Move on — this isn’t true here

I have a simple model of how some people — but by no means all — process political issues.  Occasionally the real force behind a political ideology is the subconsciously held desire that a certain group of people should not be allowed to rise in relative status.

Take the so-called "right wing."  I believe that some people on the right do not like those they perceive as "whiners."  They do not want these whiners to rise in relative status.  That means they must argue against the whining and also they must argue against the presuppositions behind the whining.

If the whiners say that times are bad, the rebuttal is that times are pretty good or times will become better again.  But if the whiners want to increase government benefits (perhaps there is a victim to whine about), we hear about the need to tighten our belts and all the talk about good times is, at least temporarily, muted.  Fiscal discipline is now in order.

Take the so-called "left wing."  Some of these people favor a kind of meritocracy.  They feel it is unfair that money so determines access in capitalist society and they do not want the monied class to rise in relative status, certainly not above the status of the smart people and the virtuous people.  It is important to fight for the principle that the desires of this monied class have a relatively low priority in the social ranking.  Egalitarianism is the rhetoric of the day, and readjusting the status of other Americans to the status of this monied class often receives more attention than elevating the very poorest in the world to a higher absolute level.

So when happiness research indicates that money brings more happiness only up to a point, this is a popular result.  That perspective lowers the status of this monied class by showing they really aren’t that happy.  When happiness research indicates that conservatives are relatively happy, however, or that many redistributions don’t make the beneficiaries much happier (in some accounts the money-happiness relationships flattens out at a pretty low level), suddenly happiness research isn’t talked up so much.  Inequalities which do not raise the status of this monied class, such as inequalities in the sphere of beauty or teenage sex, don’t come under so much criticism.

Some on the right wing will stress "individual responsibility" as a value when it lowers the status of the whiners (why whine when it was the victim’s own fault?).  Some on the left wing will stress "individual responsibility" when it is time to punish corporate wrongdoers and thus lower their status.  Not everyone applies (or rejects) this value consistently.

Given this difference in rhetoric, the right wing will be identified with the monied class, even when the left often has more money.  And the left wing will be identified as the whiners, even though the right at times whines as much or more.  You might say that both sides are monied, high human capital whiners, on the whole.  And if you compare them to Burmese rice farmers, the two sides seem somewhat alike.

For the people caught up in these intellectual traps, it all boils down to which groups of whiners they find most objectionable.  And once they choose sides, the wisdom of that choice becomes increasingly clear with time.

Fortunately not everyone has these subconscious motivations.  But even if more people did, it’s not something I would want to whine about.


I tend to find that a two-dimensional matrix helps.

Both scales run from "status quo" to "intervention".

However, one scale is labelled "within my economy" and the other labelled "between national economies."

So, I find people who want status quo everywhere (generally, the apathetics, but fewer of them than there were 12 months ago)...

... people who want wealth to be shared more equally WITHIN their national economy but are happy to live lifestyle well in advance of 90% of the world's population but unhappy that their neighbour beats 95% (awful lot of them, bigger taxes on the "fat cats", but close the doors to economic migration)...

... people who want world socialism (fewer of them than there were 20 years ago, mind)

... and increasingly, a few people who are relatively sanguine about competition WITHIN an economy, but would like to see a more level playing field, and the dismantling of protectionist barriers (actually, this would be me!)


good analysis...

i care more about how the burmese farmers are doing, with any luck they have increasing access to tools to improve their lot...

imagine a smart kid in the developing world, with internet access, diagnosing diseases by looking at online databases...better than whinging =)

Professor Cowen,

Might you be interested in Symbolic Crusade:Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement by Joseph Gusfield? It argues that the religious conservatives of the Prohibition era viewed the imposition and continuation of Prohibition as a symbol of their higher status over other American sub-groups.

While I think this model is entertaining and has a kernel of truth, it also offers a bit of a caricature of both lefties and righties, who are actually quite diverse even if they self-identify as a member of their group.

Taking redistributionist lefties as an example, I don't think it's at all fair to claim that they neglect caring about the actual lives of the poorest and instead care primarily concern is lowering the status of the wealthy. While this may describe a very particular type of bourgeois leftism (somewhat) popular among upper-middle-class intellectual and artists who spend more time railing against businesspeople whose cultural tastes and lack of book smarts, etc. they find objectionable, this type of leftism is far from the most common.

I would suspect that Tyler and others would argue that "fair trade"/anti-globalization blue-collar workers fall into this category. However, I don't think that opposition to, say, NAFTA or the WTO necessarily equals a lack of care for the poorest of the world. Rather, it simply reflects several other beliefs (i.e. that a "race to the bottom" is bad for everyone, that national development rather than cheap production for the American market is the best way for other countries to develop their economies, etc.) While everyone is free to disagree with these propositions, it's nonetheless true that they do not necessarily reflect a lack of concern for non-U.S. poor.

Tyler - This goes back to Weber and his classic distinction between different kinds of group distinction. What you're talking about is called "status" in his lingo. It's all about relative symbolic position.

There is a graph out there, showing where McCain and Obama sit relative to their congressional peers ... right vs left.

The purpose of the graph is to show that McCain is more moderate than his conservative peers ... but really the striking thing for me was the overal shape: _/\_/\_. Two peaks, with the two parties left and right of center, and with very few moderates present.

Does this mean our two party system has brought us a congress without pragmatists? Wouldn't that suck?

The natural division of men, according to Thomas Jefferson

"Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all."

Thanks goodness, found this page:

The left wingers are control freaks. The right believes in freedom.

Occasionally the real force behind a political ideology is the subconsciously held desire that a certain group of people should not be allowed to rise in relative status.

Status is a zero sum game. So a desire to reduce (or not less rise) the status of P-type people is the same as wanting to increase (or not less fall) the status of not-P people.

Which brings me to my theory. I think that a large part of political belief boils down to a desire to increase (or maintain) the status of X kind of people, where X is some group that a person either considers himself to be a member of, or otherwise has some sort of emotional identification with.

In the former case, which is the most common, my theory amounts to a belief that "people like me deserve higher status", which I contend most people believe to some extent.

Many existing or historical political movements have their identity based on who they define as X.

So if X=women, you get feminism
for X=Jews, you get Zionism
X=black Africans => the African National Congress
X=poor people => socialists, Old Labour
X=rich people => pre-Cameron Conservatives
X=Muslims => Islamism
X=Germans => Nazism
X=Scots => The SNP

This also works for professions. For example if you're a civil engineer or teacher or policemen, you probably believe that civil engineers / teachers / policemen deserve more status.

I hate the right/left paradigm. What matters is the extent that those on either the right or left choose to use government to achieve their respective aims.

The proper framework (in my opinion) is libertarian/totalitarianism. I am right wing on some issues (mostly, but not entirely, economic) and left wing on other issues (mostly, but not entirely, social, or "civil" if you will). But unlike big government righties and big governemnt lefties, I am not arrogant enough to try to use government coercion to try to force others to do the things I like or to not do the things I dislike.

The meritocratic left in America is largely an upper-middle class white phenomenon. They don't believe in meritocratic competition involving poor minorities, but they believe in vicious meritocracy among their fellow whites.

Upper-middle class left wing whites have worked hard to prove to themselves and the world that they are better than middle class whites. Hence the contempt for Wal-mart, Applebees, etc, etc.

Stuff White People Like absolutely nails the rapid status competitions within upper-middle class lefties.

They try to block out any part of their mind that compares and contrasts their relative status with poor minorities (mainly blacks). But it's difficult since so much of their life is spent ruthlessly clambering over other whites. For the purpose of rich left-wing white guilt and status games, Asian-Americans count as white.

Right, political discourse in the U.S. largely consists of white vs. white status-competition. See "Stuff White People Like" for details.

This is the libertarian's dilemma. You can't fight loyalty politics with a rational argument. If you join the loyalty game you become part of the problem.

@cabalamat: your example should properly be the other way around if you want to be strictly logical, i.e.:

historically, if nazi, then x= german
if feminist, then x= women etc.

the way your example was structured, it implied that being german-centric inexorably lead to naziism,ec. which is not historically correct

Might be truer today than in the past, when there was true class and interest politics. Fortunately today, with the odd exception, we don't have people killing over political issues.

Cabalamat got it right. And yes, it's another form of rent-seeking. If you are a member of the group homo sapiens sapiens, you are a rent-seeker. It is inherent in being a social animal with normal diploid genetics. Bees need not apply. :^)

I am afraid that I am guilt of this. I am so frustrated with people whining about the price gasoline but not taking as much action as they could, that I have begun to cheer for the suppliers. I hope the suppliers that they continue to get higher prices so people will wake up and realize that they have options. The suppliers are doing well right now but it is a fair fight and the consumers could get the upper hand. Smaller lighter cars, car pooling, ride sharing, mass transit, driving less, planning trips etc.

"Meritocracy implies equal opportunity rather than equal outcomes. The former is favored by the right wing, the latter by the left wing.

Also meritocracy, almost by definition, applies at an individual level, while the left wing favors quotas (or policies by another name that achieve the same result), and tends to believe that collective rights override individual rights or merits."

That second sentence is reductionist bullshit. *Many* liberals favor equal opportunities over outcomes. The last part of your final sentence is also ludicrous. Reproductive rights and the rights to privacy, free speech, etc. are all associated with the left. You've failed Stereotyping 101.

Sorry for the italics. They aren't my doing. I did start this regret by adding a stop-italics html tag.

-- Michael

Identical, but in fewer words: "Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds." - Henry Adams

It's posts like this that made me realize that I think I enjoy reading comments here more than the main post sometimes. The perfect balance of informative debate and hilarious one-liners.

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