Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cultural liberalism is about personal responsibility

"We have the best patients in the world because of jail."
     - Raul, Venezuelan diplomat, "Parks and Recreation"

More culture-blogging. Sorry, econo-nerds.

A couple posts back, I talked about the Liberal Marriage Hypothesis, which says that liberal values - gender equality, cooperative parenting, etc. - are actually strengthening traditional marriage instead of weakening it.

Now we have some evidence for the Liberal Drug Hypothesis:
[S]urvey results released today [find[ that the use of cigarettes, alcohol, and prescription painkillers among teens have all declined in the past year, consistent with an overall downward trend for the past few years... 
The majority of high school seniors currently do not think occasional marijuana smoking is harmful, with only 16.4 percent saying occasional use puts the user at "great risk," compared to 27.4 percent five years ago. Eighty-one percent of high school seniors told researchers this year that marijuana is easy for them to get. 
In other words, pot is readily available, in some cases legal to have, and kids don't think it's harmful. Yet they aren't using more of it. 
Which leads us to a law of teenagers that has held constant across all generations: Things are only cool as long as they're dangerous and forbidden.
This is the old idea that alcohol abuse is less common if kids are allowed to drink as soon as they're "old enough to see over the bar," as in Europe and Japan.

Derek Thompson, who wrote the above article, thinks that this is about the peculiar psychology of teenagers - that that which is forbidden is cool. But it might be something more general. It might be about two ways of getting people to do the right thing - personal responsibility vs. social censure.

Under a social censure model, punishment is communally imposed to get people to avoid unhealthy behaviors, such as drugs and broken families.

Under a personal responsibility model, people are educated about the risks and dangers, and told that it is incumbent upon them to avoid doing the bad stuff.

It seems to me that social conservatives endorse the former approach - using shame, monetary penalties, jail, and other punishments to enforce healthy behavior. In contrast, liberals (and some libertarians) endorse the latter approach - using education to teach people about the consequences of unhealthy behavior, but avoiding the use of external punishment, and then leaving people to decide how best to live their own lives.

Of course, this is a huge generalization, but I think you see this dynamic at work in the case of marriage and the case of drugs. The "secret traditionalism" of upper-class liberals is no secret. It is simply the outcome of the repeated quiet exercise of personal responsibility. It is what happens when you frame family choices as individual choices instead of communal imperatives - people do the healthy thing, but they don't preach it.

Social conservatives, in my experience, often tend to argue that the lower classes of society are not smart enough to handle personal responsibility. They seem to argue, in effect, that lower-class people are stuck at Piaget's "concrete operational stage" - thinking in terms of rigid rules - while upper-class people are able to move on to the more abstract "formal operational" stage. In other words, they don't trust the masses to do the right thing if given freedom from punishment.

Now, if that sounds like a straw man, well, good, because I am not a big fan of that idea, and I hope it's more rare than it seems. But I suspect you'll find at least hints and threads of this idea throughout the arguments of many social conservatives.

So that leaves the question: If personal responsibility works better than social censure, why? Does the universality of censure free people from feelings of guilt and shame over their secret violations? Do people think "it isn't cheating if you don't get caught"? Does punishment trick people into forgetting about natural consequences by making them focus only on externally imposed consequences?

This seems like a question for psychologists. So if any psychologists want to show up and point me to the relevant research, please do.

In the meantime, at the aggregate level we now have a bit of circumstantial evidence favoring the liberal, health-and-responsibility-based approach over the conservative, punishment-and-censure-based approach on both marriage and drug use.

Update: Commenter TWY points me to this interesting experiment.

Update 2: Also, this.


  1. Anonymous4:41 PM

    I agree. Replace social security with a financial literacy course.

    1. Someday we will.

    2. Outcome of said financial literacy course would be more support for social security. Pension != annuity, the larger the pool the better the risk reduction, could not have that high a level of increased "personal" savings without some compensating un-saving occurring elsewhere in the economy.

      This became abundantly clear when I joined a startup and had to sign up for my own term life insurance; social security survivor benefits are a huge factor in risk reduction.

    3. NB/PS my personal gaming of the various social/personal insurance schemes is to ride my bike to work and load up on AD&D insurance (which is cheap compared to life insurance). Bike riding reduces highest risk of death by about 2 (reduces expected all-cause mortality risk by 25-40% depending on how riding intensity is scored) , increases likely take from SS by 3-5 years, and AD&D covers my ass in the unlikely event of getting whacked by a car.

    4. Bill Ellis1:39 PM

      Just because people are educated does not mean that all of them will do the right thing. Just more of them will.
      To replace SS you'd have to mandate that people actually did what the financial literacy course taught them to do.

    5. Someday we will.

      No we won't because Social Security is an efficient way to spread risks that cannot be spread as cheaply through private investing. The only way social security is going away is if the Libertarians and the Republicans succeed in so destroying the economy that there is no choice. The Libertarians and the Republicans will cheer the new found freedom of the elderly: to have a choice between dog food and cat food; and say that freedom makes it all worthwhile.

    6. Bill Ellis7:40 PM

      I'm not so sure.
      Singapore seems to be having some success with mandated investing. Their system does have an insurance component, (once your account reaches a certain level, a minimum return is guaranteed even if the market regresses at the time of your retirement. )


      Although, they ARE running into difficulties that they need to address....

      But what system isn't right now ?

    7. Money is the Elephant in The ROOM ..... Tribal Diplomacy and Cooperative community is where it is at as value lies in MUTUAL respect as respect is non existent if not shared.... Value = Integrity, awareness, understanding, acceptance and virtue and MONEY has NOTHING to do with anything which is valid, meaningful or constructive!

  2. Paddy Mac6:16 PM

    You know the difference between a liberal and a progressive? Compulsion.

  3. As you argue, your argument that people take it more seriously if it isn't imposed by law is not a new development of liberal thought. It is central to "On Liberty" by John Stuart Mill. OK he was talking about religion and argued that religious faith is weakened when there is an established church to which everyone nominally adheres. The absense of debate about religion leads to people not thinking about it at all. Beliefs which one must defend end up thought out and sincerely felt.

    You apply the argument to decisons on temporal matters. It still makes sense.

  4. Liberal? Conservative? On what issue? Are we talking about political liberals (Maryland phenotype: ban sugary sodas, legalize weed, ban dirt bikes in Baltimore, legalize gambling). Or political conservatives (Maryland phenotype: lower cig taxes, ban weed, restrict abortion).

    Most people I know are a hodepodge, liberal (using you definition) on some issues, conservative on others.

    Bottom line, everyone is in favor of more personal responsibility if you are a member of their clan. Otherwise, No soup for you! It's too hot!

    1. Anonymous2:20 PM

      well, not *everyone*
      I abhor gambling, and think it should be illegal on, among other grounds, that it is a tax on the inumerate
      Yet I also think adults have the right to do what they want.
      Not everyone is as selfish as you think

  5. Your post reminded me of this experiment by Armin Falk and Michael Kosfeld (http://ftp.iza.org/dp1203.pdf).

  6. "In other words, they don't trust the masses to do the right thing if given freedom from punishment."

    I remember a quotation, probably apocryphal, attributed to an anonymous aide to (quite conservative) Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew: "The trouble is, if you grant people freedom, it's very hard to control them."

  7. Insofar as, in practice, you essentially equate "liberal" with Democrats, your personal responsibility on marriage is data-impaired.
    For instance, the group that is most Democrat (= "liberal") is blacks (90% voted for Kerry in 2004). Yet what does the data say about how many black kids are living with unmarried mothers. 76%(?) Up from a "too high" 35% in 1968 (?) when black (=liberal?) family life was noted to be at risk -- but to mention this truth was to be condemned as a "racist" by liberals.

    In fact, liberal values as implemented by Democratic policies- are actually NOT strengthening traditional marriage, but instead ARE weakening it.
    For at least the 50% below median income folks, tho probably up thru the third and maybe even second quintiles of income.

    Cultural liberalism is about creating heroes of the "victims", usually those whose failure to exercise personal responsibility has resulted in a bad situation, and then having gov't mitigate the harm of the failure.

    2 key issues in economics: 1) Incentives matter, 2) There's no free lunch.
    But liberals have a #3 -- the rich should buy lunches for the poor. For the victims.

    Noah, you ask>>
    Who is "selling" these values to the working class? And why are the working class falling for the trick, instead of seeing the "secret traditionalism" of the upper class, or figuring it out for themselves (as the upper class presumably did)?

    Every Dem politician and anti-racism Dem media is almost constantly claiming that "poverty" is the problem that needs to be solved with more gov't money / free lunch for those fail to follow traditional marriage in raising kids.
    The politicians and media that YOU support, they're the ones pushing the culture of "be a victim, get a free lunch (from the rich!)".

    The liberal Democratic gov't created "poverty trap", as C. Murray notes, is real. And the group of poor black Democrats is most clearly caught in that trap. Which can't be ended until it's discussed more honestly, but liberals call any such discussion "hate speech" and, on many colleges, refuse to allow it.

  8. Bill Ellis1:34 PM

    We could add sex education to the list of things that the liberal personal responsibility model does better than the conservative social censure model.

    1. Good lord yes. "How does a woman get pregnant?" "Well, I can tell you how she DOESN'T get pregnant, and that's by waiting until marriage like God intended. Also by never wearing a skirt above fingertip length." So informative!

  9. I'm having trouble seeing where support (or lack thereof) for Pigovian taxation fits in. I've had some significant contact with local public health types - nearly universally "liberal" - in connection with increasing the state tobacco tax. Opponents of an increase definitely see it as "censure" but maybe its better understood as making the costs of personal responsibility more clear?

    And then, of course, those most likely to recognize a tax as "Pigovian" are probably self-described conservatives (maybe). Do they view it as censure?

    Also, I'm not sure how this analysis stands up historically. I guess I'd always understood that significant backing for Prohibition, for example, came from sources we'd consider "liberal" today. Maybe that's wrong?

    1. Pigovian taxation doesn't work well for smoking, the effect is too localised and concentrated. So a general tax cannot have the correct discouragement effect (essentially the room would have to decide on and collect the tax). (And I think the concentration on negative health consequences of passive smoking is misguided, the externalities problem with smoking is that it stinks.

  10. Anonymous3:39 PM

    I don't know if this is actually the case.

    Contemporary cultural and social liberalism depends heavily on socializing the costs of personal behavior rather than encouraging or enforcing personal responsibility.

    Welfare is of course among the most obvious examples. But the entire complex of education, health, emergy service, research, etc. programs is also an example of mitigating personal responsibility and socializing the externalities of personal behavior. And the costs for all of this come from taxation. Since the personally responsible are taxed, they are arguably punished for their responsibility and forced to subsidize the less responsible. Furthermore shame is also employed to generate support for socialization of externalities.

    1. "Enforcing personal responsibility" = not actually what I'm calling "personal responsibility".

      If you have to have society enforce it, it isn't personal...

    2. Anonymous5:51 PM

      Well I didn't mean society "enforcing" it literally. You can read it as "allowing for" personal responsibility.

      At any rate, it seems that contemporary cultural and social liberalism may enforce non-personal responsibility, or personal irresponsibility, as it uses state power and shame to socialize the costs of personal behavior. That is the exact opposite of what you're claiming seems to be the case.

    3. Sorry, I don't understand what you mean at all. What does it mean to "enforce non-personal responsibility"? What does it mean to "shame the costs of personal behavior"?

    4. Anonymous12:17 PM

      I am not the above Anonymous, and I am not sure if you're being facetiously obtuse, but it seems plain enough he is pointing out the obvious truth that as long as people are to some degree shielded from the costs of their behavior, PSAs and awareness campaigns will be futile.
      But you do not make clear whether you mean to take away the carrot as well as the stick.
      If "shaming" has lost its historic role to play in promoting the morals and behaviors that contribute to stability and "governability," then to be consistent there can no longer be any grounds on which to guilt people into accepting responsibility for others, bearing the many socialized costs for the hapless or less fortunate.
      Would you suggest there be a section on the income tax form: "Here we present the evidence that some people are not doing well in the service economy, others have immigrated here to have a lot of children and pursue their dreams but need support in the meantime, some are not competitive with the aforementioned immigrant groups, others have made poor choices and landed themselves in difficulties -- there is a lot of need - would you care to help out in whatever amount you choose? You are under no obligation of course, because we don't shame people into behaving generously."
      You're looking to throw away much more than you've here considered.

    5. I am not sure if you're being facetiously obtuse

      While I would definitely be facetiously obtuse for humor value, in this case the earlier Anon just wasn't writing very clearly.

      as long as people are to some degree shielded from the costs of their behavior, PSAs and awareness campaigns will be futile.

      That's not an obvious truth, because you said "to some degree". If I shield you from 50% of the consequences of your behavior, you may still care about the remaining 50%.

      But you do not make clear whether you mean to take away the carrot as well as the stick.

      What carrot are you referring to?

      there can no longer be any grounds on which to guilt people into accepting responsibility for others, bearing the many socialized costs for the hapless or less fortunate.

      Well that may be, but in this post I was talking about individual consequences, not social ones (externalities). That's an interesting thing to think about.

    6. Anonymous10:06 AM

      I used "to some degree" quite advisedly. I congratulate you if your experience has been different; it has been mine that most of us need only a little prompting to follow an "easier," less-disciplined, more egocentric path. But there is, finally, no effective shielding from either the vicissitudes of life or from the pain we cause one another. "How small, of all that human hearts endure / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure."

  11. "Social conservatives, in my experience, often tend to argue that the lower classes of society are not smart enough to handle personal responsibility."

    For a version of this idea that does not rest on the claim that the lower classes are dumb, see the following argument from a liberal: http://uuworld.org/ideas/articles/36467.shtml

  12. Some years back I found myself part of a political struggle against some local "social conservatives". The two social conservatives got elected and my candidates lost. The social conservatives then both cheated on their wives and got divorced. Social conservatives only believe in social restrictions for other people.

    1. I think maybe the issue here is misplaced empathy. The greatest hypocrites are the greatest believers in social control. Because they can't control themselves (they have never learnt).

    2. Anonymous1:59 PM

      I want to be careful about that argument...but think there is some truth to it.

      But, how many of those who claim to have learned self control, really have it? I mean, there are such people, but they are with few exceptions monks and nuns. I really could never take seriously any lecture by Newt Gingrich *or* Pamela Anderson on self control.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. The same is true with gun control. You'll never outlaw guns. The only recourse is social pressure, when Proud Gun Owner becomes closeted gun owner and sales start to plummet, that problem will start to take care of itself.

  15. Why do conservatives always think welfare rewards personal irresponsibility? Don't data tell us social welfare are mostly spent on the elderly and disabled, not alcoholics and drug addicts?

    I guess they still believe in Reagan's "welfare queen" myth?

  16. Anonymous2:09 PM

    One limitation of this argument, is that it does not take into account the massive advantages that having a trust fund and a good lawyer can give someone. That is something poor people do not have, leaving them at the mercy of court appointed counsel and social workers.

    A more codified approach to family law, would reduce the importance of money. However, that is not the system we have.

  17. "One limitation of this argument, is that it does not take into account the massive advantages that having a trust fund and a good lawyer can give someone. "

    Note that 'massive trust fund' would mean 'membership in the top 10% of the 1%'. 'Good lawyer' could mean 'upper middle class'.

    Despite what the WSJ would have people believe, most liberals are not rich!

    1. Anonymous1:23 AM

      I will agree that they are not, by that definition! But they are UMC, as you describe it, and the UMC do have much more power than the 1%. I would contend that the systems and laws they have established are not useful to those who rank below the UMC.

  18. Anonymous4:14 AM

    One thing people in general, and especially conservatives, tend to forget is that we, as a species, are inquisitive. We want to find out about the new stuff. If we get answers, if it is discussed openly, often it is enough to satisfy our curiosity. But if nobody is willing to fully answer our questions, we have to go and try it ourselves.

  19. blithe spirit11:07 PM

    Which group of people stresses personality responsibility? Which group of people advocates silencing certain ideas for the fear that the masses won't be able to handle them? Which group of people thinks that culture is all-important and that we need strong cultural pressure vs. those who think that people have different abilities and some need more structure than others?

    Look at the trend of history in the last 100+ years, the world has become more progressive as Noah would like. What has happened to marriage rates, personal responsilbity etc..?

    This sounds like an awful a lot of project on Smith's part. On some level he realizes that leftism makes no sense so he attempts to bolster it through the smearing of non-leftism. But there is no such thing as personal responsibility in a vacuum. The leftist takes it for granted, wrongly, that we all can do it without social pressure. The non-leftist realizes that the truth is obscured by wishful sentiments.