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My reply to Robin Hanson’s reply to my comment on his attribution of underlying political motivations of conservatives and liberals

Time moves fast in the blogosphere. This particular discussion started four days ago when 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.

This struck me as a ridiculous caricature of the views of conservatives, followed by a ridiculous caricature of the views of liberals. But Robin is an interesting guy–I disagree with him more than 50% of the time, I think, but it’s always worth thinking about what he has to say–and so I wrote as much. My take on it was that Robin was having difficulty understanding the views of people who disagree with him, and I suggested the idea of thinking of political positions as tradeoffs, with “liberal” or “conservative” positions on any given issue corresponding to different weights being given to the goals being traded off.

Robin responded by emphasizing that he wasn’t talking about stated conservative or liberal ideology but about underlying motivations. Robin writes:

Andrew is a smart guy, who says he appreciates signaling stories, but he seems to have trouble here in even comprehending the idea that our unconscious strategies on politics could differ greatly from our conscious thoughts.

To which I reply: No! I appreciate the importance of unconscious motivations. I just don’t buy Robin’s suggestions. I don’t see him offering evidence for them either, but that doesn’t really bother me–I’m not really offering evidence for my speculations either. The real point is that they don’t ring true to me.

Here are some unconscious motivation stories that I think are plausible. I’m not saying I agree with them, just that they seem like they could be true for some reasonable percentage of the population:

– White liberals support gay rights because this allows them to feel they’re sticking up for the underdog, without having to actually associate with members of minority groups.

– Conservatives support low taxes because they’re fundamentally racist, and they don’t want their tax money going to minorities.

– Liberals support high taxes because, deep down, they identify with government bureaucrats (even if, consciously, they think of themselves as oppositional rebels) and they like the idea of spending other people’s money.

– Male conservatives oppose gay rights because they want to control women (even if, consciously, they don’t feel this), and they oppose any changes to traditional sex roles.

OK, we could go on and on with this. My point is that there are lots of these unconscious stories that have some elements of truth to them. I just think it’s odd that (a) Robin picked just two of these stories out of the many many that could be picked, and (b) the two stories he picked sound completely implausible to me. Again, neither of us is offering evidence here, I’m just giving my impression.

P.S. Robin has more here on political signaling theories. I’m sympathetic to his reasoning–I don’t think “signaling” is as important as he does, but it probably is more important than most of us (myself included) give it credit for. That said, I still find his original descriptions of the attitudes (unconscious or otherwise) of conservatives and liberals to be implausible. I think Robin’s argument would be stronger if he separated the signaling ideas from his speculations about conservatives and taxes, or liberals and gay marriage.

11 Comments

  1. Dave says:

    It seems to me that the answer to Robin's original question about why libertarians feel a closer to connection to conservatives likely has many answers. You cannot easily sum up the feelings of millions of people.

    My personal impression is that many libertarians feel more strongly about economic issues than social issues, and conservatives are the ones who most closely share these economic believes. In my experience, libertarians are OK with gay marriage because they recognize that it doesn't affect them personally (assuming they are straight): just because two men get married doesn't infringe on my right to marry a woman, so why would I care? It's an indifference toward other people's actions, rather than a feeling of being restricted personally. I'm sure some feel restricted, like those who favor drug legalization. But even this is considered an extreme social position by most liberals, so no connection there either.

    Where libertarians really take issue, in my experience, is with the government's power to tax and spend. Here, they feel restricted, because their wealth is affected by decisions taken in the name of collectivism. And here is where they tend to share common ground with (the rhetoric of) conservatives.

    (sorry, would've posted this on Robin's blog, but his posts were made eons ago in blog-years, and I'm not sure he'll do a follow up)

  2. Kevembuangga says:

    My take on it was that Robin was having difficulty understanding the views of people who disagree with him

    ANY Singularitarian has "difficulty understanding the views of [non singularitarian] people"!
    Since there MUST be a one-and-only-rational-true-answer to any question which we may eventually reach by "Overcoming-our-biases" and being "Less Wrong" any opinion deviating too much from "The Truth" is certainly difficult to understand.
    That kind of brilliant cretinism seriously irks me, most especially when it applies to research in AI where it leads to some Teilhard de Chardin-esque Holy Grail quest.

  3. noahpoah says:

    The more I think about it, the more it seems like one of the best things about signaling explanations for behavior is that they're difficult, if not impossible, to scrutinize empirically. Kind of like evolutionary psychology, which, perhaps not coincidentally, Robin Hanson is also a fan of (if I remember correctly).

  4. Robin Hanson says:

    Andrew, your proposed "unconscious motivations" are in the right direction, but they differ from "unconscious strategies" in usually not having a clear direct personal payoff. I'm not sure what someone gets personally by "sticking up for the underdog", being "fundamentally racist", "identifying with bureaucrats", or "wanting to control women." I want explanations of political behavior by which the behavior is much more closely tied to actual personal rewards.

    Kevem, where do you get the idea that I'm a "singulatarian"?

    noahpoah, I don't see a reason to like hard-to-empircally-scrutinize explanations, but I won't avoid them either if they seem the most plausible.

  5. TGGP says:

    Aren't gays a minority that liberals would then be associating with? Or are you using the term "minority" to denote something other than percentage of the population?

    Most gays aren't women either, so conservative attitudes toward would probably stem from reasons other than controlling women. Abortion would be the more obvious candidate for controlling women.

  6. Andrew Gelman says:

    Robin:

    As I wrote in my addendum above, I'm sympathetic to your general line of reasoning. I just don't find your particular stories to be at all convincing, at any level.

    TGGP:

    1. Yes, you're right, I meant to say "ethnic minorities," not simply "minorities." That was sloppy of me.

    2. Many conservatives oppose abortion too, but the idea is that gay marriage threatens the traditional sex roles in which the husband is the boss in a marriage. In any case, I wouldn't take this particular story so seriously, I just meant that it and the other stories have some elements that seem plausible to me.

  7. E says:

    Robin- FWIW i think in sports rooting for the underdog/not betting chalk is a pretty clear signal that you are loyal and not jumping on a bandwagon. I wouldnt push it too far in this case but gay marriage is a pretty cheap way to stand on a principle with little risk of harming any specific people.

    Andrew- back when southern democrats were explicitly racist werent they still pro govt? If thats true it wouldnt rule out your #2, but it doesnt seems hard to believe that people migrated to a more racist friendly party and then made up racist explanations for that party's pre-existing policies… seems easier that they just took the racism and didnt worry about anything else. The idea that every position a party holds flows from one idea seems like an artifact of the observer assuming that what they see as the defining issue of the other party is everyones defining issue.

    I am curious how people in one party localities, who are in the minority party behave. Do they compromise with the dominant party on all issues (id guess not), do minority democrats and republicans compromise on the same sorts of issues? do they move outside their national party on similar kinds of issues? It seems like pretty rich ground for signaling so im curious if you have any thoughts.

  8. Kevembuangga says:

    where do you get the idea that I'm a "singulatarian"?

    May be things like that? :-)

  9. Andrew Gelman says:

    Wow–robots earning tiny salaries, within "many billion living in the volume of a current skyscraper, paying astronomical rents that would exclude most humans." Somebody should make a movie of that!

  10. Clem says:

    The pay-off in any irrational belief system is the containment of fear.

  11. Zinnurc says:

    Liberals support high taxes as long they don't have to pay it!!! and they like the idea of spending other people's money.

    I want py paycheck with ZERO Tax out!! and no SS taken out either!! but as long these Liberals are there is there a chance of happening that?