The Liberal Mind

Most people prefer to live in a society that creates the greatest prosperity for the greatest number of people. History, including the recent financial meltdown brought on by big government and firms “too big to fail,” proves that decentralized arrangements, based on markets and competition, generate greater prosperity and less inequality. And, as if historical results weren’t enough, we’ve had over 200 years of economic theory explaining why a market based economy can be expected to work better.

Despite the historical and theoretical evidence, liberals and conservatives disagree about how we should organize the economy and society to achieve prosperity. Conservatives prefer a decentralized approach, but liberals dream more and more, especially since the election of Obama, of a society controlled by big government, complete with central planning and price controls (see ObamaCare). How is it that liberals ignore the historical and theoretical evidence? Is it stubbornness that explains their fascination with the idea of authoritarian government, or something else?

The moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, provides a possible answer to these questions in his book “The Righteous Mind.” According to Haidt, our views of right and wrong do not come from reasoning, but rather are based on intuitions. The intuitions come first, followed by strategic reasoning that justifies and supports our intuitions. Reasoning matters, because it may sometimes influence other people, but Haidt argues that “most of the action” in moral psychology is in the intuitions. Thus, to change someone’s mind about moral or political issues, it’s necessary first to appeal to the intuitions.

According to Haidt, there is more to morality than intuitions about harm and fairness. He identifies six psychological foundations of morality that people use to construct a “great variety of moral matrices.” These foundations include concerns about care, fairness, liberty, group loyalty, respect for authority, and spiritual sanctity. The morality of various groups depends on the ways and degrees to which the individuals within groups rely on the various foundations.

Haidt finds that liberals tend to rely on the care, fairness, and liberty foundations whereas conservative morality is broader, relying on these three foundations as well as the loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations (which of course liberals tend to scoff at). Indeed, Haidt himself is disturbed by the breadth of conservative morality to the point of whining that conservative politicians have an advantage because, by connecting with voters on all six foundations, they appeal to voters in more ways.

The morality of both liberals and conservatives seems to share three key foundations, yet the two groups disagree on fundamental questions. The failure of liberals to recognize the evidence supporting markets and competition suggests that Haidt’s conclusions about liberal morality are incorrect. After all, if liberal morality truly relied on the care, fairness, and liberty foundations, liberals would eagerly support the market structure that would best deliver what they value. Sticking to Haidt’s own framework, a better explanation would be that liberal morality relies primarily on the sanctity foundation.

The sanctity foundation is the foundation that deals with religion and religious rituals. In Haidt’s view, religious practices serve to bind individuals into communities, and with religion especially, the binding involves some blinding such that once anything is “declared sacred, then devotees can no longer question it or think clearly about it.” So it seems that liberals have sacralized “big government.” And once big government is declared sacred, we can forget about appealing to either the liberals’  intuitions or reason. Liberals are simply no longer able to think clearly about anything that might challenge the sanctity of big government.

Haidt himself may not agree that liberal morality rests on the sanctity foundation, due to his liberal upbringing. He has come to recognize, however, that “markets are miraculous,” so his personal experience has reflected some degree of growth. But such growth cannot be expected, unfortunately, from most liberals if they have sacralized big government.

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