Does prosperity push us to the left?
By Scott Sumner
Bryan Caplan recently posted the following:
A while back, Scott Alexander defended what he called the “Thrive/Survive Theory” of left and right. Digest version:
My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.
Scott defends the theory vigorously, but seems most impressed by its ability to explain why “society does seem to be drifting gradually leftward.” The more the world thrives, the more the leftist approach genuinely makes sense.
Many people in my circles now seem to take Thrive/Survive Theory as the default position; if it’s not true, it’s still the story to beat. But to be blunt, I find essentially no value in it. It’s not always wrong, but it’s about as right as you’d expect from chance.
Bryan then lists 6 reasons why Alexander is wrong, which seem fairly persuasive. On the other hand I do find something appealing in Alexander’s theory. So let me try a slightly different formulation:
Liberalism is what happens when you are optimizing for a safe environment, and illiberalism is what happens when you optimize for thriving in an unsafe environment.
Now of course this raises a whole new set of issues. What do I mean by ‘liberalism’ and ‘illiberalism’? When I say liberalism, I am including classical liberalism, social democratic liberalism and neoliberalism. I’m basically referring to utilitarianism. When I say illiberal, I am referring to a wide variety of non-utilitarian views, including class warfare (Mao), fascism (Hitler), white nationalism (Bannon), racism (KKK), reverse racism (SJWs), tribalism (Afghanistan), religious fanaticism, militarism, etc.
For utilitarianism to thrive, people need to be comfortable enough to think of the welfare of others. I believe that 1966 was the period when whites had the greatest sympathy for the (economic) well-being of American blacks. And America’s middle class was doing very well in the mid-1960s. As America became more violent in the late 1960s, and more troubled by unemployment in the 1970s, some of this sympathy dissipated.
So I think Bryan’s right that the left/right distinction is not as meaningful as Scott Alexander assumes, but I also think Scott’s intuition led him to something important. I don’t know if society is moving to the left, but I do think it is gradually becoming more liberal. Is my suggested version an improvement, or not?
PS. Immigration reform was enacted in 1965.
And for a brief period in late 1965, (liberal) John Lindsey was the face of the Republican Party: