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What song the sirens sang

September 16, 2016

I’d heard about this forum at Cato and was curious about it. So I’m glad Ron Bailey wrote this summary article for Reason’s blog. It’s hard to excerpt so I’ve just included a few snippets from it. RTWT though.

Why Is Socialism So Damned Attractive?
What is the attraction of socialism?

The Cato Institute held a policy forum Wednesday to consider that question, featuring talks from the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and the evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.

One problem they quickly encountered was how to define socialism in the first place. Is it pervasive, state-directed central planning? A Scandinavian-style safety net? Something else? Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who pursued the Democratic presidential nomination while describing himself as a socialist, attracted a big following among voters under age 30. But most of those voters actually rejected the idea of the government running businesses or owning the means of production; they tended to be safety-net redistributionists who want to tax the rich to pay for health care and college education. And this was, in fact, the platform Sanders was running on.

Cosmides then turned to a fascinating 2014 study in The Journal of Politics by the Danish political scientists Lene Aarøe and Michael Bang Petersen. Aarøe and Petersen found that certain cues could turn supposedly individualistic Americans into purportedly welfare-state loving Danes, and vice versa. […]

In that experiment, researchers asked 2,000 Danes and Americans to react to three cases involving a person on welfare. In one, they had no background information on the welfare client. In the second, he lost his job due to an injury and was actively looking for new work. In the third, he has never looked for a job at all. The Danes turned out to be slightly more likely than the Americans to assume that the person they knew nothing about was on welfare because of bad luck. But both Americans and Danes were no different in opposing welfare for the lazy guy and strongly favoring it for the unlucky worker. “When we assess people on welfare, we use certain [evolved] psychological mechanisms to spot anyone who might be cheating,” Michael Bang Petersen explained in press release about the study. “We ask ourselves whether they are motivated to give something back to me and society. And these mechanisms are more powerful than cultural differences.”

The next panelist, John Tooby, turned to those counterproductive attitudes. Tooby has long been puzzled that so many of his colleagues are not struck by facts like Hong Kong’s amazing economic success. (Its GDP increased 180-fold between 1961 and 1996 while per capita GDP increased 87-fold and inequality fell.) […]

The chief problem, he suggested, is that many people are beguiled by “romantic socialism”—that is, they imagine what their personal lives would be like if everyone shared and treated one another like family. We evolved in small bands that were an individual’s only protection from starvation, victimization, and inter-group aggression. People feel vulnerable if their band does not exist. Such sentiments are more or less appropriate when people lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers composed mostly of kin, but they fail spectacularly when navigating a world of strangers cooperating in global markets.

The third speaker was Jonathan Haidt, whose research explores the intuitive ethics that undergird the psychological foundations of morality. His goal is to reconcile the universal human behavior identified by evolutionary psychology with the cultural variations highlighted by anthropology. He and his colleagues have identified six moral foundations, but he focused on just three during the session. Those three were care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression.

In contemporary politics, liberals are chiefly concerned about care and harm. They see fairness mostly as equality of outcomes. He illustrated this with photos taken during the Occupy Wall Street episode in Zuccotti Park. (One Occupy sign, for instance, read “Tax the Rich Fair and Square.”) On the other hand, conservatives see fairness has proportionality; if you work hard, you get to keep the rewards. Haidt showed a Tea Party sign that read, “Stop Punishing Success—Stop Rewarding Failure.” […]

Another Occupy Wall Street placard shown in Haidt’s presentation said “Equality Now! Liberty Later.” In response to that sentiment, Haidt quoted Milton Friedman: “A society that aims for equality before liberty will end up with neither equality nor liberty. And a society that aims first for liberty will not end up with equality, but it will end up with a closer approach to equality than any other kind of system that has ever been developed.”

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