Liberal Pragmatism, Conservative Dogmatism

This post was inspired by the first two quotes below the videos. The view expressed is one I’ve often considered. There is a distinction between conservatives and liberals which demonstrates a different way of looking at ideology. In my past writings, I tended to analyze this distinction in terms of psychology (and, fundamentally, psychology is a liberal view):

Morality, Politics, and Psychology
Fox and Hedgehog, Apollo and Dionysus
Psychology and Parapsychology, Politics and Place
Developmental Differences: Preliminary Thoughts
MBTI: INFPs & INTPs, Global Chatter & Theory
Psychology of Politics, Development of Society
Political Charts: Ideology & Psychology
Politics, Personality, and Character

In this post, I want to merely emphasize the difference. And, by doing so, I’m arguing for the practical worth of the liberal mindset and of liberal policies.

“I don’t mean to suggest that conservatives are irrational, or that there is no merit to the (Burkean) conservative suspicion of radical change. If a reform that promises greater aggregate well-being conflicts with religious beliefs and/or tradition (say gay marriage), liberals will be more likely to embrace the reform than conservatives.  Liberals tend to focus more on the practical effects of providing clean needles to drug addicts, or condoms to high school students, whereas conservatives focus more on the “message that society would be sending.””

“…I can’t think of any real world policy disputes facing Congress, now or in the past, where liberals did not take what they saw as the roughly utilitarian position.  And I can see lots of cases where conservatives, dogmatic libertarians, or econ-nuts took non-utilitarian positions.”

Here is one example:

“The other story was about bans on abortion, which leads to dangerous procedures that kill 67,000 women every year. Latin America has the most restrictive abortion laws and it also has the highest abortion rate, 31 per 1,000 women age 15-44. Africa and Asia also has a lot of restrictions and there the rate is 29. Western Europe, with the most liberal laws, had the lowest rate – just 12 per 1,000 women.”

I could add many other examples and data. For example, here are factors that tend to have strong correlation:

  • liberalism
  • atheism
  • homosexuality
  • higher education
  • high IQ
  • academic professions
  • scientific professions
  • low teen pregnancy rate
  • low abortion rate
  • low divorce rate
  • high monagamy rates (among men)
  • low imprisonment rate
  • low crime rate
  • low homicide rate
  • low poverty rate
  • low illiteracy rate
  • higher income

Of course, some of that correlation is just situtational. If conservatives don’t like atheists and homosexuals, then atheists and homosexuals are less likely to self-identify as conservatives. If conserves make anti-intellectual arguments, then people who are intelligent and well educated will find conservative arguments unappealing and unconvincing. However, the situation of the conservative movement excluding these people is very significant. The situation wasn’t always this way.

During Reagan’s administration, intelligent people were actually attracted to the Republican party and it was the only time since the data was recorded when Republicans had an average IQ higher than Democrats.


The 1970s were bad years for Republicans. Only 22.2% of respondents identified as Republican compared to 41.9% as Democratic. Although they were bad years for winning elections, they were good years for the Republican Party’s IQ. As respondents move into the more intellectually capable bracket, their likelihood to identify as Republican increases significantly.


The Reagan Revolution vastly increased the number of respondents who identified as Republican. This is the only time span in the analysis in which high IQ respondents are more likely to be Republican than Democratic. However, Reagan was even more successful attracting average IQ Americans to the Republican party, so overall the average IQ of the Republican Party decreased slightly.


Even though Clinton was in the White House, the Democratic Party continued to lose support. 34.9% of respondents identified as Democratic compared to 37.6% in the Reagan/Bush Sr. years and 41.9% in the 1970s.

But even though the Republicans gained overall compared to Democrats, among those in the high IQ bracket the story was the opposite; Republicans lost high IQ respondents to the Democrats. Once again, the average IQ of the Republican Party decreased compared to the previous period.


Unfortunately, there are only 1,419 respondents in this analysis, so the results aren’t as reliable. Nevertheless, we see a huge drop in the percent of high IQ respondents who identify as Republican and an even bigger increase in the percent of high IQ respondents who identify as Democratic.

At the same time, average IQ respondents flocked to the Republican Party, and now a greater percent of this bracket identifies as Republican than identifies as Democratic. (It should be noted that this is not the first time this occurs for a single year. It also happened in 1989, 1991, and 1993.)


Once upon a time, the Democratic Party was the party of the less intelligent and the Republican Party was the party of the more intelligent.

But today, the Democratic Party is the party of both the less intelligent and the more intelligent while the Republican Party is the party of the middle.

To an extent, liberalism as a psychological trait (FFM openness, MBTI intution, Hartmann’s thin boundary type) makes one more likely to have academic intelligence and success, but liberalism as a psychological trait isn’t identical to liberalism as a political ideology. So, it would seem that the Reagan’s Republican party was attractive to the liberal-minded. This makes sense when you consider that Reagan was very liberal on many social issues: as president, he had the first openly gay couple sleep over at the White House and he fought against gay discrimination; as governor, he signed into law before Roe vs Wade the most liberal abortion statute at that time.

As for abortion, I find it strange that many conservatives promote illegalizing abortions even though it means people will still take dangerous risks to get abortions. It doesn’t seem to matter that this would increase injuries and deaths of many women. Liberals didn’t invent abortion. Women have been getting (or giving themselves) abortions for as long as humans have been around. Even indigenous people are aware of plants that act as abortifacents and use them for that purpose. Furthermore, the data shows abortions are more prevalent in countries where it is illegal.

This reminds me of the rates of pregnancy and STDs among teens. In states where abstinence only is taught, they have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STDs. Also, these conservative states tend to have higher abortion rates (partly because of poverty but also because the high teen pregnancy rate). Also, these states have a negative perception of women’s clinics and family planning clinics because of their association with the abortion issue. And, so, women in conservative states get less quality health care which leads to high rates of low birth weight and high rates of infant mortality.

As one person concluded:

“When Red States get their social problems under control, and things such as teen pregnancy down to nationwide lows, then they can try and foist their solutions on the rest of the country.

But as things currently stand, on this issue (as well as others like divorce), the Red States have no ground to stand on. Those crazy New Englad liberals are running circles around them in this tangible measure of their residents’ “values”.”

– – –

The rhetoric of conservativism is that of pragmatic realism, of sticking with what works. The idea of tradition is that it worked in the past and so it will work now, but I haven’t seen any clear evidence for their argument that it worked better in the past. The world didn’t used to be a better place for most people. Just because upper class white males used to in certain ways have life easier in the past doesn’t mean the rest of us want to return to the good ol’ days.

This all relates to moral issues. Beyond the ideological rhetoric, there is no evidence that people used to be more moral. Why do conservatives assume rates of moral beharior and societal health were higher in the past? The data shows the young generation has higher rates of certain moral behaviors than previous generations. Anyways, it isn’t fair or valid to compare the present to the past because many basic factors have changed.

For example, age of sexual maturity has been getting younger. Indigenous people sexually mature around age 18 and there typically was little passage of time between the beginnings of sexual desire and marriage. You desired, you had sex, you were married. A very simple system. With agricultural diet, sexual maturity came a few years earlier and that remained about the same up until around the middle of the 1900s when hormones began to be used in cattle. The increased hormone intake led to the most recent generations (GenX and GenY) sexually maturing even ealier (early teens or even several years younger). At the same time, college has become a requirement to get a good job and support a family and so the average age of marriage has shifted to the late 20s or early 30s. What this means is that the young generation now typically has two decades between the beginnings of sexual desire and marriage.

How can the morality developed in an agricultural society apply to the reality of modern industrialization? The older generations don’t understand because they didn’t experience the hormone-induced early sexual maturity and they didn’t experience a difficult economy that forced them to delay marriage. It’s easy for them to talk about abstinence. The reality, however, is abstinence only programs have been proven to fail. Why should we promote programs that result in high rates of pregnancy and STDs among teens? It isn’t pragmatic to consider ideology as more important than reality. I’d argue it isn’t even moral and certainly isn’t compassionate. What is the point of morality, of religious dogma that doesn’t actually help people to live better lives?

I do think there are values within the conservative tradition which can be applied pragmatically. However, ever since the religious right took over the GOP, the culture wars has blinded mainstream conservatives from looking objectively at the facts. And now with Fox News the rhetoric on the right has been amped up even further. How can reasonable discussion happen under these conditions?

Furthermore, these pragmatic conservatives love to promote the military. They want government to shrink and the military to grow. If this were followed to the inevitable conclusion, eventually a military leader would take over the country. Ignoring that, people who identify as fiscal conservatives often support the military which is the largest part of Federal spending.

Beginning with Reagan, Republican presidents have increased spending and increased the deficit. Liberals, according to Pew, are the demographic most interested in balancing the budget and decreasing the deficit. The result of Reagonomics is that the rich have become richer and the poor poorer. The top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 95% which is the highest wealth disparity in the developed world. Reagonomics destroyed the middle class. The problem is further complicated because seemingly reasonable ‘progressive’ politicians don’t challenge the rightwing rhetoric. So far, Obama has continued most of the policies of the Bush administration (bailouts for the rich, Gitmo, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq).

Conservatives like to make anti-intellectual arguments against the so-called intellectual elite. Yes, liberals are more well educated and have higher IQs. Yes, academics and scientists tend to be liberals. Yes, reporters who study and analyze the details of politics are liberals. From my perspective, that isn’t an insult towards and criticism of liberalism. If liberals are the intellectual elite, does that mean conservatives are the anti-intellectual populists? No. Even though liberals have the highest rates of education, the Democrat party includes those in our society with the lowest rates of education. Most of the poor (especially the poorest of the poor such as the below-the-poverty-line working class) vote Democrat.

Anyways, my point is: How is an intelligent discussion to be had between liberals and conservatives when a vastly disproportionate number of the most intelligent people identify as liberals? How can a reasonable person (including reasonable conservatives) respond when the most vocal conservatives rant about just getting rid of the government? Like many liberals and progressives, I agree with some of the Tea Party complaints of Obama and I understand the libertarian critcism of the government… but, beyond the radicalism, where are the pragmatic solutions? The government isn’t going away and so there is no point in fantasizing about it. I look at the policies promoted by Ron Paul, by the Tea Party, by Fox News and by Republican. What seems obvious to me is that most likely these policies would benefit the wealthy upper class and big business. That is a practical solution for one small segment of society, but what about all the other Americans who would like a small sliver of the American pie?

“Noam Chomsky: “Dismantling of big government” sounds like a nice phrase. What does it mean? Does it mean that corporations go out of existence, because there will no longer be any guarantee of limited liability? Does it mean that all health, safety, workers rights, etc., go out the window because they were instituted by public pressures implemented through government, the only component of the governing system that is at least to some extent accountable to the public (corporations are unaccountable, apart from generally weak regulatory apparatus)? Does it mean that the economy should collapse, because basic R&D is typically publicly funded? like what we’re now using, computers and the internet? Should we eliminate roads, schools, public transportation, environmental regulation? Does it mean that we should be ruled by private tyrannies with no accountability to the general public, while all democratic forms are tossed out the window? Quite a few questions arise.”

For further data and sources, see these previous posts:
Imagine If All Atheists Left America
Moral Decline in US?

Data comparing religiosity with atheism and conservatism with liberalism:

“Although the late twentieth century STD epidemic has been curtailed in all prosperous democracies (Aral and Holmes; Panchaud et al.), rates of adolescent gonorrhea infection remain six to three hundred times higher in the U.S. than in less theistic, pro-evolution secular developed democracies (Figure 6). At all ages levels are higher in the U.S., albeit by less dramatic amounts. The U.S. also suffers from uniquely high adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, which are starting to rise again as the microbe’s resistance increases (Figure 7). The two main curable STDs have been nearly eliminated in strongly secular Scandinavia. Increasing adolescent abortion rates show positive correlation with increasing belief and worship of a creator, and negative correlation with increasing non-theism and acceptance of evolution; again rates are uniquely high in the U.S. (Figure 8). Claims that secular cultures aggravate abortion rates (John Paul II) are therefore contradicted by the quantitative data. Early adolescent pregnancy and birth have dropped in the developed democracies (Abma et al.; Singh and Darroch), but rates are two to dozens of times higher in the U.S. where the decline has been more modest (Figure 9). Broad correlations between decreasing theism and increasing pregnancy and birth are present, with Austria and especially Ireland being partial exceptions.”

“…researchers computed a Child Health Index that ranked each state in the U.S. according to five routine indicators of physical health in children: percentage of low-birth-weight infants, infant mortality rate, child death rate, teen death rate, and teen birth rates… 8 of the 10 states with the poorest child health outcomes in the nation… are in… the Deep South. Living in the Deep South proved to be the best predictor of poor child health outcomes, more so than any other factor commonly used to describe health differences among groups of children, including poverty, parents’ employment status, or single-parent households.”

“Those states that do consume the most porn tend to be more conservative and religious than states with lower levels of consumption, the study finds.”

“Divorce rates among conservative Christians were significantly higher than for other faith groups, and much higher than Atheists and Agnostics experience.”

““Conservatism and cognitive ability are negatively correlated”. How’s that for a provocative opening sentence in an academic paper! Lazar Stankova of the National Institute of Education in Singapore reports this finding in a paper published earlier this year in the Elsevier journalIntelligence.

Lazar Stankova, Conservatism and cognitive ability, Intelligence, v37, n3, pp. 294-304, May-June 2009.

I’ve only scanned the paper, but it looks like a serious study. Here’s the abstract:

“Conservatism and cognitive ability are negatively correlated. The evidence is based on 1254 community college students and 1600 foreign students seeking entry to United States’ universities. At the individual level of analysis, conservatism scores correlate negatively with SAT, Vocabulary, and Analogy test scores. At the national level of analysis, conservatism scores correlate negatively with measures of education (e.g., gross enrollment at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels) and performance on mathematics and reading assessments from the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) project. They also correlate with components of the Failed States Index and several other measures of economic and political development of nations. Conservatism scores have higher correlations with economic and political measures than estimated IQ scores.”

“The analyses of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Study 1) and the General Social Surveys (Study 2) show that adolescent and adult intelligence significantly increases adult liberalism, atheism, and mens (but not womens) value on sexual exclusivity.”

“”General intelligence, the ability to think and reason, endowed our ancestors with advantages in solving evolutionarily novel problems for which they did not have innate solutions,” says Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  “As a result, more intelligent people are more likely to recognize and understand such novel entities and situations than less intelligent people, and some of these entities and situations are preferences, values, and lifestyles.”

An earlier study by Kanazawa found that more intelligent individuals were more nocturnal, waking up and staying up later than less intelligent individuals.  Because our ancestors lacked artificial light, they tended to wake up shortly before dawn and go to sleep shortly after dusk.  Being nocturnal is evolutionarily novel.

In the current study, Kanazawa argues that humans are evolutionarily designed to be conservative, caring mostly about their family and friends, and being liberal, caring about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers they never meet or interact with, is evolutionarily novel.  So more intelligent children may be more likely to grow up to be liberals.

Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) support Kanazawa’s hypothesis.  Young adults who subjectively identify themselves as “very liberal” have an average IQ of 106 during adolescence while those who identify themselves as “very conservative” have an average IQ of 95 during adolescence.

Similarly, religion is a byproduct of humans’ tendency to perceive agency and intention as causes of events, to see “the hands of God” at work behind otherwise natural phenomena.  “Humans are evolutionarily designed to be paranoid, and they believe in God because they are paranoid,” says Kanazawa.  This innate bias toward paranoia served humans well when self-preservation and protection of their families and clans depended on extreme vigilance to all potential dangers.  “So, more intelligent children are more likely to grow up to go against their natural evolutionary tendency to believe in God, and they become atheists.”

Young adults who identify themselves as “not at all religious” have an average IQ of 103 during adolescence, while those who identify themselves as “very religious” have an average IQ of 97 during adolescence.

In addition, humans have always been mildly polygynous in evolutionary history.  Men in polygynous marriages were not expected to be sexually exclusive to one mate, whereas men in monogamous marriages were.  In sharp contrast, whether they are in a monogamous or polygynous marriage, women were always expected to be sexually exclusive to one mate.  So being sexually exclusive is evolutionarily novel for men, but not for women.  And the theory predicts that more intelligent men are more likely to value sexual exclusivity than less intelligent men, but general intelligence makes no difference for women’s value on sexual exclusivity.  Kanazawa’s analysis of Add Health data supports these sex-specific predictions as well.”

“Most (62%) identify themselves as liberal… most highly educated group (49% have a college degree or more)… Liberals are second only to Enterprisers in following news about government and public affairs most of the time (60%). Liberals’ use of the internet to get news is the highest among all groups (37%).”

Intelligence & Curiosity

I want to speak about intellectual ability.  Some of it’s inborn intelligence and some of it’s learned habits such as memory tricks or reading comprehension.  However, those aspects aren’t necessarily the most central or most important.  Without intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn, all the ability in the world is useless.

In online discussions, I’m surprised how often someone asks a question when a five second websearch would’ve given them an answer.  So much time gets spent on explaining (sometimes very basic ideas and facts) to people who lack any motivation to learn.

I’m surprised how often people don’t read a link when I post it explaining what it is and why it’s relevant.  I’ve even cited a link as a basis of an argument and the argument itself was straight from the article, but the other person disagrees with me demonstrating they didn’t even read the article.  If I’m citing an article by an expert or which quotes an expert, then any disagreement anyone has should be with the expert or the article.  But do they quote another expert or link another article?  No.  They just disagree with some magical power of intuition.  They just know your wrong.

It’s a rare person who goes to the effort of actually backing up their opinions with logic and facts.  And I really hate it when people pull the ‘experience’ card.  Someone may be a mother but it doesn’t mean they understand every mother.  Certainly, a survey or scientific research of thousands of people has at least equal or greater worth than the anecdotal experience of one person.  Another stupid tactic is when someone argues, for example, that since you take a liberal position that therefore you don’t know what it’s like to be fighting on the frontline… as if all soldiers are conservatives.

Then there are the nitpickers who either are trolls or simply lack inter-personal skills.  There comments can seem stupid as the person never adds anything of intelligence, but the person might actually have some hidden intelligence.  It really annoys me when I sense or suspect they’re intelligent because I keep waiting for an intelligent response which never comes.  What is the point of having intelligence if you don’t like using it?  I’d rather deal with a well-intentioned idiot than a halfway intelligent troll… a little bit of intelligence can be a dangerous thing.

The most typical variety of intellectually challenged debater is the person who simply repeats the same statement or belief or supposed fact.  They’ll rarely back up what they say with any cited source and if they offer a link it’s probably a ranting blog, a conspiracy website, apologetics or whatever.  If this person is also a nitpicker, they can be extremely annoying because they’ll demand that you cite sources for every minor statement.  This kind of person if they’re subtle enough (as some intelligent apologists are), they can lead you on for hours.  They make you think they actually care about the discussion, but they just want to make you run around.  They already have their mind made up before you wrote your first word.

It’s not that most people are stupid, but most definitely the average person tends to under-utilize their intelligence to an extreme degree.  What is lacking is curiosity.  How sad!  😦

I realize people are busy with more “important” things, but I still think it’s sad.