On Thursday 9th of this month, exactly a week ago, I mentioned here a Libertarian Home meeting due to take place that evening in the Rose and Crown, Southwark. It happened, I went, and I wrote most of what follows the following evening. But then life got in the way, and I am only now posting what I then wrote.
The first thing I want to say about Aiden Gregg’s talk about the psychological foundations of differing political beliefs, libertarian and otherwise, is that I greatly enjoyed it. And I got the strong impression that most others present did also.
Much of what Gregg said was based on a book by Jonathan Haidt, entitled The Righteous Mind (now on its way to me via Amazon). Haidt looks as the contrasting ways of thinking and feeling of three big categories of American political people – in descending order by size: liberal, conservative and libertarian. (It’s an aside, but straight away, that itself strikes me as a big win for the libertarian movement. A generation ago, would “libertarian” have been in the mix, as a distinct big category? I wonder how greenies feel, if they read Haidt’s book, about not being included as a distinct big category. Also, as was asked during the Q&A, what of non-Americans?)
My immediate reaction to Haidt’s various different ways of thinking and feeling was to wonder exactly what these are. Are they notions relating in any way to the biology of the brain? Are they, that is to say, “real”? Or are they merely things that Haidt has found that political people like to think about? Are they just questions which, if you put them to political people, seem to reveal and illuminate differences of deeper attitude? Are they, as Perry de Havilland might say, questions about contrasting meta-contexts? This is the perpetual problem of the social sciences. What exactly are you observing? What are you talking about? I will perhaps have more to say about such things, and about exactly which people score exactly what on which variable, once I have had a closer look at Haidt’s ideas in written form, although I promise nothing.
Memory plays tricks – definitely mine now does – so others might describe this talk very differently to the way I am doing. But, what I heard as Gregg’s main conclusion was that nature, when it comes to political affiliation (religion was hardly mentioned) is not destiny. You are not doomed, because of the sort of person you were born as, to be any particular sort of political animal. The main thing to learn from such work as Haidt’s is not that most people are beyond hope when it comes to converting them to Righteousness (in my case, to libertarianism), but that you have a better chance of converting someone to Righteousness if you understand their psychological dispositions better. What “moral foundations” (to quote the words on my scribbled notes) do they consider to be most important?
As to what these moral foundations are, we were offered six variables of concern, so to speak, to consider important, rather more or rather less than others: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, freedom/oppression. If, like most libertarians, you are more exercised about freedom/oppression than, say, about sanctity/degradation, but are arguing with a conservative whose cconcerns are the opposite of yours, then you just banging on about how freedom/oppression is what matters most, and that libertarianism scores well on this variable, will not get you very far. It will be a dialogue of the deaf.
It was a lively meeting, livelier than usual. Partly this was because of Aiden Gregg’s relaxed and low key demeanour. When the room erupted with interruption, as it did from time to time, his attitude seemed to be that this was amusing, rather than any kind of insult to him personally. I guess if you are an academic psychologist, a group of people is interesting to observe no matter how disruptively it behaves, and perhaps the worse the better. You look on with amused detachment, as if observing baboons. Especially if they are libertarian baboons and this the sort of behaviour you expect from such baboons.
But there was, I think, another reason for the lively response to this talk, which is that all of us were, but not in a bad way, taking it personally. We were – certainly if my own response was anything to go by – thinking things like: how do I score on these various variables? What do I think is most important? And: I wonder how my scores differ from other people in the room, from other libertarians generally, and from other people generally.
I have always felt myself to be, psychologically, a lot more like (compared to other libertarians) many of the ideological opponents of libertarianism, of the softer, kinder, better-meaning sort. I just think that the way to get a softer, kinder, better world is through a policy of radically diminished state activity and greatly increased freedom compared to what we live with now. I don’t favour the free market, despite it being rather red in tooth and claw but simply because it is free. It is free, and that’s very nice. But I do not think that it is actually very red in tooth and claw. And I think that the statist alternatives to it are much redder in tooth and claw than those proposing such alternatives typically suppose, or pretend. Socialism, for instance, and especially the sort of state-imposed socialism that is actually capable of being done in a big way, doesn’t strike me as at all egalitarian, at all fair (to allude to variable 2 in the Haidt list). It merely installs a different and far more toxic sort of unfairness.
On another variable, authority, I also perhaps dissent a little from others in my libertarian tribe. For me one of the great glories of freedom is that it creates authority of the good sort. It only undermines authority of the undeserved sort. Ditto loyalty. In general, a free society makes people nicer. It makes people (Randians: look away now) more altruistic. One of the most significant shortages that afflicted the Soviet Union, throughout its baleful history and especially when it collapsed, was a shortage of public spirit, that is to say, of the willingness of people to put themselves out for each other, and especially for strangers.
My point here is not just that I now have all these clever things to say about authority and niceness and the USSR and so on and so forth, on the back of having attended this Aiden Gregg talk. It is that I believe I was not the only one thinking personal thoughts in response to what he was saying, while he was saying it. We were all, I suspect, doing this. This was a talk that got us all, as the saying goes, going. It got us all thinking.
It was, in short, very good, just the sort of thing that such talks should be.
As is usual at Libertarian Home events, there was a video camera running, as I mentioned when commenting on this rather blurry set of photos that I took at the event. In a comment he has just attached to that posting, Simon Gibbs apologises about the lighting, following me moaning about it. But I think, if you take photos, that it’s your business to work around such things. That I did not do this very well on that particular night is partly because I was distracted by finding the talk so very interesting.
I’ll end by saying that, if what Aiden Gregg was saying sounds like the kind of thing that interests you, keep an eye out for that video. Libertarian Home videos take quite a while to emerge, but emerge they always seem to do, eventually. (A previous Aiden Gregg performance for Libertarian Home, in the same venue, can be watched by going here.)