Thursday, July 12, 2012

Jonathan Haidt and the Liberals' Problem

In a well-regarded book published this year, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt has challenged his liberal friends.

We humans, he argues, are wired to make instinctive moral judgments, and he has identified a moral matrix with 6 different axes, including Care/harm, Liberty/oppression, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation, that differentiates out our moral instincts.  He and his associates have developed a bunch of survey questions to identify where people score on these 6 moral axes at  Conservatives score about equally on each of the six axes, implying that conservatives value each of these moral axes as of equal importance.

But liberals don't.  They rate Care/harm of overwhelming importance, Liberty/oppression pretty highly, Fairness/cheating moderately, and Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation hardly at all.  So liberals have a problem in talking to the American people when they believe in such a limited range of moral concerns, whereas conservatives cover the waterfront.  That's what Haidt concludes.

But wait a minute!  Liberals do too believe in Sanctity/degradation: that is what environmentalism and climate change are all about.  They tell us that we are morally defective for eating too much, that corporations are evil for polluting too much; people that disagree with liberals on climate change are called "deniers" or at very least anti-social people that won't sign onto the "consensus."  Liberals do too believe in Authority/subversion.  They believe in the authority of political "idealists" and activists, and in the authority of educated experts to make the rules for the rest of us to live by.  And liberals certainly believe in Loyalty/betrayal.  They made a big deal about forcing liberals to declare their loyalty during the McCarthy era, for sure.  But try and get a job in Hollywood or in the academy if you show that you belong to the conservative team.  Liberals think that entertainment and education should be limited to members of the liberal team.

The whole point of liberalism is to change the rules on Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.  Liberals don't like loyalty for families, tribes, nations.  They want us to be loyal to the idea of humanity in general.  They don't like the authority of kings, warrior landowners, clerics, and the old-fashioned WASPy "pillars of the community."  They want to substitute the authority of people like themselves: educated, evolved, and open-minded.  They don't want Sanctity founded of the love of God but on the love for the planet.  And they are pretty Calvinistic about all this.  Either you are a member of the liberal Elect or you will roast in secular Hell.  James Piereson called this "Punitive Liberalism" back in 2004.
According to this doctrine, America had been responsible for numerous crimes and misdeeds through its history for which it deserved punishment and chastisement. White Americans had enslaved blacks and committed genocide against Native Americans. They had oppressed women and tyrannized minority groups, such as the Japanese who had been interned in camps during World War II. They had been harsh and unfeeling toward the poor. By our greed, we had despoiled the environment and were consuming a disproportionate share of the world's wealth and resources. We had coddled dictators abroad and violated human rights out of our irrational fear of communism.
It's pretty obvious to me that in this indictment liberals thought they were calling Americans to a new moral order with different parameters for measuring Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.  The only reason that liberals don't score well on those axes in Haidt survey questions must be that he's not trying to measure them.

Jonathan Haidt is not a fool.  He understands that our moral instincts are there for a reason.  They help us function successfully as social animals.  The groups in which we live are social and cultural artifacts that allow us to work together as teams and provide the means to control free-loading.  Here is what he writes about this.
Everybody loves social capital.  Whether you're left, right, or center, who could fail to see the value of being able to trust and rely upon others?  But now let's broaden our focus... and let's think about a school, a commune, a corporation, or even a whole nation that wants to improve moral behavior...  To achieve almost any moral vision, you'd probably want high levels of social capital...
This social or moral capital refers to 
the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.
This is what conservatives, as Haidt realizes, have been talking about every since Burke and the "little platoons."

Of course, when it comes to the solutions chapter of The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt jumps immediately to politics, confirming the liberal belief in control of corporations and regulation, and admitting that the libertarians have a point in declaring the miracle of the market and that social conservatives have a point that you "don't usually help the bees by destroying the hive."

The problem is that Haidt doesn't see the basic problem of liberalism.  In advancing its cause of caring and its fight against oppression and its revaluation of the values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, it enforces its world view with the brute force of government.  We are to care for the poor with our taxes.  We are to fight oppression with government set-asides and subsidies.  And we must destroy the mediating organizations that don't get with the program.  Moreover, we are not to task the poor with any social responsibility.  Here in Seattle we have just enacted a plastic bag ban in grocery stores.  You must pay 5 cents for each paper bag so we will reduce the blight and litter of plastic bags.  Only, of course, people that pay with EBT, the electronic food stamps, are exempt.

That's a tiny example of a gigantic problem.  Whenever liberals legislate some big new reform, they always exempt themselves and their clients from paying the costs of the program.

There is a word for this.  It is called freeloading.

That is the Liberal Problem.  At the very heart of their political program is the promotion and expansion and encouragement of freeloading.  When people give, it is because they are forced to give in their taxes.  When they receive it is because they are entitled to a benefit by right.  This sort of thing does not build community.  It destroys it.

Yet the social scientists tell us that the basic problem for all social animals is the need to find a way to curb the free rider problem, and inspire each other to give rather than to receive.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. I'm reading that book right now.

    One thing your analysis seems to neglect is the fact when conservatives are answer surveys pretending to be liberals, they do a pretty good job at it. I.e., they "get" liberals. But when liberals try to answer a survey pretending to be conservatives, they do an awful job at it. I.e., they don't "get" conservatives.

    This seems to fit with Haidt's view that liberals simply don't understand some of the moral foundations that conservatives use.