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Of Liberals, Conservatives, Rationalists, and Moral Foundations


The world is pretty good; all we have to do is not ruin it.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL I just finished reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. The book got attention mainly for its claim that political liberals recognize only two-and-a-half of the six foundations of morality: Protection from harm and freedom from oppression, plus justice in the sense of equality, while political conservatives recognize those plus justice in the sense of just desserts, and three more: Loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity.

What immediately struck me is that there is an obvious reason for this division. The history of the world prior to 1789 is dominated by horror stories inspired by the conservative moral principles. Loyalty to groups often led to killing or oppression of outsiders. The authorities that demanded respect could be reactionary, barbaric, and corrupt. Witch hunts and pogroms were common as ways to find impure, immoral, blaspheming, or otherwise offensive people, and subject them to terrible deaths.

On the other hand, before the modern era, it's harder to think of really bad things done by groups who were trying to protect or free people. You might come up with examples, but they are rare and debatable.

The split on justice reinforces the point. Liberals like equality of outcome. "Why is that man a slave and that man a master?" is a clearly positive question. Conservatives also like to be sure people get the rewards and punishments they have earned. Retribution has often been a terrible scourge that led to cycles of horrific violence.

The Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, took place in Europe and the future United States from about 1690 to 1789. During that century, it was easy for thinkers to conclude freedom, equality, and taking care of the poor and weak were the great goals of society, as the revolutionary French slogan "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" attests. The French Revolution is also where we get the modern political connotations of "left" and "right."

The other moral foundations -- justice in the sense of just desserts, loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity -- were important, no doubt, with important benefits, but also very dangerous. Moreover, they were usually applied incorrectly. The formal justice system was obviously unfair, loyalty was to narrow groups instead of all humans, respect was accorded to undeserving authorities, and sanctity had been exaggerated into superstition. These moral foundations needed to be redesigned rationally, with built-in limits to prevent abuse. Unfortunately, that meant that they are no longer moral foundations but flexible principles of social engineering.

The French Revolution soon turned into the Reign of Terror, which in turn gave way to a brutal militaristic emperor and decades of weak governments, despotism, revolution, and pointless wars. Sadly, this was not the last nor the worst disaster from well-intentioned attempts to free society from traditional oppressions. That dubious honor belongs to the 20th century, which had the horrors visited on the world by Communist and Fascist totalitarian superstates.

The attempts of sincere socialists to reduce the power the dangerous moral foundations have on society boomeranged. Stalin murdered the internationalists who held true to the Marxist theory of worldwide socialism and made loyalty appeals from Rodina-mat, the Mother Homeland. Hitler favored sanctity metaphors, which may not have been metaphors, to urge extermination of filthy untermensch who would pollute Aryan purity. Mao raised respect for authority to heights undreamed of by his predecessor emperors. In less than four years, the Angkar courts of justice found cause to execute between a fifth and a third of all Cambodians.

Of course, socialist dreams do not always lead to abomination. Sometimes programs to make society more caring, equal, and free succeed. At other times, they fail less spectacularly. Failed reform may cause a weak government to collapse, often followed by anarchy or military takeover. In many countries in the 1970s, and many more today, socialism led to stagnant economies and unpayable debts.

Stated this way, the liberal attempt to rely on only two-and-a-half of the six moral foundations seems far riskier than it's worth. But you get the opposite impression if you consider the cumulative effect over the last three centuries from these efforts. Recent books like Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Paul Seabright's The Company of Strangers make clear the tremendous progress the human race has made as a result of Enlightenment ideas: Progress in science, justice, comfort, safety, freedom, education, and culture.

There are many types of liberals and conservatives, and many people who do not fit neatly into either category. But here is a good working definition for the purposes of this essay: A liberal is someone whose main fear is backsliding or just stagnating in progress toward an enlightened society; a conservative is someone whose main fear is the damage done by failed government efforts to accelerate progress toward an enlightened society.

Most liberal policies have superficial appeal. If there are unemployed people and useful work to be done, it's a win-win for the government to hire them to do the work. If people are paying extortionate rents and enduring mistreatment to live in overcrowded, unhealthy, and dangerous slums, let's bulldoze the neighborhood and build clean, healthy housing and rent it at fair prices. If people are poor and oppressed, free them and give them the resources they need to prosper. If inefficient industries are polluting the environment and mistreating workers, let's discourage them with taxes and use the revenue to subsidize exciting new green and worker-friendly industries.

F. A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom explained one problem. Things are always far more complicated than they appear in simple descriptions of liberal policies. However complex the legislation, however much is spent on implementation, however honest and competent the administrators are, it is impossible to aggregate the detailed local information necessary to do these things right. On top of this, the legislation is often flawed, people skimp on implementation, and administrators may be dishonest or incompetent.

That doesn't mean policies always fail, but it does mean results are unpredictable and hard to measure. It also means that good and bad effects will spill over to all aspects of society and play out over long periods of time. This leads to frustration at the slow progress and unpleasant side effects. Even if policies are more successful than average in the long run, there will be periods of reversals and embarrassments.

The government might react by shutting some programs down and modifying others, and proceeding by slow trial and error to eventually get to a good result. But that seldom happens. Instead, the government may be voted out or overthrown, or the failed policies may create constituencies that keep them alive. The worst result is that the government blames saboteurs and enacts repressive laws to force its failed policies to work. The well-intentioned originators of policies are forced out of power, and replaced by increasingly brutal apparatchiks who in turn enlist increasingly nasty secret police.

Jonathan Haidt gives a different explanation, which also has some validity. The moral foundations that liberals want to replace with safer, rational versions represent essential social glue. Yes, retribution has led to cycles of terrible violence, but we need strong and fair rule of law, and tolerance of unequal outcomes if they are arrived at fairly. Loyalty can lead people to do terrible things, but it remains an essential virtue. Respect for authority impedes progress, but no respect for authority results in chaos. Preserving sanctity is the motivation for many acts of civility without which we are uncivilized. Forcing liberal reforms without respect for these principles causes harm to organic society. It can be like aggressive surgery that leads to the famous line, "The operation was successful, but the patient died."

The picture drawn above might be called rational liberals and conservatives. There are also ignorant people in both camps: Liberals unaware of the terrible problems their policies have sometimes caused, and conservatives unaware of the tremendous gains civilization owes to liberal reforms. Another group is aware of these things, but doesn't think that they're so bad. Some people blame all failures of liberal policy either on evil opponents, or claim the policies were not really liberal in the first place, or even that "Hitler wasn't so bad." Some conservatives claim the world was a better place in the past, maybe even that "slavery had its advantages."

Other people are opportunists who have no political views. Instead, they support policies in their immediate narrow self-interest. Politicians, at least those successful at the national level, have to appeal to so many groups with inconsistent views and goals that they cannot articulate rational positions. For this reason, it's a mistake to identify "liberal" and "conservative" with "Democrat" and "Republican," or even with any specific set of policies. Practical politics are too complicated to correspond to simple moral imperatives.

If you are among the rationalists, I think you have to concede that both rational liberals and rational conservatives have points. We do want to make the world a better place for everyone; we want to reduce poverty, oppression, and undeserved inequality. But we'd like to do it effectively, and without destroying civilization. Liberals judge that the gains from pressing our goals aggressively outweigh the risks, while conservatives make the opposite judgment. But neither one has much objective support for their views, or at least not much that could convince someone from the other side.

Moreover, I think both flavors of rationalist have more in common with each other than either does with people who join them on the left or the right, but for different reasons. For one thing, it's easy to compromise. We eliminate the most unsuccessful liberal programs that cause the most harm to conservative moral foundations, and push gently forward the most successful liberal programs that cause the least harm. This is pretty nearly the opposite of most proposals that are labeled "bipartisan" today, because they are not true compromises, but divisions of spoils among opportunists, divisions that both sides scheme to overturn even before agreement is reached.

Another point of agreement is that advancing liberal ideals without force -- that is, not through the government -- is an unalloyed good. All rationalists like freedom, equality, and charity; they just disagree about how much the government can advance those things without risking tyranny. Another unalloyed good is reducing the size and power of government without danger to freedom, equality, or charity. No rationalists like the use of force; liberals are just more willing than conservatives to believe force will not be necessary, and that if force is necessary, it can be applied surgically to produce the desired result with minimal violence.

Finally, rationalists of both stripes give some credit to the other side. Rational liberals recognize all six moral foundations need some amount of respect, while rational conservatives recognize that two-and-a-half of the foundations lead to progress while the other three-and-a-half, while necessary for civilization, often impede progress. Even the liberals most besotted by progress, the ones who think we're on the cusp of a golden age or are a hair's breadth ahead of disaster, have to admit that there are times when liberal values are being pushed too hard and too fast. Even the conservative most suspicious of progress, the ones who think we've already spent nearly all our social capital and that most proposed advances are opportunistic scams, know that there are times when liberal values are ignored, to everyone's detriment. Someone who always or never supports liberal ideas is not a rationalist.

Personally, I think we're at a time when almost all rationalists should tend toward conservative opinions. The areas of the economy most controlled by the government -- health care, banking, and education -- are all in clear crisis; customers are abused and costs are spiraling to budget-busting levels, while in the relatively free parts of the economy, customer service has improved to unprecedented levels and costs are falling rapidly. The non-rational liberal answers -- more government regulation to fix the problems, finger pointing at storybook villains, and suppression of conservative moral foundations -- are the familiar paths to socialist disaster. That doesn't mean that we should deregulate everything tomorrow, but solutions should be to simplify, decentralize, and experiment rather than the reverse.

The use of force has risen to levels completely unjustified by rational threats. The number of non-violent offenders in prison and the Draconian penalties for newly-invented crimes like carrying four ounces of liquid onto an airplane are appalling. The number of domestic armed government employees, and the deadliness of those arms, are greater than ever before. We are fighting two wars and discussing a third.

Our fiscal situation has gone from impossible to absurd. No level of taxation can possibly pay for all the promises the government has made, yet it cannot even agree to slow the rate of increase in spending, nor to produce honest accounts. All its energy is devoted to avoiding what it calls "the fiscal cliff," otherwise known as cutting the spending it implemented as "targeted" and "temporary" four years ago. Our monetary policy is to use central bank assets to buy government debt.

Respect for civil rights and rule of law has decayed. Complexity of government has exploded, as has the size of indirect government sectors like lobbyists, tax accountants, and lawyers who maneuver through government rules. More and more people are dependent on the government every year.

The anomalous thing is that these giant steps toward totalitarianism are happening in a time when everything outside the government is going great. Other socialist rampages were touched off by intolerable social conditions. But we are seeing the fastest improvement in the standard of living in human history, with more people in the world leaving poverty every year than could have been imagined even a short time ago. The world as a whole is enjoying unprecedented peace and prosperity. There has never been a better time to beat swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.

The problems we do have are global and require cooperation, innovation, and enthusiasm rather than anything that can be legislated or obtained by force. And we have the information and communication tools to support the effort, for the first time in history.

Another anomaly is that both major political parties contributed to the attack on Enlightenment virtues, and the worst ideas had bipartisan consensus.

I believe there is a time to use organized force to fight oppression, to aid the needy, and to redress unjustified inequality. I know these cause damage to the other moral foundations, but that damage is sometimes necessary for progress, and progress can be well worth the sacrifices. The injuries inflicted heal, and we find new things to be loyal to, new authorities to respect, new understandings of appropriate law, and different ideas of sanctity. It takes some time, but we can build healthy civilizations with six firm moral foundations around a liberal core.

However, I think the current time is one for moral healing. Turn down the violence and reduce the spending. Simplify and deregulate. Return to the Bill of Rights and the rule of law. Attack oppression, inequality, and need though voluntary means, not with guns. The world is pretty good; all we have to do is not ruin it.
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