Social Darwinism and “The Political Brain”

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Dick Armey, the former House majority leader has famously (or infamously) remarked that liberals are not very bright (Johnson, 2004). The claim is as arrogant as it is wrong: neither faction has a monopoly on intelligence. The difference is in the gut.

Steven Johnson, in “The Political Brain,” notes that people become Republicans or Democrats before they learn what those parties stand for. He argues that people with like outlooks congregate and that party affiliation initially results from whom you hang around with rather than from dispassionate consideration of the issues.

Johnson notes further that you cannot make a so-called rational decision without emotional involvement, and that is what I want to amplify on here.

In his splendid book Descartes’ Error, the neurologist Antonio Damasio (1994) shows that it is impossible to make a rational decision unless you have some emotional involvement - as Damasio puts it, unless you can feel it in your gut. Briefly, Damasio showed what he calls “disturbing” photographs to patients who had sustained damage to certain parts of their brains, and also to normal controls. The controls showed a “skin response,” or increased electrical conductivity in their skins, when viewing the disturbing photographs, whereas the patients showed none. One patient even told the experimenters that he knew he was supposed to feel something but did not.

In further experiments and in real life, Damasio found that the brain-damaged patients were unable to make what the rest of us would call “rational” decisions. Since the patients were otherwise normal, Damasio attributed this inability to their lack of emotions: If they cannot feel the consequences of an action “in their gut” - be afraid of the consequences - then they cannot behave rationally.

Before relating Damasio’s observations to liberals and conservatives, let me define my terms carefully. By “conservative,” I mean those political and economic ultra-conservatives who oppose taxes of all kinds, promote free-market economics, and generally oppose government intervention in anything. By “liberal,” I mean anyone from, say, a New Deal Democrat to a member of a European social democratic party. People who support such noneconomic issues as freedom of speech, separation of church and state, the right to a decent standard of living, and the right to choose an abortion are often confused with liberals, but these issues alone do not, to my mind, define a liberal.

What, then, is the difference between a liberal and a conservative? My educated guess is that one main difference is sympathy or lack of sympathy for people who are not close to them in some way. Thus, a liberal feels compassion for the poor, the underprivileged, the oppressed, whereas the conservative feels compassion primarily for those people like him or her, or close to him or her in some way. I do not mean to imply that feeling more compassion for those closest to you is pathological, but it should not preclude compassion for others as well.

As I noted in Comment 6572 to my essay on social Darwinism (Young, 2004), a conservative friend of mine always has an economic solution to any social problem: vouchers for education, tax breaks for investors, higher gasoline prices for conservation, and so on. In each case, the main beneficiaries of his proposed policies are upper middle-class people exactly like my friend. School vouchers benefit primarily those who already send their children to private schools or plan to do so, because vouchers typically do not cover the full cost of tuition and because transportation is often a burden for poorer families. Tax breaks for investors benefit primarily investors; they benefit the weaker members of society only secondarily, if at all. Even higher gasoline prices benefit my friend inasmuch as they allow him to continue driving his urban-assault vehicle while forcing other, poorer people into small cars or public transportation.

When I tell my friend that his solutions are invariably self-serving, he responds that I have made a very interesting point, but he never re-evaluates his positions on these issues. Why not? I argue that his self-interest is hypertrophied and forces him to base his rational decisions on that very self-interest. If he would only put himself in the place of others and feel their needs in his gut, then he might moderate some of his views.

As if to drive home my point, E. J. Dionne (2004) of the Washington Post wrote a syndicated article entitled “Heart Trumps Ideology” (at least that was the title in the Boulder Daily Camera). According to Dionne, the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, has adopted a live-and-let-live attitude to homosexuals and homosexual marriage. Cheney’s allies on the far right were outraged, and it is puzzling why Cheney, the quintessential right-wing hard-liner, would adopt such an, um, liberal position.

Why indeed? Because his daughter is a lesbian, and the issue has hit Cheney where it hurts - in his gut. Cheney has sympathy for his daughter, so he adopted a view that is wholly inconsistent with his overall message and with the views of his political allies. Why can Cheney not look beyond his own immediate family?

Kate Larson (2004) in the Boulder Daily Camera tells of a café owner who bitterly opposed a no-smoking ordinance 2 years ago but is no longer fighting the ordinance. Why the change of heart? The café owner has come down with lung cancer. Had she no sympathy before then for the victims of second-hand smoke, many of whom would presumably suffer from some smoking-induced ailment? No, apparently not. Before getting lung cancer, she was concerned only with a loss of business and gave no thought to anyone else.

Finally, let’s talk again about social Darwinism. In a weak moment, I allowed (Comment 6568) that what passes for conservatism today is tantamount to social Darwinism but is not social Darwinism as such. I have given the matter more thought and can think of at least one example where the conservative position is almost precisely social Darwinism: deregulation and the free market.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the free market is supposed to solve all problems. Unfortunately, the market is not free and probably never has been. The question, then, is whether the market will be controlled by a handful of giant corporations or by the people through their elected government.

To take but one example, since the airlines were deregulated, there have been countless bankruptcies, workers have lost pensions and benefits, maintenance has reportedly suffered, and customers complain that they are treated like baggage (or sardines). If the capitalists who run the airlines had a grain of sense, they would be screaming for regulation, which would, among other benefits, give them a guaranteed rate of return on investment and a healthy share of the market.

But unregulated competition dictates that some airlines must fail (and others temporarily get a more than healthy share). You would have to be extremely doctrinaire to claim that deregulation has brought about any benefits except possibly lowered fares for customers. The cost of those lowered fares, however, has been paid in part with poor and uncertain service, in part by investors, and in part by the employees of the airlines. Indeed, deregulation and its cousin, privatization, reduce costs mainly because they reduce salary and pension benefits for workers. Not exactly social Darwinism perhaps, but extremely close, with the gap between rich and poor growing as more and more people fight for lower and lower salaries.

In the same way, many on the right decry Federal programs in the name of Federalism, which I take to be a code word for states’ rights (you know, the doctrine that has been used for decades to support slavery and segregation). I’m sorry, but Federalism is a tactic, a mechanism, not a principle. Principles are things like, “Everyone has a right to a decent standard of living.” I argue that people who oppose, say, nationalizing welfare on grounds of Federalism or claim against all odds that it is harmful to welfare recipients are unable or unwilling to place themselves in the position of welfare recipients - so they feel in their guts only what influences their pocketbooks, and they invite single mothers with children to tighten their belts or find a job that cannot pay for day care. Federalism is accepted as a starting point because it yields the “right” result, a form of social Darwinism, just as school vouchers yield the “right” result to my friend.

In a comment to Johnson’s article, James Harrison (Johnson 2004) of Asheville, N. C., argues that Democrats think with all their brains, rather than part of their brains. I do not think that is exactly so. Rather, I think, liberals have a broader horizon than conservatives and can better feel “in their guts” the needs of other people, especially people whose needs are markedly different from theirs. Political or economic conservatives, among whom I include many Democrats, seem to feel their own needs only, at least when it comes to pocketbook issues.

They used to say that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. But maybe a liberal is a conservative who has got a glimpse of someone else’s pain. Thus, I claim, liberals are not less “bright” than conservatives, but perhaps they are more able to feel sympathy for unrelated individuals.

References.

Damasio, Antonio R., 1994. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Avon, New York.

Dionne, E. J., 2004. “Heart trumps ideology,” Daily Camera (Boulder), 30 August, p. 4B.

Johnson, Steven, 2004. “The political brain: Why do Republicans and Democrats differ so emphatically? Perhaps it’s all in the head,” The New York Times Magazine, 22 August, pp. 16-17. See also letters, 5 September, pp. 6-8.

Larsen, Kate, 2004. “Other county towns facing smoking ban,” Daily Camera (Boulder), 27 September, pp. 1A, 5A.

Young, Matt, 2004. “Social Darwinism is alive and well and living at the Discovery Institute,” http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archi[…]/000426.html, 17 August.

3 TrackBacks

Utter Tosh from Foreign Dispatches on October 20, 2004 4:15 PM

I am thoroughly disappointed to see such drivel as that spewed by Matt Young appearing on the Panda's Thumb blog; a clearer cut case of abusing one's authority in one field to pretend at a non-existent expertise in another is Read More

This post over at Panda's Thumb leaves me speechless, Social Darwinism and “The Political Brain”. It starts: By “conservative,” I mean those political and economic ultra-conservatives who oppose taxes of all kinds, promote free-market economics, and ge... Read More

Jumping the Shark II from Internet Commentator on October 21, 2004 4:08 AM

Abiola points to an astonishingly obtuse screed by Matt Young at Panda's Thumb, all 1400 or so words of which amount to saying that "Liberals*" are nice and "Conservatives" are nasty. You really need to read the whole lot to Read More

50 Comments

Some good points in this essay, but also some howlers. It’s long been a truism in politics that “where you stand is where you sit”, meaning people take political positions based on their self-interest whether or not they realize they’re doing it. So this is a good point. However, there are some misunderstandings, at least in my reading:

Unfortunately, the market is not free and probably never has been. The question, then, is whether the market will be controlled by a handful of giant corporations or by the people through their elected government.

No, the market has never been entirely free in the Adam Smith sense, and a completely unregulated market quickly devolves into a set of non-competing cartels. However, government controls have been only marginally better. The regulators of any industry, to be sensible, must be knowledgeable. The knowledgeable people work for the regulated industry. Within a very short time, the regulatory body becomes an administrative arm of the regulated industry. Happens every time. Government is not a monolith imposed from above anymore than the priesthood is above sexual temptation. The pretension that either is the case, however desirable it sounds in theory, leads to results we’ve seen. “The people” have some influence to be sure, but let’s not go overboard here. The US economy has probably been the most effective mix of regulation and laissez faire, and the results have been good.

If the capitalists who run the airlines had a grain of sense, they would be screaming for regulation, which would, among other benefits, give them a guaranteed rate of return on investment and a healthy share of the market.

And this is just an illustration of my point. Capitalists really don’t want competition, they want protection. Competition means the potential for bankruptcy, and lousy profits, and hard work. Regulation eases all of these stresses, and effectively closes the industry to new players, who might threaten the system with innovation and other discomforts.

You would have to be extremely doctrinaire to claim that deregulation has brought about any benefits except possibly lowered fares for customers.

Yes, just possibly. Like by a factor of 3 to 5, over a period during which nearly all other costs have gone up considerably (most notably including the cost of jet fuel). And some airlines are indeed offering more flights, larger seats, better services. These sell tickets. But it’s quite true that competition is as hard on employees as it is beneficial to customers.

Principles are things like, “Everyone has a right to a decent standard of living.”

No, this isn’t a principle, this is a campaign promise. To some degree, it’s possible to jigger economic forces so that (1) the economy generates more goods and services per worker; or (2) the economy spreads these outputs around more evenly. It’s nearly impossible to have (1) and (2) simultaneously, but very simple to have neither. Many (perhaps most) of the world’s economies, if their output were evenly divided among all their citizens, would consist entirely of paupers. Declaring a right to what doesn’t exist isn’t a principle.

Dick Armey, the former House majority leader has famously (or infamously) remarked that liberals are not very bright…Rather, I think, liberals have a broader horizon than conservatives and can better feel “in their guts” the needs of other people, especially people whose needs are markedly different from theirs.

Ah, so it appears that *conservatives* are the ones who aren’t very bright. Yet here in the Deep South, we find hardcore conservatives living in abject poverty, where outhouses are still common, where church attendance is near 100% and compassion is genuine and deep.

Just as creationists simply cannot comprehend the invisible hand of natural selection, so some people “don’t believe” in Adam Smith’s invisible hand either. Smith wrote that the greatest good for the greatest number is an epiphenomenon, a side-effect, of everyone acting purely and selfishly for their own immediate personal goals. Conservatives think this can happen without government regulation (it can’t); liberals think it can’t possibly be natural, and requires the Hand of God (uh, government) as Deus ex Machina (it doesn’t).

As John Muir wrote of nature, a well-run economy is careless of the few and careful of the many. Resources result from capital, knowledge, education, hard work, responsibility, and integrity. Government can redistribute these, and can certainly inhibit them, but can never create them. Good management can create bargains, but lunch is never free.

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As someone who believes strongly in federalism,

In the same way, many on the right decry Federal programs in the name of Federalism, which I take to be a code word for states’ rights

It’s the other way around. “States’ rights” is a popular, although incorrect way, to refer to federalism. In fact, states don’t have rights. They have powers. The people have rights.

(you know, the doctrine that has been used for decades to support slavery and segregation).

And it is also the doctrine that is being used to oppose the federal marriage amendment, oppose NCLB, oppose the Patriot Act, support right-to-die, support medicinal marijuana, etc.. Be careful not to paint a one sided picture of federalism.

I’m sorry, but Federalism is a tactic, a mechanism, not a principle.

I disagree; federalism is a principle, one enshrined in our national constitution. The problems you identified are not problems of federalism. Rather they are problems with non-federalists abusing the principle of federalism. These are people who might use the phrase “states’ rights” but have never heard of “federalism.” These people don’t accept the principle of federalism, but instead use buzzwords that they think allow them to bypass the US Constitution.

Mike S Wrote:

Did it ever enter your head that conservatives actually believe that, for example, giving poor single mothers checks without them having to do anything for the money is worse for them in the long run?

In my opinion, I think that most “conservatives” who would argue that use it as a means to an end. In other words, it is window dressing to a larger argument against spending money not beneficial to them. (We all do this.) I say this because the entire religious right view of an ideal family is based on mothers getting supported without “having to do anything” yet they oppose the mythical wefare mother for the same thing.

Flint Wrote:

No, the market has never been entirely free in the Adam Smith sense, and a completely unregulated market quickly devolves into a set of non-competing cartels.

What is the Adam Smith sense? He described a phenomenon (how prices adjusted based on supply and demand), but made very clear that there were many good reasons for governmental control. Smith was never the ultra-liberal/ultra-libertarian that many wants to make him into. Other people have used his arguments about the natural state of prices as depending on supply and demand, and have turned it into an argument that it is the righteous state that prices are solely based on supply and demand.

Your first straw man is to define “conservative” as Gordon Gekko - the Michael Douglas caricature of a businessman in the movie “Wall Street.” It is true that you used the term “Ultra-conservative,” but you contrasted that entity to “liberal,” which you described in Big Tent terms. Others have pointed that out, of course.

Your second straw man is to say that “conservatives” only are concerned with personal isues, while “liberals” can extend their concern to people they have never met. You used the example of Vice President Cheny’s daughter. Might I remind you of an incident which happened about ten years ago?

Liberal Washington Post columnist William Raspberry is a staunch advocate of gun control (I’d use another description, but let’s stay with how he’d describe himself.) Someone intruded into his back yard late at night, and Mr. Raspberry used an unregistered, illegal-to-possess in Washington D.C. handgun to stop the invasion of his home. Mr. Raspberry defended his actions, in print, mentioning things like “junkies,” “muggers,” and “burglars.”

The National Rifle Association sent Mr. Raspberry a complimentary membership, and asked if he would now be supporting everyone else’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. He rejected the NRA’s offer, and took it upon himself to write at least one column explaining how he wasn’t like other people.

And lastly, just what, indeed, does this have to do with evolutionary biology?

fusilier James 2:24

fusilier Wrote:

And lastly, just what, indeed, does this have to do with evolutionary biology?

The Panda’s Thumb is not just about evolutionary biology, but also about the politics and other extra-scientific issues involving evolution. If I understand correctly, this post was inspired by a previous post on the politics of the Discovery Institute.

“If you change the rules, players will change their behavour.”

http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/archives/000788.php

Actually, this is an interesting way to tie biology to economic behavior. Human beings adapt to different circumstances. If you remove the incentive to work by simply giving a check to people, then they will change their behavior. If you insist that they work (or go to school or training) in order to receive welfare checks, they will respond accordingly. The traditional liberal view of economics, espoused to some degree in Matt’s post, is that people’s behavior is fixed, and that giving someone a welfare check will not affect their views on work.

A larger point I wish to make, however, is that whenever people try to analyze human behavior strictly in terms of biology and/or evolution, they end up coming to ridiculous conclusions. The key term here is strictly, of course: clearly biology and evolution can help explain some human behaviors. But as soon as you reduce humans to a biological machine, you make errors like attributing people’s voting patterns or economic views to their neuronal wiring.

Reed Cartwright Wrote:

In other words, it is window dressing to a larger argument against spending money not beneficial to them.  (We all do this.)  I say this because the entire religious right view of an ideal family is based on mothers getting supported without “having to do anything” yet they oppose the mythical wefare mother for the same thing.

Certainly people make arguments based on their self-interest, sometimes unconsciously. But are you really saying that there are no other principles involved? That people only make arguments based upon their self-interest? Or, as Matt’s post argues, that only economic conservatives make arguments based upon their own self interests? Doesn’t that claim beg the question - e.g. what is in the best long-term interest of single mothers? Your framing of the issue presupposes an anwer to that question. If it is, in fact, true that the welfare-without-work system is detrimental to single mothers and their children, and conservatives believe this to be the case, then they are actually arguing for policies that they believe are in the best interests of single mothers (and that are, in fact, in their best interests).

Imagine the reverse argument - that liberals don’t favor a policy because they are better able to feel someone else’s pain, but because of their own self-interest in a) assuaging their guilt or b) giving the state more power? Wouldn’t you accuse the person making this argument of not taking the liberal’s professed reasons seriously? This is what I mean by engaging the argument - you take the liberal’s professed motives at face value, but you automatically dismiss the conservative’s motives as being a facade for the real motives. Why not just address the proposed policies on their merits, instead of trying to legitimate/deligitimate the policies based upon motives?

Also, welfare mothers are not ‘mythical’. And conservatives don’t oppose them, they oppose the policies that have the effect of encouraging them to a) not get married, b) not work, and c) produce more children out of wedlock. A large part of the point of which is the importance of fathers to the children, which means that your analogy is inapt - the government cannot replace a father with a check. This is another area where biology can inform the issue - there are good biological reasons for supporting the traditional family model. And government policies should support this model, not undermine it.

Mike S. Wrote:

Human beings adapt to different circumstances. If you remove the incentive to work by simply giving a check to people, then they will change their behavior. If you insist that they work (or go to school or training) in order to receive welfare checks, they will respond accordingly.

This to me is a rather simple view of the situtation faced by people on welfare. Training/working is a good option, if you have an economy that can employ them. However, we don’t have such an economy. Working is a good option for single parents with young children, if we have a society able to accomedate them. However, we don’t have such a society. I think work and training requirements can be good for welfare reform, but they have to be crafted within the realities of our society.

Mike S. Wrote:

This is what I mean by engaging the argument - you take the liberal’s professed motives at face value

Where have I done this?

Also, welfare mothers are not ‘mythical’. And conservatives don’t oppose them, they oppose the policies that have the effect of encouraging them to a) not get married, b) not work, and c) produce more children out of wedlock.

Sounds mythical to me. But this statement leads me to wonder why conservatives tend to oppose comprehensive sex education and extending marriage.

This is another area where biology can inform the issue - there are good biological reasons for supporting the traditional family model.

You mean everybody living in a 40 person communal tribe? The problem with this statement is that the “traditional family model” beloved by conservatives is more cultural than biological.

I am inclined to the view that conservative arguments based on the good of poor people are window dressing. Mike S gives a classic example why. He writes:

Take one pertinent example: flu vaccines. The Clinton adminstration pushed for greatly expanded federal purchases of pediatric flu vaccines. Everyone’s in favor of kids getting vaccinated, right? Well, the problem is that all that purchasing power allowed the government to set prices, which it set low enough that vaccine makers had to sell millions of doses in order to make any profit. That, plus the cost of litigation and liability insurance (another way that government intervenes in the market) made it very risky and not very profitable to be in the vaccine business. Which means not that many companies are now in it, which means that problems at any one of them has a large impact on the supply. It also means that companies don’t have the money to invest in developing quicker, cheaper methods for producing the vaccines. One doesn’t have to fault the Clinton administration’s desire to help poorer children have access to vaccines in order to recognize that their policy decisions were economically short-sighted (not to say ignorant), and have now resulted in just the problem they set out to fix. There are countless examples of this.

If I understand this correctly, a large number of children were not getting vaccinated. The Clinton administration attempted to correct this by purchasing vaccines for the children, with supposedly unfortunate economic effects. Amongst these effects was (apparently, but not explicitly stated) a reduced supply of vaccines. This has produced, we are told “… just the problem [the Clinton adminstration] set out to fix.” The problem the Clinton set out to fix was a lack of vaccinations amongst children. I think we can be certain that the program resulted in more children being vaccinated. Let us grant that the program is not as efficient as Clinton might have hoped because of economic consequences of the program. But the program still results in more children being vaccinated.

The situation is that Clinton wanted x + y children vaccinated (where x is the number of children that would have been vaccinated anyway). Due to economic inefficiencies created by the program, only x + y/2 children are vaccinated. Therefore it is argued, out of concern for the children, Clinton should have done nothing at all.

While on the subject, let me note in passing Mike S’s comment that liability insurance is “another way that government interferes in the market”. Granted. But why is Mike not also noting that limited liability is also another government interference in the market. As also is the possibility of incorporation. As also is the low percentage inflationary target of the Federal Reserve. (A neutral, ie, non-interfering policy would result in inflation averaging at 0% over the long term, with consequent periods of deflation.) I have yet to see an advocate of no, or minimal government interference in the economy advocate the removal of these interferences. Another reason I tend to regard their policies as special pleading.

Here’s another perfect example of how Matt’s thesis doesn’t hold up: the flap over outsourcing. Who deserves or needs the jobs more, people in rich first world countries or people in poor third world countries? Economic liberals tend to be supportive of protectionism, while economic conservatives tend to support free trade. Who is the ‘other’ that people are supposed to feel for more? The steelworker in Pennsylvania who gets laid off, or the steelworker in Brazil who gains a job?

Reed Cartwright Wrote:

You mean everybody living in a 40 person communal tribe?  The problem with this statement is that the “traditional family model” beloved by conservatives is more cultural than biological.

Which is closer to the 40 person communal tribe, a nuclear family living near it’s extended family (the conservative model) or a single mother with 3 kids living far from her family and the father of her children? The point is that children do best with both biological parents raising them. There are all kinds of particular examples, obviously, and good reasons why the ideal cannot always be met - the question is, are we going to favor some types of families over others in our public policies or not? Biology can help inform that decision, and it is more supportive of the conservative model than most alternative liberal models, or than the “there is no preferred model” position.

“the question is, are we going to favor some types of families over others in our public policies or not?”

Would you favor some types of lifestyles over others in your public policies? Maybe a twinkie tax? A deduction for exercising? A tax for remaining single after 25? A tax on AIDS sufferers?

That single mom with 3 kids has a hard enough time with a level playing field. I’d never vote to have her disfavored by government.

Mike S. Wrote:

Who is the ‘other’ that people are supposed to feel for more? The steelworker in Pennsylvania who gets laid off, or the steelworker in Brazil who gains a job?

Hehe.

Which is closer to the 40 person communal tribe, a nuclear family living near it’s extended family (the conservative model) or a single mother with 3 kids living far from her family and the father of her children?

The problem is that “extended family” is not part of the conservative model, at least I never hear any conservative faulting a nuclear family for not living near other relatives.

The point is that children do best with both biological parents raising them.

This is too limited a point. The actual point is that children do better the more quality people they have raising them. This is why, despite conservative objections, same sex couples do no better and no worse that opposite sex couples. If supporters of “family values” really cared about families, they would embrace same sex couples. Yet they don’t. I don’t think biology is doing much to inform their politics.

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Mike S.

The point is that children do best with both biological parents raising them.

When is this country going to wake up and ban adoption?

There it is again!!! That insidious bug where one’s comment doesn’t appear until a second comment is posted.

Arrhghghhgghggghgghghghgghg!!!!!!

I read this blog instead of talk.origins because talk.origins is always brimming with left-wing screeds and caricatures of anyone with the temerity to disagree.

The most laughable part of Matt’s post (a tough call due to the number of candidates) is the idea that liberals are somehow more empathetic than free-market types. Uh-huh. That’s why they care more about eagle eggs than people in third world countries dying of malaria, and why they’d rather have people in Indonesia hip deep in mud than make quadruple the money in a Nike factory. (The part about upper-middle-class folks being the primary beneficiary of school vouchers is a close second… gee, that must be why majorities well over 70% of black Washington, DC parents favor vouchers.)

I seriously hope idiotic posts like Matt’s do not become the norm around here. Bashing the Discovery Institute is all well and good but spare me the sanctimonious, moralistic liberal bullshit, please.

asg Wrote:

The part about upper-middle-class folks being the primary beneficiary of school vouchers is a close second … gee, that must be why majorities well over 70% of black Washington, DC parents favor vouchers.

Although urban parents might favor vouchers, I know of no evidence that their children actually benefit from them. The reason why is that established private and suburban schools–you know, the ones with great education–can always turn down parents trying to transfer their kids there on vouchers. This is what happened in Cleveland. This is why vouchers primarily benefit families who already send their kids to private school.

Now an interesting question is why do so many people support a program that they probably will not get the benefits from. I think it is because they are desperate and vouchers are the new, politically hot solution, the failures of which are not well known.

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I declare this entire thread a hazardous spill. Please evacuate while I find the neutralizing white powder.

I declare this entire thread a hazardous spill. Please evacuate while I find the neutralizing white powder.

Like I said, this is what happens when you try to ‘explain’ various political or economic policies by referring to evolution. But I apologize for taking the bait and responding, thus contributing to the spill. Although we haven’t invoked Godwin’s law yet!

Although we haven’t invoked Godwin’s law yet!

Only Fascists, or even Nazists, invoke that one.

“Although urban parents might favor vouchers, I know of no evidence that their children actually benefit from them.”

And what you know cannot exist? Please don’t take the limitations of your knowledge as some sort of marker of objective realities: there’s plenty of evidence in favor of vouchers - if you’re in difficulty knowing where to start, look around in my blog archives.

“The reason why is that established private and suburban schools—you know, the ones with great education—can always turn down parents trying to transfer their kids there on vouchers. This is what happened in Cleveland. This is why vouchers primarily benefit families who already send their kids to private school.”

Yeah, sure. Tell that to my friends who were only able to attend decent schools because of the “ABC” (“A Better Choice”) voucher programme, black kids who grew up in projects where drugs and guns were the order of the day.

This post is so full of straw-men and ridiculous assumptions that it makes me doubt the judgement of Mr. Young in other matters. To be blunt, I have never seen a sillier pile of sh*t, so utterly untouched by the slightest acquaintance with economics. Perhaps Mr. Young should stick to topics he actually knows something about in future, rather than flaunting his juvenile political thinking and total ignorance of economic realities for all the world to see? My opinion of this blog has plummeted seriously after reading this swill.

Yours,

A black economic “conservative” of Third World antecedents (go ahead and tell me how my beliefs are just a facade hiding my racial and class interests, I dare you.)

Abiola Lapite Wrote:

there’s plenty of evidence in favor of vouchers - if you’re in difficulty knowing where to start, look around in my blog archives.

Can you provide a link to what you think is the best evidence in favor of vouchers?

Yeah, sure. Tell that to my friends who were only able to attend decent schools because of the “ABC” (“A Better Choice”) voucher programme, black kids who grew up in projects where drugs and guns were the order of the day.

Where did I say no one ever benefits? Just because it helps some families, doesn’t mean that it has a net benefit to the community as a whole.

Education is improved by giving more money to public schools, not taking it away.

“Can you provide a link to what you think is the best evidence in favor of vouchers?”

If you’d strolled down my blog’s homepage, you’d have seen a few links to start you off right there. A pre-emptive request: no griping about the provided references being of any particular political persuasion, if you please: evidence should be evaluated on its own merits. I say this because one thing I’m used to from dealing with privileged white liberals who are eager to tell blacks how we’re just too stupid to realize that vouchers aren’t good for us is that almost any evidence provided to the contrary is waved away with just such excuses.

“Education is improved by giving more money to public schools, not taking it away.”

What a silly, vacuous statement. On what do you base such a blanket assertion, other than the sheer will to believe? If that is all it takes to set up good schools, why is it that American high school students are so mediocre by comparison with those in other countries, despite the US having the highest per capita expenditure on high school education in the world? Why is the Washington D.C. school-system such crap despite being one of the top three best funded in America? How could I have obtained a better high-school education in Nigeria (per capita GDP ~$300), and in a school with no computers, no fancy sports stadia or any of the other facilities Americans take for granted, than most American high-schoolers will ever get? Your statement is utter nonsense.

All your responses reveal is that you’ve never bothered in the slightest to educate yourself on the subject you’re mouthing off about.

Abiola,

The fact that you have to resort to ad hominem attacks tells me that your position is not as strong as you think it is.

What a silly, vacuous statement. On what do you base such a blanket assertion, other than the sheer will to believe?

Experience.

If that is all it takes to set up good schools,

Never said that.

why is it that American high school students are so mediocre by comparison with those in other countries, despite the US having the highest per capita expenditure on high school education in the world?

Perhaps because US schools have more costs than foreign schools. American teachers don’t expect to be paid Nigerian wages.

Another issue that crops up in comparing schools and school systems is the percentage of the students that are tested. For example, it has been shown that state rankings on SAT are inversely related to precentage of students taking the test.

asg wrote:

The most laughable part of Matt’s post (a tough call due to the number of candidates) is the idea that liberals are somehow more empathetic than free-market types. Uh-huh. That’s why they care more about eagle eggs than people in third world countries dying of malaria, and why they’d rather have people in Indonesia hip deep in mud than make quadruple the money in a Nike factory.

It is a laughable comment, not because it suggests liberals have more sympathy than conservatives, but because it might be taken as suggesting that any significant group of people (in population terms) in the west has any significant degree of sympathy for others. (There are note worthy exceptions.) I take it for granted that most of us have significant sympathy for ourselves, and almost as much for our immediate familly (a little bit more in the case of children). The measure of our sympathy for others is degree to which we will accept consequences for others that we will not accept for ourselves.

Case in point: The former sanctions regime in Iraq.

The sanctions regime in Iraq was imposed during the first gulf war until shortly after the second gulf war. The purpose of the sanctions regime was to prevent Saddam Hussain acquiring weapons of mass destruction. The effect of the sanctions regime was to increase child mortality rates from 56 to 131 per 1000; and to decrease literacy rates 80 to 55%. That is the view of Hans-Christof Graf Von Sponeck, former UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq. He resigned from this position because of the effects of the sanctions, one of several people in his position to do so. The sanctions regime had caused the death of as many as 500,000 Iraqi children. (See also this, this, and this.) This death toll has caused hardly a ripple in the west. In contrast, we have seen the intensity of responce to the deaths of 3000 Americans on September 11. I think limited sympathy is the appropriate term.

Case in point number 2: Nike, shoes and the Third World. Nike (and other shoe manufactures) manufacture their shoes in the third world to take advantages of cheap labour costs. There is nothing wrong with that per se, and I am in favour of it. However, the wages paid in third world countries are not living wages. A living wage is a wage you can live on, support your children with and have some spare money to better your condition or for recreation on a reasonable amount of work. A person working 80 hours a week to meet minimum food needs does not have a living wage. A person working 12 hours a day to meet 120% of the individual’s daily food costs (let alone accomodation costs, and food costs for children)is not earning a living wage. Labour laws throughout the western world, including in the United States, make it plain that we expect those we are close to to be able to, at a minimum, earn a living wage. The Nike example shows that we do not typically have the same sympathy for third world workers. Nike could double the wages paid to its third world work force by increasing the cost of its shoes by 5%. Of course, they know the level of sympathy in the west, so they make the economically sensible decision to keep the costs down.

This is the key point. Had people in the west any real level of sympathy for those in the third world, many government and business policies currently pursued would be disastrous due to loss of political or economic support. But the sympathy is not there.

Returning to the point of who has more sympathy, liberals or conservatives - there is no question that it is the liberals. The simple fact is that liberals are more likely to change their actions and/or policies as a result of considerations such as those above. After all, it is a bit rich for conservatives to go around abusing liberals as “bleeding hearts” AND THEN claim to be as sympathetic for the poor as are the liberals at the same time.

Statements like “vouchers are good” (or “vouchers don’t work”), taken all by themselves, are essentially emotional statements. The number of significant factors influencing the performance of a voucher program, like any program, is dismayingly large. It’s quite possibly the case that the home environment explains the quality of a child’s education more than the quality of the school, the quality of the instruction, the class of the students, the budget per pupil, average class size, the neighborhood the school is located in, and the parents’ options for school attended, all put together! It’s also possible that the ultimate quality of a person’s lifelong education is determined before that person ever attends kindergarten.

How do I suspect this? Easy: I made it up, and it sounds good to me. If someone pays me enough, I have no doubt that I could conduct a study showing it, with no obvious bias to the casual reader (and absolutely no bias visible to anyone who agrees with me). Abiola Lapite is entirely correct that Reed Cartwright’s statement is based on the Will to Believe. Abiola Lapite’s rejection of that statement is based on exactly the same thing. But such beliefs are almost invariably self-fulfilling. Belief matters, perhaps critically.

What’s the highest level economics course you have taken? If you have never taken an economics course, what is the extent of your reading on economics?

My passion for following the creation vs. evolution debate comes from seeing the damage that creationists do to the conservative/libertarian cause. Three thousand years of history and experience has taught us that some ways of organizing society and living in them are vastly better for human flourishing than others. For some reason creationists are blind to all this, and think that only by getting everyone to believe in a single supernatural Authority Figure who lays down, deus ex machina-like, a single moral code to follow, can civilization avoid a descent into nihilism or a brutal dictatorship of the most ruthless.

This thread illustrates the flip side of that contradiction. Why do so many evolutionists - who more than anyone else should appreciate the pervasiveness of the Hayekian spontaneous order in human society - identify with the political movement that always seems to advocate bigger government regulation - more intelligent design - in shaping society? IMO it’s a strange divide indeed.

Mike S. and asg make some great observations. Let me add a couple other problems I have with Matt’s essay:

Before relating Damasio’s observations to liberals and conservatives, let me define my terms carefully. By “conservative,” I mean those political and economic ultra-conservatives who oppose taxes of all kinds, promote free-market economics, and generally oppose government intervention in anything. By “liberal,” I mean anyone from, say, a New Deal Democrat to a member of a European social democratic party. People who support such noneconomic issues as freedom of speech, separation of church and state, the right to a decent standard of living, and the right to choose an abortion are often confused with liberals, but these issues alone do not, to my mind, define a liberal.

I assume by “conservatives” you also mean libertarians. IMO the true political map is really two-dimensional: Economic issues form one axis, but personal issues are just as important to figuring out where people stand. Conservatives want more economic freedom, but at the same time tend to want less personal freedom. Liberals want more government control over your economic life, but at the same time they want more freedom in your personal life. Both libertarians and statists look at conservatives & liberals and see an essential contradiction in both these positions. Statists choose total control, and us libertarians choose total freedom. Many liberals & conservatives also come to see the inherent contradiction in their positions, and end up gravitating toward libertarianism (or less often, statism). Since governments are there to impose laws on us by threat of force, they always have an institutional bias to gravitate towards pure statism over time.

(BTW, I’m an Objectivist, hence a political libertarian, but since the LP will always be an ineffectual gadfly of a party: Go Bush!)

Anyway, for all their belief in individual freedom, conservatives seem to have a blind spot when they think about personal issues. Maybe it’s because they simply recoil at the thought of gay sex or drug use, etc., but aren’t satisfied to simply say, “EEEWWW!” and leave it at that. So they must justify their revulsion by constructing a plausible sounding moral & legal argument against it.

It’s the same kind of moral laziness that impels a creationist to deny logic & scientific evidence, in order to save their dogmatic conception of God, so that society will have a supernatural Authority Figure to tell us all how to live, instead of trusting humans’ ability to use our rational minds to develop & refine philosophies & good moral codes all by ourselves.

What, then, is the difference between a liberal and a conservative? My educated guess is that one main difference is sympathy or lack of sympathy for people who are not close to them in some way. Thus, a liberal feels compassion for the poor, the underprivileged, the oppressed, whereas the conservative feels compassion primarily for those people like him or her, or close to him or her in some way. I do not mean to imply that feeling more compassion for those closest to you is pathological, but it should not preclude compassion for others as well.

Having lived in Jim (Canadian-style socialized medicine) McDermott’s Seattle for over 15 years, I’m convinced that many liberals subconsciously view poor people as just like them - college educated deep thinking intellectuals - who are simply down on their luck (or gotten oppressed by the Man) and who couldn’t possibly have been lulled by a life on welfare, drug use, or bad behavioral choices into an acceptance of their lot. After all, we members of the academic culture would never fall into that trap. So if you just give the poor some more money, they’ll automatically pull themselves up & become just like us.

See, cultural myopia can cut both ways.

As I noted in Comment 6572 to my essay on social Darwinism (Young, 2004), a conservative friend of mine always has an economic solution to any social problem: vouchers for education, tax breaks for investors, higher gasoline prices for conservation, and so on.

But we live in the physical world. Every social issue is influenced by the physical incentives we’re presented with. In society, where many of our day-to-day lifestyle choices are expressed in arms-length transactions with people we don’t know, these conditions & incentives inevitably make themselves felt in economic terms. You can’t get away from economics.

In each case, the main beneficiaries of his proposed policies are upper middle-class people exactly like my friend.

Matt, another aspect of his proposals that you should consider is that they represent the least-intrusive application of organized coercive force. Another way to put it: They represent the kind of intervention that’s most likely to not stifle the natural - organic - development of new, utterly creative solutions to the underlying problems.

EmmaPeel Wrote:

(BTW, I’m an Objectivist, hence a political libertarian, but since the LP will always be an ineffectual gadfly of a party: Go Bush!)

Any Libertarian who states that he or she is pro-Bush obviously either isn’t a libertarian or hasn’t studied Bush and his politics very closely. Bush isn’t the anti-Christ, but he certainly is the anti-Libertarian.

And I say that as an European Liberal (some would even call me an Ultra-Liberal), which is pretty much the same as your Libertarians, though with more concerns for social responsibilities.

Kerry is by no means perfect (he is not exactly a shining example of a defender of free trade), but his track record is certainly better on Libertarian issues than Bush’s.

Abiola said:

And what you know cannot exist? Please don’t take the limitations of your knowledge as some sort of marker of objective realities: there’s plenty of evidence in favor of vouchers - if you’re in difficulty knowing where to start, look around in my blog archives.

The successful voucher schools tend to be in systems where the vouchers take little or nothing away from the schools the kids leave, and often are in systems where the curriculum is under the thumb of a national education czar.

What I have never seen is any indication that taking money from a school enables it to improve its performance. Some schools have been able to do okay on reduced budgets, but if taking money away were the panacea that most U.S. voucher advocates claim, we’d start schools at zero funding and insist they pay parents to send kids there. Not even private schools set up to steal students with vouchers from public schools do that.

Choice is a powerful aphrodisiac in education issues. When people choose for themselves, they tend to demonstrate greater commitment to what they choose. I’ve seen no studies of voucher systems that control for that effect.

I also have yet to see any voucher advocate suggest an experiment that would offer a solid, scientific comparison: Let the money for the vouchers come as additional money to the system, and let students choose to take their vouchers anywhere, including the failing schools.

I think a fair, straight up competition would show that a lot of students in “failing” schools would choose to stay there and invest their vouchers in improving the schools.

Here in Texas, some voucher advocates have let their masks drop, and they have admitted that they hope for the day that public education completely fails, and is eliminated.

We tried such a system in the U.S. prior to 1820, and it didn’t work. That’s why we have public schools. Some public functions do not work well in a competition mode. No one seriously advocates letting private companies compete in roadbuilding, or in providing naval or air defenses. Public schooling in America is the best in the world, overall, which is why it is the model for education the world over.

Give us an education czar and adequate funding, we’ll make all the schools good.

Of course, one of the things our education czar would do is eliminate any possibility of creationism or ID being taught in any school – a waste of time and money any way it’s measured.

Abiola, The fact that you have to resort to ad hominem attacks tells me that your position is not as strong as you think it is.

Reed,

Could you please point out the “ad hominem attacks”, or is this just a case of your interpreting any criticism of your views as “ad hominem”?

Perhaps because US schools have more costs than foreign schools. American teachers don’t expect to be paid Nigerian wages.

This is actually rather humorous; your rebuttal to my pointing out that American schools have higher costs but little to show for it is to point out that they have higher costs! Besides, you haven’t yet explained why the D.C. school system should be doing so poorly compared to the rest of the country; are we to believe that Washington D.C. (with which I have quite a bit of first-hand familiarity) is the most expensive part of the USA?

Maybe you ought to actually read the material I provided before saying any more. I’m feeling generous, so I’ll offer even more helpful guidance - follow the links on here if you’re willing to see your views challenged by contrary evidence. Your “experience” is clearly far too limited to be a worthwhile basis upon which to base any broad conclusions.

Abiola Lapite’s rejection of that statement is based on exactly the same thing.

Rubbish - this is a false equivalence of the sort usually peddled by creationist quacks. I’ve provided links to actual studies that back my claims; can the other side say the same?

What I have never seen is any indication that taking money from a school enables it to improve its performance.

Ed,

As I’ve said to others before, if you’d bothered to follow the link I’d provided, you’d have seen that this is just what the Swedes - yes, those socialistic Europeans - are doing, and the sky hasn’t fallen in yet. What is more, they aren’t the only ones doing it: other notably heartless right-wing countries like the Netherlands and Denmark also do the same.

Choice is a powerful aphrodisiac in education issues. When people choose for themselves, they tend to demonstrate greater commitment to what they choose. I’ve seen no studies of voucher systems that control for that effect.

Perhaps because it is precisely that effect (amongst others) that vouchers wish to encourage? You say it as if it were a bad thing.

I think a fair, straight up competition would show that a lot of students in “failing” schools would choose to stay there and invest their vouchers in improving the schools.

So why doesn’t the NEA want to give these students the chance to put this theory of yours to the test?

I also have yet to see any voucher advocate suggest an experiment that would offer a solid, scientific comparison: Let the money for the vouchers come as additional money to the system, and let students choose to take their vouchers anywhere, including the failing schools.

No, a truly solid, scientific comparison would be to leave everything as is, but change just one variable: let students take the funding with them wherever they please, including (of course) to failing schools, if they so desire. If I suggested as “solid” and “scientific” a biology experiment in which I changed two variables at once, even as I were hypothesizing that a change in one would lead to certain results, I’d be laughed off this blog straightaway.

We tried such a system in the U.S. prior to 1820, and it didn’t work.

Which is why we ought to ignore all contrary evidence that has accumulated elsewhere in the world since then …

This mini-debate about vouchers is symptomatic of what is so wrong with the stale liberal conventional-wisdom offered up as a considered opinion by Matt Young. Here I’ve endeavored to provide a wide variety of links to rigorous studies on the issue, where Mr. Young and those who share his opinions have been perfectly content to go on mere personal experience and their prejudices as to the selfish motives of their opponents. I find it exceedingly strange that people who would insist on the highest levels of rigor in one field of study should abandon all standards of intellectual probity when the topic of discussion strays outside their area of expertise. The hypocrisy of it all is breathtaking.

You forgot to put “freedom-hating”, or “big-spending”, in front of ‘liberal’.

I find it exceedingly strange that people who would insist on the highest levels of rigor in one field of study should abandon all standards of intellectual probity when the topic of discussion strays outside their area of expertise. The hypocrisy of it all is breathtaking.

Your implication that there is an abundance of evidence favoring your preferred policies, all of which is both rigorous and unambiguous, fails to come across as particularly objective. Your description of those whose interpretation of the results of pilot studies differs from yours as hypocrites, prejudiced, stale, ignorant, etc. does not reflect much of a willingness to weigh all the factors involved, the most important of which (as always in politics) is the fact that different people seek different goals. In politics, there is simply no such thing as a pure good, meeting the self-interest of everyone, so all we need to do is determine the optimum mechanism by which this can be achieved.

You have made two implicit claims: First, that a voucher system will ALWAYS lead to the same general results. Second, that these results are universally desirable. Both of these claims are wrong, reflecting wishful thinking. Rejecting this observation as “rubbish” only reflects an indelible policy commitment. I understand your preferences. I don’t believe you understand that these ARE preferences. Preferences are driven by emotions. This isn’t a bad thing (it’s inevitable), but unless we understand that different preferences are fundamental, shaping whether studies are done, how they are constructed, and how the results are interpreted, we are reduced to a shouting contest. Even if we can all agree that a study was appropriate, properly conducted, and produced unequivocal results, we STILL might not agree that vouchers are a Good Thing.

Abiola Wrote:

Could you please point out the “ad hominem attacks”, or is this just a case of your interpreting any criticism of your views as “ad hominem”?

Try last sentence of #8977. And I am curious what criticism you are referring to. All I see coming from you is much heated rhetoric and assertions that you are right and I am completely out of my mind. Not much of a criticism, IMO. I’m willing to discuss the issues of vouchers with you, but you need to drop the inflammatory rhetoric. I have printed out the WorldBank report and am going through it.

Besides, you haven’t yet explained why the D.C. school system should be doing so poorly compared to the rest of the country; are we to believe that Washington D.C. (with which I have quite a bit of first-hand familiarity) is the most expensive part of the USA?

Well it’s going to take you to present more data so I can get familiar with D.C. schools. However, my experience allows me to make some predictions.

  • Personal costs for the DC school system are high because of high living costs in the area and competition for good teachers and administrators with other school districts.
  • Education costs are also high because DC students, taken together, do not have as much extramural support as in other districts.
  • There are entrenched administrators of low quality who make bad decisions with regards to using their funding.

I think it is really problematic for you to argue that X can make do on the same amount of money as Y. Not every X and Y are in the same situation. As my mother-in-law says, “give me better students, and I’ll give you better schools.” (This is why selective private schools can out perform public schools.) Decades ago education could count on paying low wages and still get high quality teachers because half of American adults were restricted to three careers, one of them teaching. This is no longer true, and women, who decades ago would have been excellent teachers, are becoming doctors, lawyers, professors, etc. Therefore, to retain teaching quality, education needs to provide higher wages to compete with these careers, resulting in higher costs. And some school districts are going to need to provide really high wages to encourage quality teachers to even work there.

the fixation on the voucher issue is missing the forest from the trees. matt young’s initial post had some really strange characterizations of views shared by “conservatives” and offered dichotomous options that neglect the nuance of reality. sound familiar?

btw, i note that “paul gross” is listed among your contributors. i hope matt knows that he writes pieces like exorcising sociobiology (http://www.newcriterion.com/archive[…]1/pgross.htm) for Rightish journals like the new criterion, so you might have one of those empathy-less golems among your own fold.

According to the OECD, the Danish system does not create problems such as bogus schools, or creaming off middle class, or School Choice in Denmark inadequate instruction.

This is from the report about Denmark. Well, there has been some serious problems in the last couple of years with private schools (refered to as ‘free schools’) not living up to the requirements. These schools have funny enough always been religious schools (Muslim or Christian) and the worst ones have been the Christian that bases their teaching on some US teaching principle - this principle involves not teaching evolution, among other things.

Is it true, as I think Kerry said a while back (disclaimer: I’ll be voting for Kerry, I’m not trying to indict him), that the lowest-scoring university students are in Education?

if it is true, that could be a large contributing factor to bad schools, along with discipline, money, and bad parenting.

Steve Wrote:

that the lowest-scoring university students are in Education?

I don’t know whether this is accurate or not. However, four or so years ago I heard of a study that found that buisness majors were most likely to agree with the statement, “I don’t need to learn anything outside my major.” Number two? Education majors. That’s a little scary.

RE: Low scores of Education majors

I can’t speak for other universities, but my first hand experience with students applying for admission to our education program (usually done in the spring of the sophomore year) shows that they have an average of a 3.1GPA. To this point in their college studeies they have taken NO education courses, just the core curriculum courses required of all our students (generally 2 literature, at least one math, 2 sciences, various social sciences, and 2 history).

Having worked my way down this column to “Post a Comment” and seeing the original subject of discussion changed beyond belief, it seems to me that I might be entitled to add my two penneth worth from the U.K. and set the cat amongst the pigeons re Social Darwinism.

It has been suggested here that 70% of our crime is drug related. It is also fairly widely accepted that as a species humans, are greatly motivated by pleasure. Taking these seemingly related issues and combining them, what in anyone’s opinion would be the effect on Western economies if a decision to provide these chemicals through legal outlets.

To my mind, law enforcement costs would probably decrease, governments would have tax revenus from sales, the spread of HIV might just slow and rates of substance abuse and addiction also would probably fall.

I propose this concept from the mindset of an evolutionist, in that, social action and prohibition from the end of the 19th century has seen the emergence of illegal drug use that costs Western society billions per year. Therefore, is this growth due to some factor in human genetic structure that draws us to take drugs or are the huge numbers a result of social pressure and interaction?

Sometimes, asking difficult “What if” questions can be rewarding.

I look forward to ducking the brickbats.

Pericles

Attempts to legislate morality are the primary foundation of the Law of Unintended Consequences. You are basically suggesting that we change our drug policies from a demand for abstinence to a policy of managing birth control. The good news is, such a change reduces the level of social damage considerably. The bad news is, the change encourages SIN, and makes any politician supporting it a sitting duck for righteous opponents during the next election campaign. When your constituency is composed nearly entirely of hypocrites, you serve the God of Wishful Thinking or you lose.

Very amateurish, both the original post and the comments. There is literature on this.

Try these:

http://www.reason.com/rb/rb102004.shtml

“Escape from Freedom” by Erich Fromm

“Authoritarian Character” by Adorno and Horkheimer

“Class, codes and control” by Basil Bernstein

“Talking politics : the substance of style from Abe to “W”” by Michael Silverstein

“Moral Politics” by George Lakoff (especially this one)

Thanks to everyone who responded to my essay. I thought I would make a few remarks here and then disable comments.

First, I have been taken to task for my definition of conservative. What I wrote was, “By ‘conservative,’ I mean those political and economic ultra-conservatives who oppose taxes of all kinds, promote free-market economics, and generally oppose government intervention in anything.” Dissectleft claims that is a definition of Libertarian. Perhaps so. What I meant was “… and generally oppose government intervention in business and economic matters.”

My problem was that, as John Wilkins has noted http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archi[…]72.html#more, in the United States conservatives are called liberals. See Mr. Wilkins’s essay and my comment to it for more detail. (I especially recommend Mr. Wilkins’s essay to those who were unable to pen their disagreements without using epithets meaning excrement. The remark that my essay somehow impeaches everything else written on PT is so childish I will not comment on it.)

Now, what did I actually say (or think I said; the two are not necessarily the same)? First, I presented evidence that you can’t make any decisions without emotion. That much is biology, but it is important, and it is not obvious.

Then I remarked that conservatives - the far right, if you will - may lack sympathy for people unlike themselves. I did not claim that was biology but rather presented some illustrative examples, not all economic, involving people who, to my mind, put their self-interest too far ahead of those of other people. I did not and do not claim that the far right is biologically incapable of sympathy for others; all they need is a little imagination.

Welfare is a case in point. When we had a functioning welfare system in the US, a plurality if not a majority of people on welfare were minor children and their single mothers, disabled people, and elderly people. A substantial fraction of welfare recipients were poor but working people who shuttled on and off welfare as they found and lost jobs. (My recollection is that something like 20 % got off welfare in any given year, suggesting that perhaps 40 % of welfare recipients were working poor, but I haven’t looked it up recently.) The stipend a welfare recipient receives was so small that virtually no one would voluntarily accept welfare - provided that good jobs and day care were available. The key phrase is “good jobs.” As Mr. Cartwright noted, the problem was arguably not welfare but the absence of decent jobs.

Those who think it has been good for welfare recipients to be tossed off the welfare rolls can blissfully think so because they will never have to live on a welfare check. I do not think they are heartless bastards, in Mr. S.’s phrase, but I think they are wholly misguided if they think welfare checks are so big that people greedily seek them out. Mr. S. and other middle-class supporters of welfare “reform” would not last a minute on the income of a welfare recipient.

My economic training? As the distinguished economist Robert Lekachman once put it, I am not “confused by economic training.” The issues I raise are not exactly economic; perhaps meta-economic is the better descriptor. There is, as far as I know, no economic law that says you have to have a free market without government regulation, any more than you have to have a wholly government-controlled economy. I favor a mixed economy such as we used to have before, say, 1981. In that economy, people often held good jobs for life and got good pensions; airlines did not regularly go bankrupt; Kodak and IBM had supposedly never laid off a single person; and pensioners could live off the dividends from AT&T stock. The decision to have such an economy is a policy decision, not an economic decision. The job of the economist is to tell how best to effect the policy. And, yes, we have to continually guard against the regulators’ dropping into the pockets of the regulated. But for most people the outcome was better than what we have today.

Mr. Curtis is correct that liberals do not care enough about people in the third world. I’m afraid that we all find it hard to identify with people who are culturally or geographically too far removed from ourselves. As a social democrat, I favor a liveable minimum wage, shorter hours, a pension plan, and safe working conditions; and strong labor unions to back up these demands in all countries that want to sell products in the United States. These advances will not come overnight, but they did not come overnight here either. What is tragic is that, largely because of the ascendancy of the far right, we are now in danger of losing them in the US and, indeed, labor has lost considerable ground in the last 20 years. See, for example, http://www.pbs.org/now/politics/zweig.html and links therein. (Thank you, by the way, for your brilliant quip, “it is a bit rich for conservatives to go around abusing liberals as ‘bleeding hearts’ AND THEN claim to be as sympathetic for the poor as are the liberals at the same time.”)

The left is also capable of hypertrophied self-interest; the right is just better at it. Katha Pollitt will probably read me out of the left, but I want to give one example. A fetus is not a human being or a baby, but it nevertheless has rights. A woman is not just a receptacle for fetuses, and she also has rights. Sometimes these rights come into conflict. Thus, reasonable people can disagree about, say, late-term abortion when no medical condition is involved. But many think that the woman’s rights automatically trump those of the fetus right up to birth, when the fetus miraculously becomes human and acquires rights as a human.

Thanks to Mr. Coturnix for the bibliography. I have just read the Reason article, which cites what I take to be questionable research that goes much further than I would, though I am generally impressed by well-designed twin studies. The idea that the left cannot be authoritarian is ludicrous and self-serving, possibly not in that order. I will look up some of the other citations as well. I do not mind the epithet “amateurish”; Bobby Jones, Wallace Stevens, Alexander Borodin, Alfred Wegener, and Lord Rayleigh were all amateurs.

I think we are getting off task with what has, perhaps inevitably, boiled down to a political discussion. I have some other things to concentrate on, so I am going to temporarily hypertrophy my own self-interest and, after posting this comment, cut off further comments.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on October 18, 2004 8:59 PM.

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