a red brainYour brain on conservatism.Yesterday I sketched the sort of personality type most likely to identify as conservative: those who prefer stability to change, order to complexity, familiarity to novelty, and conformity to creativity. This sort of personality type is drawn to clear lines separating in-groups from out-groups, highly aware of social hierarchies, suspicious of change, and strongly inclined toward system justification, i.e., seeing the prevailing socioeconomic regime as worthy and desirable

I often think that the actions and rhetoric of today’s conservative politicians are easier to make sense of at this level, the level of temperament and worldview, than at the level of stated principles and policy proposals. Seeing through this lens can help make sense of a lot of stuff that otherwise looks hypocritical or absurd. In particular, it can help make sense of the political fight over climate change and clean energy.

The other day, Stephen Lacey flagged some comments from Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) that I found extremely revealing:

So what I’m trying to do is say, the government should not be picking winners and losers, let the private sector determine the winners and losers, and then … when somebody is successful, then you give them the subsidies and the tax credit.

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This makes absolutely no sense relative to the small-government, fiscal conservative principles Stearns purports to hold. Nor does it make sense as energy policy. But it does make sense at a deeper level.

Remember, system justification means seeing the current socioeconomic status quo as necessary and desirable. To see it that way, one has to view the outcomes produced by that system as just. That is why conservatives have such a deep attachment to the notion that those who succeed are those who deserve it. Success, to conservatives, is just a measure of desert. This (via Will Wilkinson) is from an interesting paper by Mark D. Harmon in which he rounded up previous studies in this area and …

… test[ed] their conclusions against six U.S. public opinion polls. Secondary analysis found consistent and strong relationships. Conservatives and Republicans overwhelmingly attributed poverty to the personal failings of the poor themselves (lazy, drunk, etc.) while Democrats and liberals consistently offered social explanations like poor schools and lousy jobs for poverty. Later he looked at the inverse question, the reasons respondents give for others obtaining wealth (2010b). Generally he found that Democrats and liberals attributed wealth to connections or being born into a wealthy family, while Republicans and conservatives declared wealth comes from hard work.

This is really a foundational part of the difference between liberals and conservatives. It helps explain the enormous support within the conservative grassroots for policies that overwhelmingly benefit a very small number of very rich people. The rich, after all, are the winners. They are smarter. They work harder. They reached the top of the hierarchy. They deserve to be rewarded.

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As conservatives see it, instead of being rewarded, the rich are beset by losers trying to take what they earned to give to those who couldn’t hack it. For the true conservative, all out-groups — socialists, environmentalists, feminists, immigrants, unions, homosexuals — are manifestations of the same phenomenon: losers try to cheat, trying to rig the system, to get what they couldn’t win fair and square and don’t deserve. Takers leeching off of Makers, as Paul Ryan would put it.

Obviously this mindset is relevant to the energy debate. Fossil fuels are the status quo. They are the winners. They deserve their dominance. Renewables are just another out-group, just another bunch of Takers looking for handouts from Makers.

Here’s a helpful heuristic: When a conservative politician or pundit says “market” (or “private sector”) in relation to energy, mentally substitute the phrase “status quo.” It will make much more sense. After all, no country, the U.S. included, has an energy sector that bears any resemblance whatsoever to a “free market.” Energy markets are ubiquitously shaped by laws and regulations and quasi-public monopolies and taxpayer-funded infrastructure. More to the point, they are comprehensively rigged in favor of fossil fuels. So when it comes to energy, saying “let markets decide” is, more often than not, tantamount to saying “leave the status quo as it is.”

Cliff StearnsRep. Cliff Stearns: So that’s what he meant.Seen through this lens, Stearns’ comments make more sense. For Stearns, indeed for most conservatives, the role of government is not to pick winners, it is to reward winners. Winners are picked by the “market,” aka the status quo. Companies that succeed thereby earn the public spoils: “when somebody is successful, then you give them the subsidies.”

Indeed, this helps make sense of the political battles over cap-and-trade, loan guarantees, Solyndra, and green policy generally. It’s not that conservatives favor “free markets” and liberals don’t. It’s not that conservatives are concerned about prices or consumers and liberals aren’t. It’s that conservatives are strongly inclined to support the status quo and reward those who succeed within it. In that light, Stearns’ comment is not hypocritical or absurd at all; it’s what he believes. More than that, it’s who he is.