The conservative-liberal anomalies

In Open versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution (2017) Christopher Johnston et al. explore who openness to experience and conscientiousness are related to liberalism and conservatism, respectively. Political polarization has been increasing in the past decade and it seems to be driven by the elites rather than the common people. The conservative closedness seems to be driven by a desire for security and stability:

In a meta-analysis of more than eighty studies, Jost and colleagues (2003) argue that two “core” aspects of political conservatism, opposition to change and acceptance of inequality, are driven by chronic or situationally induced needs to reduce insecurity and uncertainty in one’s social environment. From this perspective, conservatism embodies support for the status quo — for long-standing values, institutions, and socioeconomic hierarchies. By its very nature, then, conservatism represents support for the known over the unknown, for the “tried and true” over the insecurity and uncertainty intrinsic to social change.

Even though the left-right spectrum has this steady correlation with openness vs closedness. There are two anomalies IMHO:

1) the extreme ends of the spectrum are both associated with authoritarian totalitarianism (examples from history abound).

2) the ambiguity people on both sides display towards open markets

The table of traits should predict that in extreme cases conservatives tend towards authoritarianism and closed markets (maximum safety), whereas liberals should tend towards open markets and anarchism (maximum freedom). Now, this isn’t what we typically see, communism seems the exact opposite of left-liberalism, and it’s conservatives who usually are proponents of open markets and minimal state intervention. Johnston et al. come to the same conclusion:

Our claim is simply that, all else equal, citizens with open personalities will lean toward limiting further government involvement and those with closed personalities will lean toward expanding it. Given the intuitive nature of this hypothesis, it is surprising that political psychologists have long made precisely the opposite argument, namely that traits related to openness should promote support for a greater role for government in economic matters .

What is going on here? Conservatives do love government intervention when their preferences are concerned, e.g. police and military spending to safeguard stability. Likewise, liberals do love government intervention when it is in line with their ideology: spending on education and health care increases equality (egalitarianism). When it comes to taxes, liberals often prefer higher taxation for a more egalitarian redistribution of wealth.

Where do those preferences or “instincts” come from? I have argued that liberal instincts come from egalitarian hunter-gatherers whereas conservative instincts come from sedentary food-producing agriculturalists. This is not a valuation, it’s merely stating that conservatives have all the traits that served early agriculturalists to survive and thrive. Collective food production required higher social coherence with hierarchy and a low tolerance for deviance. As early farmers were also often raided by other farmers by pastoralists, they evolved a high need for security, and instinct for building walls and defences, as it were.

Donald Trump succeeded in appealing to those instincts, by promising to build walls and to keep immigrants out. His policies also included anti-open market protectionism, something American conservatives aren’t usually known for. However, if you look at conservatives as evolutionary farmer types, that should not be surprising.

Hunter-gatherers practised a kind of primitive communism, but it was basically an anarchical kind of communism. Early farmers practised a kind of primitive capitalism, but it was basically a closed-market (protectionist) kind of capitalism. The principles of modern capitalism were driven by hunter-gatherer types, such as Adam Smith, who is generally considered the father of capitalism. Smith also promoted charity towards the poor, however, a hunter-gatherer value.

Libertarianism seems like a blend of hunter-gatherer and farmer values and seeks to maximize autonomy and political freedom, emphasizing free association, freedom of choice and individualism. Marxism was a blend of farmer authoritarianism and forager communism. Even so, Marx thought that political control was only a temporary necessity and that socialism would finally become anarchical.

When it comes to politics most people do not act rationally, but according to their ancient instincts. It is in this way that we can explain why liberals become intolerant (despite tolerance being high in their value system) and conservatives tend to become xenophobic in times of economic trouble. The only we can overcome our tribalistic and irrational tendencies is by trying to understand where they come from and trying to find compromises. Most people understand that anarchism and communism aren’t options for living in the 21st century. Nor should hypercapitalism be.

Originally published at on November 2, 2021.



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