Why liberals can’t understand conservatives

From Telegraph blogs, March 6, 2012


There was an interesting post in the Independent the other day about the rise of libertarianism:

There’s a silent revolution happening on campuses across the world. Libertarian activism is on the rise. Political figures like Ron Paul have started to draw huge support from younger voters, but the trend seems to be much deeper and more sustained than any single political campaign. Rather than simply throwing support behind individuals and politicians, students are rallying around distinctly pro-liberty ideas and ideologies.

Now of course Ron Paul is not going to become the Republican presidential candidate, and the figures quoted here – of 100 people at Liberty League conferences – are still small compared to, say, the enormous numbers of young people who attend Left-wing rallies, whether of the green, liberal or socialist variety (or some concoction of the three). But I have noticed that a fair number of politically active young people appear these days seem to be libertarian, which would have been unknown a decade back.

George Monbiot has noticed it as well, writing today about the influence of libertarian writer Ayn Rand:

It has a fair claim to be the ugliest philosophy the postwar world has produced. Selfishness, it contends, is good, altruism evil, empathy and compassion are irrational and destructive. The poor deserve to die; the rich deserve unmediated power. It has already been tested, and has failed spectacularly and catastrophically. Yet the belief system constructed by Ayn Rand, who died 30 years ago today, has never been more popular or influential.

He adds:

Like all philosophies, Objectivism is absorbed, secondhand, by people who have never read it. I believe it is making itself felt on this side of the Atlantic: in the clamorous new demands to remove the 50p tax band for the very rich, for instance; or among the sneering, jeering bloggers who write for the Telegraph and the Spectator, mocking compassion and empathy, attacking efforts to make the word a kinder place.

Ouch. Monbiot has a thing about libertarians, writing against the philosophy here and here, where he characterises “the great political conflict of our age” as being “between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other”.

There’s more nuance in the world of Harry Potter than in the world of George Monbiot, where the Right really are the forces of evil. So I do hope that someone buys him a copy of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which looks at why some people become conservatives and some liberals and asks why both sides inevitably start to demonise each other. (I can’t recommend it highly enough, and will review at some point next week, alongside my liberal colleague Tom Chivers.)

Haidt suggests that human beings have six moral foundations, a desire for care over harm, fairness, liberty over oppression, loyalty, authority, and sanctity, and that these govern our politics and religions. Surveying tens of thousands of self-identified liberals and conservatives with a series of ethical questions, he concluded that those on the Left were only really motivated by the first three, but (social) conservatives care about all six, roughly equally.

Haidt grew interested in the subject because, as a card-carrying Democrat, he became frustrated at the way that John Kerry was unable to connect with the American public during the 2004 elections; how could Democrats understand people’s desire to fight injustice and protect the weak on the one hand, and yet be completely blind to their desire for patriotism or faith or genuine concerns about free riders? The Left has traditionally dismissed these beliefs with various explanations based on Marx’s idea of false consciousness, but they are genuine human instincts.

Because they only appeal to three of our moral flavours, liberals have a disadvantage appealing to people outside particular middle-class, metropolitan cliques. It also makes it more difficult for them to understand conservatives than vice versa. Haidt, along with two other academics, conducted a test to identify how well people understood the beliefs of the other team. He writes:

The results were clear and consistent. Moderate and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as ‘very liberal’.

The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with questions such as ‘One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenceless animal’ or ‘Justice is the most important requirement for a society,’ liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree.

In other words, they genuinely did not understand that conservatives do care about these things. Monbiot’s columns can be quite amusing because it’s clear he thinks that Right-wingers spend their time smoking cigars around a boardroom cackling as they decide which vulnerable group to destroy and harm next, whether for profit or prejudice. Either that, or that they are too stupid to know any better. He seems to find it impossible to comprehend that some good people might be conservative for compassionate, noble, genuinely held and valid reasons, even if they could be mistaken.

And yet, as Haidt’s research also demonstrated, libertarians are not conservatives at all. Self-identified libertarians expressed very strong reactions to the issues of liberty and fairness and almost no reaction whatsoever to the conservative-only ideas of loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Libertarians tend to be pro-immigration, for instance, having little interest in the “collectivist” philosophy of nationalism, an idea which appeals to the conservative loyalty instinct; this is what makes it so absurd when the Guardian describes American libertarians as “Far-Right” – whoever heard of a libertarian concentration camp? Libertarians have very liberal views on things like gay marriage, which upsets the sanctity foundation of social conservatives. As for authority – libertarians believe in the rule of law (and in the American case, the constitution), but it has a rebellious aspect that perhaps explains its appeal to the young (I also suspect that young libertarian movements suffer less of the dweeb effect that harms young conservative movements generally, failing to attract sexually attractive people and so the prospect of coupling).

Libertarians are only called “Right-wing” because the relative strength of the Left over the past half-century, and its obsession with the goal of equality (an unworkable idea but one that appeals to our sense of “liberty/oppression”) has made the two groups allies. Of course there is the probability that smashing the state would probably help to make society more conservative in some ways, since bohemian lifestyles require having someone else to pick up the cheque if it all goes wrong, but libertarians are not motivated by this, but rather by a burning resentment at the way the state has become over-mighty and interfering. That these disparate groups can easily be lumped together only goes to illustrate the growing power of the all-powerful the statist Left-liberalism they both oppose for different reasons.

What do you think?