Liberalism and the emotions

In response to my left sensibility post, Dave Bath suggested that

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.

36 thoughts on “Liberalism and the emotions

  1. Surely the epitome of emotional politics is a Nurnberg style parade, May Day parade or tears for the dear departed dictator.

    That is indeed the opposite of Liberalism. Let us hope it remains so.


  2. I must admit I was very tongue in cheek for reasons explained in comments… I thought there were a couple of big giveaways (the “left has sensibilities therefore right has no sensibilities” illogic being the most obvious. You were obviously discussing a particular /set/ of sensibilities).

    I’m actually surprised that the sillyness was treated so seriously by some on both left and right.

    Mind you, I think your own brand of liberalism, data-driven and with a focus on good outcomes, wouldn’t exist but for wanting the best outcome (and tolerance) for others, and therefore demands empathy, a sensibility you ascribe to the left.

    I was trying to take the mickey out of the “right wingnuts” that you’d probably disown too, the intolerant or “everybody else can go to hell for all I care” variety.

    But then, as you say, “Carlton’s lone classical liberal”… from this lefty’s perspective, there aren’t enough of YOUR type of righty.


  3. Dave – I did pick up the tongue-in-cheek and notice your subsequent statement to that effect. But I think your post did pick up on a common view on the left. More than once I have had left-of-centre people tell me they think I am a nice person, as if this was some major surprise given my political views. And there are comments like this one from ‘SL’ earlier this year:

    “You write in a very dry, arid manner. This in itself would be offputting to even many political women. You inadvertently disenfranchise yourself by your very nature.”

    Anyway, your news hook comments aside I think it is an interesting topic – the books by Hirschman and Holmes impressed me a lot, and I would like to read a similar analysis of later liberal thinkers.


  4. This is a bit over-the top even for you Andrew. Markets being so constructive – no need for the ACCC then; neoliberal economic policies being so logical but interprested as harsh by the emotional left – no, we just think the claims for the policies are untrue.
    But as to the emotion thing: I guess the left has seen itself as trying, on the grounds of justice and humanity, to wring some concessions from the privileged and powerful who prefer to keep every advantage they have or can get. Theirs is the politics of cold refusal – coldness is a type of violent emotion, it’s just not as demonstrative as the left’s righteous anger. Why wouldn’t you, if you were arguing for pensions for the elderly or whatever, use emotion as part of your rhetorical weaponry? There are legitimate appeals to the emotions.
    I agree with you that reasoned discussion is essential, but emotion can be expressed and acknowledged in a civilised way. To try and have politics without emotion is like asking for music without rhythm.


  5. There is, of course, emotion and moral indignation in liberal politics too – mostly centered around infringements of individual freedoms. Some people get incredibly angry about being forced to wear a seatbelt, for example.

    It may be that the image problem you refer to is due to the fact that a philosophy based on self-interest as a means to a greater overall good is also necessarily attractive to individuals who are purely self-interested and lacking empathy.


  6. I’m actually contemplating a post that separates R/L by a quasi-Abrahamic (indivisible immortal soul) versus pantheistic (think stoics, platonists, buddhist, taoist) influence, whether the focus is on the individual or the whole. The authoritarian right (“I won’t let you sin”) certainly fits well. Think “There is no such thing as society” (Christian Thatcher) versus “What’s bad for the hive can’t be good for the bee” (Pagan M.Aurelius) as expressions of the two foci.

    As for the “nice person” – cannot tell, but your work seems less “position looking for selective data/theory to justify it” than many archetypal righties as viewed by lefties. The “question to data to position” approach is what makes your work worth reading by lefties who want something to consider rather than (like Bolt) something to enjoy objecting to.


  7. Modernist liberalism is the grand philosophy of the rational and accountable middle-class – the ideological expression of the civilization of modernity. It is a philosophy of normal people, where normal equals a bourgeois Englishman.

    Unfortunately over the past generation modernist liberalism has mutated into post-modernist liberalism. A mutation which has two forms: Left-liberalism, the philosophy for the cultural under-class. And Right-liberalism, the philosophy of the financial uber-class.

    Post-modernist liberalism that appeals to deviant sections of the populus, outside the mainstream, who tend to emotional dysfunction. Typically Left-liberalism tends to hysterical moralists. Whilst Right-liberalism tends to autistic legalists.

    Modernist liberalism was a grand philosophy for normal people. Post-modern liberalism is a petty philosophy for narcissistic, solipsistic and perhaps nihilistic deviants.


  8. well said Jack! (with some minor reservations).

    LOL! Yet again, this piece of nonsense. “There is no such thing as society” (Christian Thatcher) versus “What’s bad for the hive can’t be good for the bee” (Pagan M.Aurelius) as expressions of the two foci.

    When will the scholarly and empathic folk on the left realise that they have completely misread the text of Mrs Thatcher’s unscripted chat. She was saying that the first line of defence for people with problems should be family and friends (that is, civil society) not some mythical “person” called Society.


  9. Dave — you’re misunderstanding Thatcher. The point being made was that thoughts can only exist in minds, and minds only exist in individual bodies. That is not to deny communities of people.


  10. I for one quite enjoy the writing style on this blog. SL is right in that your manner is dry, but I wouldn’t call it arid, since you write eloquently and with great insight into topics that clearly interest you and that you know a great deal about. I enjoy and can relate to that writing quite easily (though obviously I don’t know what women would think of your writing manner, and so can’t comment on that part of SL’s reflections. I’d hazard a guess that some at least would find your eloquence and insight quite engaging, too.) But I think typically people are willing to put up with a bit of dryness if the writer does display a bit of eloquence, honesty, or insight in their style.

    And indeed I quite enjoyed this post: a succint rebuttal of a common dismissal of right-wing/liberal politics


  11. I for one quite enjoy the writing style on this blog

    I will happily second TimT on the style and topics of this blog. I have checked out links in your blogroll from time to time, but this blog is more consistently engaging. Regardless of whether you are exposing census findings that the mainstream media has missed, floating an hypothesis about education policy, or ruminating on politics, religion or whatever, you seem to hit the right note. (N.B. I write as a sometime-conservative and now I know-not-what).
    But I’m getting a not-uncommon feeling of deja vu in this thread. Pace Hugh Emy vs Chandran Kukathas in Quadrant years ago, you face criticisms of “liberalism” that appear to be focused on the character and conduct of flesh-and-blood “liberal” people, but you respond by turning to the themes in a body of theoretical writings.
    Your post also illustrates the blind spot that seems to afflict the current generation of “classical” liberals, who spend a disproportionate amount of their time thinking about markets.
    Thus you write:

    The rule of law limits the role of idiosyncratic sentiment in government decision-making…


    Liberals tend to like rule-based systems…

    All well and good.
    Curbing the exercise of arbitrary power by one person or by a relative few over the rest of society, by way of systems of rules, above all the rule of law, is a remarkable achievement of “historic” liberalism (always bearing in mind that “liberalism” emerged gradually out of older currents like Whiggery). Everyone living in countries like Australia today, whether they be liberals, social democrats, conservatives or whatever, benefits immeasurably from this historic “liberal” achievement.

    The trouble is that living liberals seem to have stopped being worried about the arbitrary exercise of power, and in some cases have actually come to champion it.
    Look, first, at the liberal position on abortion, which, reduced to essentials, enables certain persons — pregnant women and their doctors — to exercise lethal force against particularly weak and defenseless human beings for any arbitrary motive, reasonable or not, proportionate or not, without checks and balances, without “reasonable person” tests, most emphatically without oversight by an independent judiciary.
    Then, of course, we have the treatment of refugees. Some “left-liberals”, at least, have railed against the arbitrary detention and deportation practices that our Immigration Dept seems to prefer, and against the legal tricks used to keep the asylum-seekers away from our independent judiciary — but what have the “classicals” done on this? They seem to have either been silent or — in cases like the late P.P. McGuiness — actively supportive of the arbitrary power regime.

    Third, we have Workchoices – which involved, amongst other things, a massive attempt to do away with independent quasi-judicial umpires and “rule-based” systems, in favor of a system in which outcomes in particular places would be determined by the arbitrary power of the parties who happened to be present. On this one, our modern market-obsessed liberals were members of the cheer-squad for arbitrary power. And they still don’t seem to get it, which may be why other people continue to suspect them of failings like lack of empathy.


  12. Incidentally, interesting to see from the URL that you’ve now got 80,000+ comments on this blog.
    Will the person who adds number 100,000 get a prize?


  13. Tim, Johno, Alan – Thanks for the endorsement. I’m not sure how the software numbers comments for url purposes, but the correct number of comments is 13, 907. I’ve been blogging here for 3 years, so at that rate comment 100,000 will be made in about 18 years time, possibly by someone yet to be born.


  14. I’m actually contemplating a post that separates R/L by a quasi-Abrahamic […] versus pantheistic […] influence, whether the focus is on the individual or the whole.

    Why use the religious contrast over something like Platonic/Aristotolean or (much closer) Identity/Difference? Especially since “Western individualism” is so often historically associated with (the first two) Abrahamic religions.


  15. John@9 is critical of my use of Thatcher’s “No such thing as society”. Let’s look at it in the context of a response about government intervention, and in full, and see:

    “They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.

    (Thatcherite Sociologist=God confronted by a Babelfish?)


  16. This one is a tired debate, but in the context Thatcher used the term it is a reasonable statement. Any money government spends is taken from the value added of other people – there is no free lunch. It’s just a way of responding to the manna from heaven assumptions of people demanding that ‘society’ pay for this or that.


  17. It is a tired debate, but it clearly demonstrates the Thatcher derangement syndrome. As Dave Bath showed with the larger quote, Mrs Thatcher was calling for people to accept a duty (a moral responsibility) to help other people in need – to build a robust civil society. That is the reverse of the mentality that the lefties try to attribute to her. Thanks Dave, I trust you will spread that among the ranks of your fellow travellers:)


  18. One could equally say, “Could most self-identifying leftists have no clues?”. As far as I see it, one can only respectably be left wing if one is at school or uni or works in an area where one doesn’t interact with others (eg academics, writers, artists, etc). Anyone who has worked with others in an office or a team environment knows that people have different strengths and weaknesses, different motivations, different personal ethics. The most corrosive thing for morale and productivity in an office or a team is to treat everyone the same because it shows the slackers that they can continue to do nothing and it shows the talented contempt for their skills and efforts. This is not to say that an office needs to or should become a warzone – but that recognition of ability and effort (or lack thereof) is an essential pre-requisite for people to respect themselves. Such observations are obvious to anyone with a modicum of life experience and perceptive ability.


  19. Well, TimT @10, I like Andrew’s writing style. He is also very well-mannered, which is a welcome relief after much of the rest of the blogosphere.


  20. The most corrosive thing for morale and productivity in an office or a team is to treat everyone the same

    Rather getting off-topic, but I think I qualify as having a “modicum of life experience and perceptive ability”, and all my experience says this is bollocks.
    There are any number of things that are far more corrosive of morale and productivity than everyone being treated equally. E.g (in no particular order):
    * a culture of gossip, bitchiness and back-stabbing
    * a situation in which the cheats, short-cut artists and liars get rewarded ahead of the honest and diligent
    * people getting disproportionate rewards seemingly because of who they are (e.g. a “mate” of the manager) rather than because of any obvious superiority in their performance
    * Bullying, manipulative and/or untrustworthy managers


  21. Rajat, between casual market research jobs when I was a student in the 1990s and the many different companies I have consulted to since, I have experienced and/or been a witness to the effects of (1), (2) and (4). Number (3) I have only been told about by people who work in universities.


  22. ‘Any money government spends is taken from the value added of other people – there is no free lunch. It’s just a way of responding to the manna from heaven assumptions of people demanding that ’society’ pay for this or that.’

    This isnt the case. If an economy isnt at full employment the government can use spend money and pay for spending through monetisation with real output effects. ‘A free lunch’ if ever there was one.

    Moving on from that I think you’re selling yourself short by implying that coming to a position in line with much of the political left is only through base emotion rather than rational thought

    ‘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)’

    There are wholly rational arguments for supporting government intervention in the economy or leftist social agenda. These include widespread market failures, the importance of externalities, and the role of government in managing risk in the face of uncertainty. The importance of equality of opportunity in enabling people to fulfil their capabilities, and its importance in the allocation of resources across society.

    You dont need to resort to emotion to hold a leftist world view, and suggesting that this is the case is complete nonsense


  23. If an economy isnt at full employment the government can use spend money and pay for spending through monetisation with real output effects.

    I thought we tried that already and ended up with stagflation.


  24. ‘I thought we tried that already and ended up with stagflation.’

    No we tried that with the continual deficits from world war 2 until the 1970’s and got ‘the golden age’ of full employment and high growth


  25. I’d distinguish two ideas here. I think the ‘deep’ origins of almost everyone’s political ideas are psychological and sociological; a mix of personality factors, socialisation, and experience. Political philosophies and political programs are the conversion of these deep origins into reasonably coherent form. I have never said that leftism is irrational, but that the underlying impetus to it has an emotional profile that differs from liberalism.


  26. Just a word (I think it may be necessary) that the ‘SL’ Andrew quotes isn’t me. It seems there are several of us floating around the Ozblogos, and that perhaps I should have chosen a less imitable nom de blog. As I think I’ve made clear elsewhere, I value Andrew’s style of exposition a great deal, and — from time to time — strive to write in the same way myself.


  27. Just one small, late clarification. I have an adult son with quite severe Aspergers. It is not that such people don’t feel for others – quite the reverse. Its simply that they don’t instinctively “read” people (in effect, the bit of low-level wetware that picks up social cues unconsciously doesn’t work well). The rigidity comes from living in a world where they’re always uncertain about what “illogical” (my son’s favourite word) people will do next.

    So I don’t think that sort of autism, at least (I can’t speak for other forms), has a direct link to political ideology. FWIW, he’s a lefty.


  28. DD – I think I picked that up “People with autism or Asperger’s typically have difficulty in reading and appropriately responding to other people’s emotions.”.

    I’m no expert on these conditions, but I have done a bit of reading about them.


  29. Alan – Indeed, it was a good article in many respects. But I don’t think Chris really dealt with the implications of the libertarian free trade in people too argument (which Will Wilkinson on my blog roll makes well). It’s not an argument against ‘harsh’ border protection. Its an argument against any border protection rules – which has much bigger implications than saying that 10,000 refugees is the ‘worst case’ scenario.


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