Progressives Won the Social Culture War: Can Libertarians and Conservatives Win the Economic Culture War?


Jonathan Haidt
Credit: New York University

In a smart analysis over in the journal Democracy, New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt sets out the campaign map for the looming war between Progressives and Economic Liberals. First, he declares that it's all over except for shouting in the decades-long Social Culture War between the religious right and secular liberals: 

Issues related to sexuality, drugs, religion, family life, and patriotism were particularly vexing, and many people over 40 can recall the names of battlefields such as Mapplethorpe, needle exchange, 2 Live Crew, and the flag-burning amendment. But the left won a smashing victory in the 2012 elections, including the first victories at the ballot box for gay marriage.

The Culture War has moved on to the Economic Theater in which the fight is over the size and cost of government. Using insights from his moral foundations theory which probes how people put their together moral beliefs based on six different foundations—Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Liberty/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation—Haidt delineates the battle lines for the culture war in the Economics Theater. To make a long story short, Haidt's data suggest that leftwingers chiefly rely on the first three moral foundations, Care, Fairness and Liberty, whereas folks with a conservative bent construct their sense of morality using all six. At stake are the hearts, minds and votes of the younger generation:

The millennial generation has been raised on a diet of tolerance, diversity, and a reluctance to make moral judgments…hey have little fondness for hierarchy and tradition, so it will be hard to woo them with appeals based on the Authority foundation. And they have no visceral sense of disgust at homosexuality, and have been socialized to be as inclusive as possible, so arguments about sexuality derived from Sanctity will fail to move them.

But the millennials also realize they are likely to get a raw deal when it comes to taxes and entitlements. They are well aware that previous generations borrowed heavily to subsidize their own retirement years, and left the generations to come holding the bag. They are likely to listen carefully to arguments about fairness, taxing, and spending from both parties.

How each side regards Fairness and Liberty defines the frontline in the Economic fight. Fairness comes in three forms. The first is procedural—are the rules impartial or rigged (think crony capitalism). Leftists and economic liberals differ over distributive fairness—who deserves to get what. Leftists insist on equal outcomes whereas libertarians and conservatives want to reward people in proportion to their contributions. Data from Haidt's moral foundations survey shows just how deeply the moral intuitions of Progressives and Economic Liberals diverge over distributive fairness:

For example, consider this item, which pits equality versus proportionality: "All employees in a job category should be paid the same, regardless of productivity." Among subjects who call themselves "very liberal," 30 percent agreed. But just 3 percent of our "very conservative" subjects did. Liberals had to think about it, but for conservatives it's a no-brainer: Imposing equality of outcomes in the absence of equality of inputs is a violation of fairness as proportionality.

First thought: Liberals are kidding, right? Apparently not.

Of course, all Americans value Liberty. Libertarians and conservatives stress negative liberty which refers to the absence of obstacles that block human action. Progressives favor positive liberty which refers to having the power and resources to choose one's path and fulfill one's potential. Republicans are seen as the Party of Wall Street whereas Democrats come off as the Party of overweening Nanny-Staters.

Ultimately, Haidt's advice to Republicans and Democrats for winning over younger voters is for both parties to move in a more libertarian direction: Republicans should give up their opposition to gay marriage and agree to end the drug war; Democrats should back off on race-based affirmative action and agree to rein in the regulatory state. Sounds like good advice to me.

Haidt's whole essay, "Of Freedom and Fairness" is worth reading. See Haidt's recent talk in New York on why "It's Hard To Gross Out a Libertarian" on Reason TV: