Once more on the political ideology thing

To continue a discussion from a couple days ago . . . Robin Hanson, an economist who has written about his goal of overcoming bias and obtaining beliefs closer to reality, wrote something recently about “the signaling persona behind common ideologies,” in this case, libertarian, conservative, and liberal political attitudes. What struck me when reading Robin’s article was how far off from reality his descriptions of conservatives and liberals seemed to be.

I have some further thoughts here.

To recap, Robin wrote:

Libertarians support low taxes because individuals should be free to choose how their money is spent, rather than being forced to accept collective choices. Conservatives support low taxes so that those who have worked hard for their money can show off the fruits of their labor and earn full respect for it.


Libertarians support gay marriage because individuals should be free to have whatever consenting relations they want. Liberals support gay marriage because they want us all to officially respect gays as much as straights; gay activists have earned their group more respect.

In my earlier blog entry I explained why I thought these descriptions of liberals and conservatives were far off–really, so far off, I’d hardly even call them caricatures. Robin defended his portrayals by saying that these aren’t “the conscious rationalizations people give,” but I think it’s worse than that: I don’t think that many people think in these ways–conservatives who think that taxes should be low so that rich people can show off, or liberals who support gay marriage because they respect gay activists–at any level.

To be fair to Robin, he adds a disclaimer saying that he’s “not at all confident” in his portrayals, and really he’s talking about more general issues.

That said, two questions arise:

1. How could Robin get things so wrong (at least, as far as I can tell)?

2. What steps can we do to be better at understanding the perspectives of others? (This is the sort of thing I’d post at Robin’s blog if that were still happening.)

Question 1 isn’t so interesting. For one thing, maybe Robin’s right and I’m wrong. My guess, as I stated in my earlier blog entry, is that it’s just difficult to get a sense of others’ positions. I’m not always so good at this myself–when writing Red State, Blue State, my coauthors sometimes made fun of my hapless attempt to try to see every political issue from both sides–but at least I’ve been trying to do this for awhile, and American politics is one of my research areas. Robin probably has less experience thinking about political attitudes and public opinion, and, hey, it was just a blog post–he wasn’t necessarily thinking so hard about the issue. The only reason I’m using him as an example is because he has the stated goal of overcoming his own biases, so this seems like a good opportunity for discussion.

For Question 2–how can we do this better–I have an idea, at least in this particular example, My idea is to express different views as points on a spectrum involving tradeoffs. (I am perhaps sympathetic to this approach because it relates to my idea (expressed in chapter 6 of Bayesian Data Analysis, among other places) that rather than trying to pick statistical models or average over them, it’s better to put models in a continuous space and work in that more general framework. But I digress.)

Let’s consider Robin’s examples:

Taxes: There are various motivations for high taxes, but the basic one is that operations of the government cost money, and taxes are a way of paying for it. Nobody in American politics supports a 100% tax rate or a 0% tax rate. There’s a tradeoff between the two desirable goals of low taxes and high services. Liberals support higher taxes because, to put it simply, they prefer the “high services” side of the equation, whereas conservatives prefer the “low taxes” side. OK, so this description misses a lot, in particular arguments about how the tax burden should be spread (flat income tax, graduated income tax, corporate tax, estate tax, user fees, gas tax, cigarette tax, and all the rest) and arguments about what services are worth spending on, from highways to hospitals and everything in between. And there are also those people who do not think that “low taxes” are themselves desirable–people who would be happy to tax, just to take money away from some people or to discourge some activities–and people who do not think that “high services” are good. But those are minorities, I believe. The main argument for high taxes is that it can pay for services, and the main argument for low services is that they cost money. And I’m not getting into the subtleties of tax policy here, because I’m addressing Robin’s original point about “low taxes” in general.

Here’s my point. Once we think in terms of the (admittedly simplified) tradeoff, it’s pretty clear what the conservative position is on taxes (at least, in the current U.S. context). The position is that whatever the government can do with additional tax money is not, in practice, worth the cost in taxes that we’d have to pay for it. To connect to Robin’s categories (he writes that conservatives respect “leaders who respect authority, do their job, help their neighbors, raise their kids, go to church, and go to war when needed,” I guess the point is that leaders tend to be on the upper side of the income distribution and, in the current political climate, are more likely to be hit by a tax increase. Still, though, I think you’re talking about where you stand on a tradeoff.

The other issue Robin discusses is gay marriage. Again, let’s put this on a continuum, which is pretty easy in this case, given that a few years ago, just about nobody was talking about gay marriage, and a few decades ago, gays weren’t even on the radar screen politically. To simplify, the conservative view is that the gains to gay people from letting them marry are more than counterbalanced by the losses involved in abandoning the traditional restrictions of marriage. The liberal view is that the balance is the other way. Not the liberals think tradition doesn’t matter at all–they’re still in favor of keeping marriage itself, but they are weighing things differently and come to a different point on the tradeoff. (Again, I’m ignoring the minority of people who don’t want gay people to be happy, or, at the other extreme, those who would abolish marriage altogether.) As in the earlier example, once you express attitudes as a tradeoff, things seem more clear. No need to think that liberals’ views are really about gay activists having “earned theor group more respect.” This is not to deny the importance of gay activists in shifting public opinion on the issue; I just don’t think that attitudes toward gay activists have much to do with liberals’ attitudes on marriage.

P.S. Why did I just write all this? The obvious (and true) answer is that I’m in the middle of a lot of projects I have lots to do and little time to do it in, and blogging is a great form of procrastination. Beyond this general answer, though, one of my big research interests is political polarization, and perceptions of polarization, I usually study public opinion, but it’s interesting to look at particular cases, too.

16 thoughts on “Once more on the political ideology thing

  1. I agree with with you that it is incredibly important to really understand both sides of an argument — and if there are more than two, then you should endeavor to understand those as well.

    * This is the best way to uncover flaws in your own thinking, and thereby to come to positions that you feel better about, or to verify that you should feel good about your position.

    * If you are interested in convincing others or bringing about compromise, you really need to understand where others stand so that you might be able to lead them elsewhere.

    * There are issues of basic human respect for others.

    However, I think you miss a larger set of trade offs that are quite relevant to the tax issue, and many others.

    There often is a trade off between individualism and community. Some are more inclined believe that we are responsible for ourselves and those closest to us, and others are more inclined to a sense of community responsibility. Heck, the span of the that community that they feel responsible for — and that is responsible for them — is itself variable.

    And so perhaps there is a spectrum with pure individualism on one end, and selfless communitarianism (or something) on the other.

    I would suggest that generally conservatives value individualism — which at it worst can take the form of "I get to keep mine and f*** the rest of you" — and liberals generally value community.

    I think that many conservatives actually *do* think that services are bad. They think that people should be responsible for themselves and for carrying their own weight. They think that services undermind people's ability or drive to be responsible for themselves, and are therefore inherently bad, even apart from the cost.

  2. in reducing the debate to a single dimensional hotelling line, aren't you also charicaturizing? i think there are a multitude of tradeoffs to contend with (some are real – liberty vs. security – and some are fictitious – liberty vs. godlessness).

    also can one really say that they've come to understand their political foe's point of view? if i were to be honest with myself, i would say its completely incomprehensible to me why any reasonable person would hold conservative views.

    why is polarization a bad thing? hegel created an entire theory of history based on it.

  3. Robin just doesn't live up to his own standards.
    His skepticism is completely domain depended.
    Robin doesn't believe in scientific analysis when it comes to making statements about what all liberals or all conservatives think but think that making claims without providing evidence for them is perfectly okay in that domain.

    "Nobody in American politics supports a 100% tax rate or a 0% tax rate." that depends on what you consider to be 'American politics'.
    A 0% tax rate is no mainstream position but Ron Paul had quite a success with saying that the income tax should be abolished with in effect means setting it to 0%.

  4. Honestly, it sounds like Mr Hanson is a libertarian, who's trying to portray both liberals and conservatives as espousing their beliefs for stupid reasons.

  5. [We're constraining the discussion to the U.S. I just want that to be explicit.]

    If we're going to talk about political ideology, we need to be clear who we are talking about. Are we talking about deliberate ideologues, people who consciously think about their political ideology or the much larger group who self-identify with the political or conservative label on surveys? The analysis is, I think, completely different.

    For deliberate ideologues, the choice reflects their assessment of the government's role in shaping the social structures of society. Conservatives want the government, at the very least, to preserve the social, economic, and cultural status quo. The more reactionary elements want the government to roll back some social and cultural changes to recreate their idealized version of the past. Preserving the status quo doesn't mean doing nothing though. Conservatives want the government to work actively towards preventing change. Interestingly, the government activism preferred by conservatives doesn't cost much (it's about enforcing rules and norms), while the political program of liberals clearly does. Hence, the divide on taxes.

    Liberals, on the other hand, see the government's job as one of redressing past wrongs, ensuring a level playing field, and ameliorating the effects of economic change. That costs money. Certainly, some parts of the liberal agenda don't require government expenditures, but much of it does.

    If you look at gay marriage, the conservative position is pretty obvious. The liberal position is not so clear. It was only after the conservative movement pushed hard to ban gay marriage that liberals moved to support it. By writing discrimination into the law, the conservatives created a situation that forced liberal ideologues to take a stand.

    I think the strategic view of conservatives was that because gay marriage was so unpopular among the general population, forcing liberals to support it was a smart move. It didn't work out that way because conservative ideologues (as well as liberal and libertarian ones) don't understand how 'normal' people think about political issues.

  6. Hey Andrew,

    I think you keep reading Hanson's statement about gay activists incorrectly. It says, "Gay activists earned their group more respect," which means (sorry to be pedantic), "The work of gay activists earned gays more respect in the eyes of liberals."

    If you think about it, this is exactly what happened: it wasn't until a current of gay activism in the U.S. in the 1970's raised the profile of people who were often the targets of persecution for their sexual orientation, that gay rights became a consideration of politically liberal aligned people.

  7. We all have conscious and unconscious motivations. Robin thinks our unconscious motivations are more important than you do.

    The relationship between our conscious and unconscious motivations is complex, and still not particularly well understood. Conscious motivation is more calculating and derives conclusions from chains of reason, unconscious motivation is more emotional. One cannot simply add conscious motivation and unconscious motivation together to get a behavioral outcome. Of course, conscious/unconscious is a false dichotomy.

    Perhaps the right question is, what sort of novel predictions do each of your perspectives make?

  8. Libertarians would fall into the minority. They would oppose services even if they were more efficiently provided by government because they would consider them restrictions on their freedom though they would not object to people voluntarily agreeing to them. They consider country clubs voluntary and countries involuntary even though there is little difference between them; it is just easier to leave a country club than a country. Libertarians would prefer no marriage at all but if forced by convention to have it, than would have it for all. Only individual benefits and social costs count, not individual costs or social benefits.

  9. Can we stipulate that a definition of an ideological group is only valid if members of that community think it's fair? For instance, as a conservative, I would consider some of the definitions of conservatism I'm seeing here as skewed and very misleading.

  10. Andrew,
    In ruling out the small minorities that dont sit on this continuum, I think you are ruling out the libetarian touchstone that has no taxes (no income tax, no sales taxes, no levies, only fees paid for services rendered) and where the govt has no role in marriage (effectively abolishing the modern concept of marriage). Or maybe the priors these people use would be heavily skewd to the extremes with a point-mass on the no tax/no marriage endpoints….

  11. William: Yes, that all sounds reasonable to me.

    Emily: Good point about the role of the activists; I was misunderstanding Robin's claim there. I still feel that, for liberals, the gay marriage is fundamentally on where you stand on the tradeoff between individual action and traditional values in this domain. I don't see it as being about "officially respecting" anyone.

    Michael: I realize that Robin was writing about unconscious motivations. I just think he's wrong or, at the very least, has no evidence for what to me seem like unkind caricatures of both liberals and conservatives. Regarding your other question: I have no novel predictions on this right no, but that's a good question!

    David: I recognize that I'm dealing with mainstream ideologies and excluding important groups represented by Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, and others. I agree that there are a lot of different political ideologies out there, many of which probably have a lot to offer compared to the standard choices.

  12. I've tried to resist this, but Hanson keeps returning to the the signaling persona. Here's the signal I get from libertarians: an insufferably smug belief in their own intellectual and moral superiority. They seem to be perpetually caught in a pretty typical teenage fantasy:

    •In the libertarian view, we should most respect "self-made" men or women, able to achieve glory with minimal help from government, family, or community, if only such meddling outsiders would get out of the way.

    For teenagers, that's an important phase to pass through. It gives folks the courage to 'leave the safe nest' of the family and strike out on their own. Most of us grow out of it though and realize that we benefit from society.

    The libertarian utopia has been tried many times. Dodge City in the 1870's and modern-day Somalia are but two examples. People always end up begging for the intervention of that evil taxing government. Libertarians ought to wonder why that it is.

  13. Does talking about trade-offs simplify anything? In particular, does it explain why politics is one-dimensional, why people's opinions on unrelated topics are correlated?

    I doubt it and I doubt RH's specific claims do either. But I think looking at unconscious motivation is more likely to do so than looking at rhetoric.

  14. Douglas:

    1. My point about talking about tradeoffs is that I think it can be easier to understand others–especially those who disagree with us–by putting their views on a continuum where our views fall as well. This is my suggested alternative to Robin's view that liberals and conservatives are just different sorts of people than libertarians.

    2. I don't really think Robin is "looking at unconscious motivation." I think he's speculating at unconscious motivation. I'm speculating too; I just happen to think that my speculations make more sense. Neither of us is "looking at rhetoric"; I agree with Robin that motivation != rhetoric.

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