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The Politics of Behavioral Economics

A while back, someone posted this video (talking a bit about some modern research into the psychology of motivation) to the Liberal community on LiveJournal:

They asked:

Is this a liberal or a conservative idea? I mean, if we’re increasing productivity and creating more effective work places, isn’t that basically conservative? But we’re talking about empowering individuals and normalizing pay scales, and isn’t that basically liberal?

Which seemed to me like a silly question.  I wouldn’t attribute political views to the result of research unless making accusations about bias.  The truth itself isn’t ideological; what sort of political policies you promote based on the truth is ideological.

It’s popular for conservatives and liberals to accuse one another of “legislating morality”, but the truth is that both do.  Politics is making value judgments about what the government should or shouldn’t do.  And once you get beyond the sort of pure volunteerism that few (anarchists and hardcore libertarians) think should define the political process, that includes constraints on what people in general can or cannot do.

The morality in question simply has a different focus.  Conservatives tend to focus on deontological ethics, since if you seek to preserve traditional institutions, it makes sense for your morality to flow from the authority of traditional institutions.  Liberals favor teleological ethics, since if you believe that traditional institutions run the gamut from pretty good to hopelessly immoral and corrupt, you’d better focus on an ethical system that can tell the difference.

(That’s not quite the same explanation discussed in the essay Red Family, Blue Family by Doug Muder, which I list as one of my influences.  (That essay is in turn discussing the book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff.)  However, I think that the “government as strict father” / “government as nurturant parents” and “inherited obligation” / “negotiated commitment” distinctions are related to the deontological/teleological distinction.)

Of course, that doesn’t cover the whole “conservative” / “liberal” distinction, since there’s more to politics than where people stand on traditional institutions in general (for Americans, especially given the way all political difference is crammed into a dichotomy in a two-party system).  A lot of “conservatives” are fine with traditional institutions being substantially reformed (especially when discussing past examples), so long as the government isn’t involved (in my opinion, a tricky distinction to defend).

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