Looking Glass Laughing Gas

Jonathan Haidt is making a nice little career as a liberal explaining the nuances of conservatives to other liberals. He certainly has some interesting ideas on the supposed dichotomy of the American political animal, so much so that I am considering adding his latest book – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion – to my Kindle app.

But, from what I’ve seen in this interview with left-leaning journalist Bill Moyers on the left-leaning PBS, he really isn’t adding anything new to the conversation outside of attempting to change the lexicon. (He refers to confirmation bias as “consensual hallucinations”, for example, which is a bizarre misnomer. A hallucination is a perception of something that isn’t there, whereas confirmation bias is ignoring one side of an argument while exploring the second, more agreeable side.)

That, and providing us with a few laughs.

His basic thesis is that the us-versus-them mentality has divided the United States into two ideological camps as a result of our “tribal, judgmental, hyper-judgmental, hypocritical nature” and that this division has become over the past 50 years vitriolic and demonizing. He believes that there are three impetuses for this change: the realignment of the South to the Republicans as a result of the Civil Rights Act; the replacement of the Greatest Generation by the Baby Boomers and all the turmoil brought about by the “culture wars”; and how Americans became divided less by localities and more by class.

Well, it’s a theory.

Have a look-see if you like:

(Transcript is here.)

Now, Haidt is careful to point out that the supposedly placid era of political compromise (1950s, early 1960s) was an anomaly, filled with “liberal Republicans” and “conservative Democrats”, and that these parties merged to pass the Civil Rights Act, which spurred the South to become Republican by the next decade.

It’s odd, however, that the example used by Moyers to show the lack of compromise is the infamous December 2010 Lesley Stahl interview of current House Speak Boehner where he said he wouldn’t compromise his principles but rather find “common ground.” Moyers and Haidt have a good time with this stance, which seemingly portrays Republicans as being unthinking ideologues unwilling to work with the “evil” Democrats. In fact, Moyers even asks, “Boehner and the Republicans think it’s immoral to compromise, and Obama thinks it’s immoral not to compromise?” And Haidt responds, “Well, that’s true.”

It’s a telling moment, and one that ironically proves Haidt’s point, because it fails — intentionally or otherwise — to convey the context in which Boehner spoke. An interesting juxtaposition to the Boehner clip would have been Obama’s offhand remark to top Republicans in early 2009: “I won“. As in, “I won the election, Republicans, so suck it.”

Or how about the way Obama and the Democratic leadership forced Obamacare through Congress using less-than-forthright means and with not a single Republican vote in favour in either House? (Contrast that with the bipartisanship used to pass the Civil Rights Act.) In that context, and in the context of the massive Tea Party victories that put the House Republicans in power, why the Hell should Boehner be willing to compromise?

There are more than a few of these instances where Moyer specifically use Republicans for examples of ideological tribalism, and Haidt happily obliges, demonstrating a degree of cognitive dissonance which would be amusing if it weren’t so tiresome.

Haidt organizes the various human moralities into six primary foundations: care, or compassion; liberty; fairness; loyalty; authority; and sanctity. By his reckoning, liberals score very high on the first one. They care more than conservatives about the well-being of others, and they care more about caring than liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Caring and compassion are number one.

Meanwhile, conservatives rate fairly high across all six foundations of morality. In other words, they have a healthy appreciation for the broad spectrum of our cultural morality.

So it’s nice to know I’m not a psycho. Then again, this theory, while mildly interesting, is hardly verifiable. Consider that those surveyed for this data would have almost certainly self-identified as liberals, conservatives, etc., but as both Democrats and Republicans are big-tent parties, the morality of liberals and conservatives cannot be very consistent. All his conclusions ought to be viewed in that light, in that they contain an element of truth but, ultimately, they are necessarily simplistic when compared to the wide, varied fabric of Man.

But let’s humour him for a moment. The most entertaining part of the interview is when Haidt peers through the looking glass and attempts to describe conservatism to his interviewer. In this case, that conservatives have a different view of “fairness” than liberals. While liberals focus on the outcomes of prosperity, health, whatever, the conservatives are more concerned about the means. In other words, liberals don’t like the gulf between the rich and poor, while conservatives think it’s fair for them to keep their own earnings, at least to a point.

But Haidt goes overboard with this. He says that conservative fairness “adds proportionality”, that “if people work hard, they should succeed” but also that “if people don’t work hard, they should fail.” In addition, “if anyone bails them out, that is evil.”

Whoa there, Nellie. Really? That we conservatives actually want people to fail? That helping people out is “evil”? Hardly. Not wanting to have success punished doesn’t mean that the lazy or foolish should be punished. Rather, the simple answer is that the lazy (or disadvantaged or whatever) shouldn’t take what the hard-working (or lucky or savvy) fairly earned just because they’re lazy (or worse off or whatever).

(Being such a data junkie, I’m surprised that Haidt appears unaware that there is plenty of evidence suggesting that conservatives are far more likely to give to charity than liberals.)

Warming to his theme, Haidt doesn’t think conservatives value freedom as much as “karma”, which is somehow equivalent to the “Protestant work ethic” (this is how liberals talk, by the way):

Karma’s a Sanskrit word for, literally for, work or fruit. That is, if you do some work, you should get the fruit of it. If I help you, I will eventually get the fruit of it. Even if you don’t help me, something will happen. It’s just a law of the universe. So, Hindus traditionally believed it’s … that the universe will balance itself, right itself. It’s like gravity. If I am lazy, good-for-nothing lying scoundrel, the universe will right that and I will suffer. But then along comes liberal do-gooders and the federal government to bail them out. So I think the conservative view, for social conservatives this is … that basically liberals are trying to revoke the law of karma. Almost as though, imagine somebody trying to revoke the law of gravity, and everything’s going to float away with the chaos.

Ah, no. That’s not it. I mean, sure, that’s the sentiment behind some of this. Who doesn’t resent having their hard-earned money being wasted on shiftless losers? But it’s more than that. There’s a lot of money wasted on well-meaning, decent people who can’t seem to get a break. And there’s a lot of money wasted on people who don’t need a break, but who are simply in a position to benefit from government programs. And there’s a lot of money just wasted in the administration and operation of these schemes, which benefits no one outside the privileged public sector unions.

The worst of it is that it’s not making a lick of difference. Too many of these social schemes operate so that the poorest recipients just get by. They survive. That’s a terrible objective. We should have them rise out of their situations and become self-reliant and not need assistance.

Instead, this redistribution keeps this class of recipients in their place and no better. Instead of helping them, it’s making it worse in too many circumstances.

That’s the evil, not that lazy people are getting what they didn’t earn, but that good people are being incentivized not to be self-reliant. Not to be free.

Freedom does matter, and Haidt just shows us all that he hasn’t learned his own lesson — that liberals don’t value the morality of freedom. He suffers from “consensual hallucinations”, if you will.

Anyways, it’s quite the entertaining interview, especially when Bill Moyers — the man who approved the “Daisy ad” — says that “There is so much anger and incivility in our politics today.” Woo hoo! Stop it, Bill! Stop it!

Thanks for the laughs, fellas.

%d bloggers like this: