-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan
With very few exceptions, the Dorf on Law posts and Verdict columns that Professor Dorf and I write are fully independent projects. That is, they are not only solely authored, but each of us rarely even knows in advance what the other will be writing about. This is, in part, a matter of pure logistics and conservation of energy, because it would frankly be too time consuming to coordinate our topics. It is also, of course, a matter of different interests and areas of expertise. Most of the time, each of us just waits to see what shows up on the days when the other is writing.
It was, therefore, something of a pleasant surprise to note last week that our writings on Wednesday through Friday (Professor Dorf's Verdict column and his Wednesday and Friday Dorf on Law posts, along with my Verdict column and Thursday post) all converged on the same theme. Working from very different starting points, we both noted how the presumption that conservatives use cold, hard logic, while liberals allow their hearts to bleed, has been turned upside down. As Professor Dorf put it on Friday, the "familiar structure" of the claim goes like this: "Conservatives say that some well-meaning policy based on an emotional reaction of liberals will actually be counter-productive."
Here, I want to explore some further examples of how this presumption is upside down. The emerging picture is one in which conservatives not only engage in fact- and logic-challenged argumentation based on heated emotions, but they also are doing so in an effort to be liked. That is, notwithstanding chest-pounding claims (like some of the lines that I quoted in my post on Thursday) that amount to saying, "I'll do what I want, and you can all suck it if you don't like it, because I don't care what you think," the reality is that much of conservatives' energy is spent trying to get others to see that they are really good guys.
The perfect distillation of the "screw you" attitude, perhaps, was found in the 80's movie "Wall Street," in which Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko character smirks while saying, "Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works." In some ways, that famous speech really can be seen as a big F-U to the rest of the world. On the other hand, Gekko is speaking not to the world at large, but to a bunch of shareholders who are angry about Gekko's tactics. He is saying, in essence, that they are being emotional, and he is there to set them straight. Stop hurting yourselves, you chumps!
But in the real world, we hear that kind of talk from conservatives all the time, and it is not just in speeches to fellow shareholders. It is impossible to shake the feeling that, for all their talk about how they do not care what other people think, conservatives dislike being disliked. They fund think-tanks and influence academia (Olin money, anyone?) not just to justify conservative policies on efficiency-based grounds (grounds that are, as I have argued, infused with normative beliefs and are far from being objective), but to make people say, "You know, these guys actually have our best interests at heart."
The example that I discussed last Thursday, the conservative business writer Josh Barro's aggressive defense of the "ownership rights" of people who (like him) want to recline their seats on airplanes, no matter how inconsiderate that is of other people, provides some insights into this phenomenon. The obvious tip-off is his contrived attempt at the end of his NYT piece to turn the story into a conflict between short people and tall people. His argument, if you can call it that, boils down to this: "You people who care so much about other people's feelings should think about how great tall people already have it. How dare you impose on those put-upon short people! I'm the one who really cares about fairness and civility."
Why bother saying any of that? What is it that makes it so important to misapply economic theory to justify one's own selfish behavior? Why not simply embrace the ethos of "I've got mine, Jack" and be done with it? It is possible, I suppose, that what is really going on here is an attempt by conservatives to condescend to talk to liberals on their own childish grounds, attempting to demonstrate that conservative ideals can be repackaged as mushy, emotional nonsense that will convince the feeble-minded. But the defensiveness is too intense to support that explanation. The rhetoric is generally not, "Let's think about how this seemingly selfish behavior is ultimately for the betterment of mankind," but instead heatedly shouts, "I am NOT a bad person."
This fits into a point that I made in a Verdict column a few months ago, when I described the obvious defensiveness of the conservatives on the NYT op-ed page who were arguing against income redistribution. Both of those authors were, I wrote, obviously trying to work through their longstanding emotional pain from being shunned by their liberal peers, sneering that upper-middle-class liberals are not really concerned about the poor, but are instead obsessed about not being rich enough, and that they are really all a bunch of hypocrites. "You call me selfish, but I know that you're selfish, too. I'm just honest about it!"
This story also helps to explain a political meme that has puzzled me for quite some time. As I noted in detail in a post last December, conservatives' go-to move is to accuse liberals of "envy," in response to liberals' attempts to moderate some of the income inequality in society. Supposedly, we liberals wish to visit "vengeance" on the successful people who are life's real winners. I have, at various times, likened this to a child whose mother soothingly says, "Don't worry, Dear. Those kids who hate you are just jealous."
As I have explained (with as little emotion as possible), the liberal case for redistribution need not (and, as far as I have ever heard, does not) rest on any such emotional justifications. I have never heard anyone say (even behind closed doors) that the real reason to tax the rich is to take them down a peg, nor have I ever heard a liberal say or imply that they worry about the rich being inherently superior in some way. Indeed, we also hear the complaint from conservatives that liberals look down their noses at rich people, which is inconsistent with conservatives' claims that liberals are envious. But when one is being emotional, of course, it is possible to believe two contradictory things.
Viewed in this light, the claims that liberals are acting out of emotion, from jealousy and so on, are a matter of projection by conservatives. "Stop being so emotional!" becomes a way of dealing with one's own darkest fears. If only people could see that our motives are good, conservatives seem to say, they would stop calling us names.
As Professor Dorf argued on Friday, the point is not that it is liberals who are the truly cool, rational players on this stage. Instead, it is important to move past this archaic notion that reason and emotion are entirely separate spheres, and instead to understand how empathy, pathos, and other emotions can and should affect legal and policy analyses. As he says, noting the increasingly emotion-laden attacks from conservatives is a matter of comparison, showing that, if anything, the roles have been reversed (assuming that there ever was a time when the roles lined up according to the conventional wisdom), with conservatives relying ever more on their guts.