Monday, March 19, 2012

Intellectual climates and ideology

Scott Sumner put up a very thought provoking post recently- " What if Matt Yglesias had been born in 1955?"

The basic argument of the post is that ideology is largely shaped by the intellectual climate that one is exposed to. If that was all that the post asserted, that would hardly be earth-shattering insight. But the intriguing part was the transmission mechanism- how does intellectual climate shape ideology.

It is not a simplistic story of affiliating with the ideology that happens to be more prevalent when one is young.

Here's a paragraph from the post that shows it:

Liberals (in the American sense) seemed so illogical during the 1970s, so naive.  I suppose my younger readers are now shaking their heads in disbelief:  “Everyone knows the conservatives are the stupid party, and always have been.”  They’d point to global warming denial, creationism, irrational fears of hyperinflation, or claims that “the military isn’t that expensive,” and hence a good way to employ the youth of America.
Yes, I know all that, but everyone is shaped by what was happening when they were young.  I recall:
1.  Progressive hostility to the hard truths of cost/benefit analysis.
2.  Hysteria over chemicals in food, even though science didn’t back them up.
3.  Denial of the role of money in inflation and support for crack-pot solutions such as wage price controls (Yes, I know about Nixon, I’m talking intellectuals now.)
4.  Denial of the disincentive effects of welfare programs.
5.  Soft on communism.  By that I don’t mean pro-communist, I mean anti-anti-communist.  When I was young calling someone an “anti-communist” was basically an insult in liberal company.  If you called Mao or Castro a brutal tyrant you were viewed as an embarrassment; as something of a something of a McCarthyite.  Chilean economic policies were viewed as evil.  Now the Chilean socialists have adopted them.
6.  Denial that punishment deters crime.
And I could go on and on.  It seemed to me that liberals weren’t willing to engage in clear, hard-headed, logical thinking.
 Building on Scott Sumner's example, here is my explanation of the transmission mechanism is as follows:

1) Due to various factors (exogenous to this explanation) there is a particular ideology that is more anchored in logic and analytical thinking. For example in the 1950s, conservatism was the intellectual ideology. In the current decade, liberal/ progressive ideologues (in the US) are much more intellectually rigorous than most of their influential conservative counterparts
 2)  Based on your own propensity towards intellectual/ analytical / logical thinking, you would then affiliate with the group that best mirrors that. Hence, what you affiliate with is not an ideology, but people who are equally smart. The ideology is an incidental by product. This makes perfect anthropological sense too, quality of thinking is a signal for potential power (this is called "expert power" in behavioral sciences); and people tend to affiliate with others who show the capacity for such power
3) Then, do to in-group vs out-group reasons, you would double down and defend "your side" even when the intellectual climate changes. Witness the vast mass of Republican economists reduced to the level of having to defend the various lunacies of the party's current anti-intellectual idiot core (which Krugman calls having to play for "Team Republican")

I like this explanation since it makes sense anthropologically, and since it explains why the concentration of "intellectuals" shifts so much over time. It is not the ideology per se (one can be an intellectual conservative or liberal or libertarian). It is actually more about how we go about social and intellectual affiliations. This explains why an intellectual Scott Sumner growing up in the 1950s ends up as a conservative, while a Matt Yglesias ends up as a liberal

What would be interesting to investigate is how the intellectual climate itself shifts- what causes a massive concentration of intellectuals in one ideological group or the other

I can relate this to my own life. I was growing up in the 1990s in newly liberalizing India. The wages of a sterile socialism had hit us hard with the balance of payments crisis and the overall impending macroeconomic collapse of India. The rapid and visible change that I witnessed in the wake of economic liberalization, accompanied by the logically sound and rigorous arguments made for economic freedom (as opposed to the ridiculously trite and vacuous rhetoric of the left (" companies should work on a no profit, no loss basis"; "manual labor should be respected, so every worker in a company should be paid the same amount- from the CEO to a sweeper"!- believe me these were actual arguments at the time!)

A lot of my libertarianism was probably shaped by that