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.