Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Elite Moderation

In the aftermath of last week's UK election (in which the Tories won a significant victory, winning a number of seats with Labour voting records stretching back to the 1920s) a couple people were sharing around this old Jonathan Haidt piece from the Guardian on "Why working-class people vote conservative". I think it's right as far as it goes in describing how people with more conservative leanings don't necessarily see themselves as "voting against their interests" when prioritizing cultural issues.
One reason the left has such difficulty forging a lasting connection with voters is that the right has a built-in advantage – conservatives have a broader moral palate than the liberals (as we call leftists in the US). Think about it this way: our tongues have taste buds that are responsive to five classes of chemicals, which we perceive as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savoury. Sweetness is generally the most appealing of the five tastes, but when it comes to a serious meal, most people want more than that.

In the same way, you can think of the moral mind as being like a tongue that is sensitive to a variety of moral flavours. In my research with colleagues at, we have identified six moral concerns as the best candidates for being the innate "taste buds" of the moral sense: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Across many kinds of surveys, in the UK as well as in the USA, we find that people who self-identify as being on the left score higher on questions about care/harm. For example, how much would someone have to pay you to kick a dog in the head? Nobody wants to do this, but liberals say they would require more money than conservatives to cause harm to an innocent creature.

But on matters relating to group loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity (treating things as sacred and untouchable, not only in the context of religion), it sometimes seems that liberals lack the moral taste buds, or at least, their moral "cuisine" makes less use of them. For example, according to our data, if you want to hire someone to criticise your nation on a radio show in another nation (loyalty), give the finger to his boss (authority), or sign a piece of paper stating one's willingness to sell his soul (sanctity), you can save a lot of money by posting a sign: "Conservatives need not apply."

In America, it is these three moral foundations that underlie most of the "cultural" issues that, according to duping theorists, are used to distract voters from their self-interest. But are voters really voting against their self-interest when they vote for candidates who share their values? Loyalty, respect for authority and some degree of sanctification create a more binding social order that places some limits on individualism and egoism. As marriage rates plummet, and globalisation and rising diversity erodes the sense of common heritage within each nation, a lot of voters in many western nations find themselves hungering for conservative moral cuisine.
I think this certainly covers a significant portion of what motivates non-elites in voting for right wing politics. However, I think often a certain amount of right wing economics is as much an attraction as the right wing cultural politics. This seems counter-intuitive to a left wing which seems convinced that anyone who is not a millionaire would benefit from supporting their economic policies.

For instance, lowering taxes and simplifying taxes are both fairly popular ideas with the rank-and-file right. Sure, it may be that more actual dollars from a tax cut go to the rich (the rich already pay the majority of the federal taxes, so a broad tax cut naturally helps them most) but a lower tax rate is a lower tax rate. Indeed, seeing your income tax drop by $2,000 may mean a lot more to someone making $50k a year than seeing it drop by five times that much would for someone making five times as much. Tax complexity is also particularly frustrating for less affluent conservatives. If your total tax refund is going to be $500, having to spend $100 of that on getting help to file complicated forms is all the more frustrating. You just paid a 20% tax on your refund due to tax complexity. Whereas for those whose lives are already complex when it comes to finances, having to deal with a tax accountant may seem perfectly natural. So even though a flat tax would be a massive windfall for the rich, the idea that you could fill out your taxes on a form the size of postcard and just be done is massively attractive to the lower earning kind of conservative.

I think also, however, that it can at times be easier to have a right wing approach to actual benefit programs when one is comparatively low income. Perhaps I'm over-extrapolating from personal experience, but I know that back when I was trying to pay rent in California while we lived off a $14/hr income, I was far, far less sympathetic towards benefit programs. I didn't want to be given what I saw as a handout. I wanted to have enough money left to cover our monthly expenses. Earning a raise or promotion at work seemed like it was a validation that I was working hard and doing work better than others could. I valued those things tremendously. By comparison, getting a raise as part of a "raise the minimum wage" effort would have simply emphasized how close to the bottom I was and made me feel like I was getting paid just for showing up, not because I was doing work well. Union-based approaches to work also frustrated me, because the union environments I'd encountered were very focused on how much breaktime you got and only doing precisely the work you were supposed to do -- by contrast I was always convinced I could make myself stand out from the pack (and thus eventually make more money) by showing that I could work longer, learn faster, and do more types of work than others.

From where I sit now, it's a lot easier to sign on to the basic guilt pitch (not everyone is as fortunate as you, and you need to make sure that there are benefits for those who aren't) and also for the elite pitch (some people simply aren't going to excel in their jobs, and we need to make sure those people make a good living wage too.) As a result, I'm more moderate on economic issues than I was fifteen years ago, and I think that's pretty directly as a result of making more money. Indeed, I'd go further and say that these kind of elitism-based arguments are one of the things that tends to push many elites into the moderate-to-center-left political camp. Sure, maybe elites would be a bit better off under a more right-leaning kind of tax-and-spend policy, but the upper middle class easily lets itself slide into a self perception as the tribunes of the working people standing up to protect them against the real elites in the top 1%.

I wouldn't have drifted towards the center if I didn't think I was right to change, but I try also to temper my current political commitments by imagining what my younger self would think of my current self. No one likes to be looked down on, and I think it's pretty common on the middle class right to swat away elite offers of "let us help you, because you'll never be like us" with the scorn such condescending sentiments deserve. One of the essentially right wing insights that I aim not to let go of is that people expect the basic dignity of being given the room to make their own livings, not to have it handed to them by their self appointed social betters.

No comments: