Bryan Caplan  

Neurotic Politics

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Neuroticism - the tendency to experience negative emotions like anger, fear, and sadness - is a pillar of the Five Factor Model of personality.  Human beings routinely attribute their emotions to external circumstances.  For proximate causes, they're often right.  The underlying reality, though, is that some people - the highly neurotic - naturally focus on negativity. 

Which brings me to one of my pet theories: neurotic politics.  Quick version: When neurotics turn to politics, they find an infinite series of reasons to feel bad, which helps them stay one step ahead of the realization that their fundamental problem is inside their own heads and can be fixed by no one but themselves. 

In light of my pet theory, I was struck by this passage in War and Peace:
"This is what they have done with Russia!  This is what they have done with me!" thought Rostopchin, an irrepressible rage welling up in his soul against the someone to whom what was happening might be attributed.  As often happens with hot-tempered men his wrath had taken possession of him while he was seeking as object for it.
There is decent evidence that anti-market people are more neurotic, but is there a broader literature on neurotic politics I should know about?




COMMENTS (19 to date)

I was impressed by the insight of Peter Breggin, MD. He argued, as I recall, that leftists feel very fortunate. But somehow they feel bad about their good fortune, rather than feel good about their good fortune. This is on an audio cassette tape titled "Communicating with Liberals", produced by Advocates for Self Government, Inc., ©1986. It is cassette #1 in a set of four titled How to Find the Door to Liberty In the Liberal Mind.

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, 2013, is a good book.

Greg G writes:

OK then, if you want to define neuroticism as "the tendency to experience negative emotions like anger, fear, and sadness" then that makes "anti-market people" more neurotic about the the economy.

But let's remember, that same framework makes libertarian people highly neurotic about government.

One of my pet theories is that it's much more constructive to argue public policy controversies on the issues than to psychoanalyze your opponents.

Hemlock's Hand writes:

I wonder what the Goldilocks amount of negative feeling is. One does not simply walk into neuroticism. But, when do they?

So, anti-market people tend to be more "neurotic". Okay, so what? Do you imply they are more irrational? That wouldn't necessarily follow.

Miguel Madeira writes:

I suspect that "neurotic" people will be more anti-established system (because they dislike to have to adapt to external circumstances), who, in a largely market society, will usually mean being anti-market.

Philo writes:

Yes, neurotic people should worry as much about government as they do about the market. They don't (though maybe if Donald Trump is elected, that will change!), so there must be some other factor at work. They fantasize that the government is a wise, loving father (or godlike entity), while the market is "out of control" and driven by base human passions. But what is the source of this fantasy?

Greg G writes:

Philo,

>----" They fantasize that the government is a wise, loving father (or godlike entity)"
>---"But what is the source of this fantasy?"

I have no idea? That's the first time I have heard that one. Can you tell me who is claiming it?

That could help a lot with finding the source.

Brian B. writes:

Under "core self evaluations" (CSE) theory, neuroticism is linked with locus on control, self-efficacy & self-esteem. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Core_self-evaluations

Locus on Control is linked with political ideology. People with an "internal locus of control" tend to be less neurotic & have higher self-efficacy & self-esteem, tend to be from a higher socio-economic status and more politically active. Some studies show that people with an internal locus of control tend to vote Republican. Conversely, people with an "external locus of control" tend to be more neurotic with lower self-efficacy & self-esteem, and tend to vote Democratic.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locus_of_control#Political_ideology

So essentially, it looks like neurotic people tend to experience negative emotions more because they don't feel in control of their life, and this is probably connected to anti-market bias, at least in terms of rejecting the "bootstrap/Horatio Alger myth" and Protestant work ethic.

john hare writes:

Greg,
The people claiming government omnipotence as Philo mentions don't necessarily use those terms. That though, is what is meant much of the time when people call for government to solve X. The problem, which many people on this blog note, is that X often is either not as big a problem as they state, or is made worse by government involvement. Much of the source of this is fear of personal responsibility that I notice on a regular basis. It is a short step from fear of responsibility to a demand for government or the church, or somebody else to shoulder that responsibility.

Greg G writes:

John,

>---"The people claiming government omnipotence as Philo mentions don't necessarily use those terms. That though, is what is meant..."

Then you shouldn't need to put those terms in their mouths to make your argument.

I'm not questioning if they "necessarily use those terms." I questioning the extent to which you can show they ever use those terms.

James writes:

Greg G,

You write "I'm not questioning if they "necessarily use those terms." I questioning the extent to which you can show they ever use those terms."

A fair question. I don't know if his thinking is representative, but even a single example is enough to answer the question about "ever use," right? Chris Rock famously said "The President of the United States is, you know, our boss. But he is also, you know, the president and the first lady are kinda like the Mom and Dad of the country...”

Whatever precise words anyone uses, it seems that every time some left wing person proposes any idea, it involves transferring purchasing power and decision making power from people in the private sector to people in the government. There are exceptions where the transfer of purchasing power and decision making power flows the other way, but they are few and far between.

Now I could account for this tendency by believing any number of things: Maybe left wing people actually belive people in the goverment make worse decisions than people in the private sector but they favor giving the government more authority because they want to make the world a miserable place. I prefer to be more charitable in my interpretation so I believe left wingers think people in the government make better decisions than people in the private sector.

Greg G writes:

James,

OK fair enough. That is one example of this supposedly pervasive way of thinking.

Do you really think there are many more examples? Are there any from serious political thinkers rather than comedians?

Do you really think that thinking that being in government makes you smarter is the main reason a person might think that some problems involving collective action might be best addressed through government action? Do I have to think that being in government makes you smarter to think that government should handle military defense?

James writes:

Greg G

I don't claim to know what anyone thinks. If some people want to solve nearly every problem by transferring money and power from the private sector to the public sector I can think of no explanation more parsimonious and charitable than the one I have given.

You didn't ask for a large number of examples. Don't move the goalposts.

Greg G writes:

James,

Yeah, we should definitely talk about "the goalposts."

You see I thought this was the place famous for being where the goalposts were defined by the Ideological Turing Test being the right way to understand your ideological opponents. I thought both Bryan and the blog were semi-famous for that.

So I was a little surprised to see Bryan start by explaining that seeing his ideological opponents positions as being the result of their neuroticism was the right way to understand them.

Then Philo chimed in that "they" see government as a "Godlike entity."

John then pointed out this is what is what "they" really mean even though it's not exactly what "they" say.

You clarified this further by assuring us twice that this really was the most "charitable" interpretation possible for you.

So do I want to move the goalposts at this point? You bet I do.

I want to move them back towards the Ideological Turing Test being something more than a specialty tool used only for for criticizing Paul Krugman.

Colombo writes:

Is this a subtle retort for those who claim that libertarianism and anarchism are mental diseases?

Greg G writes:

I didn't think I was being subtle and I don't think libertarianism and anarchism are mental diseases.

James writes:

Greg G

I do not know how to address your last comment. You seem to want something?

My attempt to infer the tacit assumptions of leftists may be incorrect, as I have admitted. As a matter of history, left wing policy ideas nearly always call for the transfer of purchasing power and decision making power away from people in the private sector to people in the public sector. Those policies will make the world better if and only if people in the public sector are better then people in the private sector at making decisions. That's going to be true no matter what the first principles of leftism may be.

Can you name some alternative set of assumptions as charitable and as parsimonious as mine which accounts for the prevailing tendency of leftists to favor policies that transfer power in the same direction?

Greg G writes:

James,

What I want is for people to talk about different public policy issues as actually being different from one another rather than being good ways to classify psychological types.

I consider myself to be a centrist. For some problems I think collective action through government makes sense and for others I don't.

Do you think we should have a taxpayer funded, government run military defense? If so, should I conclude from that that you have a tendency to think people in government are more competent than people in the private sector?

I don't understand why it is so important to you to have such a "parsimonious " explanation of people's views on wildly different issues.

Should government or individuals supply water and sewer? I would argue that has everything to do with whether or not you live in an urban or rural area. I don't think it has much at all to do with personal psychological tendencies and assumptions.

I can think of lots of issues where the political right tends to want more government action than the left. Abortion, drugs, immigration, military spending, incarceration, and marriage to name a few.

Which problems require government solutions has everything to do with your view of the particular externalities and free rider problems the attach to each issue.

James writes:

Greg G,

Definitely policies are more important than the psychological profiles that correlate with various policy preferences. No argument there. I've been talking about the things people believe that lead them to favor various policies. See the difference?

If someone favors state run national defense, they might have that one preference for any number of reasons. Maybe they can't imagine any alternative working and they believe reality is bounded by what they can imagine. But why change the subject to just national defense? Leftists favor a large number of policies and the majority of those policies have the effect of transferring money and power from people outside the government to people inside the government. If they didn't think people in the government made better decision than people outside the government, I would suppose they were malicious.

The reason to prefer parsimonious explanations is that the probability of a complex joint hypothesis is generally lower than the probability of a simpler one. Leftists may have a bunch of ad hoc assumptions to support each policy they support but I try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Yes, there are right wing policies that transfer money and power to people from the private sector to the public sector. That doesn't change anything about what left wingers believe.

"Which problems require government solutions has everything to do with your view of the particular externalities and free rider problems the attach to each issue."

I'm sure there is more to it than that. Why do those problems require solutions in which it is the government (rather than me, or the management of General Motors, or whoever) that takes your money and spends it? Would you let me write checques against your bank account to solve the problems the government isn't currently dealing with? Why not?

Greg G writes:

James,

>---"But why change the subject to just national defense?"

That's a really good question. I mentioned six different subjects I thought were exceptions to your generalization. Why did you respond specifically to just national defense? And why did you do so without telling us how YOU would justify national defense?

I am a lot more interested in how you would do that than how "someone" might do that. The reason I am interested in how you would do that is that I think it might show us a line of reasoning that someone else might apply to a different issue.

As for your link, I think party platforms are very poor tools for understanding the thinking of individuals. The are the products of committees making compromises on what they really want. They tend to promise everything to everybody. I think it's pretty well understood that the Clinton camp agreed to put in a number of things they didn't want in there (and won't really work for) in order to corral Bernie's support.

I don't think it's at all obvious that electing Republican Presidents leads to smaller government. I think there is a lot of evidence that a Democratic president and a Republican House of Representatives is the best way to get that. In 2008 McCain wanted to go to war with Iran in order to delay their acquisition of nuclear weapons. I suppose we disagree on whether or not this would have led to a larger share of the economy going to the government than actually happened.

>---"Would you let me write checques against your bank account to solve the problems the government isn't currently dealing with?"

Anyone who believes in constitutional democracy is prepared to do that within certain limits. I don't know whether or not you believe in constitutional democracy. If you don't I will need to know what alternative form of government you propose in order to take more of an interest in your ideas.

Leftists sometimes offer a very parsimonious explanation of why more right wing voters don't agree with them. Right wing voters are just more lacking in compassion they say. They just don't care about other people's suffering as much. I think that's a poor explanation. I don't think the fact that it is parsimonious makes it any better.

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