One of the things that most bothers me about the modern “victimhood culture” of microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces is how directly it flies in the face of the world’s greatest wisdom, which I reviewed in The Happiness Hypothesis. For example, chapter 7 is about the uses of adversity: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” as Nietszche put it. Mencius explained the idea more fully in the 3rd century BCE:
When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, […and] place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent
Nasim Taleb nailed the idea with his recent book “Anti-Fragile.” A carton of eggs is fragile, so you’d better handle it with care. But many things in our world are anti-fragile: they are systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures. The immune system is anti-fragile: If you protect your kids from dirt and germs, you’ll weaken their immune system and set them up for more autoimmune diseases. Similarly children and teenagers are anti-fragile. If you protect their feelings with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and micro-aggression training for everyone in the community, you weaken them, you make them fragile.
I was making a list in my mind of all the ways that victimhood culture violates ancient wisdom when I was invited to give a talk at the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale. In my talk, I run through three sets of ancient ideas that many modern “coddling” universities (and high schools) violate, and I imagined what a university would look like if it was built on ancient wisdom instead. I called this mythical university “Strengthen U.” In the video, I pretend to be admissions officers from the two universities, trying to recruit high school students to apply.
Here is the video (30 minutes):
Here is a link to a condensed transcript of the talk, including most of the slides.
Incidentally, I thought the Buckley program was terrific. It’s a student organization for conservatives, but in my visit I found that it has some real political diversity in it. The audience at my talk was roughly a third right of center, a third left, and a third libertarian — this is the most political diversity I have ever seen when speaking at a university. These students are engaging with arguments from all sides, and doing it civilly. They will emerge stronger and smarter. Progressive Yale students who don’t get involved with Buckley have few other chances to be exposed to conservative ideas or conservative faculty. (That’s what happened to me when I was at Yale in the 1980s.) If they go on to careers in law, politics, or business, where they must engage with conservative ideas and arguments, they will not know what to say, and will fall back on the kinds of Marcusian rhetorical devices that I describe in the video, and which you can see in action in the Twitter exchange at the bottom of this post. For more on the benefits of political diversity at universities, please see HeterodoxAcademy.org.Read More
Here is my most complete talk on the causes of America’s rising political polarization and dysfunction. It’s more pessimistic than my prior talks. I was invited to speak in November at the NYU Law School, at a session hosted by professor Rick Pildes. Pildes wrote a superb law review article in 2011 on the causes of our dysfunction, from an “institutionalist” perspective, looking at Congress and electoral processes: Why the Center Does Not Hold: The Causes of Hyperpolarized Democracy in America
When I first read it, I thought Pildes’s account of the history was enlightening, but I thought he was too negative about the chances for real reform. But I re-read his paper while preparing for this talk, and realized he was right — and prophetic. He predicted that Obama would soon start bypassing congress and implementing policy by regulatory fiat; he predicted that one or both parties would soon start cutting back on the filibuster, unilaterally.
In this talk I integrate moral psychology with recent American history to explain the TEN reasons why America has been getting more polarized — at the elite level AND at the mass (public) level. My talk runs from minute 2 to minute 46, and then there’s commentary from Pildes, then open discussion.
Here is the list of 10 causes that I showed in the video:
1) Party realignment and purification, 1964-1992
2) Mass sorting of lib vs. con voters into the purified parties, by 1990s
3) Generational changing of the guard, from Greatest Gen to Baby Boomers, 1990s
4) Changes in Congress, 1995—death of friendships
5) Media fractionation and polarization, since 1980s
6) Residential homogeneity, urban v. rural, 1990s
7) Increasing role of money, negative advertising, 2000s
8) End of the cold war, loss of a common enemy, 1989
9) Increasing immigration and racial diversity, 1990s
10) Increasing education, since 1970s (more educated citizens are more partisan and opinionated about politics)
I show how these 10 trends interact with the moral psychology I presented in The Righteous Mind to produce the strong and steady rise in polarization that we’ve seen since the 1990s. Note that most of these trends cannot be reversed. Morality binds and blinds, and for these 10 reasons, morality been binding us ever more tightly in the last 10-20 years. “Affective partisan polarization” — the degree to which we hold negative views of the other team — has been rising steadily, and there is no end in sight.
Since moving to the NYU-Stern School of Business in 2011, I’ve been interested in the many ways that moral psychology influences economic thinking. I was surrounded by professors and MBA students who see business as a force for good, and I was periodically riding my bicycle a mile south to study the Occupy Wall Street movement, which saw capitalism as a great evil. Over the next two years I came to see that there were two diametrically opposed stories about capitalism circulating in Western cultures: capitalism is exploitation, and capitalism is alchemy (i.e., it makes gold out of base metals, and we are all better off). I began to write out those stories and make them explicit in the business ethics courses I was teaching at Stern.
In February, I was given the chance to tell those two stories at an unusual panel discussion. It was held at the American Enterprise Institute – one of the foremost free market think tanks – a place devoted to promulgating the positive story about business. Its president, Arthur Brooks, has been scrambling culture war categories recently by proposing that Republicans need to “declare peace” on the safety net, and they need to make the moral case for capitalism. As one way to explore the moral case for capitalism, Brooks invited The Dalai Lama for two days of discussions. I was invited to take part in the second day.
I had met the Dalai Lama once before, at a discussion on secular ethics at USC in 2011, and was shocked to hear his answer to my question about what kind of ethics he would like to see in Tibet: Marxist. You can see our exchange here. His Holiness firmly embraced the exploitation story. So I figured that this second meeting would be a good place to bring up the two stories about capitalism and ask him if he really meant to embrace the exploitation story told by Marxists everywhere, despite the fact that Marxism usually leads to poverty and secret police forces.
Here is the video of my talk and his response. I paste below it the transcript of my written remarks, which are quite close to what I actually said. These two stories, plus a third, yet to be written, is the topic of my next book. My remarks start at 47:20.
Overall it was a lovely event – not overtly partisan, just an exploration of some of the most important issues of our day: capitalism, happiness, and ethics. At one point before my talk, the Dalai Lama said that, as a result of hearing the speakers, he had “developed more respect about capitalism.” You can read more about the event in David Brooks’ column.
=================== TEXT OF MY REMARKS ======================
Three stories about capitalism
What a wonderful world we live in, when a religious leader most beloved on the left [The Dalai Lama], comes to speak at a free-market think tank led by a man who wants conservatives to strive for social justice [Arthur Brooks]. This day gives me hope.
In my remarks today, I’d like to tell you three stories about Capitalism. His Holiness endorses the first story. I will try to convince him that he should put more credence in the second story, and then help us to write the third.
Here is the first story, Capitalism is exploitation. It goes like this:
Once upon a time, work was real and authentic. Farmers raised crops and craftsmen made goods. People traded those goods locally, and that trade strengthened local communities. But then, Capitalism was invented, and darkness spread across the land. The capitalists developed ingenious techniques for squeezing wealth out of workers, and then sucking up all of societies’ resources for themselves. The capitalist class uses its wealth to buy political influence, and now the 1% is above the law. The rest of us are its pawns, forever. The end.
In their recent book Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson show that there is a great deal of truth to this story. In most countries and at most times, economic institutions have been extractive, not inclusive and generative. This exploitation story activates many aspects of our innate moral psychology. One is that we judge people based on their intentions. When a merchant or businessperson makes our lives better, we give them no moral credit because their goal was profit. As Adam Smith put it…. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” We may praise their skill, but we never praise their virtue. In fact, we see them as selfish.
This, I believe, is the story about capitalism that His Holiness embraces. When I first met him at the U. of Southern California, 3 years ago, I asked him what kind of government he’d like to see in Tibet. Here was his response:
Between socialism and capitalism, I’m socialist, and furthermore, I always describe myself as a Marxist…. But not a Leninist. In my mind, Marxism is the only economic theory that expresses a sense of concern about equal distribution. That’s a moral thing. Whereas capitalism…. Is about “how to make a profit,” only that. And in order to get more profit, there is no hesitation to exploit.
But what if we were to judge people, and ideologies, by their results, rather than by their intentions? That would lead us to the second story about capitalism: Capitalism is our savior.
Here’s how it goes:
Once upon a time, and for thousands of years, almost everyone was poor, and many were slaves or serfs. Then one day, some good institutions were invented in England and Holland. These democratic institutions put checks on the exploitative power of the elites, which in turn allowed for the creation of economic institutions that rewarded hard work, risk-taking, and innovation. Free Market Capitalism was born. It spread rapidly across Europe and to some of the British colonies. In just a few centuries, poverty disappeared in these fortunate countries, and people got rights and dignity, safety and longevity. Free market capitalism is our savior, and Marxism is the devil. In the last 30 years, dozens of countries have seen the light, cast aside the devil, and embraced our savior. If we can spread the gospel to all countries, then we will vanquish poverty and enter a golden age. The end.
We heard this second story in Glen Hubbard’s remarks, and I believe the historical facts strongly support it. Free markets really are miracles. They can quite literally turn water into wine, in vast quantities, and at low, low prices, as long as vineyard owners can get access to capital, labor, and transportation networks.
But because free markets are so astonishingly good, some people come to worship them. A basic principle of moral psychology is that morality binds and blinds. When any group of people makes something into a sacred object, the joint worship of the object binds them together, but then prevents them from seeing any faults or flaws.
Pope Francis pointed this out in his controversial Exhortation last November. He criticized those who embrace the second story too firmly as exhibiting “A crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” And this brings us to the third story about Capitalism, the story that has yet to be written. It begins like this:
Once upon a time, in the 1990s, capitalism triumphed over all other forms of economic organization, and the entire planet began moving toward prosperity. But we didn’t all live happily ever after. In fact, it was just the beginning of a new chapter, in which new challenges were discovered.
The long compression of income inequality, which had begun in the 1930s in many Western nations, ended. The gap between rich and poor within nations began to shoot upwards. Economic gains went mostly to the rich, who then used their money to buy legislators and laws, just as was charged in the first story.
The problem of global warming was first recognized, just as Asia was beginning to industrialize, leading to apocalyptic forecasts of submerged cities.
The fragility of the world’s banking systems was exposed in the crash of 2008, shaking global confidence in capitalism’s ability to work without strong government oversight.
And as market values expanded beyond the marketplace, and started taking over medicine, education, and other domains of life, many people felt lamented the crass and degrading materialism of modernity.
So this is our challenge for the 21st century: We celebrate the fact that the wide embrace of free markets has lifted more than a billion people out of poverty. Yet we know we can do better. If we can strip away the anger, the worship, and the ideology, we can examine capitalism and its ethical challenges more openly.
We can see that the supply chains that keep our shelves stocked have their origins in the deadly sweatshops of Bangladesh. We can measure the polluted air and empty oceans we are bequeathing to our children. And we can have a more nuanced discussion of equal opportunity, particularly in America where schools are funded by local taxes and money buys your children a better starting line.
So let us be grateful to the butcher, the brewer, and the baker for the bounty they bestow upon us, even when they are corporations. Let us look back in awe at the political and economic changes that brought us from the first story to the second. And then let us work together to write the third story, a story that must draw on insights from left and right, and from secular thinkers and religious leaders.
Is there a story about capitalism that could be embraced by Pope Francis, His Holiness, and the rest of today’s panelists? Let’s find out.Read More
When I wrote The Righteous Mind, I tried to keep the writing clear and simple. I don’ t like non-fiction that is ornate or academic in style. I got some positive feedback on the writing when my son Max, age 6 (almost 7) picked up the book and started reading. His comprehension is pretty close to zero, but still — it’s an easy book to pronounce! Here’s Max reading from p. 4-6 of the paperback, on nativism and empricism. At 43 seconds, Max pronounces “vague” as “vag-yoo,” and my wife laughs in the next room.
I was a guest today on a new MSNBC show, The Cycle, which is interesting because it features one conservative and three liberals discussing the days issues in a friendly way — I love it every time I see models of cross-partisan amity and constructive disagreement.
We talked about the role that moral values play in the campaigns. The hosts wanted to talk about what makes swing voters decide, but I preferred to talk about what energizes the bases. We haven’t had an election where both sides aimed for the middle since 2000, when George W. Bush ran as a moderate compassionate conservative.
[Forgive my big speech error of saying “right” once when I clearly meant “left.”]
We’ve been deluged in recent years with research on the psychology (and brain structure) of liberals and conservatives. But very little is known about libertarians — an extremely important group in American politics that is not at home in either political party.
At YourMorals.org we have now addressed the gap. Unlike most surveys, which force everyone to place themselves on a Left-Right scale, we have always allowed our visitors to choose “libertarian” as an option. Given our unique web platform, where people register and then take multiple surveys, we have amassed what we believe is the largest and most detailed dataset in the world on the personality traits of libertarians (as well as of liberals and conservatives).
In a project led by Ravi Iyer, we analyzed data from nearly twelve thousand self-described libertarians, and compared their responses to those of 21,000 conservatives and 97,000 liberals. The paper was just published last week in PLoS ONE. The findings largely confirm what libertarians have long said about themselves, but they also shed light on why some people and not others end up finding libertarian ideas appealing. Here are three of the major findings:
1) On moral values: Libertarians match liberals in placing a relatively low value on the moral foundations of loyalty, authority, and sanctity (e.g., they’re not so concerned about sexual issues and flag burning), but they join conservatives in scoring lower than liberals on the care and fairness foundations (where fairness is mostly equality, not proportionality; e.g., they don’t want a welfare state and heavy handed measures to enforce equality). This is why libertarians can’t be placed on the spectrum from left to right: they have a unique pattern that is in no sense just somewhere in the middle. They really do put liberty above all other values.
2) On reasoning and emotions: Libertarians have the most “masculine” style, liberals the most “feminine.” We used Simon Baron-Cohen’s measures of “empathizing” (on which women tend to score higher) and “systemizing”, which refers to “the drive to analyze the variables in a system, and to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of the system.” Men tend to score higher on this variable. Libertarians score the lowest of the three groups on empathizing, and highest of the three groups on systemizing. (Note that we did this and all other analyses for males and females separately.) On this and other measures, libertarians consistently come out as the most cerebral, most rational, and least emotional. On a very crude problem solving measure related to IQ, they score the highest. Libertarians, more than liberals or conservatives, have the capacity to reason their way to their ideology.
3) On relationships: Libertarians are the most individualistic; they report the weakest ties to other people. They score lowest of the three groups on many traits related to sociability, including extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. They have a morality that matches their sociability – one that emphasizes independence, rather than altruism or patriotism.
In other words: Libertarians, liberals, and conservatives all differ from each on dozens of psychological traits, which help to explain why people – even siblings in the same family — gravitate to different ideological positions as they grow up. Understanding these psychological differences will be crucial for politicians and political movements that want to appeal to libertarians, who are often left out as so much attention is lavished on liberals and conservatives.
Here is the article itself.
Here is a press release on it
And here is Ravi Iyer giving a 12 minute presentation summarizing the article:Read More