Sunday, January 22, 2012

Behavioral Politics

A family is struggling to pay rent.  The father has a drinking problem and is abusive to his wife.  His hours have been cut back at work, and she makes minimum wage working as a cashier at a convenience store.The two teenage children are having difficulties in school, and acting out.  The son has been hanging around with a crowd of thugs, and has been arrested for vandalism.  The daughter is pregnant and planning to drop out of school to care for her baby, whose father denies responsibility.  The family lacks health insurance, and relies on food stamps to afford groceries.

Unfortunately, stories like this are not uncommon in America.  There are however, two very different responses from liberalism and conservatism, our prevailing political party ideologies.  These responses can be broken into two elements: the behavioral narrative, and social action. 

In the liberal response, the behavioral narrative is that the family is victim of social dysfunction that has limited their capacity to turn their lives around.  Without outside help, their dysfunction will only be compounded, their problems leading to even greater net harm to themselves and society.  Though opportunity may exist, the family is so behaviorally challenged that it is almost impossible for them to avail themselves of it.  They literally cannot see the correct normative path that would lead to success, mired as they are in a variety of cognitive challenges.

In the conservative behavioral narrative, the family has indeed lost its way, but is responsible for its own recovery.  It assumes that it is within the family's power to reverse its course without outside help, and that any ongoing failure to do so is a choice that the family has consciously made.  Many opportunities that exist in society and culture, and all that is necessary is for the family to embrace that opportunity and follow existing social norms that lead to success.  They do in fact possess the adequate cognition to make the correct choices, and thus their failure to do so represents a lack of personal responsibility.

Both liberals and conservatives take a position on social action that follows directly from their behavioral narrative.

The liberal social action response is predicated on a sense of inclusive social culpability for the plight of the family: by its structure, society has participated in the systematic creation of the family's  problems.  Implicit is a larger assumption that current social and economic norms are unjust, and inevitably lead to such "underclass" families.  Because of the behavioral narrative of limited cognition, liberals see government intervention as
the only way to guarantee equal opportunity.

The conservative social action response is predicated on an exclusive culpability for the plight of the family: the family is solely responsible for their own plight, except for the extent to which it has been lead astray from a particular set of right-minded norms and values exclusively by a liberal culture which promotes values counter to traditions such as church, patriarchy, and obedience to time-honored norms.  Conservatives tend to be quite charitable towards the down-trodden, but only if they can be sure that certain cultural and religious tests have been met by the recipients of their largess.  They are highly skeptical  and resentful of broad governmental programs which they cannot be confident are not administering aid to those not worthy of it, or in other words have not made the requisite religious transformation.  By approving only of private (religious) charity, they can be sure their donations are spent with exclusivity. Furthermore, the claim is often made that government aid is not only wasted on the unworthy, but actively promotes a culture of dependency and irresponsibility.

If you'll notice, there seems to be some odd incoherence between the conservative behavioral narrative, which eschews gracious social determinism in favor of get-tough contra-causal free will, and their social action response, which mixes tough-love with protestations against just the sort of social determinism it denies exists.   My guess is that this paradox is rooted in a deep schism between the biblical commandment to be humble, charitable, compassionate and giving, and the desire to see behavior as black and white, where cognition is freely available to all, especially in the sort of free-market utopia they like to envision America as, where meritocracy really does reign, and people's value is truly self-determined.  How can it be, one might ask, that this struggling family can be both personally responsible - personally accountable - for their own situation, yet be simultaneously at the mercy of an unrighteous path, their existence bent not only by the evils of secular liberalism, but then caught in a web of nanny-state learned dependency.

The science of behavior has existed for well over a century now, and social learning theory is a simple fact.  While the debate over free will still burns, with most scientists and philosophers who study it finding it ultimately rather nonsensical, the idea that a poor, dysfunctional family can be examined outside the context of social learning, with a cognition capable of understanding and dealing objectively with its circumstance, is nothing if not preposterous.  Yet such is the state of discourse and political ideology in contemporary America. 

In many ways, with respect to human development and behavior, certainly with respect to our scientific understanding of why people do the things they do, and why society continues to struggle with problems such as poverty and dysfunction, conservatism is in a state of deep denial.  As with most forms of denial, taking it head on is often not the most effective tactic.  More knowledge can actually often only entrench it further.  Yet it is my belief that denial of behavioral and social determinism is at the root of our contemporary political drama.

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