From the comments

PeterW has written:

I never really bought the "conservatives are fearful" argument; after all, the left is the one arguing for more economic protection.

I think a more useful distinction is that people want free-market competition in areas where they are strong, and protection and regulation in areas where they are weak. Conservatives want free competition in the economic sphere but moral protections in social interactions; liberals want protection from market forces but are happy to take their licks in status-seeking competitions.

In a state of nature, the highest-status people get away with much more bad behavior than low status folks. Therefore, strict social rules are essentially a progressive tax on status!


Conservatives actually favour a middle-muddle where the state protects incumbent businesses from both labour and competitors, i.e. the free market. This is true across the world, not just in America. (The "liberals" comment is, of course, entirely USA-specific.) I don't accept this explanation.

The 'conservatives' in our legislature are looking primarily for the 'main chance'. Open markets are a theoretical construct.

Conservatives want free competition in the economic sphere but moral protections in social interactions; liberals want protection from market forces but are happy to take their licks in status-seeking competitions.

What evidence is there that conservative politicians favor free competition in the economic sphere whereas liberal politicians want protection from market forces? It seems to me that the bulk of economic deregulations were undertaken by either Jimmy Carter (trucking, natural gas, airlines, interstate banking) or Bill Clinton (telecoms, finance) and I don't recall the George W Bush administration doing anything noteworthy to increase the scope of "market forces" in any sphere. Recall that in 2002-2003 Bush was super-popular post-9/11 and took the opportunity to push through (a) a debt-financed increase in farm subsidies (b) a debt-financed new prescription drug entitlement and (c) debt-financed tax cuts.

It's definitely true that conservative politicians favor low taxes whereas liberal politicians favor high taxes. There's a big difference on environmental regulations as well. But I don't see a large difference about "market forces" in practice and if there is one it points toward liberal politicians being more friendly to them.

I think this issue is really about the academic use of the word 'risk adverse'. There is a very specific definition of this term in prospect theory, and it has been applied to political parties with some interesting results. However, it's relation to real world use of the word 'risky' is highly dubious.

For example, there was just a recent real-world behavioral economics study by the Glimcher group at NYU showing that men were basically just as risk seeking when drunk as when sober, which runs counter to all anecdotal evidence. While I don't doubt that the data is the data, I think it proves that the economic definition of 'risk' should be taken with a huge grain of salt.

Some comments:

Yes the labor wing of the left is shrinking, but support for redistribution is as strong as ever, whether that means higher marginal tax rates to lower the status of the richest, or more services to raise the status of the poorest. Either way the effect is to lower the importance of economic competition, relative to competition on looks, height, and social status.

I would argue that big business is actually relatively bipartisan, which makes sense since you'll want a foot in the lobbying door. Either way, business lobbying is not part of this macro divide, it's simply an example of self-interested parties doing what they do best. Ditto farm subsidies. On the other hand, the left is much more likely to favor government regulation of business as a whole, while the right prefers both less regulation and freer international trade.

Remember, furthermore, the Cowen/Hanson dictum that politics is more about group loyalties than about policy. A clearer way of seeing the basic impulses behind policy proposals is simply looking at attitudes of both sides towards different groups - what's praiseworthy and what's contemptible. And that "cultural" view clearly shows this money vs. social status dichotomy. (The one thing that DOES weaken my framing is the anti-immigration right, which is often framed as protecting poor natives from economic competition.)

The major contribution of my framework, as I see it, is a way to explain the appeal of social norms to non-conservatives, many of whom see norms as merely a way for the powerful to oppress the weak. To the contrary; if you look at "power" in terms of social status rather than belonging to particular groups, social norms are a protection of the weak against the excesses of the strong.

"The Republican party is the party of conservative old business that has no real place in a free market. Conservatism will never be a good match with free markets. Because free markets require innovation and change. Two thinks that are antethical to a conservative mindset."

I'm just astounded at how even intelligent and educated folk are so frequently slave to blinkered and bigoted ideological beliefs. At least you didn't mention Karl Rove or war for oil.

I suppose part of it is that I don't subscribe to the fetishisation of "status" that Hanson inspires in his followers. In my mind, taxes and government subsidies just exist to make some people richer, not to increase their status. Money is good to have and it is not the same thing as status. I would change my mind if I saw governments doing status-increasing, money-reducing things to their supporters.

The fear critique of conservatives is not that they are economically fearful, but rather that they use fear (fear of immigrants and minorities, fear of homosexuals, fear of bugaboo "socialism", fear of crime, moral stagnation, loss of traditional values, etc. etc.) as their central political message. One has to say that on many of these topics, they certainly do not appeal to the "better angels of our nature," as a prominent Republican once said.

Other than labor unions still being Democratic (and having little to no remaining influence in the party), there's very little anti-business sentiment left in the Democratic party.

I wish that was true, but the nearly unanimous hyperventilating by Democrats over the Citizens United decision shows that it's not much of a stretch to say that for Democrats, corporations remain the universal bogeymen. Or, probably more accurately, have become the universal bogeymen (Dems were a lot more positive about business during the Clinton administration).

I think Yglesias and some of the other commenters misunderstand the gist of PeterW's comment. I take PeterW to be discussing individuals, not (say) firms. Conservatives like freedom as individuals in the market, e.g. no welfare or a limited safety net. But then conservatives in the social sphere want strong government intrusions to equalize outcomes - e.g. institutions that discourage sex outside of marriage. Meanwhile liberals favor protections for individuals from market outcomes in the economic sphere - a strong safety net - but not protections from "market" outcomes in the social sphere.

Of course I could be wrong. And if I'm right, I'm not sure I agree with it entirely, the impulses behind these preferences are not always so easy to categorize or dismiss. There is much sorrow in both spheres.

I love the idea that all the cool people are liberal.

The 'fear' argument today seems to be aimed more at the 'Tea Party' than at 'conservatives', or more generally at anyone opposed to the policies of the Democrats.

There is a strong libertarian strain in the Tea Party movement. Libertarians are probably the least 'fearful' constituency, unless you count fear of big government. Libertarians are generally willing to let people live their own lives, to let market forces organize economic activity, and let the chips fall where they may.

In fact, one of the more common criticisms of libertarians is that they tend to be people of fairly high ability (or confidence in their ability), and thus are perfectly happy competing against everyone else.

When polled, over 40% of Americans claim they are socially liberal and fiscally conservative, which broadly defines the libertarian impulse, if not total agreement with everything libertarian. And these are the people who are most vociferously opposed to the Democrat's agenda today. I think 'fear' and 'anger' are used more as slurs against these people, because the alternative to calling them fearful and angry is to admit that they actually have some principled beliefs and disagreements with Democrats on actual policy and philosophy. We can't have that, can we?

If highest-status people get away with more, then the tax is regressive not progressive.

Conservatives are fearful of the nut cases in Yemen. Who's laughing now?

Don't be shocked the pundits are mediocre. The 1900 farmer's almanac was more sophisticated, and they are dominated by Whigs.

The Professors and the Nobles today learn from the same orthodox curriculum they teach the Proles, join in the same glowing box culture, and prefer the latest best-selling novelties, even in the classrooms where they pretend insight into eternity.

I hate "cool" people who don't understand statistics. They are why high school only lasts 4 years and ends with adulthood.

Forget "fear" thinking, how about magical thinking? Tax cuts pay for themselves? Now that is conservative magical thinking right there.

I am truly surprised to read such a shallow thesis so prominently posted on MR. Particularly when it is labelled "Philosophy". This is laughable...

I'm sort of shocked that Yglesias of all people doesn't really seem to see the anti-business/anti-market line of thinking that emanates from the left.

Really, look at a typical Yglesias post where he says something like "Hey maybe this silly regulation banning open windows in city restaurants should be eliminated". He gets flooded with comments like "OH MAN you're such an evil neoliberal liberaltarian how dare you, some very well-meaning bureaucrats at one time thought it was a great idea".

I'd noticed the same thing

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