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Liberals, Conservatives, and Change

Posted By Don Boudreaux On September 10, 2007 @ 9:04 am In Myths and Fallacies | Comments Disabled

Here’s a report [1] of research that allegedly finds that the brains of persons who describe themselves as "liberal" are wired differently than are the brains of those persons who describe themselves as "conservative."

I’m incompetent to judge the quality of such research (and, indeed, I’ve read only this one report on the research, not the research itself).  Still, I offer an observation below.  The crux of the research finding is reported in these paragraphs:

Using electroencephalographs, which measure neuronal impulses, the
researchers examined activity in a part of the brain — the anterior
cingulate cortex — that is strongly linked with the self-regulatory
process of conflict monitoring.

The match-up was unmistakable: respondents who had described themselves
as liberals showed "significantly greater conflict-related neural
activity" when the hypothetical situation called for an unscheduled
break in routine.

Conservatives, however, were less flexible, refusing to deviate from
old habits "despite signals that this … should be changed."

Seems plausible.  But I’m very reluctant to draw conclusions from this study if only because of the ambiguity of the terms "conservative" and "liberal."  In the English-speaking world, many people who favor free markets and who are suspicious of top-down planning call themselves "conservative".  And yet these persons generally are much more tolerant of the inherent uncertainties of market processes than are many (most?) persons who call themselves "liberal."  Many modern, self-described "liberals" worry that changes from familiar patterns — for example, changes in the types of industry that flourish in a country; changes in the pattern of "income distribution"; changes in the natural environment — are so likely to cause problems that "liberals" want government to use its powers to try to avoid or, at least, to moderate these changes.  (Modern "liberals," note, are much more likely than are modern "conservatives" to endorse the application of the "precautionary principle.")

I am not saying here that all modern liberals are fearful of markets and that all modern conservatives celebrate, or even tolerate, markets’ dynamism and change.  My point is merely that it is a gross error to suppose that people today who self-identify as "liberals" welcome change while people who self-identify as "conservatives" do not.

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[1] Here’s a report: http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20070909/hl_afp/scienceneuroscience_070909173324

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