Individual vs. Systemic Causation
George Lakoff wrote an interesting piece on FiveThirtyEight.com yesterday called The Obama Code. I will focus on one of the sections in particular because it articulates something I’ve suspected for a while, but I’ve never heard anyone else give credence to the notion. Which is that one of the fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives in the U.S. is that conservatives give more weight to individual, autonomous actors and actions in their view of how the world works, and liberals tend to give more weight to systemic causation and interdependency:
6. Systemic Causation and Systemic Risk
Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct causation. The overwhelming moral value of individual, not social, responsibility requires that causation be local and direct. For each individual to be entirely responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, those actions must be the direct causes of those consequences. If systemic causation is real, then the most fundamental of conservative moral—and economic—values is fallacious.
Global ecology and global economics are prime examples of systemic causation. Global warming is fundamentally a system phenomenon. That is why the very idea threatens conservative thinking. And the global economic collapse is also systemic in nature. That is at the heart of the death of the conservative principle of the laissez-faire free market, where individual short-term self-interest was supposed to be natural, moral, and the best for everybody. The reality of systemic causation has left conservatism without any real ideas to address global warming and the global economic crisis.
With systemic causation goes systemic risk. The old rational actor model taught in economics and political science ignored systemic risk. Risk was seen as local and governed by direct causation, that is, buy short-term individual decisions. The investment banks acted on their own short-term risk, based on short-term assumptions, for example, that housing prices would continue to rise or that bundles of mortgages once secure for the short term would continue to be “secure” and could be traded as “securities.”
The systemic nature of ecological and economic causation and risk have resulted in the twin disasters of global warming and global economic breakdown. Both must be dealt with on a systematic, global, long-term basis. Regulating risk is global and long-term, and so what are required are world-wide institutions that carry out that regulation in systematic way and that monitor causation and risk systemically, not just locally.
I had come to a similar conclusion in grad school during a political discussion with some conservative computer science colleagues. As befits a CS geek, I tried to go meta and explain our different stances using this individual vs. systemic causation dichotomy. But to my chagrin, they didn’t really buy it. I’m not sure why, and at this point the details of the conversation are too vague to try to analyze.
So I will appeal to any who considers themselves right of center to help me solve the mystery: Do you accept this broad characterization about individual vs systemic causation as being a key difference between conservative and liberal thinking respectively? If not, what’s wrong with the characterization (other than it being simply one of many differences)?
Just to frame this experiment correctly, if you would like to comment but don’t consider yourself “right of center”, please say how you would characterize your politics. I’m also curious if anyone who reads this considers themselves right of center, so if you do, please make some noise.
hat tip: Daniel Horowitz