Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Democracy's dirty little secret

Actually, it's not a secret at all. Political scientists have been pretty clear about it for most of two decades, and politicians have always understood it intuitively. The vast majority of voters don't have the time, resources, or even for the most part the interest to make a substantial study of public policy issues. The old idea of "rational choice," that people vote based on an weighted inventory of what is in their own self-interest, is defective because it does not adequately consider how people decide what that self-interest is.

Rather than making choices based on logical arguments about how a particular policy will affect them, people use heuristics -- which roughly translates as rules of thumb, or simplified decision rules. Aaron Wildavsky, in 1987, claimed that an understanding of how people develop their political loyalties has to be grounded in theories of culture. He was particularly interested in how people perceive environmental risks such as pollution, but his ideas are more broadly applicable. He was drawn to anthropolgist Mary Douglas's analysis which classifies cultural propensities according to two dimensions, which she calls group and (oddly) "grid."

Group refers to the individualistic-collectivistic continuum: the extent to which people understand themselves as embedded in family and community, and value solidarity and group interest; vs. valuing individual self-interest and self-regulation. "Grid" (a weird, ugly term) refers to the egalitarian-hierarchical continuum: the extent to which people endorse status differences, whether of caste, gender, race, class, social position; vs. favoring equality and disliking privilege.

Note that these dimensions refer to psychological proclivities, not coherent ideological positions. While people will proclaim that they are liberal or (more likely, conservative), few people can explain what these terms mean. An example, from my community organizing days, was the Fishtown factory worker who claimed to be "strongly conservative," and in the next sentence said that we should nationalize the oil companies.

As Wildavsky put it, without knowing much about a proposed policy, people can usually "guess whether its effect is to increase or decrease social distinctions, impose, avoid or reject authority." This model has recently been found to be useful in predicting people's degree of concern about pollution. Surveys consistently find a "white male" effect, in which white men are much less concerned about pollution and other environmental hazards than are non-white men and minority group members of both sexes, and are far more likely to oppose environmental regulation. It turns out, after deeper analysis (much of this work may be credited to Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon and his colleagues), that white males are far more likely than others in the population to score as high grid-high individualism, and it is the subset of white males who do so who are most hostile to environmentalism.

The bad news for them is that regardless of their attitudes about hierarchy and community, they are just as vulnerable to the harmful effects of pollution as everybody else. Of course their exposure liability may be somewhat less, or they may believe it is, because they live in suburban neighborhoods far from factory smokestacks and hazardous waste dumps, although not all of them are so fortunate. But they are in large part mistaken. We all breathe the same atmosphere and depend on the same food supply.

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