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.

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