I am becoming increasingly skeptical of the practical usefulness of social science research though I do believe it makes for great fodder for satisfying simple intellectual curiosity. People make excellent careers answering questions such as “why do gays smoke so much” and I begrudge them not, but after doing a good amount of social science reseach myself, I just don’t feel like I can offer proscriptive advice to policymakers that want to be taken seriously. Why? In the parlance of econometrics, I simply do not believe any social science predictive equation is identified – in other words, too many factors simultaneously affect too many different outcomes in order for a researcher to meaningfully extracy a causal impact of one factor alone on one other factor. This is a controversial position and one I choose not to engage in – while in academia I simply feigned my belief in it to get ahead.
Despite my skepticism, I have always been fascinated why people vote the way they do, why people have faith in democracies and how people form their political beliefs. Bryan Caplan of George Mason has a new book coming out that starts to answer the first two questions. His main thesis is that you and I are much more likely to make better economic choices than political choices because we are not insulated from the consequences of poor economic choices (at least not too much right now). I would have added to this thesis the fact that when we face economic choices, we are choosing among “goods” while when making political choices that is not the case. In fact, I personally choose the least bad choice (challenge to micro-economics students – how does this choice set up affect the standard utility maximization model?), and many voters I suspect would agree that choosing between Bush 43 and John Kerry is akin to choosing between Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Ravioli and Ramen Noodles for dinner.
The third question I ask above really astounds me – why do people adhere to the poltiical beliefs that they do? Part of me believes it’s dynastic and part of me thinks it’s the “Kool-Aid” effect. While I used to think that only applied to the political left, I believe it applies as strongly to the conservatives as well today. The dynastic effect is easy to see. Perhaps granny and grandpa were always Democracts and were solid Kennedy voters – then maybe I too will be a Democrat – without ever having a clue what Kennedy really did or what Democratic politics is all about. Maybe mommy and daddy were solid Reagan Republicans and were starstruck into a similar situation – and you simply followed suit. The “Kool-Aid” effect is a bit more subtle. Just watch a clip of the 2004 Democratic National Convention to get a flavor for what I am talking about. It had the feel of a religious revivial convention. “Hope is on the way” some airheaded politician would belt out and 20,000 mind-altered believers would repeat as at a church service. The “Kool-Aid” effect basically comes from a politician or political party touching a particular nerve (such as reproductive rights), demagoguing a particular issue (free trade costs American jobs) or making connections with the “common man” (George Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”) and people drinking it down without taking the time or brain enery to question it. It’s a product of laziness. If you do not believe that it’s laziness, then you might believe it’s a matter of faith. The more that something is shown to be erroneous, or the more that people question a position, the more hardened your belief in the position becomes. Many Americans have faith in the goodness of government despite centuries of evidence that governments and their representatives are more often wrong than they are right (I’m being nice here). Why? Your guess is as good as mine – but I suspect it’s that people are afraid to look at the flaws in any system they participate in, or that they are really uncomfortable with the idea that if the government can’t do something well, then no one can, or if the government isn’t in control, then who is? The intelligent design debate comes to mind here as well. I am not sure which effect is more powerful and to satisfy my curiosity I’d love to see a paper studying it. Are you more likely to question your beliefs and learn about the issues behind the choices you make if your beliefs were formed dynastically or from Mr. Kool-Aid? I have no priors on this.
This all leads (finally) to the point of this post – that I recently convinced myself that there is a third reason people hold the political beliefs that they do – and that is to preserve a status quo, and to exclude others from enjoying the same things that they do. Take a vacation to the posh hamlet of Newport, Rhode Island or spend some time in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts or walk around one of the wealthiest colleges in the world to see what I mean. I see nothing but John Kerry bumper stickers on gigantic Land Cruisers and BMWs, I see every politician screaming for an expansion of the welfare state, I see skyrocketing real estate prices, and I see virtually no low income families, no minority families and very few immigrant families – sort of like you would see at an exclusive country club. The elites that hold contemporary liberal views shroud their beliefs in claims that they they believe in: (1) sustainable development; (2) social justice; and (3) “taking back America.” What this really means is that: (1) no development is allowable in order to preserve the exclusivity of the properties they own and to in essence keep the dregs of society from encroaching upon their pristine locations; (2) it’s OK to take freedom and property from some Americans to give it to others since we are so damn rich it won’t affect us in the least way – we have “enough” money to maintain substantial property and to purchase enough freedom and influence – little do they realize that the policies they espouse crush the middle and lower class Americans that they have absolutely NO connection to; and (3) let’s introduce more regulations, restrictions on freedom, and limit opportunities for social mobility so that we remain the wealthy elite, and thereby maintain our grip on social power in this country, much like the landed aristocracy did before the 20th century in America.
Perhaps I am being a bit too arsh and judgmental – but my experiences in the Northeast and with several people that are very close to me lead me to believe that there is something to this theory. Yes there are genuine progressives out there and yes there are people who truly believe in the causes they espouse – but they are a minority of voters, and they are also so passionate that I have every confidence that they would be willing to learn about the true impacts of the policies they advocate if only someone took the time to show them the unintended consequences of their actions. The Country Club Liberals are very much aware of the impacts of their beliefs and proscribed policies, and have been very skilled at masking their intentions – which I fnd to be not only dishonest, but also very dangerous. Among the next few posts, I will explore just what policies are being espoused to preserve the status quo that I find lamentable.