Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Fragile Psychology of 21st Century Conservatives

-- 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.


Joseph said...

Not every liberal or conservative is going to fit some stereotype, probably not even most of them. Generalizations are generally untrue. Now, if we take generalizations as gospel - and in their most extreme form - comparing one side with cold logic and the other unhinged loons, of course that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

When I began to read your post the other day "Using Economics to Justify Being a Jerk," I thought 'Neil H. Buchanan cannot possibly be writing about Paul Krugman!' Goes to show what figures we decide are jerky and focus on.

Prof. Dorf had a pretty good line in his post: "Indeed, in recent years and across a range of issues, American conservatives have more generally come to believe their "guts," (to use Stephen Colbert's line), even when the actual facts as evinced by evidence are to the contrary. (E.g., climate change; evolution; U.S. history)."

In part, I think he wanted to affirm his subsequent statement: "Nonetheless, the claim that one's opponents have based their views on emotion rather than reason is a very common move..."

The argument about the role of emotion in law is worthy of discussion. How we elevate it above a purely academic or partisan discussion is trickier. I think emotion is inevitably intertwined with reasoning and that is why there is such a call to resist its influence. It is not that emotion is actually purged.

We cannot only argue for a more robust role for emotion where it happens to align with our own preferences. If emotion had played a greater role, cross-burning and protests at funerals could be prohibited activities. The statute that banned "crush" videos could have been upheld despite its defects. And on all these issues, my emotional response aligns with the dissents. I want to go along with the legal logic of the dissents. However, I feel inevitably pulled toward the the majority view in those cases. Otherwise, I'm sure I could agree with a great many exceptions to free speech. The danger should be obvious.

In response to:
"The Fragile Psychology of 21st Century Conservatives"

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Thanks to Joseph Simmons for his comments. I generally agree with his points, but I'll note two things:

(1) I'm surprised that anyone would be surprised that I would say negative things about Krugman. I do it all the time, even though I agree with him on most macro policy issues. I don't buy the attacks on him for being uncivil, but I do see him as being an "economics jerk" fairly often. And I write about it on Dorf on Law as needed. See especially my series on the Cambridge Controversies in May of this year.

(2) "We cannot only argue for a more robust role for emotion where it happens to align with our own preferences." I was definitely note arguing for a more robust role for emotion. I was arguing that we should recognize it, understand that it's ubiquitous (and does not fit the standard story re liberals and conservatives), and deal with it appropriately.

T Jones said...

Any thought of asking your Verdict colleague John Dean to contribute to this discussion, in light of his study of the authoritarian personality type and American conservatism?

David Ricardo said...

The issue between conservatives and the rest of us is only partly one of emotion vs logic. It is really one of ideologues vs pragmatists. Liberalism is not really an ideology, it is a set of beliefs grounded in pragmatism. For the most part liberals adopt a given policy not for ideological reasons but because that policy is founded on logic and data and analysis and the belief that it will lead to the desired outcome. Conservatives adopt a policy based on ideological belief, somewhat independent of whether or not it will produce the desired outcome. The result is bad policy and hypocrisy.

Consider for example the issue of increasing government spending when there is insufficient aggregate demand to produce full employment. Liberals support increasing government spending in this situation not because they want more government, but because this is the only policy which will quickly and effectively reduce unemployment and return a nation to sustained growth. Conservatives opposed the policy because they oppose increasing government spending under all circumstance. That this produces prolonged unemployment and lower economic growth is irrelevant to them, the correct policy for them is the correct policy because it is the correct policy.

One problem with modern so-called conservatives is that they abandon these principles once the policy conflicts with their ideology and for any ideologue sooner or later the ideology will conflict with what its believers want to do. The farm bill is certainly Exhibit A. And their belief that government should be run like a business fails scrutiny because their argument that business must balance its budget falls apart when one points out that business borrows extensively, and that borrowing is the right business action when the return exceeds the cost of capital.

Deficits produced by increased government spending are evil per conservatives, but deficits produced by lowering taxes are pure good. And conservatives argue against deficits because they do not want to place a burden on future generations, and at the same time fight against pollution controls that would prevent severe damage, both financially and environmentally to future generations.

Outside of economics and policy the hypocrisy is even starker. Conservatives want government out of people’s personal lives, yet want to use government to prohibit physician assisted suicide. They use freedom of speech to justify zero regulation of campaign financing, yet support government programs that curtail the speech of physicians in the area of firearms and reproductive medicine. They consistently argue for state’s rights but when a state acts contrary to their way of thinking they immediately call upon the federal government to override the state. Even though marriage has always been a state issue they campaign vigorously for the feds to prohibit states from adopting SSM.

To justify all of this they produce laughable arguments. Hence we have the concept of ‘expansionary austerity’, and the failed predictions that the increase in the monetary base even when there is recession will produce runaway inflation. The examples of failed conservative policy are almost limitless. Principled conservatism has role to play in American political and economic environment. Current conservatism is neither principled nor beneficial.

Shag from Brookline said...

Neil, I don't thik your gratuitous - perhaps defensive - comment:

"I don't buy the attacks on him [Paul Krugman] for being uncivil, but I do see him as being an ;economics jerk' fairly often. "

may be a tad overboard. in any event, I don't know if you have done this often enough to come to his attention, or cause him concern, such that he might feel compelled to respond, especially if he doesn't think you are a mainstream economist what with one foot in legal and one foot in economic academics. I follow Krugman's column and his Blog at the NYTimes and he doesn't hesitate to say when he has been wrong. But Krugman has been a target for many years of conservatives in his efforts to serve as a liberal "Conscience."

The theme of your post, with which I basically agree, reminds me of Will Rogers' "I am not a member of any organized political party, I am a Democrat." And Robin West's "A Tale of Two Rights" may be on point in distinguishing between conservatives and liberals. The paper (20 pages) is available at SSRN:


Ann Mosley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil H. Buchanan said...

In response to Shag from Brookline's query: I'm not being defensive, because I wasn't being attacked. Joseph Simmons expressed surprise that a liberal like me might have been attacking a liberal like Krugman, and I noted that I have done so when I thought it appropriate.

More importantly, whereas Simmons thought that I wouldn't say negative things about Krugman, I take you to be saying that I shouldn't do so. Generally speaking, I don't, for the simple reason that we agree on so many things. But when he's wrong, and especially when he's a jerk about it, I've said so. (In addition to my response to his attacks on Tom Palley and Post-Keynesian economics, see my comments re his comments on the "platinum coin.")

Krugman is clearly intellectually honest, and his conservative attackers are not. But that doesn't mean that he shouldn't be the recipient of "friendly fire" when he deserves it.

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