Video: What makes libertarians tick? with Aiden Gregg

Here now is Aiden’s introduction to the psychology of libertarians and the general causal theories that explain political prejudices. This is a powerful tool for us.

Veteran libertarian activist Brian Micklethwait neatly explains why in his quick review of the talk on Samizdata:

The main thing to learn from such work as Haidt’s is […] that you have a better chance of converting someone to Righteousness if you understand their psychological dispositions better. What “moral foundations” (to quote the words on my scribbled notes) do they consider to be most important?

As to what these moral foundations are, we were offered six variables of concern, so to speak, to consider important, rather more or rather less than others: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, freedom/oppression. If, like most libertarians, you are more exercised about freedom/oppression than, say, about sanctity/degradation, but are arguing with a conservative whose concerns are the opposite of yours, then you just banging on about how freedom/oppression is what matters most, and that libertarianism scores well on this variable, will not get you very far. It will be a dialogue of the deaf.

The raw data in this talk, should be more than enough to get you thinking about what kinds of messages are most likely to reasonate with your audience. Arguing with a liberal about economic liberty? Give them personal stories they can empathise with. Show how systemic problems grind upon individual lives. Arguing with a conservative over gay marriage? Help them get over the ickiness factor by telling them about how a tolerance of alternative ways of life helps promote economic growth, or how homosexuality might have evolved as a useful means of population control. Activate their emotions or their reason in ways appropriate to your argument.

The data is all derived from the Iyer et al paper, the weaknesses of which I discussed before, but the strength of this material is in understanding your audience and targeting the right messages to them.

Health warnings

Aiden gives a few warnings about the use of this material at the very begining and very end of his talk. He points out that reason and psychology are compatible, and both have a role to play in determining political affiliation; that we are not slaves to our prejudices and that the differences measured are significant, but actually rather small. This is why I was so keen to superimpose the graphs over the video as he talked you through differences – to give you an idea of scale. As an example of why scale is important, witness this misunderstanding about over “systemisation” and aspergers – being a bit more systematic simply isn’t enough to make you autistic.

A little note about the moral foundations graphs. I was able to be mathematical about the Big 5 personality graph (the colourful one) and the graph of additional factors – such as Baron-Cohen systematisation and Reactance (the white one) is taken from Iyer, but the yellow ones are bit fudged. In particular the “liberty” column was formed by literally drawing (in Inkscape) a rectangle that stopped half way between economic liberty and personal liberty bars on the more complex graph below. In practice this made conservatives, liberals and librtarians rank in a different order for the liberty measure than a more sophisticated treatment may have done and differently to how Aiden describes. If it’s important, follow Aiden, but Aiden and I agree that it suffices to explain the narrative.

Missing regard to harm

In my earlier post I identified certain kinds of harm that Libertarians are likely to be highly attuned to which may not have been accounted for in the statistics. Effectively I was speculating that the care/harm foundation was measured in a way that did not reflect how libertarians process the same thing, leaving us looking more cold-hearted than is fair. I put this to Aiden who replied:

Nonetheless, I agree wholeheartedly with your final point, that the relatively high libertarian endorsement (and relatively high left-liberal rejection) of freedom may at least partly reflect the care/harm foundation, given that libertarians reject the initiation of force, which surely makes it, in the first instance, the gentlest political philosophy around.

Having said that, the weight of the evidence of the paper does suggest that self-identified libertarians on average channel something of Rand’s affective austerity.

Graphs, Graphs, Graphs

Here is the original peer reviewed moral foundations graph:

Iyer paper figure 1

And, just to round things off nicely, here’s the pretty personality traits graph for you:

big5 personality graph

Big 5 personality traits

And the emotional responsiveness factors:

emotional responsiveness


Problems with the libertarian psychology literature?

There is no surer way to excite a bunch of libertarians than to try to catalogue and label them, except perhaps by trying to tell them who they are. Aiden’s talk last Thursday involved both, as well as a great deal of audience participation, so I was not surprised by the level of intervention that can be heard on the video, and the tense discussion online afterwards.

With all that emotion on display, I want to take my time to make sure the video is reflective Aiden’s narrative and of the mood in the room. Two things are getting sorted. First, the strange way a zoom mic captures audio made one member of the audience sound excessively emotional toward the speaker, in fact he was making a joke about Michael Freeman’s excessively annoying ring tone! This won’t feature in the final version.  Also, it was obvious that the listeners needed a visual representation of the data along the six moral criteria Aiden was talking about. Unfortunately, the graphs in the source paper features seven criteria, and I need to hear back from Aiden about whether my artistic re-interpretations of it is fair.

While we wait…

Let us soak in this graph from the Iyer et al paper which was the source of much of Aiden’s narrative:

Iyer paper figure 1

I’ve been contemplating this graph and reading through some of the Iyer paper and while Aiden gets back to me about psychometry I want to pick up a conversation with you guys about some issues with the logic of it that struck me as potentially unfair.

Before I start, take a look at the liberty scores for liberals and libertarians. Note how insensitive “liberals” are to violations of moral norms associated with economic and political freedom (the penultimate scale).

First problem:

Lumping in of Objectivists with Libertarians

I, for one, do lump objectivist in with Libertarians. I identify myself with the larger vaguely defined collective of thinkers labelled “libertarian” and with the more precisely defined and smaller group labelled “Objectivist”. Individual objectivists are “existents” (to borrow a word from Rand’s epistemology) which are the referent of both of the concepts “people believing in the nonaggression principle” and “people believing in the bulk of ideas promoted by Ayn Rand”.

However, I’m nervous about the way the Iyer et al paper seems to define libertarians who are a large and diverse group with reference to Ayn Rand who is the figurehead for a smaller sub-group. This invites the reader (and Iyer!) to imagine relationships between the measured psychology of a large group and the controversial concepts important to the smaller group. The consequences of these muddled premises could range from a muddled conclusion, to a smear of the smaller group using the vices of the larger one, or perhaps vice versa.

For example, I’m sure many libertarians would be uncomfortable with this:

According to Davis [56], low levels of empathic concern indicate lower levels of sympathy and concern for unfortunate others, which may underlie libertarians’ lower scores on the harm foundation of the MFQ, and their general rejection of altruism as a moral duty.

Ayn Rand explicitly rejected sacrificial altruism as a moral duty, but most libertarians do not follow her in this regard, maintaining only that compulsory altruism is not a morally proper political policy.

Artificially splitting “economic liberty” and “care/harm”

Conversely, Iyer et al dresses up “economic liberty” as if it were unrelated to “care/harm”. Isn’t economic suppression a form of harm? This is quite important.

Reportedly, libertarians are taking a lot of stick (none directed at me) for having lower regard to “care/harm” – implying we’re bastards. Another way of looking at it is that we identify “harm” more broadly and more systemically than most. Anecdotally, a measure showing that we are attunded to harm, in particular, would be consistent with reports that we can be a bit negative. A better measure, my opinion, would combine some of our regard to economic liberty with the care/harm measure. We might also want to distinguish between personal and highly empathic examples (e.g. in a family setting) and examples of care or harm that are remote or abstract, such as welfare or monetary policy.

This is the list of points from the addendum that are behind the economic liberty measure (one half of the overall “liberty” measure). Have a read of the points and reflect for yourself about how much harm is associated with an anti-liberty reaction to any of these points:

  • Whether or not private property was respected (relevance rating)
  • People who are successful in business have a right to enjoy their wealth as they see fit
  • Society works best when it lets individuals take responsibility for their own lives without telling them what to do.
  • The government interferes far too much in our everyday lives.
  • The government should do more to advance the common good, even if that means limiting the freedom and choices of individuals. (Reverse scored)
  • Property owners should be allowed to develop their land or build their homes in any way they choose, as long as they don’t endanger their neighbors.

There is a lot hiding in there, so let’s unpack that last one at little. If we rephrase it slightly to expose the harms, we might form an equivalent statement like this:

It is proper that property owners can be prevented from developing their land or building their homes in the way most convenient or pleasurable to them, even if they don’t endanger their neighbors.

Rephrased in this way, it is obvious that the question seeks an endorsement/rejection of inconvenience and sadness that might be felt by the property owners in such a case. I may be missing some technical distinction, but to me, inconvenience and sadness are clearly forms of harm and deserve to be measured alongside anything else with that label.

Intuitively, similar reformulation is both possible and justifiable (from a non-technical perspective, anyway) for the other points in this category. Remember, this is a category of issues that liberals are unusually cold-hearted towards.

The creation of the new scales in Iyer are justified by reference to libertarians’ expression of disappointment that their focus of concern – liberty – was not represented. Adding a separate scale / foundation was Iyer et al‘s answer to that concern. This may be a case of “be careful what you wish for, you might get it good and hard”, let’s hope not.

Thursday Speaker: Aiden P Gregg

Aiden P Gregg

Aiden P Gregg

Our speaker for Thursday is an academic psychologist who wants to talk about a very specific psychological problem in a great deal of depth. “Oh god really?” I hear you cry? “Is this going to be some kind of post-modern lefty bollocks about people’s relationships with their fathers?”. An understandable concern, so let’s deal with that. Here is one random thought shared by Dr Gregg in 2010:

No matter how powerful, knowledgeable, beneficient, discriminating, sophisticated, or sensitive someone is, they cannot change via declaration either the status of an existing act with a particular moral character, or the status of an existing object with a particular moral character. They can only recognize the status of that existing act or object. They can, of course, perform morally good acts or create aesthetically beautiful objects; but that is the limit of their powers.

That sounds to me, and this is speculation, like someone was just starting out on the road to a serious change in their political outlook. Encouragingly, it is entitled “Might makes neither right nor lovely”. Does this still sound like academic bollocks, or more like familiar sensible epistemology?

The next surprising thing about Aiden is his political views. I could have invited a died-in-the-wool lefty to the pub, it might have made for a passionate argument, but Aiden declares himself an anarcho-capitalist. No hardcore lefty, he is a hardcore libertarian… and an academic. That’s not just surprising but strategically important.

Dr Aiden P. Gregg lectures in the School of Psychology at the University of Southampton. He has a degree from Trinity College Dublin, and earned his PhD at Yale. Barnes and Noble list his interests as

  • self-enhancement and self-verification motives
  • the functions of self-esteem
  • the antecedents of implicit attitudes
  • lie detection via response incompatibility.

It might be expected that a libertarian academic would be ostracised and rejected by an intellectually homogenous academia. So far Aiden has defied that expectation and published articles in well cited and influential journals including the Personality and Social Psychology Review ranked 6th in the field. He has also served as reviewer for such journals as Psychological Science, and Journal of Experimental Social Psychology ranked 13th and 45th. If there is anything bad to say about his record, it would be that it is inevitably partially state funded.

And what of the talk? Attendees of the open mic night will have met Aiden before and will be familiar with his brand of fiction. His contribution was to read the story of a murdered tax refusnik to stunned silence. Aiden’s artful fiction, while essentially containing criticisms not positive depictions, certainly brings the moral character of what libertarians are against vividly to life. He may be reinforcing a fear or anger, rather than positivity, but it is nevertheless highly motivating.

This weeks session will focus on the intellectual consequences of what he observes in his fiction. This is how Aiden explained the impact of his work to his previous host (with some links added):

In Western cultures, however, the proactive seizure of a portion of someone’s property (or income, its monetary representation), for the purposes of enriching some while impoverishing others, if democratically elected rulers so dictate, is readily accepted by most democratic voters, and is seen not only as permissible, but also as obligatory, or at all events, regrettably necessary.

In contrast, in the same cultures (though not others), the proactive seizure of a portion of someone’s body, for the purposes of sexually satisfying some while sexually dissatisfying others, if democratically elected rulers so dictate, is firmly rejected by most democratic voters, and is seen as not only forbidden, but also as repugnant, and in any case, wholly unnecessary.

If, ethically speaking, it is not the case that one is legitimate but the other is not – and I shall attempt to rebut several key objections – then the acceptance of the first, but the rejection of the second, is an ethical bias stands in need of explanation.

Quite so.

Before attending this talk at the Rose and Crown, please be sure to prime your intuitions with this short story.

Body and Soul: why the Left and Right talk past each other

The essence of right and left goes something like this: a Democrat might declare that since salt is essential to everyone’s meals, let’s give free salt. The Republican will come back with — oh and I suppose you want to give free pepper too and ketchup and mayo and pickles and why not just throw in some pate de foie gras. No, you lunk — the Democrat responds — I’m just talking about salt.

There’s a certain concrete-centrism (concrete boundedness) on the left, and a certain abstraction-centrism on the right. The Democrat talks of salt, and the Republican talks of the concept “condiment”. The Democrat talks of GE Bonds, the Republican talks of the rule of law. The first talks in terms of discrete limited concerns and the second talks in terms of broad abstractions.

In each case, this leads to lunacy when taken to extremes. Democrats can totally fail at some policy, causing destruction and misery, then turn around and apply the same policy to another concrete, never seeing the similarity in the abstract nature of both attempts. Republicans can tie themselves in ideological knots, trying to integrate irreconcilable abstractions like capitalism and the Sermon on the mount. Abstraction-boundedness leads some to spin wild conspiracy tales that don’t have to be grounded in reality.

Unless Republicans abandon makey-up and learn to communicate with Democrats in terms of materialist non-abstract here-and-now or Democrats learn to integrate their disparate tinkerings and see the false principles and mistaken abstractions that underlie their failures, no communication is possible. I don’t see either adopting the mental habits of the other side any time soon. I don’t honestly know if they could.

The solution, of course, is to integrate both sides — to deal in both concretes and abstract principles, to understand that the moral and the practical are one, and to take concrete actions that are not irrational, but sound in both theory and practice. Neither side is quite up to the task as yet.

Originally posted on Facebook.