Reply to “Libertarian Optimism Bias …”

In this entry on George Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton, I noted that 50 or 100 or 200 years ago, leftists associated progress with material happiness while rightists were more skeptical and tended to say that progress wasn’t always such a good thing.   Nowadays, the debates usually go in the other directions, with people on the left being less positive about material progress and people on the right saying that things are great now and are getting better.

Will Wilkinson replied here, analyzing the current differences between left and right as different views on government intervention:

Nothing beats a "crisis" to rally support for a big government effort. Right statists constantly drum up moral panics about sex and drugs. Also, Mexicans are "invading" and terrorists will surely blow us all up while singing the Star Spangled Banner at baseball games if we don’t allow the executive Jack Bauer to torture military detainees whenever he wants. Similarly, left statists warn that the shores of Manhattan will be inundated by rising oceans and very cute baby polar bears will die in droves. Also, inequality is soaring, threatening the foundations of democracy. And the middle class lives in terrifying "economic insecurity." And so on.

This is an interesting point.  Once again, it might be helpful to compare with attitudes 50, 100, etc. years ago.  Shaw, like many other socialists, supported government intervention in the economy and also thought that material progress would give us higher living standards and better lives.  (To put it in Wilkinson’s framework, Shaw saw problems with society that he thought could be alleviated by government intervention, but he framed this in an optimistic view of material progress, rather than in a "there’s more to life than just money" attitude.)

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  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Andrew, I think the claim you notedremains strongly unproven: “In this entry on George Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton, I noted that 50 or 100 or 200 years ago, leftists associated progress with material happiness while rightists were more skeptical and tended to say that progress wasn’t always such a good thing. Nowadays, the debates usually go in the other directions, with people on the left being less positive about material progress and people on the right saying that things are great now and are getting better.”

    “Rightists” seem to me to remain skeptical about many areas of progress, and “leftists” seem to be more optimistic about many of these areas. Examples include many of the big issues of the day like immigration, new energy technologies, and new biomedical technologies such as involving stem cell research. It seems to me that things are as likely to be a wash by your criteria as favoring one side historically or currently.

    More disappointingly to me as a reader, I don’t see much internal skepticism about your own points in your writing, unlike (in my opinion) the best writing that comes out of this group blog.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/andrewgelman/ Andrew

    Hopefully A,

    I agree that people of different political persuasions can be skeptical as it suits them, for example liberals in the U.S. have been skeptical about school vouchers and the possibility of reviving Terri Schiavo, and conservatives have been skeptical about stem cell research and the rehabilitation of convicted killers. (We can all add our own examples here.)

    I was really thinking about the more specific question of: Does having more possessions (essentially, a higher GDP) bring happiness. My sense is that 60 or 100 or 200 years ago, the liberals (in U.S. terms) answering Yes to this question and the conservatives answering No, maybe not (as with the Chesteron quote). But now, I see the conservatives, by and large, answering Yes to the question and the liberals saying No, maybe not. Wilkinson gave some thoughts as to why this would be, in the context of motivating or discouraging government intervention in the economy.

    Regarding your disappointment: all I can say is that I appreciate the comments (here and on my other blog). These sort of interactions help clarify my thinking as well as make me aware of all sorts of unfamiliar (to me) perspectives.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Andrew,
    I disagree, if anything more strongly, with your latest framing. If such positions have to be reduced to a bumper sticker slogan length, I think it would be that conservatives today think happiness is derived from personal responsibility, and liberals think happiness is derived from “having more possessions”. Thus liberal favor redistribution of wealth to poor people to increase their happiness, whereas conservatives are against such redistribution because it deprives people of personal responsibility. At least that’s the rhetoric of both sides. However, thanks for the friendly way you’ve taken my comments. Are you Andrew Gelman? I assume so because it’s the only “Andrew” listed on the contributor list.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/andrewgelman/ Andrew

    Hopefully A,

    My main interest here is not on the policies so much as on how the ideologies relate to perceptions of facts (or, potential facts) such as discussed in Wilkinson’s entry, ideas such as “more money tends to make people happier” or “more money does not tend to make people happier.”

    To connect to your point, one could say that the liberal position is that more money makes you happier, roughly up to the current median of the income scale, at which point there’s the paradox of choice etc., and then it’s ok to tax people. Conversely, the conservative position (as for example illustrated in Wilkinson’s entry) is that more money tends to make everybody happier, but that redistributive policies by the government are inefficient (and possibly immoral) and that it’s a better idea to make the pie bigger rather than trying to reslice it and thus spill crumbs all over the floor. (Hey–I like that analogy. Well, I’m sure someone’s come up with it before.)

    I agree that the “personal responsibility” line that you state is part of conservative rhetoric, just as the “let’s tax Paris Hilton” line is part of liberal rhetoric. But I would say that in the current political climate, it’s the conservatives who are likely to say that we want GDP to be high, while it’s the liberals (since Galbraith in the 1950s) who talk about other things such as the measurement of happiness. I think you’ll see this in the debate at Cato that Wilkinson linked to in his blog entry. I agree that other value judgments are floating around, but the two sides do seem to take particular positions in the “should we measure happiness or just use GDP” debate (to phrase in bumper-sticker form).

    P.S. Yes, it’s me. I think the measurement of happiness is interesting from a psychological and statistical point of view, and it’s also interesting how differently the results are interpreted from different political perspectives.

  • Doug S.

    The snappy one-liner version of the relationship between income and happiness:

    Money doesn’t make you happy, but poverty makes you miserable.

  • Buzzcut

    Where did the change in attitudes come from?

    One word: Communism.

    Once Communism was shown to be a disaster, economically speaking, and NOT the way to supercharge economic growth (as it was seen shortly after WW2), liberals needed to shift the focus away from capitalist economic growth.

    The liberal argument changed from “[Communist countries] will bury you” (Kruschev was talking about economic growth), to “yeah, you capitalists have more stuff and live better, but you’re alienated, and have bad healthcare”.

    Anyway, that’s my review of “Sicko”.

  • Disappointed in Hopefully Anonymous

    I am disappointed in Hopefully Anonymous, and find her to lack internal skepticism in her own writings. Likewise, her writings are insufficiently rigorous. She is certainly not in the same class as the best writers on this blog, such as Andrew.

    Please consider not renewing HA’s contract when it comes up for renewal. Thanks.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    lol@Disappointed

  • TGGP

    Hopefully Anonymous is a woman? And I thought H.A was so rational and sensible! That just goes to show what an awful judge of those things I am.