What Global Warming And Abortion Have In Common
Aug 6, 2011

What Global Warming And Abortion Have In Common

When trying to understand the political landscape it is often useful to figure out the various couplings and interdependencies between superficially disparate political positions. Politics divides itself into widespread factions, or parties,  where each side has widespread agreement with each other and widespread disagreement with the other factions opposed to having different groupings corresponding to each political issue. Why is it that there is a significant overlap among people who are pro-life, don't believe in global warming, and advocate for limited government (and correspondingly for the opposite statements), three seemingly very different issues? To answer that question, we must look somewhat deeply into connections among the disparate issues that make up modern conservatism.

Global Warming
Partially this is explained because there is a clear Darwinian benefit to forming stable coalitions on different issues - parties that do this will stick around and become powerful. Partly this is explained  because of a long list of factors that tend to homogenize party positions from inculcating party loyalty to top down centralization of the platforms, and many other such factors. But a significant portion is also due to the fact that there are many consistencies and logical interdependencies between the positions that while not always obvious at first glance exist nonetheless.

Take public belief in Global Warming as an example. At its root there is a strictly scientific question about the veracity of the scientific claim about the existence of anthropogenic global warming. One might think that belief in scientific claims would be entirely independent of a moral question about whether abortion was morally right or wrong. However, the reality that would be surprising were it not so well known is that public belief in global warming is very much partisan with a strong majority on the right being pro-life and don't believe in global warming and a strong majority on the left being pro-choice and believe in global warming. Ditto a whole host of other issues. The answer to the question posed in the title is now obvious: the same people support the same side on the two issues. But this begs the question: why?

Let us break this into parts and first look at why modern conservatives in general are naturally disinclined to support global warming. The dominating factor is simply that a very likely corollary to the belief that man made global warming is going to be a big problem is to try and do something about that. CO2 pollution and the like is one of the perfect examples of a market externality. Air, by its dispersive, fungible, and non-identifiable nature is a public commons with no sensible way to give it the kinds of property rights upon which a market can focus. No individual polluter could reasonably be found to be liable for the suffering of a farmer experiencing drought on the other side of the planet, say. There is thus no mechanism currently present that allows the market to effectively cost the harm caused by their externalities. As such, believing something should be done means that the government should do something, and indeed, one could almost define the role of government to be to deal with externalities. However, conservatives generically find government to be distasteful and prefer market solutions over big government solutions (for reasons I will come to later). That fundamental aspect that is so defining of modern conservatism naturally makes them disinclined to want to do something about global warming. Simply rejecting global warming as a valid thesis eases this tension. While this factor dominates, there are some other reinforcing factors that I will come back to after looking at the conservative movement a bit deeper.

Religion is a fundamentally conservative institution. I don't mean this in the political sense, I mean it in the sense of the word 'conservative' denoting a resistance to change. It is perhaps the quintessential conservative institution in our society what with the various canonical texts of different religions remaining consistent over millennia while so much else about society has drastically changed. Of course, religion has changed as well, but I think it is a fair generalization to claim it is overwhelmingly on the side of resisting social changes that occur before accepting their inevitability and this covers everything from accepting the scientific age of the universe, to banning condoms in African missions, to wearing religious garb.

This isn't necessarily something special to do with religion per say, it is partially a result of big, established and old institutions with rigid structures being inherently conservative in nature and most religions are all of these things. It is much like noting that the US Senate is fundamentally more conservative than the US House of Representatives because of the institutional structures that makes changes harder to pass through the Senate than the House. This isn't a judgement for or against these institutions as sometimes changes are good and resisting them is bad and sometimes changes are bad and resisting them is good.

The coupling of highly religious people with a party of conservatism - in the sense of one that resists changes to the social status quo - is thus consistent and quite understandable. While parties that self identify as conservative often mean the word in a different sense more as a loose set of political views, this set of views can be appropriately termed as conservative in the resisting change sense. So the fact that the US Republicans or Canadian Conservatives are disproportionately more religious is consistent and manifestly apparent on many of the social issues like abortion and gay rights that take the same views as religious institutions. Abortion is very much a religious issue, strongly advocated by religious people, and so the fact that religious people are going to support the parties that resist change means that pro-life stances in conservative parties are to be expected.

Politics, at its essence, is at the intersections of several sets of dichotomies of which I will address two now and one later. Firstly, there is the balance of conservative and progressive forces. It is a debate about some of the core aspects of society from those who want change and those who oppose it. Secondly, politics isn't about just any issue, it is chiefly about governance and issues related to that. Naturally, then, the core question becomes: what is the appropriate role of government? Loosely grouping the answers into "more government" or "less government", these two sides become the core battlegrounds in politics. Given that I have identified two battles (conservatism vs progressivism and more vs less government), a priori political factions could form over all four possible combinations. As it turns out, conservatism and less government, and progressivism and more government, form into single parties. In multiparty countries like Canada it remains a one dimensional political spectrum with the leftist NDP, for instance, being even more progressive and wanting more government than the center-left Liberals

If we look at 20th century history of government in western countries, the immediate thing one notices it that it has increased in size. Universal, government provided education, healthcare, old age pensions, welfare programs and numerous other things in different countries. It increased in size; as in, it changed and change is progressive in nature by definition. The coupling whereby new government that is changing from the way it was in the past usually corresponds to increasing the size of government into this new avenue has resulted in the coupling between conservative/smaller government and progressive/larger government as the key party distinctions found in most western countries. For many of these changes, such as providing proper high quality government education to black children, there was first required a social change - as in a progressive one - towards accepting black people a entirely equal, a fight hard fought by progressives. We thus get the one dimensional political spectrum where 'conservative' can equally well mean 'small government' as it does 'maintain traditionalism'.

Because parties in the one dimensional spectrum are really reflecting different core forces, the balance between these core forces can shift back and forth. For instance, many establishment conservatives in the US are very much in support of the big entitlement programs like Medicare despite the Republican party previously being in opposition. This is partly due to the fact that they are no longer "new" and so keeping the old programs is actually a conservative position in the sense of resisting change. However, sometimes the 'conservative as small government' side gains the upper hand in the balance and the desire to minimize government trumps the traditionalism. Today we are in a period of swinging towards small government focus with the attention of deficit reduction.

We have now identified enough of the factors to identify the progression which links belief in global warming and a pro-life stance in abortion: people are often pro-life for religious reasons, religion is a conservative institution, conservative institutions naturally align with parties that are conservative in nature, conservative parties tend to believe in limited government, belief in global warming implies big government action and hence people who are pro-life often don't believe in global warming.

Okay, I will be the first to admit this chain (and many like them) should not be considered causal and is actually quite tenuous at best. Certainly few people actually use this as a conscious rationalization for their beliefs. Much of this correspondence in beliefs is due to the over factors I sketched very briefly at the beginning that leads to party homogeneity. However, there is a noticeable logical consistency that connects many of these issues upon which all the reinforcing factors build upon. While surprisingly large cognitive dissonance can and does occur, there is a force that attempts to relieve logical tensions over time and in aggregates and these kinds of consistencies play a role in which sets of disparate issues get lumped together in a party.  At the very least, the project of trying to identify relations between seemingly disparate issues within parties can be instructive. Having established the major connection, let us explore a few more minor reinforcing factors that contribute in strengthening the association between global warming and abortion.

In the global warming issue, there is another reinforcing factor to the asymmetry in political belief which revolves around an anti-science stigma found in some aspects of the conservative movement. That generic position results in an increased propensity to reject the basic science of global warming that, while probably not strong enough to explain the phenomenon in its entirety, nonetheless provides a reinforcing mechanism given the previous coupling between conservatism and rejection of the global warming thesis. The anti-science position results from two factors. The first is religious (which we will come to) that has consistently had a tension between religion and science on various truth claims dating back far beyond the infamous story of Galileo but still very much present today with, say, debate between Creationism (or its political euphemism 'intelligent design') and science that demonstrates a far older age of the earth and universe than a literal interpretation of the bible implies. Hence inculcating a distrust for science among religious people eases the tension. Secondly, technological and scientific progress has led to much of the most dynamic changes in recent times. New technologies from nuclear bombs to the birth control pill fundamentally alter our society and its capacities. Hence science will remain on the progressive end of the progressive-conservative spectrum and strong belief in science is naturally allied with progressive politics. Even the belief that the world will change - due to, say, global warming - is inherently progressive.

Another reinforcing factor behind the association of disbelief in global warming to conservatism, particularly in American conservatism, is the isolationist stances. Dealing with global warming is not just something that one government must do, it is something that all governments must do together through things like treaties. Conservative movements generally oppose big treaties which manifest itself in dislike of the UN, isolationist trade policies, rejection of global warming treaties and the like. The reason for this isolationist stance stems partially from the idea that inter-government treaties is just a kind of big government to be opposed as described earlier. But part of the reason has to do with a larger phenomenon.

We have discussed the traditionalism vs progressivism dichotomy, the smaller government vs bigger government dichotomy, and seen how these collapse into one in the political spectrum, but there is a third dichotomy that plays an important role in our society. It is the extent to which the us vs them mentality exists, the extent to which selfishness vs altruism is present. There is a balance of how much we care about other people in out-groups compared to how much we care about ourselves and our immediate in-group. People innately have altruistic and selfish tendencies and we try to balance those tendencies; the same is true at the level of societies. Because this plays such an important role in our societies it is to be expected that political parties will diversify along this spectrum. And they do; however, this dichotomy also collapses along with the others into a one dimensional spectrum.

Much of modern left movements really push the altruistic sides, advocating for all the hallmarks of a welfare state that is centered on the idea of helping people and, indeed, all people even ones of seemingly different groups whether it is religion, wealth, sexuality, or nationality that divides us. Conversely, modern right movements generally oppose such programs preferring instead "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentalities or opposition to foreign aid, as examples. The correlation, I think, is that helping people has been one of the great benefits of our changing and new technologies that allow for big government programs like universal education or healthcare. Many of these altruistic programs align with progressive and big government programs and so we get this three dimensional spectrum collapsing to the one dimensional one that we witness.

I should be clear that I don't mean the insinuation of selfishness with the right as a pejorative. Indeed, we should expect there to be differences in the level of altruism vs selfishness reflected in parties.  Typically we think of selfishness as a bad thing; it is not. It is just an aspect of humanity which, at different times and in different contexts, has good and bad consequences. It also doesn't mean to imply in any way that supporting the right makes one bad or even selfish, I am sure most supporters have a typical balance between selfishness and altruism. It just means this aspect of the spectrum is asymmetrically represented in right parties.

While this diversion into selfishness vs altruism is, I think, interesting in its own right, the immediate relevance to the global warming issue comes in two ways. Firstly, we have to care about the people who will suffer consequences from global warming. Often these are people like the millions in Bangladesh living on a flood plane who may suffer from sea level rise. If we want to do something about global warming, we need to actively (and not just tacitly) care about these people as a prerequisite. Secondly, the in-group vs out-group mentality, whereby we are altruistic towards those in our in-group and selfish towards those in our out-group, breeds the kind of isolationist stance found in the US. Nationalism is the establishment of the nation as the principle in-group and treaties or organizations with other countries (out-groups) is suppressed. When it comes to global warming, then, the lack of a desire to work within the UN framework and pass comprehensive climate legislation stems a little bit from this generic anti-UN sentiment that has been built up in the right.

Underlying everything here is a series of core conflicts that society tries to balance out: the conflict between traditionalism and progressivism that controls the pace of social change; the conflict about the size of government; the conflict between selfishness and altruism, and the size of groups to which these labels apply. There are more such core conflicts. We have, however, a one dimensional political spectrum that collapses these several core conflicts into a single political spectrum. Any political issue is slotted into one side or the other based on how closely that issue fits with these core conflicts and other issues represented in the political spectrum. The study of the various interdependencies and correlations between issues that determine which side the various issues fall upon can be useful and instructive.

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