Friday, January 22, 2010

Loss aversion and the bias towards conservatism

Anatole Kaletsky ponders the US Democrats’ political troubles:

Left-of-centre parties the world over might learn from this electoral disaster. They might start to understand why conservatism has an inbuilt advantage in all advanced democracies…
The conservatives’ advantage is simple: they know exactly what they are trying to achieve. They seek to preserve, as far as possible, existing structures of economic privilege, power and social traditions. … To achieve this, conservative politicians and voters are willing to bury all minor ideological differences and use every conceivable mechanism to keep power.
Progressives, by contrast, are united only by what they are against. They do not like the status quo, which they consider unjust. But once they gain power, as shown by the Democrats’ internecine struggles over healthcare, they are riven by conflicts. Because progressives are fighting for an infinite range of possible reforms, it is much harder to unite behind any specific programme.

I think he’s painting with a bit of a broad brush – a new government could well seek to transform things in a rightwards direction (Thatcher in 1979) – but he does have a point.

He doesn’t get to the bottom of it, though: even most of the people who are pretty comfortable with the way things are could think of changes to their advantage, and there are plenty of changes that parties of the left might introduce that would benefit more people than they harm. But even individual reforming policies often face an uphill struggle to be implemented, on top of left-wing parties’ difficulties in keeping together in power. So why a systemic bias in favour of conservatism?

Partly, no doubt, because the people who are doing well out of the status quo can exert more influence than those marginalised.

Partly also because of different campaigning styles of right and left: it’s easier to point to sins of commission than to sins of omission, and active-government parties of the left will have more of the former while anti-state right-wingers will have more of the latter. The right can be more gung-ho and direct in its campaigns because the points it’s making seem more concrete (‘they’re going to tax you for driving’ vs ‘they’re not going to tackle climate change’).

But part of the answer is psychological: loss aversion. People respond more strongly to losses than to gains. We’ll fight harder to keep something we have than to get an equivalent something more. This means that the potential losers from any policy shift will make more noise than the would-be winners, even if they are fewer. So it’s hard to assemble and maintain a popular coalition for reform.

If this is true, then we’d expect that psychologists would be able to pick up a greater bias towards loss aversion in people with right-wing politics. I don’t know of any studies that have looked at this. (Anyone?)

And there’s a strategic tip for the left in all this: if we want to succeed, we need (more than the right needs) to find policies that will demonstrably benefit as many people as possible. A party that’s seen as just the party of the poor is going to get shafted.


Rob said...

This argument is broadly analogous to Hayek's point about how authoritarian parties find it easier to sell their policies, because they aim to restrict liberty for a specific end whilst liberals want to increase it in order to enable as-yet-unforeseen (and unforseeable!) possibilities.

This gives us two axes, along which we can have 'liberal' conservatives (who believe that absent any restrictions, traditions will continue to flourish), authoritarian conservatives who believe that restrictions are necessary to reinforce traditions. On the left, we have authoritarians who believe that restrictions are necessary to achieve change/progress and those who believe that having fewer restrictions would enable change.

CS Clark said...

From this (alarmist) article, at the end, there's this...

According to one exit poll, Obama voters who opted for the Republican candidate Scott Brown in Tuesday’s election, said, by a margin of 3-to-2, that the Senate health care proposal “doesn’t go far enough.” Eight of 10 voters in the state continue to want a public option.

Doesn't look like lose aversion to me. More like loser aversion.

ad said...

People respond more strongly to losses than to gains.

Which is a problem for any attempt to reform social security , health care etc by anybody. That is as much a problem for right-wingers trying to change things.

There are any number of changes that someone believes will improve something. Most of these changes are mutully contradictory, if only due to the opportunity cost, and many of them have supporters on the left, which makes for plenty of intra-left arguments between people who believe that they are the good people, and their enemies the bad people.

On the other hand, at least in the US/UK, the right are fairly (not very) consistant economic liberals, so there are some reforms they can unite behind.