20.6.04

WHY TWO SYSTEMS OF BELIEF? David Brooks suggests that there are two aristocracies:
This year the Democrats will nominate the perfect embodiment of an educated-class professional. John Kerry graduated from law school and plays classical guitar. President Bush, however, went to business school and drives a pickup around his ranch. So we can watch the conflict between these two rival elites play itself out in almost crystalline form.
Soon to be homeowner Apartment 11-D suggests that the division by type is "too cynical." But the notion of two systems of belief -- for simplicity's sake? -- does not go away.

Some years ago, P. J. O'Rourke wrote,
I have only one firm belief about the American political system, and that is this: God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat.

God is an elderly or, at any rate, middle-aged male, a stern fellow, patriarchal rather than paternal and a great believer in rules and regulations. He holds men strictly accountable for their actions. He has little apparent concern for the material well-being of the disadvantaged. He is politically connected, socially powerful, and holds the mortgage on literally everything in the world. God is difficult. God is unsentimental. It is very hard to get into God's heavenly country club.

Santa Claus is another matter. He's cute. He's nonthreatening. And he loves animals. He may know who's been naughty and who's been nice, but he never does anything about it. He gives everyone everything they want without thought of a quid pro quo. He works hard for charities, and he's famously generous to the poor. Santa Claus is preferable to God in every way but one: There is no such thing as Santa Claus.

What does it say about the creativity of the human mind but that an academician can -- in all seriousness -- take Mr O'Rourke's satire and build models of political philosophy from a similar starting point? That is precisely what Berkeley linguist George Lakoff has done in Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (one of the six or seven books I've read through in the past week or two -- some people argue I parallel process these things with 3 or 4 books left open and upside down in a stack.)

Professor Lakoff models political belief systems with a family metaphor, expressed as

1. The Nation is a Family
2. The Government is a Parent.
3. The Citizens are the Children.

As a metaphor, this is likely to provoke argument from those who smell paternalism or The Best and the Brightest or sense a Fatal Conceit. But let's explore it with a similar caricature.

Professor Lakoff's metaphor for the conservative worldview is the Strict Father model of the family. In its extreme form, this is a man who insists on obedience from his wife and children, who lives by the maxim of "spare the rod," and who wants the kids out of the house and on their own as soon as that is practicable. His metaphor for the liberal worldview is the Nurturant Parent model. In its extreme form, the parent can be Mom or Mom and Dad, who encourage their kids to express themselves, even paying for the outrageous tattoo or body jewelry, and who don't mind if the kids come back after they're of working age.

I exaggerate, but only slightly.

My sense is that Professor Lakoff recognizes this as well. In one interview, he observes,
Well, the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline — physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

But in another interview, the caricature begins to break down:
You have to be able to take care of yourself to be able to care for someone else. Being responsible means being strong, being competent, being educated -- taking your role very, very seriously. If you want to turn your child into a nurturer, then you want to make that child responsible to others, strong, capable, educated, competent, and so on. Then there are other values that follow from empathy and responsibility. One of them is protection. If you’re responsible for a child, and you care about the child, you want to protect her or him.

Some of the things that liberals want to protect children from are things like pollution and smoking, and cars without seatbelts, and unscrupulous businessmen -- the same things they want the government to protect citizens from. But they also want to protect children from other things like terrorists and invasions and so on. In fact, protection in general -- protection of the environment, for example -- is a major part of the progressive worldview.

It ought to come as no surprise that once one gets away from the caricatures, the battle lines will no longer be so clearly drawn. (Professor Lakoff is up-front about drawing those lines and taking sides: the book preserves as if in amber much of the academic establishment's anticipation for the Clinton presidency, 2002 second edition notwithstanding, and much pre-September 11 thinking about the role of the state.)

The research on child development that Professor Lakoff relies on quite clearly suggests that neither of his base models squares well with parenting methods that promote effective socialization of children. He cites work by Catherine Lewis that he suggests favors Nurturant Parent childrearing methods, and, by extension, Mommy Party policies. However, the model that emerges from psychological research is something called the Authoritative Model, which Professor Lakoff characterizes as

1. Expectation for mature behavior from child and clear standard setting.
2. Firm enforcement of rules and standards using commands and sanctions when necessary.
3. Encouragement of the child's independence and individuality.
4. Open communication between parents and children, with parents listening to children's point of view, as well as expressing their own; encouragement of verbal give and take.
5. Recognition of rights of both parents and children.

If your only objective is to demolish some advice that isn't peer-reviewed about the merits of spanking, it suffices to note that "'Firm enforcement' and 'sanctions' do not include painful corporal punishment." Fine, if you're writing a polemic. But "mature behavior" does not preclude expecting children -- per corollary, citizens -- to at some point be capable of standing on their own feet, and "independence and individuality" sounds positively entrepreneurial.

Professor Lakoff also notes,
[Professor] Lewis also shows that, if the "firm enforcement" part of the model is simply omitted from the pattern of behaviors studied, the results are essentially the same. This indicates that "firm enforcement" does not add anything to the model.

Not quite. I know just enough about model building to be dangerous, and I picked up the 90 Psychological Bulletin 547 (1981) and read Professor Lewis's article, which is a survey of previous results, not quite a full literature review and not a meta-analysis. As such, there is no "showing" to be appealed to. Furthermore, as "expectation for mature behavior" and "firm enforcement of rules and standards" are not orthogonal, and not well-specified (by the standards of economic modeling, other disciplines have other conventions) the possibility remains that either "expectations" or "enforcement" might perform equally well alone as explanatory variables.

Perhaps we ought to have more than two systems of belief in play at any time. Perhaps having better-posed models of those belief systems would also help.

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