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

  • ExMember

    I qualify as far right of center because I believe the government should do far less than what they do. This is especially true for the Federal government.

    I think the system v. individualist view of the world is a key difference between liberal and conservative thinking.

    Our global system is difficult to understand and control. I would go as far and say it is beyond the power of a government, especially a democratic one.

    This is why I think government should be as small and as local as possible.

  • kevindick

    As with most political pieces, this one tries to frame one side negatively: conservatives are simplistic–they don’t see the big picture. The only difference is that this piece tries to do its hatchet job by appealing to systems theory.

    Of course, we can flip this around and frame the other side negatively, also appealing to systems theory: “Liberals are naive–they insist on thinking that a small group of smart people can fine tune a complex dynamic system.”

    I have voted for every Democratic presidential candidate since I was 18. But my ideology is mostly libertarian on both economic and social issues. What the hell does that make me in the right-left spectrum?

  • @Kev, not sure what this makes you, but you didn’t answer the question. Forgetting the political/moral implications and aspersions, do you think the dichotomy is fair for people who do identify as either left or right?

  • kevindick

    I thought the implications of my comment were clear. No, I don’t think the dichotomy is fair. I would say the fair dichotomy is that lefties think they can affect the systemic results through government intervention while righties (of the true conservative as opposed to evangelical variety) don’t think they can.

    Viewed through the pejorative lens of ideology, it appears to the lefties that the righties are ignoring systemic effects. But my opinion is that they simply don’t believe the government can guide systemic outcomes.

  • Being a libertarian I agree with Kevin. You cannot manage a complex system, which is what the lefties think when dealing with social and economic topics. In that case the righties are, well… right.

    On the other hand, the righties think they can manage individuals and their freedoms, when it comes to topics like drugs, gay marriage, morality, etc. They are just as wrong in thinking that this is needed to steer society in a certain direction. That won’t work for the same reasons.

    That’s why I think libertarianism is fully compatible with a complex adaptive systems view of society. Don’t manage the system, and don’t manage the people. Let them manage themselves.

  • @Jurgen, what would a libertarian say is the proper response of the various sovereign governmental bodies, if any, to the current financial crisis?

    Of course, I am speaking broadly, so a response may include various forms of humanitarian relief, even if there are no policy, regulation or other changes to the financial system itself.

  • kevindick

    Libertarian is actually a fairly broad spectrum. I would say that there’s probably consensus that the government shouldn’t bail out any corporations and that the government shouldn’t attempt a fiscal stimulus. This pretty much follows from the basic “small government” premise.

    Most libertarians would probably be against a monetary stimulus as well. I think I’m in the libertarian minority in being for such measures under certain conditions.

    Most libertarians would probably be for the government enabling “speed bankruptcies” for failed financial institutions.

    Some libertarians would probably be for the government helping overcome the coordination problem in disposing of toxic assets by backing, to some degree, a market for them. However, there would probably be a lot of debate about just how far the government should go here.

    The issue of government-sponsored humanitarian measures tends to be divisive among libertarians. Almost all object to policies that substantially redistribute wealth (i.e., “Robin Hood” policies). But I think most would endorse some form of government facilitated safety net, though a majority would probably want it administrated privately.

  • @Rafe: Like Johan Norberg I believe that government is largely responsible for creating the environment in which this financial crisis could happen (e.g. creating bad laws). It is therefore silly to wonder what government should do to solve the problem. They should stop messing up the system with all kinds of interventions. Just let the problems fade away by themselves.

    It’s like management of Yellowstone park, where the biggest forest fires happened *after* government started trying to protect it. The prevented many small fires, and the system got unbalanced. Which resulted in a few massive fires. Then they learned to leave the system alone.

  • About to quote you/link to you on Facebook. Thanks for the good post. :-)