Friday, February 15, 2008

Ideology as Coalition: Environmentalists vs The Poor

It is a familiar observation that political parties are coalitions containing a variety of ideologies and interest groups. It is a little less obvious that ideologies too are coalitions.

Consider the American conservative movement of the fifties and sixties. It was made up of at least three distinct groups: Traditionalist conservatives, classical liberals/libertarians, and southern conservatives, in large part populist. Where some had strong views and the others didn't--anti-communism, for instance--they tended to all go along. Where different groups had different strong views--government control over sexual behavior, for example--they agreed to disagree. The more common the latter situation was, the greater the tension within the ideology.

The modern American left is also a coalition. Someone who thinks of himself as a leftist is probably in favor of increasing environmental regulation, redistribution in favor of the poor, greater government regulation of business, gay rights, feminism, prohibition of private discrimination on any of a considerable variety of grounds. He is probably against aggressive foreign policy, anti-nuclear, suspicious of law enforcement and the criminal justice system but supportive of class actions, punitive damages, and similar features of the tort system.

In that coalition too, there are potential strains. For someone in favor of helping poor people, the economic development of China and India is arguably the best news of the past fifty years. Development was, after all, the explicit goal of foreign economic aid, development planning, a variety of programs in the post-war period that were supposed to lift the third world out of poverty--and didn't. The fact that more than two billion people are now in the process of moving from extreme poverty towards the sort of life westerners have long lived represents an enormous improvement in the condition of the world's poor.

It also represents a sharp increase in the consumption of depletable resources and production of carbon dioxide. The same changes that should be good news to the leftist qua egalitarian are very bad news to the leftist qua environmentalist. Not only are people who used to be poor consuming more and polluting more, they are cutting down rain forests in South America, threatening endangered species in Asia. They are, in other words, doing the same things our ancestors did.

Nuclear power is another obvious problem for the left. It provides a way of replacing a large fraction of fossil fuel power with an alternative that does not produce CO2, using current technology at costs not wildly above current power costs—as France has demonstrated. Arguably, it provides the only such way. With fairly modest improvements in the technology of synthesizing liquid hydrocarbons, it could replace practically all fossil fuel use. But the left is traditionally anti-nuclear for a mix of reasons, including hostility to nuclear weapons and a more general suspicion of technology.

Biofuels present the most recent example of a conflict between environmentalism and concern for the poor. Supporters argue that they reduce dependence on foreign (and depletable) supplies of oil and reduce CO2 production—although there now seems to be evidence that the latter may not be true. Critics point out that diverting large amounts of farm land and farm output from producing a lot of food to producing a little fuel will cause--indeed, has already caused--a steep increase in food prices, an implicit tax that falls most heavily on the poor.

All of these conflicts among left wing objectives are accidental—it just happens that the same change which helps in one direction hurts in another. There are additional problems that are more fundamental. One reason some on the left don't want a nuclear solution to global warming is that they see the threat of global warming as a useful argument for lifestyle changes—less power consumption, urban instead of suburban life styles, less consumption—that they favor for other reasons. For those in that position, a way of preventing global warming that doesn't require other people to revise their lives is a threat, not a promise.

In much the same way, the threat of nuclear winter was pushed not so much because its supporters believed in it as because its supporters were, understandably enough, looking for ways to prevent nuclear war. In both cases, the problem with such indirect motives is not that they are necessarily unjustified but that they are likely to lead to dishonest arguments. If your objective is not to prevent global warming or nuclear winter but only to use their threat to persuade other people to do things you want them to do or not to do things you don't want them to do, whether the arguments you offer are right becomes less important than whether they are persuasive.


dWj said...

To wrap it back around to the beginning of your post, sometimes arguments seem to be made because they fit the consensus of the ideology, even if they don't exactly cohere with any of its factions' positions exactly. I remember reading that the Bush administration leaned on the legalistic argument for the war -- "Hussein hasn't complied with the UN Resolution" -- not because it was the favorite reason of anyone in the administration, but because it was something the folks who were worried about WMDs getting to terrorist groups and the neo-Wilsonian democracy promoters, as well as a couple smaller groups, could agree on. Similarly, someone somewhere makes an anti-nuke argument they believe in, and someone who doesn't really agree exactly chimes in anyway; the sythesis argument ends up being a bit incoherent or disingenous, but no one feels enough ownership of it or finds it flawed enough to risk alienating other members of the coalition by trying to forthrightly move the argument in a different direction.

Seebach said...

"The same changes that should be good news to the leftist qua egalitarian are very bad news to the leftist qua environmentalist."

Actually, no - they will both agree that it makes the forced eradication of western consumerism even more expedient.

Charles T. Wolverton said...

The essential messages I take away from the post is that the objectives of a coalition of single-issue activists may be in conflict, and that the less well-reasoned the positions, the greater the likelihood of that conflict. No disagreement there.

However, I don't see that anything is added by the catalog of supposed leftist positions (or by a list of complementary positions labeled as "rightist"). For example, it should be clear to anyone aware of current events that developing (ie, "poor") countries pose a potential threat to the environment. Why associate that fact with the left? Is the right in favor of either preventing development or more environmental degradation? I obviously understand the political benefit of associating positions with one party or the other and then framing these as "bad" in some sense. But in a forum such as this, I assume that is not the objective.

The problem I have is that the statement "Someone who thinks of himself as a leftist is probably in favor of [laundry list of positions]" doesn't seem to me to be meaningful. One presumably self-identifies as "leftist" or "rightist" based on the positions they hold. If so, isn't the statement essentially a tautology?

Let's think about what it might mean for someone "probably" to hold a laundry list of positions. First, some assumptions. If we're going to use a list of positions as a litmus test for membership in a group, it seems reasonable to require that a successful candidate for membership hold a large fraction of them. Arbitrarily assume that of ten positions (roughly the number in the list), to be a leftist/rightist one must hold at least 2/3, ie, seven or more.

For the moment, assume each person's positions are arrived at independently of one another and objectively. (We'll return to the real world shortly.) Furthermore, a position relevant to a left-right divide is by definition debatable, so a randomly chosen thoughtful and objective person should have roughly equal probability of holding a position or not (ie, 1/2). With these assumptions, the probability that a randomly chosen thoughtful and objective person will qualify as leftist/rightist is 0.17. Not a reasonable interpretation of "probably" and inconsistent with the assumption that many people do self-label as either left or right.

As suggested parenthetically, the assumption of positions arrived at independently and objectively is unreasonable. People are fallible and do have world views, so there is likely some degree of correlation among, and bias in, a person's positions. So, let's go about this another way and arbitrarily define "probably" to be 0.8 and ask what probability of holding each position is required for the candidate to qualify. The answer is about 0.75, which seems to suggest significant correlation and/or bias.

OK, so what? Only that I infer from statements like the one quoted that people on the left or the right have predictable positions. But as noted, that's essentially true by definition. IMO, the more meaningful observation is that a person who has a highly predictable laundry list of positions on complex issues probably isn't taking those positions based on objective consideration. From which I conclude that if labeling oneself as being "left" or "right" corresponds to close adherence to a laundry list of positions, the positions of anyone so self-labeling probably aren't well reasoned (and the fact that there is internal incoherence among them shouldn't be surprising). A good reason for anyone who wants to be taken seriously to avoid such self-labeling?

- Charles

Anonymous said...

"Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed." --Herman Melville

Or, as my dad has asked, "Why are rich people always trying to tell poor people how to live?"

Anonymous said...

A similar example on the right: Conservatives want less regulation of private businesses. Conservatives also want to promote traditional values, such as chastity. Yet when the free market is let loose in many industries - especially the media industry - private companies put out messages that undermine traditional values. That's why conservatives - as a whole - can't decide whether the FCC should have more power or less.