unified in so far as they don’t care for conservatives and certainly not for economic libertarians.

If true, then Haidt's point is true but for the exact opposite reason he proposes. You can't get the democratic whip to do his/her job as easily precisely because the various in-group loyalties, and therefore their interests, are too strong amongst democrats, and aren't always aligned.

Hazel Meade writes:

IMO, a lot of liberal ethics is just status seeking. It is moral posturing - a display of one's virtuousness.

Now, if your underlying motivation is status seeking, you care about your *audience*. And your *audience* is NOT poor people a thousand miles away. It is people local to you. You want to impress the local population with your virtuousness? You do things that have a local impact.

Tom West writes:

Chris H, if it was primarily loyalty to Americans/other in-groups, surely we'd see far less interest in helping illegal immigrants.

vikingvista, I'd say the *vast* majority of people are willing to compel others in pursuit of whatever their personal motive might be.

Liberals might allow for diversity but have government force conformity for the issues they care about, and conservatives might prefer government to prune general non-conformity so that there's general agreement in issues they care about, but I don't see a great deal of difference in most people about using force in general, as long as it's properly veiled so you don't feel bad.

Except for true Libertarians (most of those who style themselves Libertarians can't quite manage open borders and no parking requirements for new buildings). They're weird. After all, they're willing to subordinate the important issues to... freedom?

What use is freedom if people just use it to make the wrong choices?


vikingvista writes:

"I'd say the *vast* majority of people are willing to compel others in pursuit of whatever their personal motive might be."

Sadly, true. It is astonishingly easy, even in casual conversation, to reveal the monster in just about anybody.

Miguel Madeira writes:

Well, I think that "liberals" are usually more in favor of open (or not-so-closed) borders than conservatives, making them, in relative terms, the "universalist" side.

RPLong writes:

Which is the more "universalist" sentiment:

1) We all ought to take care of each other, and government welfare programs are the best way to do that.

2) We all ought to take care of each other, and government welfare impedes our ability to do that best.

We shouldn't form theoretical boxes around things with a critically high level of diversity, such as human thoughts.

Steve Roth writes:


"Which is the more "universalist" sentiment"

Great question.

I would say that since #1 requires that individuals commit to a cost (paying taxes), it is the most demonstrably "genuine" universalist sentiment. (This putting aside the us vs. the world portion of the argument.)

Flocccina writes:

I agree with Tom West. If it was not about aesthetics why the reluctance to admit that the war on poverty have been won (see below). Why have democrats now taken up the war on obesity even while trying to convince us that "food insecurity" is still a significant problem in the USA. And why the push to get lower income USAers to buy into more schooling. Democrats seem to think they have a right and duty to push middle class life styles on to the bottom 20% and that they can actually do it through Government.

Here is the data that shows the war on poverty in the USA has been won. Excerpt below:

We show that moving from traditional income-based measures of poverty to a consumption-based measure, which is arguably superior on both theoretical and practical grounds—and, crucially, accounting for bias in the cost-of-living adjustment—leads to the conclusion that the poverty rate declined by 26.4 percentage points between 1960 and 2010, with 8.5 percentage points of that decline occurring since 1980."

Just to be clear, the notion that the consumption-based poverty rate nearly reached zero percent

John Strong writes:

My criticisms of The Righteous Mind here.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top