Reply to Gelman

Andrew Gelman disagreed with me Sunday:

Conservatives support low taxes so that those who have worked hard for their money can show off the fruits of their labor and earn full respect for it.

I don’t think that showing off is anything like a basic conservative value, beyond the idea that people should feel free to show off if they want to. … Conservatives support low taxes because they think the market is more effective than the government at producing prosperity.

Liberals support gay marriage because they want us all to officially respect gays as much as straights; gay activists have earned their group more respect.

Liberals support gay marriage because they don’t think it’s fair that straight people can marry and gays can’t.

His commentators said I meant unconscious strategies, and I said:

This was an attempt to identify the signaling persona behind common ideologies, not the conscious rationalizations people give.

Andrew clarified:

I don’t think signaling is as important as [Robin] does, but I’m pretty sure it’s more important than most of generally assume. … That said, I think his descriptions of conservatives and liberals are so caricatured as to be a hindrance to his thinking.

Monday, Andrew elaborated in a new post:

How could Robin get things so wrong. … There’s a tradeoff between the two desirable goals of low taxes and high services. Liberals support higher taxes because, to put it simply, they prefer the “high services” side of the equation, whereas conservatives prefer the “low taxes” side. …

The conservative view is that the gains to gay people from letting them marry are more than counterbalanced by the losses involved in abandoning the traditional restrictions of marriage. The liberal view is that the balance is the other way. … This is not to deny the importance of gay activists in shifting public opinion on the issue; I just don’t think that attitudes toward gay activists have much to do with liberals’ attitudes on marriage.

Andrew is a smart guy, who says he appreciates signaling stories, but he seems to have trouble here in even comprehending the idea that our unconscious strategies on politics could differ greatly from our conscious thoughts.  Yes, policy wonks talk about political ideologies as sets of value weights to use in policy tradeoffs, and that makes sense if the point of politics is to make policy choices.

But I’m suggesting instead that “Politics Isn’t About Policy.”  In large polities, the main function of our politics in our lives is how it influences the way others see us; its influence on us via policy is far weaker.   But it looks bad to admit we do politics to selfishly show off, instead of to help society make better policy.  So we are built to instead talk, and think, as if we do politics for its influence on policy; we are build to be self-deceived about how politics matters to us.

The politics-as-policy story has trouble explaining how gay activists  convinced us to respect gays; what facts could change our minds on such a basic moral question?   What facts could pedophiles or polygamists teach us to change our minds about them?   The idea that we choose our coalitions to identify with impressive allies seems a less troubled explanation.  Impressive gay activists made gays into impressive allies; pedophiles will not gain approval until their activists are similarly impressive.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • Carl Shulman

    I’m skeptical of over-focus on activists as such. An enormous part of the gay rights movement has simply been a matter of encouraging non-activist gays to come out proudly, so that an ever-larger fraction of the population has openly gay people in their social circle. With all gays closeted, homophobic rhetoric can be used to signal masculinity without social penalties, but if gays are out, then anti-gay statements and actions will attract opprobrium from gay acquaintances and their family and social allies.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I fall near the libertarian camp myself, but I agree with a number of your critics that in your comparisons the hypothetical libertarian seemed more likely to be acting out of ideological principle. The talk about how people “should be free to” doesn’t say anything about admiring certain subsets of people. Your main point strikes me as plausible enough, you just could have been a more thorough bullet-biter.

  • Constant

    But it looks bad to admit we do politics to selfishly show off, instead of to help society make better policy. So we are built to instead talk, and think, as if we do politics for its influence on policy; we are build to be self-deceived about how politics matters to us.

    This is not inconsistent with our conscious reasons being our real reasons. After all, many mathematicians prove theorems doubtlessly to show off, but their real reasons for believing specific candidate proofs and disbelieving other candidate proofs have a lot to do with whether the proofs are valid, and therefore have a lot to do with their conscious reasons.

  • ArthurG

    My first reaction was similar to Andrew’s. Rereading the original post, it seems like you took libertarians’ stated reasons for their beliefs at face value and contrasted them with unflattering signaling explanations for liberals and conservatives. This struck me as unfair and made the descriptions of the conservatives and liberals come off as caricature rather than a sincere attempt to understand.

    btw, I’m a longtime reader, first time commenter. Reading this blog has largely brought me around to the signaling interpretation, but the previous post left me a bit incredulous because it seemed so unfair. A sharper analysis of libertarians might have made it more palatable.

  • Constant

    Your main point strikes me as plausible enough, you just could have been a more thorough bullet-biter.

    I agree, but at the same time, I didn’t find his specific, what shall we call them, “cynical” explanations to be all that compelling. I think one could spend all day coming up with alternative “cynical” explanations, and wasn’t particularly impressed with the ones he came up with.

  • http://oftherealm.blogspot.com/ Lord

    A better signaling would be conservatives are respecting their ancestors and traditions, while liberals are respecting their reason and empathy. I say reason because it requires an openness to new facts and changing beliefs that conservatives only face as a last resort and only when it can connect with something else in their past. Conservatives see change being forced on them by new ideas of liberals. Liberals see oppression by custom of conservatives. It is no surprise conservatives opposed civil rights. Libertarians probably do relate to the self-made individual threatened by outside forces more than are sympathetic to the oppression of others since they see themselves more self-focused and more self-empowered. They may oppose discrimination by society but not by themselves since this impinges on their own control. What facts? Existence, genetics. knowledge, experience, dispelling misconceptions, lack of rationale of opposition beyond fears and appeals to authority and tradition.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    TGGP and Arthur, I acknowledged that error in an added to the original post.

    Carl, in your view it seems gay respect was earned by very different means than ethnic, religious, and gender respect. I suggest the means was more similar.

  • http://aretae.blogspot.com Kyle

    Robin,

    While I think that you are obviously right in that _most_ of the beliefs held by folks are signaling beliefs, I think here you are complexifying too much.

    A much more plausible explanation is a much simpler signaling mechanism. Liberals are liberals because they are signaling to liberals that they are in-group. Similarly with conservatives and libertarians. “(I want to be / I am) like him” is a powerful force in psychology. And holding specific opinions is a VERY cheap way to do so.

    Were I not on a mobile device, I’d go find the article (linked by one Masonomist or another) suggesting that people have 2 distinct sets of preferences politically. 1. for a party and 2. for a policy.

    If this is true, you may as well be comparing the signaling differences between White Sox fans and Cubs fans.

  • Carl Shulman

    Robin,

    No, that’s not my view. My claim is that voters and elites such as journalists more often change their political attitudes and behavior about a disrespected group because of changes in the incentives provided by their social circles rather than in direct response to distant activists; the activists get more results by galvanizing their group members to change the incentives in their local social environments, which garners allies (including among elites, e.g. courts and media) and ultimately victory.

    Women or ethnic minorities couldn’t ‘come out’ (although ethnic and religious groups could benefit from increased actual numbers in a society), but rank-and-file members could be inspired to socially penalize (with the aid of their close outgroup allies) their associates, e.g. by ensuring that expressions blatant sexism would be met with protest/diminished social support.

  • Eric

    “What facts could pedophiles or polygamists teach us to change our minds about them? The idea that we choose our coalitions to identify with impressive allies seems a less troubled explanation. Impressive gay activists made gays into impressive allies; pedophiles will not gain approval until their activists are similarly impressive.”

    I find this statement quite disingenuous (cheap shot against homosexuals) unless Robin is really that dumb. There’s a clear legal/moral distinction to be drawn between consenting adults (gays and polygamists) and pedophiles, which involves sex with those who haven’t developed the rational faculty to make voluntary choices. Should we as citizens be worried about those who want to legalize sex with animals or reintroduced slavery? Apparently so according to the brilliant logic of Robin Hanson.

  • ArthurG

    TGGP and Arthur, I acknowledged that error in an added to the original post.

    Ah, so I see. Sorry, I’d missed the update.

  • Jess Riedel

    I generally only chime in with criticism, so I thought I’d mention briefly that the amount of space Robin dedicates in the original post to explaining the arguments of the opposing viewpoint is commendable.

  • http://ynglingasaga.wordpress.com Rolf Andreassen

    It seems to me that your theory still has the difficulty of explaining where this impressiveness comes from. What is impressive about the gay activists that is not impressive about the activists of other despised groups? What strategies did the gay movement adopt that atheists, for example, have not?

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Eric, everything is different somehow. If you don’t like the example with pedophiles, substitute polygamy or polyandry instead.

    Rolf, watch Milk. Gay activists have been articulate artistic cosmopolitan professionals, displaying strong group solidarity.

  • http://www.bandwagonsmasher.com John

    It’s not the activism, but the effect of the issue on mate selection. Men, who have been the primary political movers (sorry to say, but true) have endorsed policies that signal positive attributes to women. In our current society, the majority (but not all, of course) of women prefer men who are tolerant of homosexuals. Thus, policy positions that benefit homosexuals are making strides.

  • Eric

    “Now that homosexuals have made progress, let’s contemplate how rapists, pedophiles, and bestially activists might make progress”. Saying that these activities are currently being suppressed just like homosexuality was and may be accepted some day is a pretty absurd thought experiment. Are we to believe that Robin would be morally neutral on such prospects? I think we’ve reached a point in history where the resurrection of some activities such as sex with infants, animals, and rape is not going to happen and not worth contemplation. Polygamists as a consituency is a valid analogy. Pedophilia was a poor choice so Robin is being insensitive at best.

  • http://ynglingasaga.wordpress.com Rolf Andreassen

    You still have to explain why women prefer such policies in the first place.

    Rolf, watch Milk. Gay activists have been articulate artistic cosmopolitan professionals, displaying strong group solidarity.

    Which part of this does not apply to atheists, except perhaps substituting ‘scientific’ for ‘artistic’? Which should not matter to the argument, scientists having these days even more prestige than artists.

  • http://ynglingasaga.wordpress.com Rolf Andreassen

    I think we’ve reached a point in history where the resurrection of some activities such as sex with infants, animals, and rape is not going to happen and not worth contemplation.

    I will give you pedophilia and rape, although trying to predict the morals of even a century into the future is a mug’s game; but bestiality seems to me like a possible candidate for rehabilitation. One could make the argument that no intelligent being is being hurt; after all we eat animals, and the insertion of genitalia into orifices does not on the face of it seem particularly more objectionable except for the squick factor. Take a look at a cow going into a slaughterhouse some time, and tell me that it would not ‘prefer’ (to the extent that one can speak of animals having preferences) a bit of bestiality.

  • Eric

    Rolf,

    “bestiality seems to me like a possible candidate for rehabilitation. One could make the argument that no intelligent being is being hurt; after all we eat animals”

    The trend seems to be more animal rights protections, not less.