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What conservatives and environmentalists agree on

9 Post author: PhilGoetz 08 April 2017 12:57AM

Today we had a sudden cold snap here in western Pennsylvania, with the temperature dropping 30 degrees F.  I was walking through a white field that had been green yesterday, looking at daffodils poking up through the snow and feeling irritated that they'd probably die.  It occurred to me that, if we could control the weather, people would probably vote for a smooth transition from winter to summer, and this would wreak some unforeseen environmental catastrophe, because it would suddenly make most survival strategies reliably sub-optimal.

This is typical environmentalist thinking:  Whenever you see something in the environment that you don't like, stop and step back before trying to change it.  Trust nature that there's some reason it is that way.  Interfere as little as possible.

The classic example is forest fires.  Our national park service used to try to stop all forest fires.  This policy changed in the 1960s for several reasons, including the observation that no new Sequoia saplings had sprouted since the beginning of fire suppression in the 19th century.  Fire is dangerous, destructive, and necessary.

It struck me that this cornerstone of environmentalism is also the cornerstone of social conservatism.

Leftist are social farmers; conservatives are social environmentalists

Most leftists view their own society [1] the same way farmers view the environment.  They believe we can all agree on what crops to grow (what social values to have [2]), and we should clear out the stumps of old institutions, plant the seeds of the new, create the right rationally-informed infrastructure of irrigation, fertilization, crop rotation, etc., and pull out and burn the weeds of nostalgia, counter-revolution, and the bourgeoisie, and we will have a modern, rational society.

Conservatives view their own society the way environmentalists view the environment:  as a complex organism best not lightly tampered with.  They're skeptical of the ability of new policies to do what they're supposed to do, especially a whole bunch of new policies all enacted at once.

So, many liberals and many conservatives understand the law of unintended consequences (LUC), but the contexts they apply it in are disjoint.


If we broadly stereotype conservative Americans as Christian, and Christians as not believing in evolution, we can explain why liberals would be more likely to apply LUC to the environment.  An evolved system is complex and dynamic, and can lose its stability.  A created system is presumed to be static and always stable, so Christians don't consider LUC to be an issue with respect to the environment.

If we stereotype progressives as social constructivists, we get the same result for society.  Progressive philosophy derives from post-modernist philosophy, which, to a first approximation, is medieval philosophy and physics with a global s/God/humans/ run on it.  It focuses not on the creation of the world, but on the creation of society.

Marxism, which is the basis for academic progressive thought today, takes as axiomatic that economic relationships are the base that determines all else.  Leftists therefore believe that economic relationships don't depend on anything else, and can be restructured arbitrarily.  There can be no avalanche of changes resulting from restructuring the base, because effects on the superstructure cannot cause changes in the base.  Therefore, to a Marxist, the LUC is not relevant to human societies, which are simple in a way that the environment is not.

[1] Most leftists view other societies the way environmentalists view the environment.  I recall, for example, Edward Fischer's Teaching Company lecture series on anthropology, "Peoples & Cultures of the World," which begins by explaining that it is important not to judge other cultures for institutionalizing wife-beating, community gang rape, mandated homosexual rape of boys, genital mutilation, wife-burning, untouchable castes, and so on--and then concluded with a series of lectures giving a Marxist critique of our own culture, from an implicit objective standpoint which for some reason can be used to judge only our culture.

[2] The truth of this statement is obscured by the radical post-modernist wing of leftist politics, which claims to be relativist, and that its goal is only to avoid privileging any one position over any other.  In practice, this goal is itself as absolutist as any divine revelation.  In any case, post-modernists cannot claim to represent or even be progressives, as rejection of the notion of progress is the first axiom of post-modernism.

Comments (31)

Comment author: denimalpaca 08 April 2017 06:17:07PM 3 points [-]

Seems to me both liberals and conservatives are social farmers, it's a matter of what crop is grown. Conservatives want their one crop, say potatoes, not because it's the most nutritional, but it's been around for forever and it's allowed their ancestors to survive. (If we assume like you do about Christianity, then we also have that God Himself Commanded They Grow Potatoes.) Liberals see the potatoes, recognize that some people still die even when they eat potatoes like their ancestor, and decide they need more crops. Maybe they grow fewer potatoes, and maybe they grow yellow potatoes instead of brown or some such triviality, but the idea like you state is to not privilege those people who are inherently better at digesting potatoes by growing other things as well. This is naturally heresy to conservative potato growers because you shouldn't fix something that isn't broken (and if God didn't say it's broken then it's not - excluding the idea of God and you just get potato-digesting-enzyme supremacy).

Comment author: lmn 10 April 2017 04:52:14PM *  4 points [-]

Liberals see the potatoes, recognize that some people still die even when they eat potatoes like their ancestor, and decide they need more crops.

Like, say, kudzu to enhance the soil and help prevent erosion.

However, unlike the people who actually introduced kudzu, liberals aren't even willing to admit they made a mistake after the fact and will insist that the only reason people object to having their towns and houses completely overgrown with kudzu is irrational kudzuphobia.

Comment author: denimalpaca 10 April 2017 09:14:00PM 1 point [-]

"liberals aren't even willing to admit they made a mistake after the fact and will insist that the only reason people object to having their towns and houses completely overgrown with kudzu is irrational kudzuphobia."

I think this is a drastic overgeneralization taken in bad faith.

Comment author: lmn 11 April 2017 09:17:19PM *  1 point [-]

I think this is a drastic overgeneralization taken in bad faith.

Actually this is more-or-less my experience with liberals. However, I'm curious whether your objection is going to be "not all liberals are like that, a few are actually willing to entertain the possibility that there are rational reasons for opposing kudzu", or "this analogy is flawed because there are no rational reasons to oppose the things kudzu corresponds to".

Comment author: Viliam 10 April 2017 10:36:37AM 0 points [-]

Any difference becomes a similarity if we go sufficiently meta. On a sufficiently high level, liberals and conservatives are the same in that they both want to do different things.

But one step below this too-high level, it's -- liberals: "the system is bad, let's change this and this to improve it"; conservatives: "if you tinker with the system, it is likely to fall apart and kill everyone, let's keep it as it is".

Of course, both sides can be expressed by various degrees of sophistication. You can have stupid representatives of both sides, saying things like "the world is perfect as it is, those unsuccessful people just need to stop whining and start working harder" and "hey, let's abolish money and private property, so there will be no more poverty", and you can have educated representatives talking about "progress" or "black swans".

But at the core there seems to be the... feeling(?)... that if you start changing the setting on the social machine for nicer values, the situation will, obviously...
a) ...improve.
b) ...go horribly wrong.

Comment author: Lumifer 10 April 2017 02:35:23PM 0 points [-]

But at the core

Would it boil down to risk preferences / risk aversion then?

Comment author: Viliam 12 April 2017 09:52:21PM *  0 points [-]

Maybe more like Openness in the Big 5, but I'm not sure.

I spent some time thinking about this, but it seems complicated. For example, it seems to me that when liberals want the society to change, they usually want the whole society to change -- as opposed to e.g. first trying the new experiment in one county only.

I mean, I understand that if one strongly believes that X is good and perfectly safe, then "X everywhere" is better than e.g. "X in one city". But when it turns out that "X everywhere" is politically impossible, at least for today, in such case I would still prefer "X in one city" to "X nowhere"... but surprisingly, some of my liberal friends have the opposite reaction. It's like they have a lot of courage about global changes, but somehow get scared by small-scale experiments.

It's... sorry if this is too uncharitable... as if instead of conservatives' "safety in tradition", liberals prefer "safety in numbers". Change everything, so that if hypothetically something goes wrong, we are all in it, together.

(Rejecting both the "safety in tradition" and the "safety in numbers" seems like a libertarian trait to me.)


Thinking about it some more, maybe Openness is the typically liberal trait, and Conscientiousness is the typically conservative one. And perhaps the paradox of willing to enact liberal policies at large scale, but not at small scale, could be explained by liberals understanding on some level that they are good at changing things, but conservatives are good at maintaining things. A functional country could have liberals at the top, but still must have conservatives at least at the bottom, or it will fall apart. (If everyone participates in the permanent revolution, no one makes bread.) If you try to create a small-scale liberal utopia, the conservatives could simply leave it, and then the utopia would fall apart; which is why you must create liberal utopias at state scale.

Comment author: Lumifer 13 April 2017 01:39:05AM 1 point [-]

Let me offer you a couple more frameworks to think about it.

One is Haidt's Moral Foundations framework. It is put forward in Haidt's book The Righteous Mind, but Wikipedia tl;drs it thusly:

The original theory proposed five such foundations: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation

...liberals are sensitive to the Care and Fairness foundations, conservatives are more sensitive to the Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity foundations and libertarians are found to have roughly equal sensitive to each foundation. According to Haidt, this has significant implications for political discourse and relations. Because members of two political camps are to a degree blind to one or more of the moral foundations of the others, they may perceive morally-driven words or behavior as having another basis—at best self-interested, at worst evil, and thus demonize one another.

The other one is Kling's Three-Axes model. Briefly,

My hypothesis is that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other.

Comment author: Viliam 19 April 2017 10:01:06AM *  0 points [-]

Jordan B Peterson is doing further research on Big5 vs politics. He already has some intermediate results, such as dividing the "liberals" into "egalitarians" and "PC authoritarians" (the latter are similar in some aspects to the egalitarians, but in other aspects to conservative authoritarians).

I haven't read about that much yet, but it resonates with my impressions of politics. The short version is: imagine the "motte" and "bailey" of social justice... turns out, they actually correspond to two different groups of people, measurably different in personality traits. (The "PC authoritarians" were already called "regressive left" at some parts of internet.)

Comment author: denimalpaca 10 April 2017 08:58:37PM 0 points [-]

Yes I think that's exactly right. Scott Alexander's idea on it from the point of view of living in a zombie world makes this point really clear: do we risk becoming zombies to save someone, or no?

Comment author: Viliam 11 April 2017 04:45:19PM 0 points [-]

That is pretty much it. Except, describing it as zombies makes it seems like the dangers are all fictional, and therefore the people who worry about them are silly.

But real world contains real dangers, so I would expect that people who got hurt in the past will be more likely to adopt the "conservative" mindset, while people who lived relatively sheltered lives will be more likely to adopt the "liberal" mindset. (Reality check: most liberal people? trust fund kids at expensive colleges. most conservative people? working class.)

Comment author: denimalpaca 11 April 2017 05:43:08PM 0 points [-]

Reality check: most liberal people? trust fund kids at expensive colleges. most conservative people? working class.

Really disagree there. Plenty of trust fund kids are conservative, plenty of scholarship students are liberal... even at the same university. I think if you want to generalize, the more apt generalization is city vs. rural areas. There are tons of "working class" liberals, they work in service industries instead of coal mines. The big difference is the proximity to actual diversity, when you work with and live with and see diverse people every day, you get acclimated to it and accept it as the norm; when you live in a rural area with few people, nearly all of whom are white, you get acclimated to that. When the societal norm of rural areas is a more conservative, Christian mindset, and that in the cities is a more liberal mindset then it follows naturally that people in these areas would generally develop into those dominating mindsets.

I'm not sure that your statement about who gets hurt in the past is more likely to be conservative in the future is true, either. Your conclusion doesn't directly follow from the premise, and I can think of numerous personal and historical examples that run counter. Same with "liberals are sheltered", you offer no evidence that links your premise to conclusion and there are tons of counter examples.

Comment author: lmn 11 April 2017 09:32:49PM 1 point [-]

The big difference is the proximity to actual diversity, when you work with and live with and see diverse people every day, you get acclimated to it and accept it as the norm;

Kind of like how the mayor of London said people must now accept a certain level of terrorism as 'Part & Parcel' of living in a big city?

Comment author: korin43 24 April 2017 10:48:45PM 0 points [-]

This makes me wonder how much of the liberal/conservative divide with how seriously we take minor acts of terrorism has to do with direct experience with big cities. If you don't live in a city, hearing about a terrorist attack in a city is probably really scary, but if you've actually lived in a big city, a few people dying every few years is incredibly uneventful (for comparison, 318 people were murdered in my city last year).

Comment author: lmn 24 April 2017 11:08:46PM *  0 points [-]

318 people were murdered in my city last year

A century ago, before liberal social policies, this would be considered an unacceptably high level of crime. Heck, I consider Baltimore a borderline post-apocalyptic no-go zone. Although I'm sure parts of it, specifically the parts with the fewest ethnic minorities, are ok. But as Eliezer said:

if people got hit on the head by a baseball bat every week, pretty soon they would invent reasons why getting hit on the head with a baseball bat was a good thing.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 10 April 2017 02:22:48PM 0 points [-]

One thing that neither side seems to realize is that these are logically consistent, and very possibly true:

  • changing the settings on the machine usually makes things worse
  • by changing the settings a lot, we can bring about consistent improvement

Basically there is a process analogous with natural selection, driven by the fact that people want good things.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 08 April 2017 08:14:35PM 2 points [-]

I agree with the broad sentiment, but I think it's increasingly unrealistic to believe that the liberal/conservative distinction is based on a fundamental philosophical difference instead of just raw partisan tribal hatred. In theory people would develop an ethical philosophy and then join the party that best represents the philosophy, but in practice people pick a tribe and then adopt the values of that tribe.

Comment author: Viliam 10 April 2017 11:02:44AM *  1 point [-]

I think it's both. My model is that people join "tribes" that attract them psychologically, because their reflect either their traits or experience, but often also because of peer pressure. And then, the "tribes" create political coalitions to get more power, and this is where many "strange bedfellows" and dogmatism happens. -- In other words, that there are natural "clusters in the opinion-space", and also historical coalitions of clusters based on random events.

The difficult part is to find out, when we talk about a group, how much of its constitution is a natural cluster, and how much is a historically evolved coalition of potentially unrelated clusters.

For example, it is natural for a person to enjoy the idea of a world where their specific traits are highly rewarded, and the skills they miss are considered irrelevant. It is also natural, for people who feel oppressed by a group X, to make "fighting against X" a part of their identity.

But whether groups A and B make a coalition against a coalition of C and D, or whether A and C make a coalition against B and D, that mostly depends on history. Maybe A and B originally had nothing in common, but they joined forces because their common enemy C was too strong at some moment of history; and now it may be different, but the idea that A and B should be allies is already considered common sense between the members of both groups, so C chose D as an ally, despite having nothing else in common.

Talking about "Republicans" and "Democrats" is likely too far on the coalition-making level. Not sure how we operationally define e.g. "conservatives" -- for example, would that include the communists in the former communist countries (people who want to "make Soviet Russia great again")? Because "clinging to the past" seems like a psychological trait, but whether the past happens to be capitalist or communist or islamic or whatever, that's a historical accident.

Comment author: Yosarian2 08 April 2017 10:02:09PM *  1 point [-]

Another factor here is that societies tend to change as technology does and creates new options. So that forms another divide; do you encourage and embrace that kind of change, and call it "progress", or do you fight to keep it from happening.

Just to give one example, when the birth control pill and other technology makes new types of social behavior practical that were unsafe before. If anything, when something like that happens, progressives try to let things develop naturally, while conservatives fight to keep their "farm" the same by destroying things they consider "weeds".

Comment author: Viliam 10 April 2017 11:18:00AM 3 points [-]

when the birth control pill and other technology makes new types of social behavior practical ... progressives try to let things develop naturally

Not sure if people who object against sexbots (arguing specifically that they would make women more objectified) are counted as "progressives", because that would be an obvious example against letting things develop naturally when technology makes new types of behavior practical. Similarly, some people who identify as progressives argue against pornography, including cartoons and computer models. -- Maybe this is not a majority opinion among progressives, but still seems like a quite visible one.

I imagine that in some parallel universe, conservatives have legislated mandatory paternity testing for all newborns, and are congratulating themselves for embracing new technology and letting things develop naturally. (The point is, anyone would support things developing naturally in the direction they agree with.)

Comment author: Yosarian2 10 April 2017 12:32:15PM 0 points [-]

That's a fair example. I think that in most circles on the left that I've seen, including most feminists, the byword these days is being "sex-positive" and generally more accepting of letting people do what they want if they're not hurting anyone else. But I do still see examples of the opposite as well, especally about things like pornography and "sex-bots".

(The point is, anyone would support things developing naturally in the direction they agree with.)

Yeah, I agree. I think by it's nature conservatives tend to be more opposed to change in general so usually allowing society to evolve in response to technological change is usually more supported by progressives who often see that kind of change as positive and as "progress", but that's just a generalization, it certainly can go either way.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 10 April 2017 02:15:00PM 0 points [-]

I think the problem here is that you are trying to argue for a side: the progressives are trying to "to let things develop naturally," and so are behaving in a better way than the conservatives who are trying to "destroy" things.

The truth is this: technology does create new options, as well as taking away some options for some [e.g. many people no longer have a realistic option to "never use a computer"]. This means that technological change drives moral and cultural change.

And yes there tend to be two attitudes both to the technologies and to the behaviors that they allow or prevent. But it is just false that one of those attitudes is right and the other wrong. Rather, in some cases those behaviors are beneficial, and in others they are not. Very often, it will not be clear at first whether the results of the new behavior will be good overall, and only later people figure out that they need still another technology, or they still need to fix remaining problems, or whatever.

Comment author: Yosarian2 10 April 2017 02:34:12PM 0 points [-]

I think the problem here is that you are trying to argue for a side: the progressives are trying to "to let things develop naturally," and so are behaving in a better way than the conservatives who are trying to "destroy" things.

Not exactly. I am giving as a counterexample a class of situations where conservatives try to shape society while progressives are trying to let "nature take it's course".

I also didn't put any value judgement in, at least not intentionally. I described it as "destroying weeds", which is not a negitive thing. I would say that both sides are trying to "destroy weeds" and shape society they just have a different idea what those weeds are.

But it is just false that one of those attitudes is right and the other wrong.

I did not say there was.

I do think that in the majority of cases new technology overall makes our lives better, and it's usually better to embrace the new possibilities first and then error-correct later to eliminate uses where it turns out the new technology was not as helpful as it appeared; usually the only way to find that out is to try it, and attempts to restrict it beforehand usually targets the wrong problems anyway. But that's an object-level question that depends on the technology in question, not a universal truth.

Comment author: ike 08 April 2017 03:35:57PM 0 points [-]

An evolved system is complex and dynamic, and can lose its stability. A created system is presumed to be static and always stable, so Christians don't consider LUC to be an issue with respect to the environment.

The distinction here would be that a created system's complexity is designed to be stable even with changes, not that it isn't complex and dynamic.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 09 April 2017 03:44:47PM *  0 points [-]

I didn't mean to retract this, but to delete it and move the comment down below.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 09 April 2017 03:31:44PM *  0 points [-]

Historically, Christians objected strongly to fossil evidence that some species had gone extinct. They said God would not have created species and then let them go extinct.

Perfection is a crucial part of Christian ontology. God's creation was perfect. That means, in the Christian way of thinking, it is unchanging. Read Christian descriptions of God (who is perfect), and "unchanging" is always one of the adjectives. "Unchanging" is a necessary attribute of perfection in Christian theology, and God's creation is necessarily perfect. The environment, therefore, was designed and created not to ever change.

One could argue that individuals are thus imperfect because they are born young and then mature. I've never heard a counter-argument against this accusation, though I suspect they exist in the wreckage of medieval theology.

Comment author: bogus 09 April 2017 11:13:51PM 2 points [-]

(AIUI, you should be able to delete a comment after retracting it and refreshing the page, at least provided that no one has replied to it in the meantime.)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 09 April 2017 03:45:52PM *  1 point [-]

Yep, the argument to justify the imperfection of children, and thus the necessity of growth, is based on Aristotle's notion of perfect and imperfect actualities. Aquinas wrote:

Everything is perfect inasmuch as it is in actuality; imperfect, inasmuch as it is in potentiality, with privation of actuality. ... It is impossible therefore for any effect that is brought into being by action to be of a nobler actuality than is the actuality of the agent. It is possible though for the actuality of the effect to be less perfect than the actuality of the acting cause, inasmuch as action may be weakened on the part of the object to which it is terminated, or upon which it is spent.

The reason God created humans so that they have to grow from imperfect childhood (lacking the maturity of a complete human) towards a perfect adult state, rather than being adult, is thus so that they may learn virtue, which is the process of striving for perfection. (The environment does not need to learn virtue; therefore it was created perfect.)

I don't know whether humans would have born offspring that were babies if not for the Fall, nor why animals bear babies, if not for the sake of their spiritual growth.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 09 April 2017 05:01:09PM 0 points [-]

(The environment does not need to learn virtue; therefore it was created perfect.)

If you think you are giving Aquinas's views there, you are mistaken. He says that the opinion that the environment was created imperfect and gradually perfected is "better and more theological" than the opinion that it was created perfect.

He also gives a reason for this to happen, namely that by coming to be gradually, the world can participate in causing its own perfection.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 09 April 2017 11:55:00PM *  0 points [-]

I was unfairly inserting in the parentheses my own presumption about why Christians saw the world as having been created perfect. The passage I was talking about from Aquinas did not talk about perfection of the environment.

I'd like to see what Aquinas did say. Have you got a citation? I'm pretty sure that the notion that the world was created imperfect has never been tolerated by the Catholic Church. Asserting that creation was imperfect might even be condemned as Manicheeism. Opinions vary on what happened after the Fall, but I find it unlikely that Aquinas could have said God's original creation was imperfect. (If he did, he was probably copying Aristotle, and making some fine definitional distinction not explained here, to avoid heresy.)

Comment author: entirelyuseless 10 April 2017 06:13:29AM *  1 point [-]

I know he does make that statement about his opinion being "better and more theological"; however I don't have the specific citation at the moment. However, I did find this text from the disputed questions on power:

It should be said that it does not only pertain to the liberality of a giver that he should give quickly, but also that he should give to each thing ordinately and at a fitting time. Whence where it is said, "When you can give immediately," one should consider not only the power by which we can give something absolutely, but also by which we can give more fittingly. Whence for the fitting preservation of order God first instituted things in a certain imperfection, that thus they might come gradually from nothing to perfection.

He was not copying Aristotle (since Aristotle thought the world was eternal and would have passed back and forth an infinite number of times between perfection and imperfection), but Augustine. Augustine says that the world was created in an instant, in an imperfect state, but one which contained its perfections in potency. Logically this is even consistent with what actually happened (i.e. Big Bang and evolution). Needless to say neither of them was thinking of any such detail in giving that general account.

Both of them think would say that the account in Genesis is true, and in that way avoid heresy. But Augustine's explanation of the text is at any rate extremely metaphorical.