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Fifty years ago, if you knew whether someone was a Republican or a Democrat, you didn’t necessarily know a lot about that person’s moral values; party affiliation told you even less about someone’s preferences in restaurants or movies. There was so much diversity within each party—plenty of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans—that stereotyping was harder, and cross-party alliances were much easier.
But since the 1980s, the two parties have become ever more perfectly sorted. The Democratic party is now the liberal party, dominant in places with a population density greater than about 800 people per square mile, and the Republican Party is the conservative party, dominant in lower density areas. Nowadays you can make predictions about people’s values and votes from just a few seemingly unrelated things, such as whether they find novel cuisines appealing or how messy their desks are.
Having well-sorted parties could be a good thing. In 1950, the American Political Science Association called for just such a comparatively sharp polarization, so that Americans could be presented with clearer policy choices from two very different perspectives. Unfortunately, as the parties developed more divergent values and lifestyles, they also developed divergent facts. Republicans and Democrats believe different things—about history, the Constitution, science, and above all economics.
Just look at today’s most contentious political issues: Will raising the minimum wage increase unemployment, or will it stimulate the economy and raise employment? Is stimulus the most effective response to a recession, or is austerity? Or what about this week’s hot topic: will cutting off unemployment benefits spur people to find jobs, or will it plunge them into homelessness and hunger?
The main reason Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on basic economic facts is that people—including politicians and economists—seek out the facts required by their values. When faced with complicated or ambiguous evidence, human reasoning is notoriously bad at asking “what is the truth?” Rather, we start with a conclusion that we hope is true, and then we ask: “Can I find any evidence to support this conclusion?” The answer is almost always yes. Even when 90% of the research points the other way, just a single study supporting your side will seem utterly compelling, and you’ll find reasons to reject the junk science peddled by the other side.
I run a research site at www.YourMorals.org, where we have surveyed more than 350,000 people about their personality traits and moral values. We find very consistent differences between right and left in a few values that can help us understand today’s deadlock over economic policies. For example, how strongly do you agree or disagree with these two statements:
1) “Compassion is the most important virtue”
2) “The world would be a better place if we let unsuccessful people fail and suffer the consequences.”
The liberals in our sample strongly endorse the compassion statement and strongly reject the failure statement. Conservatives, by contrast, endorse both statements mildly, and equally.
What’s going on here? A useful way to summarize today’s left-right economic divide is that it’s a battle between the law of karma and the principle of compassion. Conservatives generally want to live in a world governed by karma—the ancient Hindu idea that people reap the fruits of their actions, both good and bad.
Karma was usually thought of as a law of the universe, like the law of gravity. Part of the reason conservatives have historically opposed the growth of the welfare state is the belief that it grants people a sort of karmic exemption, allowing those who are lazy or irresponsible to draw resources from those who are more industrious (see Mitt Romney’s “47%” comment). Hence conservatives agree that the world would be a better place if we “let unsuccessful people fail.” That also includes unsuccessful countries (like Greece) and companies (like the GM of 2009).
Liberals, by contrast, would prefer to live in a world governed by compassion. They are more likely to give people second and third chances. For example, they are more likely to endorse this statement: “It is generally better to show mercy than to take revenge.”
Karma and compassion are both necessary pillars of a well-functioning society. Conservatives are right that a world in which the law of karma applies tends to work better than one in which it doesn’t. Results from experimental games show that cooperation rates skyrocket when cheaters expect to be punished.
But it is cruel and unfair to apply karmic thinking in an unkarmic world, since it can often lead to retroactive blame-laying. Ancient Hindus concluded that virtuous victims—the honest man who is struck ill—must have done something terrible in their former lives. The desire to see justice done led them to invent past violations. Similarly, while the idea that unemployed people are lazy may sometimes be accurate when the unemployment rate is very low, in today’s economy that inference is not justified.
The law of karma is not real. In free-market societies, hard work does pay off much better than laziness, yet cancer, unemployment, and other forms of bad luck can strike anyone. And cheaters, exploiters, and law-breakers do often prosper. If we want to live in a truly just world in which honest work is rewarded, cheaters are punished, and people can bounce back from misfortune and mistakes, we’ll have to engineer it ourselves. Karma and compassion don’t balance themselves; that’s a job we must do.