Sunday, February 13, 2011

Conservatism is a pyramid scheme

David Kaib suggests this is worth a post and no time like the present.  I first had this thought pondering the Devos billionaires, one of the most generous and dedicated donors funding the whole conservative movement.  While most billionaires live up to the aphorism that "behind every great fortune lies a great crime" the Devos clan take it to the next level by having made their money quite literally through a pyramid scheme, that being Amway.  Having them fund movement conservatism makes the phrase "poster child" seem dim and inadequate to describe the fit.

Liberals have often lamented how conservatism is able to attract so many followers from the ranks of those who economically have almost no chance of gaining by the policies they support.  The empirical record of supply side economics and flat(ter) tax rates is lengthy and conclusive in demonstrating that only the narrowest slice of the already-rich actually net benefits by them - sometimes we say top 2% or 1% but actually in many cases the benefits go even narrower - to the top 0.1% or 0.01%.  Even a game which only 2 out of 100 players can win would be known as "gambling" but when you get to 1 in 1000 or 1 in 10000, conservatism can really be described more in terms of the lottery.  And at least with real lotteries, every player has equal odds of winning, with conservatism the winners are pre-ordained and yet the other 9999 still seem to want to play.  Why?

It's a neat trick conservatives have pulled.  They have tens of millions of middle and lower-middle class white people out marching and screaming on behalf of a couple hundred billionaires who reap the rewards of trickle down economics (which probably should be called "trickle up" economics, since that is what really happens).  It is this trick that I find most comparable to a pyramid scheme.

Most explanations focus on conservative appeals to social issues; guns, God and gays.  There is certainly something to all this, but not enough to explain polling which still shows much too large percentages of the populace in favour of the wide array of conservative economic ideas from deregulation to lowering of corporate tax rates to tort reform.  Any benefit that anyone in the bottom 98% gets from any of these is at best tangetical and is most likely beneath notice.  Even if I own shares in companies having their taxes cut (most people do not), and see an increase in my divident payouts, what will it amount to, a few dollars?  Point here being that it is not the case that conservatives win votes solely on social issues while most of their voters actually prefer liberal positions on economic issues but elevate social issues in their voting criteria.

Now, Paul Rosenberg wrote many posts showing that even the majority of conservatives are in favour of many liberal ideas - that they want increased spending on numerous social programs.  This is a complex phenomenon and I don't want to oversimplify it, but aside from the usual ideological incoherence of most people, there is duality and contradiction.  These people may support increased spending on health care, but they may also support cuts in the corporate tax rate that make such spending unsustainable.  Why they support spending on health care is not mysterious, the other side is more interesting.

I also find the separation of social and economic issues to be a little too neat, ignoring that there are commonalities between them.  It's not so much that conservative rank and file positions on social issues are consciously linked to economic issues, but that they serve similar roles:  Perpetuating power over the powerless.  Having more money is certainly a form of power, but so is maintenance of social norms and even laws that privilege some people over others.  I shouldn't need to make the link between power and desire for personal gun ownership because it should be pretty obvious.  The myriad of religious issues are typically about keeping Christianity in a defacto privleged status, where we all have to say "Merry Christmas" to each other every year, but no one worries about the correct seasonal greetings for members of any other faith.  Naturally, Christianity itself generally promotes a misogynist and hierarchical view of the world, so promoting it is promoting secular conservative values too.  On gay rights what I find most revealing is the conservative preoccupation with not "changing the definition" of the word "marriage" - as if they were all English language pedants. Partly it is just ordinary sophistry to evade the charge of bigotry for an indefensible position, but I think really they are upset that the legal privilege alloted to their special relationships would now be shared by others.   Nothing else really explains the difference in polling support for civil unions and full legal same sex marriage (and certainly most gay proponents of full marriage equality understand the social status insult inherent in only recognizing their relationships as "civil unions").  It is about saying "I am better than you."

Elevated social status

This is the underappreciated driver of many conservative issue positions.  For conservatives, status and hierarchy are part of the norm they expect to see.  The thing about hierarchy is that the person one rung from the bottom will often be the most strident defender of their prerogatives and feel they have the most to lose through a push to equality.  Thus, Corporals are often the biggest assholes toward Privates (at least initially on being promoted, usually a Sergeant sorts out these victims of their first power trip fairly quickly).  This I think is why conservatives fight so hard against anything that brings just basic equality to historically disadvantaged groups.  After all, if blacks, women and gays are no longer being stepped on, then everyone else who was previously slightly above them (poor white straight males) are now reduced in status according to a zero sum calculus.  The villian in the movie The Incredibles expressed it as "if everybody is special, than nobody is."

This belief is oneself as special and deserving of privilege can easily contribute to the next motivator for non-rich support of rich people economic policy, that is the belief that one will be rich.  Here we come full circle to the pyramid scheme angle.  These things only work on a particular kind of sucker, the kind who vastly overestimates his own abilities.  This is backed up by social science research which also reveals that those with the greatest abilities are most apt to underappreciate their abilities. 

It also makes it difficult to accept you've been fleeced (also backed empirically) which means that instead of accumulating enemies among the lives of those bilked by pyramid schemes, most victims remain in denial even if they are forced out of the scheme for losing too much money, accepting they got fleeced would be to admit their abilities are not so keen as they hoped an ego trip they're not able to make. 

Taking this back to the realm of economics, we end up with a few factors driving non-rich people to support policies that only help rich people:
  1. The belief in one's own imminent success
  2. Overestimation of one's own current economic status (not wanting to forget that upper-middle class conservatives also net-lose from upper class tax cuts, even if they see some nominal benefit at tax time)
  3. Desire to keep others down (and yourself "up" if only in comparison)
All these flaws common to the human psyche allow con artists to prosper again and again, and conservatism is just a bigger and longer con than the others. 


  1. First off, let me say the level of customer service on this blog is outstanding.

    "These people may support increased spending on health care, but they may also support cuts in the corporate tax rate that make such spending unsustainable."

    I think this is almost right. They actually support making taxes more progressive, including raising rates at the top. But they will support politicians who enact cuts in corporate or personal tax rates. Also, when Democrats fail to make arguments that include ideas about fairness and morality, leaving that field to Republicans, they might support particular regressive changes. (Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight Over Taxing Inherited Wealth by Michael J. Graetz and Ian Shapiro deals with the latter.)

    I think you are definitely right that the social / economic issues split is unhelpful. This sounds right: "Perpetuating power over the powerless." Both, it seems to me, are best understood more as cultural, than about interests.

    For myself, I put a lot more emphasis on your point number three than the other two, for the same reason.

  2. I'd agree with point three also, and expand upon it with a thought I've been working on for a while.

    In one broad sense (of several) I would characterize people generally as being either finite-ists, or infinite-ists.

    The finite-ists were those five year olds who were always whining about somebody's piece of cake being larger than theirs.

    They got angry when someone else broke the pinata.

    The infinite-ists couldn't care less: they had a piece of cake, everybody else had a piece of cake, it was all good.

    Somebody breaks the pinata: rush for the candy. End of issue.

    Fast-forward to adult life and the finite-ists are which people in our current political bestiary?

    They feel damaged when someone else has something good happen to them.

    The cake is finite: by definition, if something good happens to you, I am diminished by that.

    The infinite-ists -- in complete contrast -- are uplifted: when something good happens to you, something good happens to me also.

    There's an abundance of good to go around for all.

    Add this "cake-is-finite" world view to the general petty and mean-spiritedness of the right wing and you've got the conduct of a whole bunch of people pretty well mapped out...

  3. b00g13p0p, yes, there's something about conservative psychology that assumes a zero-sum world. Even when they advocate making "the pie bigger" - and intellectually accept the existence of win-win scenarios, I think their basic worldview doubts this and they're usually talking about bigger pies as a way of avoiding anyone asking why they get such a big piece of the current one.

    Definitely power is a zero-sum game and they're very conscious of that.

  4. "Zero-sum"

    Of course!

    Works much better than "finite-ists" -- which I'd only tried to actually type out for the first time minutes ago...

  5. The interaction of status and identity has always been an oddity -- see Levi-Strauss or Veblen -- but in America, it arguably became a whole lot odder. In my view, this was at least partly the result of the tabula rasa theories behind the deliberations of our founding republicans, and the acceptance of those theories by the fugitives from other cultures and ethnicities who found in them a justification, and perhaps an opportunity, for their own rebirth of freedom on the new continent.

    In retrospect, the differences in how a Puritan, a Southern slaveholder (and his slaves) and Daniel Boone understood America are fairly obvious, as is the influence of those differences on the mindset of their descendants. But how, pray tell, are we to interpret the differences between how a Mexican strawberry picker and a software engineer from Andhra Pradesh comes to understand himself as an American?

    It would be nice to know, even if the Republicans don't think so, because in the long run, the morphology of our status hierarchy will be altered by those differences, perhaps in fundamental ways.

  6. David:

    "They actually support making taxes more progressive"

    I wonder. Certainly they (rank and file conservatives) support other people paying more taxes so are somewhat likely to say "yes" to a tax the rich poll question phrased a certain way, but I've argued with enough internet libertarians (that term being almost redundant) who start from the premise that taxation is theft and anyone paying more taxes than others is thus being punished. Which reminds me, we need some better 2 sentence justifiations for progressive taxation than the veil of ignorance.

    Anyway, I almost wonder if they'd say yes to increased taxes on the rich and yes to a "fair" (flat) tax.