Sunday, June 17, 2012

Socialism, Conservatism, and the Need for Closure

Following up on yesterday's post, I'd like to briefly take up a Monkey Cage post which quotes from a gated article on political psychology from the Chronicle of Higher Education. This article explores the increasing evidence for a genetic and hereditary component to political identification (roughly 1/3 depending on the study).

In particular, a passage from that articles states:
Mr. Eidelman has emphasized that the results largely reflect the wide recognition that—similar to the findings of Mr. Jost—conservatives generally crave closure, prefer to act quickly, and choose instinctive solutions. It’s not necessarily a vindication of liberals, who can be faulted as too indecisive and morally ambiguous, he said.
Thinking about some other things I've read lead me to question whether these traits are necessarily identifiable with liberal and conservative personality types, rather than identifying with available partisan affiliations that are congruent with these personality types.

The need for closure, in particular, reminded me of Somers and Block's "From Poverty to Perversity." In this paper, the authors focus on the "causal mechanisms that allow certain ideas to exert extraordinary political influence."

The relevance to the topic of personality types and my doubts about a simple conservative/liberal dichotomy lies specifically to the personality trait of craving closure. Somers and Block write about a kind of idea that they call epistemically privileged. These ideas:
come equipped with their own internal claims to veracity. A theory that has 'the
means of making itself true' (Bourdieu 1998:95) has an obvious advantage over a theory that lacks its own epistemological bootstraps. This has been evident not only for religious revelation, but for Marxism, Freudian theory,and market fundamentalism itself. They have all displayed astonishing immunity to the kinds of empirical challenges that should be evidentially disconfirming. (Somers and Block 2005: 265)
Epistemically privileged ideas seem to me to have an obvious appeal to any personality that craves closure. Only by having their own internal claims to veracity could any philosophy hope to eliminate the inherent ambiguity of the observable world.

What I doubt is whether this need for closure is an inherent property of liberals vs. conservatives. Edmund Burke, for instance, seems comfortable enough with the idea of change, provided that it proceeds slowly in an evolutionary manner and respects the properties of the society in which it takes place. On the other hand, Marxism is one of the theories Somers and Block identify as being epistemically privilege, and reading or discussing political economy issues with Marxists tends to rather quickly reveal anecdotal evidence of the personality type.

I think this is relevant to modern politics and the increase in political polarization. The right currently has the philosophy of market fundamentalism, a term describing the "religious-like certitude of those who believe in the moral superiority of organizing all dimensions of social life according to market principles." (Somers and Block 2005: 260-261) The left once had an equivalent of this in Marxism, which supplied the same need for closure in a leftist framework.* The widespread discrediting of this philosophy, however, has left these individuals without a partisan home. Is it possible that individuals whose psychological need for closure trumps other considerations may have gravitated rightwards over the years in order to fulfill this need for order, perhaps from a previous point of balance between the numbers of these individuals on the left and right?

I can't say I have any data, but it seems to me that there has been a decline of fundamentalist socialists on the left and an increase in market fundamentalists on the right. Since these individuals would be those least inclined to compromise and most inclined to dismissing alternate views a shift in the proportions of individuals carrying this trait on each side of the political divide seems like a possible contributing factor to polarization.**

*I'd note that stereotyping of socialists also seems part of this need for closure. I often hear allegations from the right wing about the statist nature of their opponents, for instance. However, this is a grossly inaccurate characterization of socialism generally, or even Marxism. Bolshevism was innovative for its emphasis on the state, prior to this, socialism had tended to be very sceptical of the role of the state. This anti-statist philosophy continues to hold sway over virtually all North American socialists that I have actually met. Far from wanting to centralize power in the state their primary criticism is that the market centralizes too much power in too few hands (one of Bolshevism's innovations was that the centralization of economic power in the party's hands would not be coercive because the party represented the people and was necessary to resist the coercive powers of capitalists). Non-Bolshevik solutions tend to emphasize radical decentralization, to name two common solutions, one is to decentralize ownership of firms to the workers, and other stakeholders in some variants, and away from non-participating shareholders; and the other is a utopian branch which emphasizes technological innovation (particularly 3D printing) as a way to move away from firm structures which require economies of scale and international corporations to put economic power back in the hands of localities instead. Most socialists are at least as anti-authoritarian as a libertarian, if not more so because they recognize the inherently authoritarian qualities of private ownership and corporate organization.

** It also seems to me that a need for psychological closure is associated with linear thinking. Marxism had its inevitable linear stages of economic evolution and the inevitable collapse of capitalism; it took a messy reality and tried to squeeze it into a linear framework. Market fundamentalism tends to do the same thing, if in a slightly more granular fashion. Current trends, like increasing health care costs today or the growth of government in the 60s and 70s, become inevitable linear trends that are cause for mass panic and hysteria. Never mind that human beings are adaptive creatures, the expansion of the state created pressure to limit its expansion where it proceeded too far in Europe (and preemptively here). Medical costs can't increase for the next 20 years at the rate they did for the last 20, the numbers would just be absurd. More pragmatic measures, like cost control boards used in many countries will be sufficient to control costs, like all social systems these problems are inherently non-linear and drive their own change. There's no reason to panic about unreasonable linear projections. (Worthwhile Canadian Initiative has a good post on non-linearity in economies (though I don't agree with everything they say, the bits on non-linearity are great, however: hat tip Free Exchange) which I think can be extended to all social sciences. Linear thinking gets us in a lot of trouble when dealing with any social problems because it is the interactions that matter, the process just isn't the linear action and reaction which our intuition relies on to explain things.


Somers, Margaret, and Block Fred. "From Poverty to Perversity: Ideas, Markets, and Institutions over 200 Years of Welfare Debate." American Sociological Review, Vol. 70, No. 2 (Apr., 2005), pp. 260-287.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market. Translated by Richard
Nice. New York: New Press.

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