Saturday, October 07, 2017

Sapolsky (4): Left or Right? What about the Libertarians?

Robert Sapolsky thinks that our evolved human biology has some influence on our political ideology, in that all of us are born with genetically inclined dispositional preferences that influence our political behavior and our attitudes on specific political issues.  Studies of identical twins reared apart show that if you know that one of the twins is politically conservative, you can predict that the other twin is likely to be politically conservative.  So it seems that there is some genetic influence on whether one is politically conservative or liberal.  Sapolsky's thinking has been shaped by studies of the evolutionary psychology of political orientation by people like Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, and John Hibbing and his colleagues (444-455, 508-512).

This suggests two questions.  First, what does "genetic influence" mean here?  In 2008, the Journal of Politics published an article entitled "Two Genes Predict Voter Turnout," which implied a simple model in which genes directly influence political behavior.  In a previous post (here), I have argued that such a simplified genetic model cannot explain or predict the emergent complexity of political animals, due to the individuality, contingency, and historicity of their behavior.  Indeed, the failure to replicate the claims in that Journal of Politics article has forced the authors to retract what they said.  This supports my argument that the older biopolitics movement is correct in arguing for a complex interactive biopolitical framework that is superior to the simplifying models of genopolitics proposed by Hibbing et al.

In fact, over the past five years, Hibbing et al. have moved away from the simplistic model of genopolitics in adopting the complex interactive model of biopolitical theory (see Kevin Smith, Douglas Oxley, Matthew Hibbing, John Alford, and John Hibbing, "Linking Genetics and Political Attitudes: Reconceptualizing Political Ideology," Political Psychology 32 [2011]: 369-397).  This is the model accepted by Sapolsky, who sees that the genetic influence on human behavior is almost always very indirect and dependent upon a complex interaction of many factors in a specific context (see Sapolsky's citation of Smith et al. at 445, n. 32).

Instead of a simplistic model in which genetics directly influence attitudes on specific political issues, Hibbing et al. now propose a complex model that moves through six stages with environmental factors influencing five of these stages.  Here are the six stages: (1) genetics, (2) biological systems, (3) cognition/emotion information processing biases, (4) personality and values, (5) ideology, and (6) attitudes on specific political issues.  The environment influences stages 2 through 6.  Each of these stages has many interacting factors.  So, for example, (5) ideology includes not just political ideology but also many other kinds of preferences for religion, educational styles, occupation, styles of art, child rearing, music, leisure pursuits, types of humor, and more.  Political ideology is defined as "preferences for bedrock issues of social organization."

In effect, Hibbing et al. and Sapolsky have embraced what I have called "biopolitical science," which is a science that moves through three levels of deep history: the natural history of the political species, the cultural history of a political community, and the biographical history of political actors in a community.  I have illustrated this by discussing Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation at these three levels.  Such a biopolitical science would have to include all of human behavioral biology (as surveyed by Sapolsky in Behave) as well as all of the traditional fields of political science and political history.  Hey, I've never said this was going to be easy!  This has been the subject of various posts.

For Hibbing et al., the crucial factor in this complex model is political ideology understood as "preferences for bedrock issues of social organization," which assumes that there are some universal principles of social organization that were shaped in the ancient environments of human evolutionary adaptation, so that the "bedrock issues" are not as transient as the specific political issues that happen to arise at particular points in time for particular communities.  So, for example, the current debate in the United States over the Affordable Care Act is a historically unique event in American political history.  But underlying this debate, there should be some enduring "bedrock issues" that explain the ideological divisions in this debate, so that liberal Democrats tend to support Obamacare, and conservative Republicans tend to oppose it.

This leads to the second question raised by the evolutionary psychology of political orientation: How exactly should we understand the evolutionarily bedrock spectrum of political ideology?  Traditionally, American political scientists have mapped the spectrum of political ideology along a single dimension from left to right, liberal to conservative.  Although the terminology of "liberal" and "conservative" is in many ways unique to the recent history of American political culture, Hibbing et al. think that this left/right or liberal/conservative dichotomy taps into "bedrock issues of social organization" that could have been shaped by the ancient social evolution of the human species.  Sapolsky agrees.

But doesn't this give us another implausibly simplistic model that cannot account for the complex diversity of evolved political ideology?  Isn't it hard to see how the complexity of political thought and behavior could be reduced to two categories at opposite ends of one dimension--the political left or the political right--or perhaps three categories if we include the political center?  At the very least, I will argue, we need to recognize libertarianism (or classical liberalism) as a position that is neither purely liberal nor purely conservative, a position that is ignored by Sapolsky and by Hibbing et al.

The political metaphor of "left" and "right" originated in the French Revolution of 1789, when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the King and the Church who sat to the right of the President and supporters of the Revolution who sat to his left (see Marcel Gauchet, "Right and Left," in Pierre Nora and Lawrence Kritzman, eds., Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, vol. 1: Conflicts and Divisions, 241-300 [Columbia University Press, 1996]).

Against the claim that this traditional left/right dichotomy is no longer applicable to political debate today, Norberto Bobbio has contended that these terms "left" and "right" are fundamental, in that the left promotes equality, while the right promotes inequality; and this split between those favoring human equality and those favoring human inequality is an enduring political debate, rooted in the experience of human beings as both naturally equal, as members of the same human species, and naturally unequal, as showing individual diversity in their traits and propensities. 

Bobbio writes: "right and left . . . indicate opposing programs in relation to many problems whose solution is part of everyday political activity.  These contrasts concern not only ideas, but also interests and judgments on which direction society should be moving in; they exist in all societies, and it is not apparent how they could disappear" (Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction [University of Chicago Press, 1996], 3. 

Hibbing et al. quote this passage from Bobbio (Smith et al., 379).  But they ignore his point that a full accounting of political ideology requires seeing two dimensions of political thought--not just left/right (or equality/inequality) but also liberty/authoritarianism.  Combining these two dimensions, Bobbio claims, creates at least four categories.  The extreme left (such as Marxist totalitarianism) represents egalitarian authoritarianism.  The moderate left (such as liberal socialism) represents egalitarian libertarianism.  The moderate right (such as American and European conservatism) represents antiegalitarian libertarianism.  The extreme right (such as Fascism and Nazism) represents antiegalitarian authoritarianism. 

But notice the incoherence in some of these positions.  Egalitarian authoritarianism is self-contradictory.  Bobbio admits this when he says that the "egalitarian utopia" of the extreme left "turned into its opposite," when the party vanguard became the new ruling class (82).

Notice also that Bobbio does not recognize libertarianism as a distinct position.  Similarly, Sapolsky passes over libertarianism quickly with the claim that this cannot be a consistent ideology, because "libertarians are a mixture of social liberalism and economic conservatism" (447), and because he agrees with Hibbing et al. that liberalism and conservatism are the only consistent ideologies.  Neither Sapolsky nor Hibbing et al. respond to the claim of libertarians that they are fully consistent in the commitment to liberty--both economic liberty and personal liberty--while liberals and conservatives are self-contradictory in accepting one form of liberty but not the other, so that liberals and conservatives are partly libertarian and partly authoritarian.

The insistence of Sapolsky and Hibbing et al. that everyone is either liberal or conservative, left or right, requires that everyone be forced to make dichotomous choices about the "bedrock issues of social organization."  Hibbing et al. have done this by using a "Society Works Best Instrument" (Smith et al., 390-91).  People are given a series of 14 binary choices about how "Society works best when . . ."  Amazingly, they ask about how "society" works best, but they ask nothing about "government" or "the state"; and so they make it impossible to distinguish between the natural and voluntary associations in civil society and the coercive power of government.

Here are some examples.  "Society works best when . . . 1. Those who break the rules are punished. 2. Those who break the rules are forgiven.  1. Every member contributes. 2. More fortunate members sacrifice to help others.  1. People are rewarded according to merit.  2. People are rewarded according to need.  1. People take primary responsibility for their welfare. 2. People join together to help others.  1. People are proud they belong to the best society there is.  2. People realize that no society is better than any other."

Every choice of a 1 was given a score of 1, and every choice of a 2 was given a score of -1.  Those whose total score was close to 14 were extreme conservatives.  Those whose total score was close to -14 were extreme liberals.

I assure you I am not making this up.  This is what Hibbing et al. regard as real social science. 

Wouldn't any reasonable person object that most of these dichotomous choices are ridiculous, because they are false dichotomies?  Those who break the rules should always be punished and never forgiven?  Or they should always be forgiven and never punished?  People should always be rewarded according to merit and never according to need?  Or people should always be rewarded according to need and never according to merit?  People should always take primary responsibility for their welfare and never help others?  Or people should always help others and never take primary responsibility for their own welfare? 

If you insist that political ideology consists of a choice between only two alternatives, these are the kind of silly choices that you have to give to people.  Remarkably, Sapolsky  endorses this nonsense.

Perhaps we need a somewhat wider range of choices.  Sapolsky and Hibbing et al. are silent about the proposal by some political scientists--such as William Maddox and Stuart Lilie (in Beyond Liberal and Conservative: Reassessing the Political Spectrum [Cato Institute, 1984])--for using the two dimensions of freedom--economic freedom and personal freedom--to construct a matrix of four or five political ideologies.  American public opinion survey data shows, they contend, that American citizens are not just divided into liberals and conservatives, but also into libertarians and populists.  Some libertarian theorists (such as David Boaz), as well as the Libertarian Party, have adopted this analysis to construct a matrix of political ideologies based on two dimensions--personal liberty and economic liberty:




You can take a short quiz to see where you belong.  If you score high on personal liberty but low on economic liberty, you're a liberal.  If you score how on personal liberty but high on economic liberty, you're a conservative. If you score low on both personal liberty and economic liberty, you're a statist (or an authoritarian).  (Maddox and Lilie would call you a populist.)   If you score high on both personal liberty and economic liberty, you're a libertarian.  If you score towards the middle on both scales, you're a centrist.

Someone like Bobbio might object that constructing this matrix based on two dimensions of liberty ignores the dimension of equality that separates the egalitarian left and the antiegalitarian right.  But the libertarian could respond by arguing that using the two dimensions of liberty does not deny equality if equality is understood as equal liberty rather than equal results.  Classical liberals have always understood the natural equality of human beings as the condition of being born "equally free and independent" (in the words of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776): we are equally free from being ruled over by others without our consent.  But this equal liberty will always lead to unequal results, in that there will be some inequality of property, social status, personal achievement, and general success in life.  If equality is understood as equal results, then the egalitarian left will have to use governmental coercion to force an equality of outcomes, which is an authoritarian denial of liberty that will also be a denial of equality insofar as authoritarian rulers will have superior power over those they coerce.

Bobbio recognizes this problem in speaking about the egalitarian authoritarianism of the extreme left, but he does not explicitly recognize that even the moderate left is at least partly authoritarian in denying economic liberty.  And while Sapolsky tends to identify authoritarianism with the right wing, he does recognize, in at least one passage, the left-wing authoritarianism in the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution (468).

And yet even if libertarianism can be defended as a consistent political ideology in its consistent devotion to freedom, we still might wonder whether libertarianism can be understood as rooted in evolved human nature.  Haidt's evolutionary moral psychology makes a plausible case for the libertarian principle of liberty as one of six moral foundations shaped in human evolutionary history.

I have written a long series of posts on Haidt.  The posts here and here include links to some of the others.

Originally, Haidt argued for five moral foundations in human nature: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.  Liberals tend to stress the first two.  Conservatives tend to stress the last three.  But then libertarians complained to Haidt that they had no place in this scheme.  Beginning in 2011, Haidt began to survey libertarian attitudes, and he decided that he needed a sixth moral foundation--liberty/oppression--that libertarians tended to stress.  (See Ravi Iyer, S. Koleva, J. Graham, P. Ditto, and J. Haidt, "Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians," PLoS ONE 7 (2012): e42366.)

Here's a video of Haidt lecturing at the Cato Institute on libertarian moral psychology:



To explain the evolutionary roots of liberty and the resistance to oppression as a moral foundation, Haidt relies on Christopher Boehm's theory of how human ancestors in hunter-gatherer bands used social pressure and punishment to keep bullies and ambitious people from exercising exploitative dominance over society.  This is what John Locke saw as the equal liberty of human beings in the state of nature: not that human beings were completely equal in every way, because there will always be some high status people who will try to dominate others, but that human beings are naturally inclined to resist being oppressed by those who seek some dominance.

Haidt is best known for his theory of moral disgust--the idea that what originally evolved as a visceral disgust with bad food could evolve into a moral disgust with bad people or bad conduct.  Conservatives have a high sensitivity for feeling disgust, and this underlies their principles of loyalty, authority, and sanctity:  conservatives are disgusted by people they see as betraying their country, disobeying authority, or desecrating sacred values.  Liberals have a low sensitivity for feeling disgust, which allows them to tolerate a lot of conduct that conservatives condemn--homosexuality for example.  Sapolsky makes a lot of this (453-55), because like Hibbing et al. he wants to be able to scorn conservatives as people whose moral and political judgments are driven by crude emotional and visceral reactions, as opposed to liberals who are so rational in controlling their emotions and showing tolerance for unconventional behavior and ideas.  But in doing this, Sapolsky is silent about Haidt's report that libertarians show the lowest sensitivity to disgust and the highest rationality in their judgments.  Libertarians are highly emotional only in showing the emotions of "reactance"--that is, emotions of resistance to those who threaten their individual freedom.

Sapolsky is also silent about how Haidt has shown that most social scientists and psychologists are liberals who display a liberal bias in their research, and therefore Haidt has argued for allowing more conservatives and libertarians to become professors in order to achieve some intellectual balance.  I have written about that here.

One of the signs of liberal academic bias is that researchers studying political ideology often show a remarkable ignorance of conservative and libertarian thought.  For example, it has long been assumed in this research that all of those people who are not liberals show the "authoritarian personality."  This ignores the fact that modern conservatism has been a largely liberal or libertarian conservatism, because it has been a fusion of traditionalist conservatism and classical liberalism.  So, for example, the illiberal conservatism of Joseph de Maistre has almost no supporters today among modern conservatives.  Consequently, most conservatives today think it is important for society to enforce moral and religious virtue in civil society, but they don't think this should be coercively enforced by government. 

Even Haidt often misses this in his studies of conservative moral disgust.  He will ask conservatives about their disgust for homosexuality, for example, and he then reports that they do indeed feel such disgust.  But he doesn't ask them whether they think homosexuality should be a capital crime, as it often was in many legal systems in the past, and continues to be in some legal systems today.  If he were to ask this, he would see that conservatives today do not think that such coercive punishment by government should be inflicted on homosexuals.  He might even discover that many conservatives are beginning to accept the legalization of homosexual marriage, although they still want the freedom to condemn homosexual marriage in their churches, their families, and their other voluntary associations.  This is their way of combining political liberty and social virtue.

But at least Haidt shows a much broader understanding of conservatism and libertarianism than is the case for those like Sapolsky and Hibbing et al. who show a blinding liberal bias.  This is manifest in Haidt's moral matrices for liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism.  Here are his three figures from The Righteous Mind.





For each moral matrix, the six lines connect the moral thought to the six moral foundations.  The thickness of the lines represent the thickness of the commitment to those foundations.  So, liberals show their strongest commitment to care/harm, a strong commitment to liberty/oppression and fairness/cheating, and only a very weak commitment to the other three foundations. 

Social conservatives show an almost equal commitment to all six moral foundations, which is why Haidt often says that conservatives have a broader matrix than do liberals.  Consequently, conservatives are better at understanding liberals than liberals are at understanding conservatives.

The libertarian moral matrix shows a predominant commitment to liberty/oppression, a somewhat strong commitment to fairness/cheating, and much weaker commitments to the other four foundations.

Notice that of the six moral foundations, liberty is the only one that has a strong commitment in all three moral matrices.  Is this because liberty provides the common conditions for these moral matrices to coexist in the same society?  If so, does that justify the preeminence that libertarians give to liberty as the ground of any good society?

The libertarian moral matrix might seem to be the most narrow of the three.  But one should notice that the questions in Haidt's surveys asked about the importance of these six foundations, without asking about the compulsory or voluntary enforcement of these foundations.  Libertarians would probably recognize the importance of loyalty, authority, and sanctity as moral principles, as long as they are voluntarily enforced, and thus free from coercion.

Here, again, Haidt misses the libertarian fusion of political liberty and social virtue, which rests on the crucial distinction between state and society.

Sapolsky also misses this when he criticizes conservatives for being "more concerned with 'binding foundations' like loyalty, authority, and sanctity, often stepping-stones to right-wing authoritarianism and social-dominance orientation," and when he praises liberals for having "more refined moral foundations, having jettisoned the less important, more historically damaging ones that conservatives perseverate on" (450).  Sapolsky doesn't recognize that what made the moral foundations of loyalty, authority, and sanctity "historically damaging" was the enforcement of these through coercive violence, and that the libertarian principle of voluntarism allows people to freely commit themselves to the morality of these binding foundations without impeding the equal freedom of others who disagree with them.

Sapolsky's liberal bias is evident in his interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah here.  Sapolsky is happy to join with Noah in ridiculing conservative Republicans as people whose ideology arises from their disgust reaction to bad smells!  He says nothing about libertarians.

No comments: