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The Hidden Agenda of The Political Mind

How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won't Admit It

Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban

(London Times)

CYNICISM about the motives of politicians is everywhere. The motives of the voters themselves, however, are not so widely questioned. Yet they - or rather, we - are the target of this book. The authors, Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban, are not political experts: they are psychologists and use the more scientific techniques of their discipline to analyse voting patterns. The downside is that about a third of their text consists of tables of data - and the book as a whole has a distinctly academic tone.

But its message is simple enough: people might say their vote is based on moral considerations, not just self-interest, but according to the authors they are mistaken, even delusional. They use the metaphor of the mind as its own public-relations executive. So, just as the corporation's PR department will reflexively defend some sponsorship by the firm as being motivated by concern (while the truth is that it is being done because it's thought good for the business to be seen to be supporting a particular cause), so humans have an unfailing ability to interpret their self-interest as altruistic.

This is the sort of analysis one would expect from the school of evolutionary psychology, and in recent years it has spread its reductive creed across a range of disciplines - much to the delight of publishers, who adore books with simple explanations of the infinite complexity of human activity. I don't necessarily disagree with the basic theory that people vote according to their perceived self-interest - why else would earners be wooed by parties offering tax cuts? But the authors apply the same analysis to apparently moral issues, which are far bigger in their country, America, divided as it is on abortion rights. They argue that those who would limit the freedom to abort in all circumstances are not motivated by concern for the unborn child. Instead, they say, the anti-abortionists are those who themselves are not sexually promiscuous and don't want to subsidise (through tax-funded contraception and terminations) the consequences of the more freewheeling sexuality of others.

Their evidence for this consists in the observation that anti-abortion voters tend not to apply their concern for the unborn in cases where women have been raped. That is a good debating point, but it still doesn't persuade me that the anti-abortion case is merely self-interest - unless it is only self-interest that makes us want others to behave in the same way that we do.

They are right, however, in observing that apparently straightforward moral issues do not begin to explain modern voting patterns. So, for example, African-American voters are much more church-going than their white co-nationals and therefore might be expected to vote more for the Republican party, which has courted the churches in the fight against 'liberalism'. Yet African-Americans (even before Barack Obama came on the scene) have voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats. This, say the authors, is because the Democrats are less hostile to recent immigrants than the Republicans and the latter's attitude is interpreted as hostility to all those who are not Wasps.

There is a strong lesson here for the British Tory party. Its basic philosophy is closer to that of immigrants of Asian origin - a strong belief in the merit of small business and 'family values': yet Labour picks up their votes more easily, because the party is less associated with anti-immigrant sentiment. In other words, self-interest consists of more than economic arguments.

However, the authors have nothing useful to say about such issues as defence and the environment. How does self-interest determine why some want more spent on the armed forces but others think reducing carbon emissions is a better way of ensuring society's protection? They conclude lamely: 'Perhaps many ordinary citizens come along for the ride based on factors that don't clearly relate to their everyday interests.' Which rather dents the theory underpinning the whole book.

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(London Times 2)

The author's starting point is controversial among academics but to most of us will seem like common sense. 'Self-interest shapes our opinion'.

We have developed lots of ways of persuading ourselves and others that our opinions arise from our concept of the public interest and are the result of disinterested consideration of competing arguments. Yet in the end, the authors argue (and succeed quite well in supporting their argument) that you won’t go far wrong trying to guess someone's opinion from their personal circumstances.

This unsurprising premise leads to some quite unexpected conclusions. And the most important concerns the relationship between education and social views.

The reason why educated people tend to have liberal views on race and sex is not due to enlightenment gained from book learning. It is to do with self-interest. If you have high human capital (you are educated and intelligent), what can prevent you from succeeding? A system in which prejudice erects barriers to the success of clever people.

So you'd expect those who are most strongly in favour of eradicating racism, sexism and homophobia to be people who belong to subordinate social groups (the term the authors used to describe those discriminated against in the past) but who have high human capital. And this, when one looks at opinion surveys, turns out to be the case.

At the same time, economically successful individuals tend - tend - to have either moderate or favourable views of capitalist economic competition. And those with what the authors call 'freewheeling' sex lives tend to favour liberal positions on issues like abortion.

Public opinion on gay marriage in the US has changed very rapidly, taking everyone a bit by surprise. Yet rapidly changing education levels, altered sexual mores and much more openness about homosexuality makes the shift quite easy to understand. Looking at voting figures for the last general election, Labour did worse and the Conservatives did better as income rose. Yet the more educated you were, the more likely you were to vote Labour. Just as the authors might anticipate.

Now look at the authors' arguments again. Who, they ask, is most likely to oppose political correctness? Members of dominant social groups with low human capital. In other words people who - whether they realise this or not - benefit from social barriers that protect them in the competition for work and status that they might otherwise lose.

And that is where - and this is a demographic observation, not a moral or political judgment - Ukip wins much of its support. Older white males with relatively low educational attainment.

Which raises a question about how sustainable the current party alignments really are.

In 1950 17,300 people in England and Wales were awarded undergraduate degrees and 14 per cent of 16-year-olds were in full-time education. In 2011 331,000 people were awarded undergraduate degrees and 88 per cent of 16-year-olds were in full-time education. This is a social revolution. And the political implications are clear.

As economic achievement becomes more closely aligned with educational attainment in our socalled 'knowledge economy', the Conservatives have had to become more socially liberal to keep the backing of their main economic supporters. Cameron’s gay marriage proposal emerges from this not as the political error some thought it but very nearly essential.

At the same time Labour faces a tension between educated liberals who find the party economically unconvincing and the party's less economically successful base which finds the party too socially liberal.

Keeping highly educated and much less educated people in the same coalition may prove politically impossible, forcing either or both parties to become radically different, with the Tories much more socially liberal or Labour much more economically so.

Yet all the talk in the Labour leadership campaign is about how to put back together a political alliance that it may not be possible to reassemble.

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