The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Highly Abstract Post on the Left and the Right


Here’s a very fuzzy, high-level way of thinking about the left and the right, which will be familiar to close readers of this blog.

In the past, we’ve discussed the Darwinian interpretation of modernity:

The kin influence hypothesis proposes that the cascade of cultural changes associated with modernization is the result of the momentous change in the human social environment that occurs early in economic development. For most of human evolutionary history, the norms of all cultures must have prescribed behavior that, on balance, enhanced the genetic fi tness of their members. If this were not the case, then, as Lumsden and Wilson (1981) and Alexander (1979) rightly pointed out, evolutionary biologists would be unable to explain how humans evolved the uniquely human capacity for learning and imitation that makes culture possible. Nor could we explain how an African ape came to be the world’s dominant organism.

With economic development, however, people begin to abandon the beliefs and values that encourage fi tness-enhancing behavior. For example, they adopt the idea that smaller families are better even though their increasing wealth makes it easier to raise a large family. Evolutionary biologists, therefore, have the problem of explaining why culture has recently ceased to prescribe fi tness-enhancing behavior. Because this change routinely accompanies economic development, it is reasonable to suspect that it is somehow caused caused by economic development.

The kin influence hypothesis proposes that economic development disrupts the social mechanism that keeps the culture of premodern societies on the track of genetic fi tness. In premodern societies, virtually all communities and social networks are kin-based, so most people acquire most of their beliefs, values, and knowledge from their close relatives. Individuals have an “inclusive fitness” (Hamilton 1964) interest in the reproductive success of their sons, daughters, cousins, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren. This interest has the effect of supporting norms and values that encourage the conversion of resources into offspring rather than “wasting” time and resources on other life goals. However, if social networks become less dense with kin and social interactions mostly occur between people who have no interest in each other’s reproductive success, the social support for fitness-enhancing norms weakens. This does not cause a sudden change in culture or behavior, but norms, beliefs, and values increasingly diverge from those that would ensure the active pursuit of genetic fitness.

Let’s refer to this shift from kin-based social networks to non-kin-based social networks as “the great disembedding.” In traditional societies, people are embedded in thick kin-based social networks, often organized along tribal lines. In North American parlance, the term tribe is associated with ethnolinguistic groups. Yet in much of the world, including in places like Egypt and Pakistan, tribal membership is more akin to membership in an extended family, reinforced by the persistence of consanguineous marriage. Under Mubarak, for example, the writ of the Egyptian state and the Mukhabarat did not fully extend throughout the country: to some degree, the Egyptian state was in a kind of unsteady negotiated peace with powerful tribal groups outside of the largest cities. There has, of course, been a partial detribalization as people in traditional societies move to large cities and intermarry, etc., yet tribalism has persisted to an impressive degree in much of the world.

In the affluent societies of the metropolitan West and East Asia, however, “the great disembedding” is much further along. And it has prompted a number of ideological and intellectual responses. 

Very broadly, the response of the broad democratic left can be characterized as follows. (I assume, incidentally, that many on the left would reject this characterization, but here goes nothing.) As individuals are disembedded, or emancipated from the often oppressive and arbitrary demands of thick kin-based social networks and tribal formations, the state can serve to replace the nurturing and disciplining functions of said groups. Non-kin-based social networks can play a role, of course, but these non-kin-based social networks are best understood as sources of personal fulfillment, friendship, and pleasure rather than the realization of economic aspirations, which should be understood separately from social or sexual aspirations. The state is the guardian of our economic well-being.

There is some disagreement within the left camp as to whether the state should be indifferent to our social affiliations, e.g., should the state promote “traditional” family arrangements, which is to say post-traditional married-couple nuclear families, should it promote an ethic of liberal individualism, etc. But there is a broad consensus that family circumstances shouldn’t have undue influence on our economic fate, i.e., one should not be punished for making the decision to “disembed” oneself from a thick kin-based network. The reason is that we should implicitly assume that people choose to disembed from a thick kin-based network for good and defensible reasons: to escape from a patriarchal or matriarchal or narrow-minded or otherwise intolerable family arrangement. Moreover, at this point in our history many people have grown up in disembedded nuclear families, or have been raised in disrupted families. One needn’t affirmatively choose to be disembedded to lead a disembedded life. Indeed, disembeddedness by virtue of family disruption is probably the modal scenario. 

The left aspires to a state in which disembeddedness — whether voluntary (and implicitly justified by a suspicion of traditional authority and the demands of kin-based groups) or involuntary (a fact of atomized modern urban life) — is no longer costly. Reducing the cost of disembeddedness, however, might accelerate the process of disembedding. If we embrace the Pippi Longstocking thesis (which I wrote about a while ago), this is an affirmatively good thing. Bagehot described it as follows:

“The Nordic Way” cites a paper that compares Sweden to Germany and the United States, when considering the triangle formed by reverence for the Family, the State and the Individual. Americans favour a Family-Individual axis, this suggests, suspecting the state as a threat to liberty. Germans revere an axis connecting the family and the state, with a smaller role for individual autonomy. In the Nordic countries, they argue, the state and the individual form the dominant alliance. The paper cited, by the way, is entitled: “Pippi Longstocking: The Autonomous Child and the Moral Logic of the Swedish Welfare State”. It hails Pippi (the strongest girl in the world and an anarchic individualist who lives without parents in her own house, with only a monkey, horse, a bag of gold and a strong moral compass for company) as a Nordic archetype.

But what if you don’t believe that disembeddedness is a good thing? You are led to views that people on the left are inclined to find cruel. My brief precis on this from that aforementioned post:

The Nordics celebrate the role of the state in setting individuals free from family obligations. Traditional conservatives, in contrast, have seen the discipline of the market as an effective way to deepen and reinforce marital fidelity and intergenerational obligations. In a more affluent society, however, these family bonds almost inevitably fray, and marriages are built on shared consumption preferences rather than the specialization of men in market labor and women in household labor. This helps account for the marked decrease in marriage rates among the poor and near-poor in the U.S., for whom the welfare state and market wages reduce the urgent need for a partner and high incarceration rates reduce the potential supply. The problem, of course, is that marriage and the pooling of resources that it entails appear to be crucial to upward mobility. One possibility is that the hunger for upward mobility will spark a cultural shift in the direction of increased marriage rates. Another is a turn in a statist, Nordic direction, in which marriage rates never return to the norms that prevailed in the midcentury U.S. and the state steps in with more redistribution.

That is a somewhat bloodless way of putting it. The political psychologist Jonathan Haidt offered another framework:

To understand the anger of the tea-party movement, just imagine how you would feel if you learned that government physicists were building a particle accelerator that might, as a side effect of its experiments, nullify the law of gravity. Everything around us would float away, and the Earth itself would break apart. Now, instead of that scenario, suppose you learned that politicians were devising policies that might, as a side effect of their enactment, nullify the law of karma. Bad deeds would no longer lead to bad outcomes, and the fragile moral order of our nation would break apart. For tea partiers, this scenario is not science fiction. It is the last 80 years of American history.

In the tea partiers’ scheme of things, the federal government got into the business of protecting the American people—from market fluctuations as well as from their own bad decisions—under Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Great Depression, most Americans recognized that capitalism required safety nets here and there. But Lyndon Johnson’s effort to build the Great Society, and particularly welfare programs that reduced the incentives for work and marriage among the poor, went much further.

Liberals in the 1960s and 1970s seemed intent on protecting people from the punitive side of karma. Premarital sex was separated from its consequences (by birth control, abortion and more permissive norms); bearing children out of wedlock was made affordable (by passing costs on to taxpayers); even violent crime was partially shielded from punishment (by liberal reforms that aimed to protect defendants and limit the powers of the police). …

As the tea partiers see it, the positive side of karma has been weakened, too. The Protestant work ethic (karma’s Christian cousin) holds that hard work is a duty and will bring commensurate rewards. Yet here, too, liberals have long been uncomfortable with karma, because even when you create equal opportunity, differences in talent and effort result in unequal outcomes. These inequalities must then be reduced by progressive taxation, affirmative action and other heavy-handed government intervention. Such social engineering violates our liberty, but most of us accept limitations on our liberty when we agree with the goals and motives behind the rules, such as during air travel. For the tea partiers, federal activism has become a moral insult. They believe that, over time, the government has made a concerted effort to subvert the law of karma.

Haidt’s thesis is, in my view, immensely more insightful than, say, the “last-place aversion” thesis.

One could understand the modern right as the party of embeddedness. To be sure, there is a left version of embeddedness built around non-kin-based formations, e.g., labor unions and political parties. Struggles for recognition and material goods are meant to provide some of the solidaristic or fraternal glue of kin-based social networks and tribal formations. Political contestation becomes the crucible of identity formation. This is why people on the left tend to be more enthusiastic about, say, mandatory voting than people on the right — the formation of political identity isn’t secondary, or about protecting the family, the tribe, the neighborhood, etc. It is much more than that. This creates interesting asymmetries. 

The party of embeddedness might be more inclined that stickiness at the top is okay. Why wouldn’t families want to give their children any advantage in life? To interfere with this process, per Dalton Conley’s interpretation of Jacqueline Stevens, is to interfere with intergenerational ties that preceded (historically) and ought to take precedence (morally) over the state, an idea we discussed in August.

In developing societies the flow of labor and wealth goes more from children to adults. In much of rural Africa, for example, children are important for collecting firewood, hauling water, and helping during the planting and harvesting seasons—hence the relatively high fertility rate. As development progresses and societies become wealthier, however, the stream of resources starts to flow the other way since there is an accumulation of assets as individuals save across the lifecourse and there is also a more prolonged (nonproductive) educational career and adolescence. The result is that, overall age structure aside, the net private flows (since public flows may go in another direction) increasingly go from the aged (or dead) to the young, the richer a society (or sub-group of that society) becomes. One important additional consideration is the emergence of a public pension system, which also sets the stage for the aggregation of surplus private savings available for transfer as we age since we need less as insurance of a basic income stream. Along with this reversal of the flow of private wealth across generations, there comes the notion that this is still a quid pro quo and that inheritance upon death (or intra vivos transfers) is the reward, for both the emotional and physical labor, or at least as an insurance mechanism for the aging parents to exact compliance among the young under threat of disinheritance (rules about divisions of estates obviously vary among rich countries quite substantially in this regard).

When seen in this light, it raises the question: Is there not some value from excluding inheritance and intra vivos transfers from the market exchange (and therefore tax) system? By allowing this transfer tax-free within families, just as spouses’ pocketbooks are legally one and the same, we affirm the private kinship sphere outside of the market. Thus, psychoanalytic theory aside, the role of tax policy in creating boundaries between public and private spheres has been underappreciated by tax policy scholars and that is where—I imagine—alot of this emotional resistance comes from regarding estate or inheritance taxes. [Emphasis added]

These aren’t either-or propositions, exactly. The great disembedding is fairly far along, and in a sense we’re reduced to fighting over the edges. The left is inclined to more further in the direction of reducing the costs of disembeddedness and statist individualism. The right aspires to some kind of reversal, and at the very least hopes to prevent further erosion of the autonomy of the intimate sphere and the weight and value of the intergenerational transfer of values but also wealth.

Another clash flows from very different ideas regarding identity and economic life. The right is more inclined to see economic autonomy as a matter of expressive values: my work is my life, and to restrict and regulate my work, to subject me to punitive taxation, etc., is to deny me my ability to realize my life project. The left also values economic autonomy, but in a somewhat different way, i.e., there is a much heavier emphasis on the role of the state in reducing the cost of disembeddedness, providing a floor for consumption, protecting one against economic shocks, etc. Yet the left places much less stock in the idea that regulating our economic lives represents a meaningful diminution of an essential personal freedom.


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