If You're Not Outraged, You've Internalized a System-Justifying Ideology

“I just don’t believe this,” is as close as Hedgemaster General Tyler Cowen ever gets to “this is total bullshit.” Well, that’s his response to Jamie Napier and John Jost’s argument [pdf] that conservatives report higher levels of happiness than do liberals largely because of their failure to be pained by high levels of economic inequality. Well, I just don’t believe it either, and neither does the University of Virginia’s Jonathan Haidt, who took apart Napier and Jost’s argument at an AEI panel on happiness last spring. Here’s the video. Jump ahead to about the 35:00 minute mark to catch Haidt’s ten-minute takedown.  

The thrust of Haidt’s critique is that Jost and Napier attribute conservatives’ edge in happiness to their ability to” rationalize away inequality.” So how do they measure that? By looking at responses to a single item in World Values Survey thought to track attitudes toward meritocracy.  The respondant is asked to identify where he or she stands on a ten point scale that runs from “Hard work generally doesn’t bring success–it’s more a matter of luck” to “In the long run, hard work usually brings a better life.” Conservatism is of course strongly correlated with an answer toward the “hard work pays” end of the scale. But, as Haidt puts it in his talk:

This isn’t some weird belief that shows that you’re explaining away inequality. This is the basic ideological fact — or rather, the basic ideological difference.  It’s not legitimate to take a core aspect of conservative belief and say that it’s not really what it seems, but is really an unconscious mechanism to deal with something uncomfortable.

It would be legitimate were that the best explanation. But Napier and Jost’s story is really hard to credit, both for reasons Tyler mentions and for deeper methodological reasons. For one, it’s not clear what the “meritocracy” question has to do with inequality. If one wants to see a meritocratic bent as a common cause of conservative leanings and higher happiness, here’s a less tendentious explanation. (1) Those with a greater sense of the efficacy of their behavior — with a greater sense of being in control — will tend to (a) think hard work brings a better life, (b) be happier, (c) see policies that seem to penalize hard work as unjust. (2) People likely to see high taxes as an unjust penalty on hard work tend to identify as “conservative.”

So here you’ve got a way of getting from a meritocratic attitude both to happiness and conservatism without bringing in anything to do with inequality. This is conjecture, of course, but I think it suggests that Napier and Jost’s conclusion has all the benefit of theft over honest toil. How did they get from a question apparently about whether work pays to the ability to reconcile one’s sense of justice with abstract macroeconomic variables? The fact that they evidently find it intuitive, rather than bizarre, that the state affairs captured by a nation-level Gini coefficient would have “negative hedonic effects” pretty much gives away the game. It makes exactly as much sense as thinking that certain people must have found some way to harden their consciences against the otherwise intolerable pain of high levels of government spending as a percentage of GDP. Huh? 

Anyway, doesn’t the WVS meritocracy question seems ill-formed to you? What’s the point of opposing “success” and “a better life.” If one interprets “success” in terms of social comparison and “a better life” in terms of self-comparison over time, then there’s no problem in agreeing strongly with both ends of the alleged opposition.

I strongly agree that success, understood as a significant upward move on a valued status dimension, is largely a matter of luck. But I also strongly agree that hard work (in a society with decent institutions) usually brings a better life. It’s possible to work hard and achieve a better life without ever winning anything you’d count as success. So I haven’t a clue how I’d answer this question. Do I believe in meritocracy or not?Maybe my agreement with both statements would sort of average out and push me toward the middle?Or maybe I decide that it’s pointlessly self-defeating to see fortune as overriding agency, even if deep-down I suspect it does (I probably won’t write the Great American Novel, but I definitely won’t if I admit that to myself), and so I’ll just go ahead and agree whole hog with the “work pays” side. Maybe optimistic self-deception, which is good for self-reported happiness, predicts pro-agency answers on the meritocracy question. What does that have to do with inequality?  

Look at it from another angle. Suppose you do know how you’d answer it. You incline heavily toward the “meritocratic” end of the (bunk) spectrum due to your firm faith in the power of hard work and your sense that it is pointlessly demoralizing to think success a hostage to fate. It remains possible to understand that (a) people start in radically different positions due to fortune, (b) hard work doesn’t usually improve each person’s life equally (indeed, people starting with disadvantages may have to work very hard to move up only a little), and therefore (c) inequality can rise even if every hardworking person manages to thereby bring him or herself a better life. In this case, your “meritocratic” belief hasn’t done anything to help you “rationalize away” inequality. You can strongly believe that effort usually pays without thinking that differences in pay reflect differences in effort. In fact, you ought to believe this.    

My guess is that Napier and Jost are not very interested in psychology and so have simply assumed that a preference for explaining lives in terms of agency rather than fortune is pretty much the same thing as thinking people deserve whatever they get.