Saturday, October 11, 2008

Do We Really Need Balance?

So first there was my favorite Jonathan Haidt video, which argued that liberals and conservatives are equally necessary for the perpetuation of civilization. Then there's an L. A. Times article that says political attitudes are largely determined through genetics, and that "for the species to survive, you need both" liberals and conservatives.

The research seems to point in the direction of balance -- you need to balance risk-taking and new ideas against caution and a desire for order and stability. As long as the two stay in balance, civilization flourishes.

At first this sounded great. But then it occurred to me: what exactly are the consequences of this balance disappearing? I can think of several civilizations that descended into ruin when the balance tipped too far in favor of conservatism, but I can't think of any that have done so when the balance tipped too far in favor of liberalism. (And before you start mentioning failed communist states, remember, we're talking about social issues here, not economic -- the USSR may have been communist, but they were just as repressive on social issues as our own Sarah Palin.)

I don't doubt the research that is leading scientists to reach these conclusions, but I do wonder about the conclusions themselves. They seem to invest almost too much wisdom into natural selection; "this balance exists because it confers an evolutionary benefit to the species as a whole." Perhaps.

But what if the original natural state of humanity was conservatism, and liberalism was a mutation that has taken a comparatively long time to reach its current level of penetration into the species? Another recent scientific study has shown that conservatives reproduce at much higher rates, on average, than do liberals. Since the research seems to demonstrate that the very concepts of liberalism and conservatism have been baked into our innate makeup for nearly as long as we've been on the planet, it is not unreasonable to extrapolate that disparity in breeding rates back to near the beginning of our species' history. If that's the case, it would explain why reaching a global mindshare roughly equal to that of conservatism has taken an amount of time so utterly disproportionate to the benefit and utility that liberalism conveys to the civilizations it inhabits.

I realize I just lost all (two) of my conservative readers with that conjecture, but remember, it's only conjecture; I'm not sure I believe it either. I'm just trying to do good science and propose an alternate hypothesis that explains the observed results. But why am I defending myself to you? You conservatives now have a homework assignment: produce a single nation, tribe, culture, empire, or other unit of civilization that descended into ruin because its pendulum of social attitude swung too far to the left. If I pass out holding my breath, someone please call an ambulance.


Joe Hafeman said...

I'm guessing that I am one of your referenced conservatives. 8-) My answer to your question is that you won't (so you can stop holding your breath).

In a perfect world, ultra-liberal societies are, well, perfect. Everyone contributes equally and everyone receives everything that they need and want. Everyone is satisfied with the arrangement. The most liberal community unit has to be the family. In functional families, there is no real measure of who gets what. Family members contribute what they can and take what they need and want. In dysfunctional families, wants can exceed need to the point of destroying the family unit.

Conservatism starts to manifest itself when perceived injustices occur. If people believe that selected groups are not contributing enough or are benefiting too much, then, controls start to work into the system to limit benefits and create contribution rules.

As a result, I do believe that conservatism is more aligned with human nature. People are, by nature, greedy. I think that it is an innate survival instinct. If a predator shares his kill, then, there is less for the predator to eat later. Even social predators such as lions, hyenas, and wolves don’t share equally across the group. Maybe ants do, but, it helps to have a brain the size of a pinhead.

Conservatism creeps in to combat abuse. Since the overseers are, themselves, flawed, abuse will manifest itself in the conservative control system. Eventually, the system collapses and starts itself over again.

Owen T. Cunningham said...

Hi Joe! Actually, I wasn't sure whether you were still reading or not, so I didn't have you in mind when I wrote that. Great to hear from you.

I can't help but notice that your comments on liberalism and conservatism are still fundamentally economic in character. I agree that situations in which "selected groups are not contributing enough or are benefiting too much" is an invitation to economic conservatism, but it makes no intrinsic invitation to social conservatism, which is what I'm more interested in here.

Certainly there are, for instance, many gay couples who are contributing enough and aren't benefiting too much, but are still reviled because they're gay. In the South there are many blacks who are contributing enough and aren't benefiting too much, but are still despised because they aren't white.

All the research I cited in the original post (Jonathan Haidt's video, the LA Times article, the breeding disparity article) are talking about liberals and conservatives in the context of such social attitudes. It is in that context that I find their call for balance increasingly puzzling.

But, in any case, I'm glad you suggested I stop holding my breath. :)

Joe Hafeman said...

You're right, I did focus on economics. I did not think about the social aspects. I am not sure that those fall into liberal/conservative lines. I suspect that you can find many people who advocate affirmative action, but, are gay bashers. You can definitely find the opposite as I don't like affirmative action, but, I support rights for gay couples (including marriage/unions/mot du jour).

I put these types of attitudes outside of normal liberal/conservative definitionsas I think that group biases are different. Many will disagree, though.

Chris Moore said...

Rome is held as the common example of empire crumbling through moral/ethical decay.

Beyond that? (searching head)

Some say that Athens declined/was defeated for similar reasons - too much art and philosophy, not enough war and business.

A more modern example would be Post Revolution France, before Napoleon. They tried to go ultra-rationalist, even establishing a new state religion (a form of deism) and a new calendar. Was waaay too much, too fast. The Christian people of France bugged out, and then we got Napoleon...and the 2nd/3rd Republic.

...The problem with this question is that the social liberal definition is slippery. But those could be starting points. Wish I knew more about Indian/Persian/Far Eastern history for more reference points.