Confirmed: Conservatives understand liberal positions better than liberals understand conservative positions

posted at 1:21 pm on April 13, 2012 by Tina Korbe

At The American, AEI resident scholar Andrew Biggs highlights an interesting study that confirms what most conservatives probably already know to be true of themselves: We understand why our liberal friends think what they think more than they understand why we think what we think.

[University of Virginia professor Jonathan] Haidt’s research asks individuals to answer questionnaires regarding their core moral beliefs—what sorts of values they consider sacred, which they would compromise on, and how much it would take to get them to make those compromises. By themselves, these exercises are interesting. (Try them online and see where you come out.)

But Haidt’s research went one step further, asking self-indentified conservatives to answer those questionnaires as if they were liberals and for liberals to do the opposite. What Haidt found is that conservatives understand liberals’ moral values better than liberals understand where conservatives are coming from. Worse yet, liberals don’t know what they don’t know; they don’t understand how limited their knowledge of conservative values is. If anyone is close-minded here it’s not conservatives.

Haidt has one theory to explain his results, while Biggs has another. Haidt says conservatives speak a broader and more encompassing language of six moral values, while liberals focus on a narrow subset of those values. Biggs says conservatives understand liberal positions because they’re inundated with them — by the media, by academia, even to a certain extent by the culture.

Haidt and Biggs both have a point. It takes just about a year of actively debating politics or witnessing the debate of politics to realize that (a) the two parties to the debate don’t speak the same language and (b) the liberal party will have few opportunities to learn the conservative’s language. It’s not only that we don’t use the same words, it’s that we also assign completely different meanings to the same words.

The president’s prattling about the Buffett Rule is a perfect example. He repeatedly uses the word “fair” when he discusses this rule that would require anyone who earns more than $1 million a year to pay at least 30 percent in taxes. The Buffett Rule is actually officially named “The Paying a Fair Share Act.”

Conservatives have been quick to cede the word “fair” to the president. Instead of debating whether The Buffett Rule actually is fair, we’ve focused on the idea that economic growth and entitlement reform are the  keys to deficit reduction. We know that our definition of “fair” is different than liberals’ definition of “fair,” so we’re never going to be able to convince liberals that the Buffett Rule actually is unfair. In a world dominated by liberal influences in the media, academy and culture, we have no choice but focus on the fact that The Buffett Rule would do very little to reduce the deficit.

If liberals understood the conservative definition of “fair,” they might better understand how it’s possible to oppose the Buffett Rule. As the debate stands at this moment, it’s conceivable that the average liberal thinks conservatives actually oppose a rule we think is fair just because we don’t think it will adequately reduce the deficit. But why would anybody oppose a fair rule? In fact, we oppose the Buffett Rule because, by our definition, it is unfair — not to mention that it does very little to reduce the deficit. (As an aside, I’ve been searching for an article in which a conservative argues explicitly that the Buffett Rule is unfair and am finding it surprisingly hard to find. Has anybody read a good one?)

The word “just” is defined as “based on right.” Our concept of what is fair starts with our concept of what is a right. Whereas progressives think that rights are given by the government, conservatives think that “we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Among our God-given rights is the right to keep the fruits of our labor. So far, I have never heard a good argument that we have a right or a claim to the fruits of others’ labor unless they have promised them to us for some reason. We certainly never have an intrinsic a priori claim on the fruits of someone else’s labor.

As long as he is allowed to keep what he has earned, the conservative thinks he has been treated fairly — even if others have more than he has. The liberal has a completely different definition of fairness. Liberals seem to think we have a right to the same fruits no matter what our labor.

It is true that different kinds and quantities of work yield different kinds and quantities of fruits. That is sometimes hard to take — but if, in the end, we receive the fruits we agreed to when we selected our labor, then the fruits we receive are fair. (For example, if we agree to a particular day’s wages and we receive that day’s wages, then we have been treated fairly. Nobody changed the deal to which we agreed.) In making the choice to be a secretary and not a hedge fund manager, for example, the secretary forgoes some of the fruits of the hedge fund manager — but obtains some fruits the hedge fund manager never tastes, say the fruit of more time to spend with family or the fruit of less stress. If we are not content with the fruits of our labor, perhaps we ought first to consider changing our labor, rather than demand we be given different fruits.

One last thought: Conservatives clearly have a more expansive view of what constitutes “fruits.” We do not measure success and fairness solely by money. In the example above, I recognize the worth of time off and less pressure — two intangibles. For all that liberals like to talk about conservative greed, it’s interesting that conservatives can content themselves with less money in exchange for other benefits whereas liberals seem blind to those benefits and just want the money.

Update: Here is the link to Andrew Biggs’ post. My apologies for forgetting to include it before!


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