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The Real Free Riders. On Jonathan Haidt’s Defense of Conservatism
AUTHOR
IN THIS ARTICLE
Morality
Joe Boswell
Joe Boswell
is a freelance writer and musician with a keen interest in science and philosophy.

As many readers of this website will likely be aware, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of 2012’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, has spent the best part of a decade engaged in a quixotic quest to convince secular liberals of the wisdom inherent to a broader range of political moralities, including religious conservatism. Central to his argument is the controversial claim that human evolution may have sped up at the dawn of agriculture, and that religion and right wing ideologies represent adaptive solutions to the problems of social cohesion in large-scale, post-agricultural societies – particular those posed by “the deviants and free riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups”.

This is contentious stuff. For the left, the obvious objection is to ask “What cooperative groups?” It is an unbroken pattern in human history that agricultural surpluses quickly lead to highly stratified societies in which economic elites tend to hoover up the wealth generated by hard labour at lower levels. To liberals, the real free riders look like those at the top, with religions seemingly designed to legitimise this parasitic power structure. Haidt is inclined to talk about the mighty cities of Rome, Babylon, and Tenochtitlan as spectacular feats of cooperation made possible by an ideology that “tells people to suppress their carnality, to pursue higher, nobler ends.” As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, I’m tempted to agree – just so long as we’re clear that “nobler ends” means “the ends of the nobles”.

The divergence of worldviews between left and right is well captured by Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory (see moralfoundations.org) according to which there exist at least six evolutionary bases for moral reasoning – three of which liberals have come to reject as antiquated and inherently beneficial to the powerful. Here’s the full breakdown (liberals discard numbers 4, 5 and 6):

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1) Care (over harm)
2) Liberty (over oppression)
3) Fairness (over cheating)
4) Loyalty (over betrayal)
5) Authority (over subversion)
6) Sanctity (over degradation)

On the basis of this parsing, Haidt’s address to the political left takes the form of a broadening of horizons; since everyone agrees on the virtues of caring for others, freedom from oppression and fair play, it is liberals who need persuading of the positive roles played by loyalty to one’s group, deference to authority and placing infinite value on sanctified notions. Haidt’s arguments to that effect are complex and interesting – but for the purposes of this essay, I’d like to suggest that his reduction of liberalism and conservatism to variations in taste across moral foundations actually works to obscure the more pressing disputes that take place within them. Who should we care for? What policies are fair? Whose freedoms need protecting and from which oppressors? For many, these are the most important moral questions of all – and they are heated precisely because they involve pitting the interests of competing groups against one another. As such they represent a serious challenge to Haidt’s defense of conservatism as a heartfelt vision of the greater good.

Haidt hasn’t failed to notice such within-foundation disputes – but his intellectual strategy for dealing with them takes some heavy lifting. Here’s an extract from his discussion of tax and welfare:

On the left, concerns about equality and social justice are based in part on the Fairness foundation – wealthy and powerful groups are accused of gaining by exploiting those at the bottom while not paying their “fair share” of the tax burden. This is a major theme of the Occupy Wall Street movement … On the right, the Tea Party movement is also very concerned about fairness. They see Democrats as “socialists” who take money from hardworking Americans and give it to lazy people (including those who receive welfare or unemployment benefits) and to illegal immigrants (in the form of free health care and education).

That seems a reasonable summation so far. Liberals and conservatives appear to differ over which cheats are worst: is it the tax cheats at the top or the welfare cheats at the bottom? But seemingly wary of any framing of the left-right dichotomy that so squarely pits rich against poor, Haidt contrives the following distinction:

Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality – people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.

By this logic, Haidt is able to argue that the liberal distaste for wealthy corporations has little to do with fairness (defined as catching cheaters) and rests instead on the Care and Liberty foundations (liberals would protect the weak from the strong by making everyone equal, he says). With the Fairness foundation restricted to notions of proportionality, and the discussion of tax cheats safely shunted elsewhere in his schema, Haidt is free to assert that “conservatives care more” about fairness:

For example, how relevant is it to your morality whether “everyone is pulling their own weight”? Do you agree that “employees who work the hardest should be paid the most”? Liberals don’t reject these items, but they are ambivalent. Conservatives, in contrast, endorse items such as these enthusiastically.

This sits neatly with The Righteous Mind’s overarching thesis that societies can only function when religions or rightwing ideologies serve to suppress free riding. Haidt cites the following poster from David Cameron’s Conservative Party in the UK as an example of how the right are generally tougher on those who take from society without giving back:

Jonathan Haidt - Tory poster

But phew – this is hard going! Quite apart from the methodological objection that kicking particular issues around the six foundations in order to purify the discussion of one in isolation makes Haidt’s analysis deeply unfalsifiable, his stereotypical conception of liberals as dogmatic egalitarians with little regard for catching cheaters flies wide of the mark. In those instances where corporations break or bend laws to avoid taxation, they really are cheaters in an explicit sense, and liberals are entitled to castigate them as such. To reply to David Cameron’s poster in kind, here’s a liberal meme that began circulating on Twitter in 2013:

Jonathan Haidt - Tax Avoidance Meme

More to the point, even when the rich remain within the law, there is still good reason to regard the liberal critique of inequality as a matter of proportionality. When the Occupy Wall Street movement objects to the fact that 1% of the population hoards 40% of America’s wealth, this is not – contra Haidt – a de facto plea for its complete redistribution. It is instead a recognition that no matter how hard top-level CEOs may work, it is not hundreds of times greater than their average employee. That’s what’s disproportionate, according to liberals.

Conservatives may switch tack at this juncture, and argue that the 1% are instead hundreds of times smarter, or more skilled, or more creative. But each of these outlandish explanations of individuals’ success betray the same atomistic thinking that Haidt is so critical of in Western culture more generally. “The WEIRDer you are,” Haidt says “the more you perceive a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships”. (By WEIRD, Haidt means Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic). For conservatives, individual success can only be explained by outstanding intelligence or hard work. Liberals, by contrast, recognise that individuals’ achievements do not take place in a vacuum, and are largely constrained by social forces. Inherited wealth, social contacts, cultural capital, and the ability to take potentially rewarding risks without serious consequences make a huge difference. Liberals agree with conservatives on the virtues of a meritocracy, but in correctly perceiving its absence they understand that gauging hard work independent of inherited social advantages is extremely difficult. This is why, as Haidt says, liberals fail to fully endorse claims such as “employees who work the hardest should be paid the most” – but don’t reject them either. This awareness of social complexity is also, I would submit, a better explanation for liberal politics than a willingness to “trade away fairness” when it comes to caring for the poor or battling oppression.

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10 Comments

  1. […] The Real Free Riders: On Jonathan Haidt’s Defence of Conservatism […]

  2. Juan Alfonso says:

    Joe, congratulations for your article.

    I have recently read “The righteous mind” and found it very insightful. You have summed it up very well. In my opinion one problem arises when trying to frame the moral foundations theory into US politics. The real moral and political landscape is so much richer than that: the one that humans have faced during paleolithic and specially since the Neolithic revolution. The division between right and left is not the division between rich and poor. If that were the case republicans would only get about between 2% to 5% of the votes. In my opinion it is more a matter of people who feel privileged versus people who feel disadvantaged. This could account for a 50-50 distribution.

    Other problem arises when we fail to make a distinction between equality of opportunities and equality of outcomes. I think US moral foundations used to rest on equality of opportunities and also on inequality of outcome: the American dream. However nowadays conservatives and liberals make opposite approaches. Liberals (who tend to think of the elites as parasites and of workers as decent people with an excuse not to do always the right thing) ask for equality of opportunities but specially for reducing inequality of outcome. On the other hand conservatives (who think of poor people as lazy parasites and who see themselves as hardworking people who have succeeded based on merit and owing nothing to anyone) pay little attention to equality of opportunities and don´t want to hear about equality of outcome.

    In the old times the conservative point of view tended to perpetuate inequality of opportunities for a good reason. Populous nations needed a minimum of social and political stability. Preserving the existing order would help the nation to compete as a unit: to thrive and prosper as a unit… although there was a trade-off: internally it kept the fittest individuals from prosper according to their merits. Through history this has always caused social tensions.

    Even with conservative politics sudden changes inevitably occurred from time to time: dinasties fell and rised, nations were conquered by foreign elites, etc. But in the meantime the most efficient thing to do (from an inter-group competition perspective) was trying to preserve the current political order.

    However, since the advent of Democracy, citizens have been able to come back to more egalitarian social orders. Democracy has firmly established as a successful political paradigm precisely because nowadays it is more politically stable than non-democratic regimes. Nonetheless privileged classes still have a “kin-altruist” drive to perpetuate social differences based on transmission of possessions, but this doesn´t help anymore. This doesn´t create stability anymore: it destroys it by generating social tensions.

    What I am saying is that in the first place liberals should focus more on equality of opportunities and acquiesce with some degree of inequality of outcome. We shouldn´t forget that natural selection works on differential success. On the other hand conservatives should admit that a levelled playground is necessary if they want to live in a meritocracy, and therefore they should allow measures for redistribution designed to ensure equality of opportunities. Of course we should keep in mind that meritocratic orders are in conflict with the kinship instincts.

    I think Haidt says that if you want to develop successful and stable social and political paradigms you need to let them rest on all 6 moral foundations. I agree with him. You just have to attune them right. The mistake liberals make is paying exclusive focus to the Liberty, Fairness and Care foundations. As a matter of fact, extreme leftists seem to reject the Loyalty, Sanctity and Authority, and even work hard to subvert them. According to Haidt this is a big mistake since those foundations were, and still are, key to develop and maintain large cooperative societies, providing sort of a natural immunity to free-riding. I also agree with him.

  3. Lesley Newson says:

    Joe, I really liked your article.
    Politicians trying to reduce free-riding and serve the public have to grapple with public perception of what is fair and unfair. My pension fund is benefiting from the profits and growth of those big corporations and so I know that by simply behaving in ways that our culture considers prudent, I’m benefiting from the laws that allow corporate free riding. I’m not doing anything about this and feel guilty. I feel good that politicians (even some right leaning ones) are kind of trying to reduce corporate free-riding by making adjustments to tax laws etc. But going after big corporations would not be popular if it damaged all our pension funds.
    On the other hand, it is popular to try to make adjustments so that the income of poor but able-bodied young people who don’t work is lower than that of poor but able-bodied young people who do work. Making these adjustments may not net much extra revenue but it is the kind of in-your-face unfairness that annoys people.
    Any comments?

    • Joe Boswell says:

      Hi Lesley,

      That’s interesting. Vis-a-vis the beneficial side effects of corporate free-riding, I’m of the mentality that one just has to bite the bullet and rebalance the system in other ways. You would hope that greater tax revenues from corporations would feed into better public services, thereby boosting economic dynamism and the ability of individuals to pay into their pension pots in the first place.

      Oftentimes I think advocates of the status quo (i.e. conservatives) reach for the short-term repercussions of any liberal intervention without really considering the bigger picture. As I say in the article, I think liberals tend to think more holistically.

      On the issue of able-bodied yolk people, I agree wholeheartedly that work ought to pay more than benefits. But rather than lean on benefits claimants, I think governments should focus on raising wages. If there really are lots of young folk unwilling to work for a pittance, then this would incentive them. And in either case, it would redress the sense of unfairness among those who do work.

  4. Bruce Howlett says:

    I’ve long struggled with Haidt’s scheme as that much of the unfairness in the world is driven not by evolved moral values but by greed and the Dark Triad – narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopatholgy (antisocial behavior, impulsivity, selfishness). Is Donald Trump coming from a place of deep moral impulse or extreme personality disruptions?

  5. Jonathan Haidt says:

    Joe:
    Thanks so much for this thoughtful critique. A few points in response:

    1) I agree with you that the rise of agriculture corresponds with the rise of exploitative elites, and a much less fair or humane society, compared to hunter-gatherers. Rome and Tenochtitlan were brutal places. But I think the origin of the loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations should be sought much earlier. I follow and draw heavily on Chris Boehm, and Mike Tomasello. I’m interested in the period after language and cumulative culture emerged, when groups had many more ways of binding themselves together, and intergroup competition sped up, and group-level selection became much more important. In the Righteous Mind I speculated that this ramped up with Homo Heidelbergensis, perhaps 600-800 thousand years ago. But Joe Henrich tells me that cumulative culture may have gotten going more than 1 million years ago. I don’t focus on the rise of agriculture. If agriculture changed our genome, that might account for some tiny race differences (in descendants of the early agriculturalists), but the main story is the human story before the diaspora out of Africa.

    2) I would never say that the left doesn’t understand or care about proportionality. Everyone cares about it. A lot. But when difficult moral questions arise and there is a competition between proportionality and equality, I believe it is a very good diagnostic test for the left-right dimension. It’s particularly clear in the USA these days, in which the left gets very upset by any situation that involves differential outcomes by race or gender, and they promote policies that push toward equality, often ignoring proportionality. See the New Haven Firefighters’ case. link to en.wikipedia.org
    See the way Title IX is implemented (pushing for universities to end up with equal participation in sports by men and women, despite very different levels of interest).
    So I’m saying it’s a relative difference. The right cares far less about equality of outcomes than does the left.

    3) I certainly agree that corporations often act unfairly, but it’s complicated. When they act so as to reduce their taxes, it is perceived as cheating, but as long as it is legal, many people in business think that they have an obligation to reduce tax costs. I am more concerned about the power of corporate lobbying. I can’t blame them for doing it, but I wish to god that we could ban all gifts and donations to congresspeople that are over $500. I hate corruption, and I blame Congress for keeping it legal.

    4) My main disagreement with you is on this sentence: “Liberals agree with conservatives on the virtues of a meritocracy, but in correctly perceiving its absence they understand that gauging hard work independent of inherited social advantages is extremely difficult.” First, I do not think that liberals agree with conservatives on the virtues of a meritocracy. I think they are ambivalent about meritocracy, because it guarantees inequality. And do you really think that “its absence” is a fact? The US and UK are far from perfect, and who your parents are matters. But do you really think that a person who works hard, or has more creative ideas, will end up (on average) at the same place as one who does not work hard, or does not have creative ideas? Success in a capitalist system has some correlation with how hard you work, but it has a much larger correlation with the value you produce for others. Nobody thinks the 1% is 100 times smarter or harder working than the median person. But Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Sam Walton really did create millions of times more value than did the median person in the US or UK. (This analysis does not work as well when we talk about the financial industry.) Of course, they did it as part of a vast team, which they assembled, and I do support profit sharing plans for employees, and I oppose pay-for-performance plans for executives. I think there are laws and incentives that can reduce inequality without sacrificing economic dynamism.

  6. Joe Boswell says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    “Thanks so much for this thoughtful critique.” – My pleasure. The Righteous Mind is a heck of a book, and it’s enlivened my thinking over the past year or so. Thanks in turn for your comments. Here’s my two-penneth in response:
    1) “I agree with you that the rise of agriculture corresponds with the rise of exploitative elites, and a much less fair or humane society, compared to hunter-gatherers. Rome and Tenochtitlan were brutal places. But I think the origin of the loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations should be sought much earlier … I don’t focus on the rise of agriculture.”
    Oh, I absolutely agree that our moral foundations were probably pretty well-baked before the rise of agriculture. But I felt like I detected some equivocation about that in The Righteous Mind. I kept stubbing my toe on the following paragraph in particular:
    “Only groups that can elicit commitment and suppress free riding can grow. This is why human civilization grew so rapidly after the first plants and animals were domesticated. Religions and righteous minds had been coevolving, culturally and genetically, for tens of thousands of years before the Holocene era, and both kinds of evolution sped up when agriculture presented new challenges and opportunities. Only groups whose gods promoted cooperation, and whose individual minds responded to those gods, were ready to rise to these challenges and reap the rewards.”

    This might seem like an academic quibble, but taken together with some of the remarks in your first TED talk, it bothered me that you would characterise the brutal inequalities of Rome or Tenochtitlan as paradigmatic examples of societal “cooperation” – and then go on to suggest that we may have become biologically attuned to the religions and ideologies that held those highly stratified societies in place (as if that were a good thing). It was slave classes that built the mighty cities in question, after all – and I don’t think the practice of slavery is well accounted for in terms of a loving deference to authority or a sense of rallying around a common cause. This is especially disturbing to me because one hears similar rhetoric from the Conservatives in the UK right now; “We’re all in this together” runs the party slogan as Cameron et al. continue to slash welfare to the poorest while offering tax breaks to millionaires.
    2) “I would never say that the left doesn’t understand or care about proportionality. Everyone cares about it. A lot. But when difficult moral questions arise and there is a competition between proportionality and equality, I believe it is a very good diagnostic test for the left-right dimension.”
    I think I’d look a fool if I claimed that the left *never* slipped into a dogmatic demand for equal outcomes – but you don’t have to dig very deep for a justification for positive discrimination in terms of proportionality. The argument is of course that marginalised groups face so many hurdles *prior* to the fire-fighter assessment (or college entrance exam, or job interview, or what have you) that they have to work much harder than their privileged counterparts to succeed in apparently “equal” contests. I think the left *look* like they care more about equal outcomes because they’re intent on correcting for the inequalities that come into play before any competition starts. At least that’s their goal. I’m not saying not they always get it right.
    (This seems like an empirical question, however. I wonder if you have the data to test this? Could you demonstrate that liberals care about equal outcomes over and above correcting for prior inequalities?)
    3) “I am more concerned about the power of corporate lobbying. I can’t blame them for doing it, but I wish to god that we could ban all gifts and donations to congress people that are over $500. I hate corruption, and I blame Congress for keeping it legal.”

    Amen to that!
    4) “My main disagreement with you is on this sentence: “Liberals agree with conservatives on the virtues of a meritocracy, but in correctly perceiving its absence they understand that gauging hard work independent of inherited social advantages is extremely difficult.” First, I do not think that liberals agree with conservatives on the virtues of a meritocracy. I think they are ambivalent about meritocracy, because it guarantees inequality.”

    That’s our difference, for sure. I guess you’ve seen this video doing the rounds? link to youtube.com. It’s based on research by Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely. These authors claim that 92% of Americans (Republicans and Democrats alike) would actively choose a significant level of income equality, with the richest maybe 10 or 20 times better off than the poorest Americans. This suggests to me that liberals are fine with inequality in principle – they’re just appalled by the absurdly disproportionate levels of inequality in the real world.
    “And do you really think that “[meritocracy’s] absence” is a fact? The US and UK are far from perfect, and who your parents are matters. But do you really think that a person who works hard, or has more creative ideas, will end up (on average) at the same place as one who does not work hard, or does not have creative ideas?”
    To answer your question: No, I don’t think hard work and creativity count for nothing. But they are a long, long way from sufficient as explanations for success. To speak from personal experience, some of the most inspiringly creative folk I know are stuck in dead-end jobs desperately trying to pursue their projects in the ever-squeezed margins of their 40-hour weeks. But rising rents are driving them out of creative city centres, long hours and long commutes sap their energies, and the excesses and idiosyncrasies that might be recognised as genius in more privileged circumstances begin to manifest as depression and mental illness. Give any one of these folks a year-long sabbatical to write a book, produce a TV-pilot, or start a business, and I’m certain they’d be in with a shot at success. But living hand-to-mouth makes this basically impossible – especially in competition with middle-class kids plugged into networks of influence and given every available resource (time being the most precious).
    “Success in a capitalist system has some correlation with how hard you work, but it has a much larger correlation with the value you produce for others. Nobody thinks the 1% is 100 times smarter or harder working than the median person. But Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Sam Walton really did create millions of times more value than did the median person in the US or UK.”

    Can we pin down our definitions of the merit that a meritocracy ought to reward? In my article I tried to resist the slide from “hard working” into genetically-given traits like intelligence or creativity because while I think societies ought to harness the talents of smart, imaginative people (“from each according to their ability…”), I don’t see the argument for any *extra* reward above and beyond compensation for the sacrifice of time and energy to the community. I think this “value creation” business represents a further slip from that ideal. Truly bright, innovative and value-creating people relish their work, after all. If the pay-grades of CEOs and manual labourers were reversed, do you think the likes of Steve Jobs would relinquish the creative fulfilment of their positions for a more lucrative career stacking shelves or sweeping the streets? I certainly don’t – and as such I don’t think the kind of wealth hoarded by the 1% can meaningfully be spoken of in terms of incentivisation or economic dynamism.

  7. Mark says:

    “Hard work”, or, “working hard”, is not a very quantifiable or relevant aspect of how and why people (on the right or left philosophies) succeed or advance. It is more about the “value-add” contribution they provide. Equality, based upon “hard work” is a total misalignment. Not understanding this misdirects thought and light bulbs going off in people’s heads. Grasp this. Add value and watch how things change – for the better.

  8. The Independent Whig says:

    These questions essentially set up a strawman argument: “Who should we care for? What policies are fair? Whose freedoms need protecting and from which oppressors? ”

    Liberty, equality, fairness, and justice mean very different things to liberals and conservatives. Your questions assume the liberal understanding of those concepts. The word “who” is the tipoff.

    By asking these questions you put your whole argument into what Haidt would call the liberal “moral matrix.”

    You give yourself sort of a “home field advantage” where, simply by asking the questions you ask, you essentially rig the game, and your argument, for a “win” by the liberal side.

    One of the phenomena Haidt points out in his paper “Political Diversity Will Improve Psychological Science” is how liberal values are embedded in the language and analyses, and even the questions asked, by the social sciences.

    Your questions are good examples of that.

  9. Dyutiman Das says:

    There need not be any correlation between how hard one works and how much he should be paid, just as there need not be any correlation between hours studied and eventual grade in an exam. So saying CEO didn’t work thousand times harder than employee is not a convincing argument. Some CEOs do make a difference, i.e. without them the company sinks irrespective of how hard the employees worked. But this has also been used to pay ALL CEOs many times over, which is not justifiable.