Left v right and right v wrong: a response

John Rentoul

osborne balls 2515889b 300x187 Left v right and right v wrong: a responseGuest blog by Martin Hutchison:

Dear John Rentoul

At the end of your recent post noting that “economists who support a looser fiscal policy to support demand tend to be left-wing, while those who prioritise deficit reduction tend to be on the right politically”, you ask: “What’s it all about?”

I have been thinking about and researching the issue for a little while now with the intention of blogging on the moral psychology which underpins all politics.

The answer to your questions is a little involved so I need a few words to make the explanation.  Interestingly Paul Krugman’s brilliant NYT blog asked the identical question the other day.

To answer we need pieces of insight from three thinkers: Haidt, Fiske and Lakoff.
Blair is correct to say that politics is about what is right vs wrong but that is precisely why it is about left vs right: and the reason is that our individual politics are driven by our moral intuitions, a sense of right and wrong way way beyond the commonsense meaning of right and wrong which is don’t steal cheat or lie or physically harm others.

Harold Wilson referred to Labour as a “moral crusade or it is nothing”, meaning that the party’s concern with social justice was a moral matter.  Right there though you have the problem – one person’s moral crusade is another person’s imposition of punitive taxes, Thatcher thought Wilsonian social democracy plain immoral.

The brilliant 2012 book the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt The Righteous Mind transforms our insight into the moral structure of politics by basing his analysis on his research project.  He shows that we bring to politics a group six dominant frames of moral intuitions about the world which I paste at the foot of this note.

People on the left care strongly about three moral foundations: reducing harm (wear a seatbelt), social justice and anti-authoritarianism (negative liberty – freedom from oppression). This is why Wilson made his famous comments about a moral crusade.  This what the left means by right and wrong.  The right mean something altogether different, for them moral worth is found in in-group authority, in-group loyalty, freedom and sacrality.  Left and right are never therefore going to agree upon what is moral behaviour when their conceptions of it are so profoundly different.  There cannot ever be a moving beyond left and right for this reason.

To answer your question about how austerity divides people politically needs a little more information. These “Haidtian” moral foundations operate against social models, and the social models in turn are moralised upon.  The anthropologist Fiske (Relational Models Theory book) has argued that there are four ways of interacting with other people and politics continually references and is informed from and by each of these models. I paste Fiske’s definitions below but here is a brief summary:

Communal Sharing (CS) – we share resources with close kin and lovers

Authority Ranking (AR) – we do what our parents, elders and betters tell us, we do what the chief tells us to do, we respect charismatic authority – priests, gang bosses, Gods, etc….

Equality Matching (EM) – I scratch your back if you scratch mine

Market Pricing (MP) – contracts define who does what for what money – buying petrol, supplying consultancy services to HMRC, selling chocolate, going to work

The first two social relations were dominant in the 200,000 years since we have been human and that is also where our Haidtian moral intuitions were honed and shaped.  The social relation of EM gave us the Enlightenment and the Liberal Revolution of the last 200 years, and MP of course gave us capitalism.  CS and AR are richly salient and deeply embedded in our emotion whereas EM and MP are weakly salient, rooted somewhat in intellect.

Fascism for example, is indifferent to MP, contemptuous of EM, references the social relations of CS where everyone felt part of the “community nation” and everyone respected Authority.  Old Labour references CS “sharing and equality” and EM rights, liberty democracy, New Labour however references CS, EM and MP.  That MP reference by New Labour allows many on the left to accuse New Labour of being Tory as the sharing of the MP frame with Conservatives is seen as being just as bad.  Haidtian moral intuitions mixed with Fiskian Social Models give us the entire political landscape from Libertarian (Moral Intuition – Freedom, Fiske Social Model – MP) to Greens (Moral Intuition – Sacrality, Social Model – CS).

Next up: George Lakoff the author of Moral Politics.  Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and he claims we see politics in wholly moral, moralising terms based upon the metaphors we employ to discuss politics and these metaphors reside in a cognitive framework.  I don’t quite buy this myself but Lakoff convincingly shows that metaphors about morality as commonly conceived – be upright, act with integrity are salient in the right’s moral frame but weak on the left.  Lakoff shows how metaphors around prudence, thrift and good housekeeping are readily taken up the right but bewilder the left.

OK how know to go from these three moral viewpoints to austerity?

Conservatives are getting austerity wrong because they are referencing the wrong social model – they ought to be referencing MP as public debt is a brand new issue rooted in market relations, contracts and legal frameworks, however, when our moral psychologies evolved there was no Keynesianism, no liquidity trap, no money supply, no economic growth but there was debt in the form of obligation and obligations in communal sharing and too much of it was ruinous.

Conservatives should be using MP concepts to work the debt but debt is obligation, and obligations entered into excessively are a form of dissoluteness, they are a form of moral turpitude back in CS, across the 200,000 years were our moral intuitions evolved.

Haidt says that Conservatives believe in fairness as 1.  Following the rules  2.  Taking out no more than you put in.  Large scale public debt looks and feels immoral to them with reference to these foundations, the Lakoffian metaphors which indicate moral behaviour and using the wrong Fiskian social relationship which CS instead of MP.

As for the left, their moral intuitions about the public space regarding obligation and dissolute behaviour are weaker (possibly worse) and in Haidtian terms nothing in their moral foundations prevents them applying the correct social model which is MP so they can think about the issue in proper MP terms – growth, demand deficiency, credit crunch, etc.

Your original question was why does economist’s attitude to austerity mirror those of politics?  Because economists share the same moral psychology as politicians, economists are people too.

Yours sincerely

Martin Hutchison

P.S.  The same Haidtian foundations explain why your admiration for Blair causes so much hostility.  According to Haidt anti-authoritarianism, hating the boss, (technically called reverse dominance) is a moral foundation.  At birth, leftist believe with vary degrees of intensity that all in group authority is evil, corrupt and oppressive. Finding that corruption is their central motivation.  No wonder you have had such a tough time.  If you ask me why you don’t have reverse dominance as you are on the left my answer is that I think you do but weakly, reverse dominance strengthens as you track left until you come to the anarchists who only care about reverse dominance and abandon all interest in social justice

Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA. George Osborne (left) and Ed Balls (right)


Jonathan Haidt’s claim about Moral Foundations is

1. Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2. Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

3. Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

4. Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

5. Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

6. Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

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  • Charlie Duncan Saffrey

    This is a good response – I think it needs some more work to avoid conflating liberal and socialist moral principles together as ‘leftist’, because this confuses things. But it would be right to say that conservatism, socialism and liberalism are different, and will influence different kinds of economic models, because they are grounded on different moral foundations.

    The other point I would like to make is that it assumes that there is absolutely no argument to be had about which moral position has the strongest argument for it, and takes moral relativism as a given. This is something of a pity. But otherwise, really useful.

  • greggf

    I like Martin Hutchinson’s description of what might be defined as permissiveness!

    “Conservatives should be using MP concepts to work the debt but debt is obligation, and obligations entered into excessively are a form of dissoluteness, they are a form of moral turpitude back in CS, across the 200,000 years were our moral intuitions evolved…….As for the left, their moral intuitions about the public space regarding obligation and dissolute behaviour are weaker (possibly worse) …..”

    And, “Haidt says that Conservatives believe in fairness as 1. Following the rules 2. Taking out no more than you put in”; was probably intended by Beveridge (Liberal) in his bill for Social Insurance, but shows how different “modern” Conservatives may be.

  • Pacificweather

    I am less familiar with Haidt than I should be but when he says that Conservatives believe in fairness as 1.  Following the rules  2.  Taking out no more than you put in I presume he is referring to the rules of my group in 1 and others, in 2, not in my group, taking out more than they put in. Taking from other groups would be seen to be moral as would breaking the rules of other groups, especially larger groups.

  • Pingback: Left v right and right v wrong: part III | John Rentoul | Independent Eagle Eye Blogs

  • Pingback: Left v right and right v wrong: part IV | John Rentoul | Independent Eagle Eye Blogs

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