It has become useful to me to think of Conservatives (broadly speaking, those holding a conservative moral viewpoint) as the cheater-detection unit for society and of Liberals (broadly speaking, those holding a liberal moral viewpoint) as the bully-detection unit, in the context of evolutionary anthropological theory. I suppose Libertarians might equally detect cheaters and bullies, which might make them a little anti-social perhaps ;)
From Christopher Boehm, I understand that both of these functions are described in evolutionary anthropology as forms of societal free loading, and are seen as detrimental to the healthy functioning of societies. If too many cheaters or bullies (which could be even just one particularly strong bully) take too many resources from the group, then the group will suffer if not actually fail. While free-loading cheaters have garnered the most attention from evolutionary theorists, Boehm argues that free-loading bullies are a bigger concern of the sort of human tribes he is taking as his example, mixed hunter-gatherer.
It seems to me, broadly speaking, that Conservatives stereotype Liberals as lazy cheats and/or supporters of lazy cheats always looking for the societal blight to defend. Liberals, in return, stereotype Conservatives as bullies and/or defenders of bullies, always looking for an underdog to punish about something. I think these broad stereotypes are a fairly accurate depiction of the situation. When there is Plenty, cheater-detectors seems stingy and their bullying unacceptable. When there is not Plenty, cheater-detectors are pivotal and being a useful cog in the system a matter of life or death. Cheater detectors may function societally to preserve Plenty, and to simultaneously manage and maintain systems (with high groupishness and group binding) to distribute Plenty in a way the majority generally accept.
In small groupings, like small towns, both types could and would co-exist, and perhaps with much less tension than today. Familiarity in these cases actually breeds respect, because each type of person gets to know the good qualities of the other type (which exist!) and a social balance can be achieved. (Some of my best friends are …)
Among the things to come to mind when I think of the differences along these lines is that the evidence from studies done by psychologists (for example, here behind paywall) showing that people who detect cheating feel a strong need to punish the cheater, even at the expense of suffering themselves.
What makes the Occupy movement Liberal is that it is not a cheater-detection/cheater-punishment movement. It is a bully management coalition. It is about bullies (Wall Street et al.) taking more than their fair share, which is a form of cheating or free riding, and so looks similar, but is distinct. The OWS perception is that they need to give the money (or most of it) back in the form of higher taxes on the most wealthy. We have all produced these goods together, and they must be distributed (more) equally.
I’m disagreeing with Jonathan Haidt on this. He says,
“By far the most common message I saw at OWS was that the rich (“the 1 percent”) got rich by taking without giving. They cheated and exploited their way to the top. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we the taxpayers then had to bail them out after they crashed the economy, and so now they really owe us for saving their necks. It’s high time that they started giving back, paying what they owe.”
But then Haidt goes on to say,
“The liberal fairness of OWS diverges from conservative and libertarian fairness in that liberals often think that equality of outcomes is evidence of fairness.”
I think what is going on here is that equality of outcomes means no bullies got an unfair advantage through their abuse of power, rather than fairness of the sort where no one cheated.
The Tea Party, in its organic origins, was about punishing cheaters. It was attempting to make sure that free-loading cheaters [the big banks] suffered, even if that meant they [the Tea Partiers] or the country or world had to suffer economic hardship as well. The banks made bad choices, and the government should not have saved them from the consequences, much less reward them. Where Tea Partiers potentially would see a bully is in the federal government. I suspect perceptions of government bullying are dependent upon who is president. It makes (untested) sense to me that if a Democrat is president, Conservatives like the Tea Partiers are likelier to see the government as a bully, and vice versa. [See Jonathan Haidt on this as well.]
Liberals are concerned with power and the way it is used to distribute goods, and an unequal distribution means someone used their power unfairly. From their perspective, societies most need to be on the look-out for free-riding bullies. It is good to have Liberals. But they have to have a bully to be against, so they are constantly trying to dismantle something Conservatives are trying to preserve. Liberals today don’t understand that the country doesn’t exist in any meaningful way without the stability system-loving Conservatives bring. Conservatives are concerned with the best distribution of resources for long-term stability. Their natural concern is with preserving resources, distributing it to those who contribute and making sure those who don’t contribute aren’t free-riding cheaters. When they can be convinced of the wrongness of a particular form of bullying, then they will get on board, but their reasoning will be different than Liberals.
To take down bullies, Boehm points out, people must form coalitions. It seems to me that for coalitions to last, either they have to believe the bully has not yet been defeated or they have to find a new bully to coalesce against. Hence the over-reach of some people being labeled racist when they are not in any meaningful way actually racist, or being punished for racism when that was not possibly their intent. (Two cases I am thinking of at the moment include the treatment of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on the African-American Family in the 1960s and a more recent case of a uni student-employee “found guilty of racial harassment for merely reading the book Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan during his work breaks.”) To a Conservative, these cases would appear clear cases of abuse of power, in one case intellectual, in the other an educational institution, but in either case: bullying. It also seems a piece of the intuition among some Conservatives that the liberalizing never ends, that there is no stasis point of sufficient liberality that falls short of the destruction of the entire social ecosystem.
When Haidt talks about the Yin/Yang of Liberals and Conservatives, he ends up being sort of vague to me. Conservatives hold with the “binding” moral foundations, Haidt claims, and Liberals do not so much, so they are better at groupishness and good for the country. This makes everyone feel good, but I don’t see how it makes each side appreciate the other. Conservatives like their binding foundations, and like groupishness like nationalism; Liberals don’t like the binding foundations (that bind Conservatives) and see groupishness as the base of most human evil in the world. I think it might be more useful (and perhaps it may be accurate) to say that Liberals are society’s bully detectors, Conservatives are society’s cheater detectors, and Libertarians are equally detecting both.
What Inspired This Idea and a Concern
Although these ideas were inspired by Christopher Boehm’s work, I have not yet had the opportunity to read any of his books. I was blessed, instead, to hear him speak at the recent Consilience Conference. If he or anyone else makes this connection, I have not yet read it, and would happily hear about it being put forward by someone more knowledgeable than me.
I have a couple of observations about the Consilience Conference. One, academics can sit in really uncomfortable chairs for extraordinary amounts of time. Seriously. Another, Liberal academics seem very busy condemning tribalism and groupishness as the bane of civilization (and in this evolution-theory-centric crowd, that tended to be expressed as anti-religion and anti-religiosity) while being completely oblivious to their own tribalism and groupishness, which seemed obvious to me.
As a traditionally-dressed Conservative Quaker, I had two sorts of people engage me in conversation at this conference. One type needed to explain to me how religion and religiosity, with their attendant tribalism and groupishness, are the biggest problem in America. The other group were religiously observant and/or politically conservative academics who were clearly in the closet but wanted to connect with the only other person at the conference they might be able to relate to in those ways. The closet in Liberal academia (and it is predominantly Liberal) is for religious and/or politically conservative people.
What concerns me most about these experiences is that there is pretty broad agreement that one of the things that will allow more respect and less demonizing between groups is for people on different sides to “rub elbows” and learn that the differences aren’t between good and evil but between good people who have differing experiences and opinions. But Liberal academics can’t improve their opinion of religious and/or Conservatives if they are in their midst but in the closet.
Some of the easily-accessible (free on the web) reading that informed this post:
The Righteous Mind (the book isn’t free, but the interesting blog is)
What the Tea Partiers Really Want-Wall Street Journal
The Moral Foundations of Occupy Wall Street-Reason.org
How to Get the Rich to Share the Marbles-New York Times