Are most self-identifying rightards best characterized by a lack of sensibility, if not sense? Could they be described as suffering some kind of social autism?
People with autism or Asperger’s typically have difficulty in reading and appropriately responding to other people’s emotions. I know of no evidence that this is particularly common among right-of-centre people (though Tyler Cowen has a sympathetic chapter on the issue in his latest book, prompted by a suggestion that he might have Asperger’s). But liberalism does, I think, have a more constrained and sceptical view than other political philosophies on the role of the emotions in public life.
From Locke onwards, liberals have advocated tolerance. To begin with, this was an attempt to stop religious passions – historically, one of the strongest emotions – spilling over into, and destroying, social and political life. Later, the idea of tolerance spread to all sorts of irrational prejudices and hatreds. On the whole, liberals did not demand that people eliminate their passions. But they did advocate restraint in how these passions were expressed publicly.
In the 18th century, as shown in excellent works by Albert Hirschman and Stephen Holmes, liberal thinkers argued for the merits of self-interest. Self-interest is a calculating, relatively unemotional part of human nature. These days, liberals are criticised for (supposedly) putting self-interest above altruism. But in the 18th century, altruism wasn’t the antonym liberal thinkers had in mind when they wrote favourably of self-interest. Rather, they were worried about a whole range of common emotions such anger, envy, fear, desire for status and hatred taken to excess. A desire to make money, by contrast, was a harmless emotion.
The market is often seen as promoting self-interest at the expensive of more positive emotions and activities. But from a liberal perspective, markets channel this constant of human nature in constructive ways, away from zero-sum pursuit of personal advantage at the expense of others (the negative emotion of greed) towards mutually beneficial exchanges.
Liberals try to restrain the political passions of rulers. Constitutional government slows politicians down, letting cooler heads make final decisions through checks and balances. Leaders have to convince parliaments, which are in turn often divided into two houses to double check laws. The rule of law limits the role of idiosyncratic sentiment in government decision-making. The separation of powers – and in particular an independent judiciary – stops politicians and bureaucrats from exceeding their authority. Removing highly contentious areas from politics, such as through the separation of church and state, protects society from the heat of religious enthusiasms.
Liberals tend to like rule-based systems that protect liberties for their own sake or produce greater well-being overall – even if it means hardship in individual cases. For example they think tariffs should be cut even though this creates losers in the affected industries, because a greater number of less visible people will be helped via cheaper goods and more jobs in other industries. The logic is strong, but to supporters of more sentimental philosophies like conservatism or social democracy it often seems harsh.
So while I doubt liberals are personally prone to Aspergerish emotional clumsiness, politically they do believe that there are good grounds for keeping the emotions in check. Strong emotions should be reserved for private life, and politics should be a realm of reason.
This scepticism about public emotion makes liberalism relatively unattractive for people who want politics to serve their emotional needs. Leftism can offer opportunities for compassion (for whichever group is the victim of the moment), moral rigtheousness, solidarity (with each other and the victims) and hatred (of the oppressor/class enemy etc). Conservatism can offer patriotic fervour, moral righteousness (just different morals to the leftists), devotion to the monarchy, and state support for emotion-centred institutions such as the family.
So by a process of self-selection, disproportionately liberals are at the less demonstrative end of the spectrum of public emotional display. To Dave, it looks Aspergerish. To an analytically-minded introvert like me, however, it means I have a good match of personality and philosophy.