Alaska’s political immaturity: Why we aren’t ready for The Righteous Mind
Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind brings the author’s Moral Foundations Theory to America’s political discussion, arguing that our political debates are often intractable because our political views are associated with six areas of taste developed over such a long period of time that there is little we can do to change the mind of our political opponents.
For those who haven’t read any reviews of the book, the the New York Times review is here: http://nyti.ms/GXS5rY, and for the voracious reader of political psychology, a piece at the American Enterprise Institute’s American blog puts the book in context with other notable works out this year: http://bit.ly/IPYbNY. In brief, Haidt asserts that we all have six political “tastes” which in turn dictate our political views. According to his website (http://bit.ly/U0i0A):
Moral Foundations Theory was created by a group of social and cultural psychologists (see us here) to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. In brief, the theory proposes that six (or more) innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The foundations are:
1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."
5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
Much of our present research involves applying the theory to political "cultures" such as those of liberals and conservatives. The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the Care/harm foundation, with additional support from the Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression foundations. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all six foundations, including Loyatly/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. The culture war in the 1990s and early 2000s centered on the legitimacy of these latter three foundations. In 2009, with the rise of the Tea Party, the culture war shifted away from social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and became more about differing conceptions of fairness (equality vs. proportionality) and liberty (is government the oppressor or defender?). The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are both populist movements that talk a great deal about fairness and liberty, but in very different ways, as you can see here, for the Tea Party, and here, for OWS.
We here at the Northern Right found the book fascinating. When seen through the eyes of an Alaskan, the book presents a hard question for our politics: why is this debate so far removed from our discourse here in Alaska? Why are liberals and conservatives in Alaska not constantly arguing about the definition of fairness and liberty when it comes to our education system, our growing public health care spending, and our aging infrastructure?
We think the answer lies in the same challenge we face as a nation: why talk about the hard questions when we have access to the money needed to put it off for another day?
To put the matter in context, in Washington, we are having a fight about the federal deficit. Love it or hate it, Paul Ryan’s budget is being used as a marker in the discussion, a starting point at which both sides can attempt to more clearly define the other. After reading the above excerpts from Haidt’s work, you can clearly see the disconnect presented by the definitions of fairness and liberty when it comes to Ryan’s budget, as well as the emphasis which certain political blocs put on each of the six foundations noted above. But this discussion has come only after years of putting off the hard questions by borrowing money. We don’t have to really reach a compromise on the issues when we can borrow the money needed to broker an uneasy truce for a little longer. In fact, we can devote most of our energy toward finding ways to put off those hard choices far into the future.
Our disconnect between political rhetoric and political reality has made our political debates little more than entertainment -- everyone knows that we don’t really have to change first thing tomorrow morning, and therefore all of our political fights become superficial waste and the audience becomes too eager to change the channel. People see debates framed as epic struggles for the future as laughable advertising, because they know not much will change on account of Washington, or for that matter, in Juneau.
In Alaska, we have found that natural resource revenue covers a multitude of fiscal sins. Why have an intense debate about the cost of public safety, education and health care in Alaska when lawmakers can survive from one election cycle to another by fighting out a debate not about what, but instead about how much. Instead of having to fight to compromise over the definition of fairness and equality under the law in Alaska, we can simply continue to spend at what appears to be a rate that can’t be sustained for the long term. Our budget shortfalls that result from surprise drops in oil prices mean cuts, but not a realignment of ideas or the conversation about our future.
Worse, we don’t seem to be willing to have a discussion about what exactly the goals of our natural resource taxation system are. Are we rushing toward the maximum bankable value of the resource to create a giant permanent fund? Are we working to find the sweet spot between production and taxes, trying to maximize economic benefit through private sector investment while paying for constitutionally required public services? Instead of these hard questions, we seem content to stick with soundbites and political barbs meant to win the news cycle instead of address the long term challenges we all face together.
Perhaps the debate over natural resource taxes in Alaska would be better served if people were willing to have a discussion about what exactly we are trying to do with our resource wealth. Do we want a permanent fund and savings account that will cover at least some of our state expenses in the years ahead? If so, how much do we need to save? And what does that mean for a savings target for next year? We at the Northern Right think that only by answering these basic questions for Alaskans (or at least presenting competing visions instead of arguing over the net amount of tax revenue), can voters begin to discuss our competing definitions of fairness and liberty.
Without an income tax, our debate over fairness and equality has become a debate over rural and urban differences. That debate pits the urban centers against rural Alaskans in a competition for resources and power, instead of setting the stage for a war of ideas.
If Alaskans are ready for an adult conversation about fairness and equality, and about our role in the national discussion over America’s future, we think our lawmakers would rise to the challenge. And, given rates of spending, lack of personal income taxation, and an economy without diversity, we think people would take a much harder look at how much we spend on education, infrastructure, health care, and the rest. That hard look would force our lawmakers to grow up in a hurry, along with the rest of us.
But if we are content to put off our hard work until tomorrow, we’ll certainly never need to read Haidt’s book. Constructing a governing philosophy that brings Alaskans together in spite of long standing differences is hard--arguing that someone else should foot the bill next year isn’t.