Politics as personal disposition

Will Wilkinson has a post up, The Caveman Roots of Liberal Democracy?, which riffed off some opinions in regards to the swing back toward “primal” values which I perceive to be the norm in modern liberal societies. Some of the comments on Will’s post objected to my contention that political orientation is heritable. First, I do not believe that liberalism or conservatism, as we understand it today in the United States, was selected for in the past. Rather, there are personality traits which seem to predispose one to being inclined toward liberal or conservative politics. For example, there is a strong correlation between “Openness to experience” and political liberalism. Depending on the personality traits in question one can expect heritabilities in the range of 0.2 to 0.8, with a rough working rule of thumb of 0.5. By heritability I simply refer to the amount of variation in the population that can be attributed to variation in genes.

So when I suggest that someone has different likelihoods of being liberal, I do not mean in any absolute sense where liberalism and conservatism are fixed. Rather, I mean in terms of disposition so that a liberal is one who is more open to change and disruption of established norms and values. In the 3rd century Europeans who converted to Christianity away from the pagan customs of their kith and kith would probably have a different personality profile than those who remained pagan. Today I suspect that Europeans who leave the Christian religion have a similar personality profile to those 3rd century Christians, as what is “new” and “novel” has changed. Conservative and liberal dispositions exist against a contemporary population reference.

Also, there was some objection to the idea of liberal and conservative insofar as are historically embedded terms. That is, the Left and Right only making sense after the French Revolution. I think at the end of the day this is semantics, and I am willing to substitute a new word for “liberal” and “conservative” dispositions if that will satisfy political philosophy nerds. Classicists are wont to note that identifying the Populares with the Left and the Optimates with the Right is bound to confuse more than clarify, as ancient polities did not have the same concerns and tensions as modern ones. Fair enough, but I think one can see a dispositional difference insofar as the Optimates were ostensibly defending proximate injustice with the ultimate aim of preserving the customs & traditions of the Republic which had within them embedded latent functions.

Finally on my point that history does not always move in one direction, it seems to me that collapse of the idea of absolute monarchy in the 18th century was simply a reversion to the more consensual politics dominant in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Barbarian northern Europe had for example a strong tradition of elective monarchy, and the power of local magnates in the face of almost ceremonial monarchs is well known. The English Civil War, or the chaos around the Fronde can be seen as conflicts which pitted the conservative decentralists against the forward thinking absolutists (by 1700 these two conflicts had set the stage for a radically different status quos which shaped the character of political discourse in France and England during the Enlightenment). Of course the terminology can confuse, and a thick knowledge of local historical conditions are necessary to understand in which direction history was moving.

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