Friday, June 29, 2012

The Rice Christian Cycle

Consider a political view that is out of fashion--conservatism or libertarianism c. 1960, say. Not many academics, not many authors, support it. But the ones who do are committed supporters because nobody else would pay the costs of being on the outside.  And, on average, they will be abler than the opposition, both because they have been exposed to both sides, the other being all around them, and because surviving intellectually when everyone thinks you are wrong is hard work.

Suppose some change, say the Reagan revolution, reverses the roles. One of the reasons for the change is that the outs, while less numerous than the ins, were of higher quality—more committed, with better arguments. It is hard, after all, to do a good job of rebutting views that you don't take seriously and, in any case, are rarely exposed to.

Now being a conservative is not only respectable, it is the route to a good job in Washington, perhaps a profitable and prominent career. The number who choose to support that position increases sharply but their quality decreases, both because it is much easier to maintain a position when it is in favor and because quite a lot of them are rice Christians--the equivalent, in the intellectual and political world, of Chinese who converted to Christianity because the missionaries had rice. 

On the other side, things are moving in  the opposite direction. Only those who really believe in liberalism (modern American sense) continue to support it, now that it looks more like the wave of the past than the wave of the future.

And since the new ins are getting flabby, and the new outs, if less numerous, are now of higher quality than they used to be, the wheel turns again.

Not, I am sure, a full explanation of political cycles, but perhaps at least a partial explanation.


Dallas Wood said...

What about expectations? Once political actors recognize this cycle existed, wouldn't that eliminate the cycle?

For example, maybe young "rice christians" realize that progressive politics are popular today, but the political cycle will elevate conservative views in a few years when they are starting their careers. So they start affiliating with young Republicans now to "get in on the ground floor" of the movement. Thus lowering the quality of the average Republican today.

Prakash said...

I agree with starving economist's comment that some aspect of rational expectations comes in.

I'm wondering what would be the effect of increasing competition in governance be on this kind of phenomenon? (free cities or seasteading)
Would people just leave to their preferred political locales and never develop their competencies in arguing with political opponents?

tangent said...

Another thing I would add is the difference between being out of power and being in power. Those who are out of power are more inclined to present philosophically consistent policy goals. The ones in power have to "play politics"- compromise, cater to special interest groups, talk out of both sides of their mouths, etc.

This gives those who are out of power intellectual ammunition.

Simon said...

Does this mean that a political camp can improve its fortunes by deliberately withholding rice bowls?

What happens when different segments of society are out of phase and at different points in the cycle? E.g., if one political camp is successful in electoral politics and another dominates in academia, will the roles reverse at some point?

David Friedman said...

Another interesting question is whether the existence of the Internet changes the logic of the situation. It makes it much easier for members of an ideological minority to interact largely with each other, hence arguably reduces at least the social costs of holding the minority position.

Perhaps the best "strategy" is for the majority faction to have a minority of extremists within it--socialists, say, when liberals are in power. They still face the pressures that encourage minority quality.

Think of it as division of labor.