Logic and Emotion in Politics

Winston Churchill’s famous quote on this topic goes as follows: “If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” Depending on your political persuasion this is not necessarily the most endearing polemic to lead off with, but it certainly frames the issue. Are fiscal liberals governed primarily by their emotions? Are fiscal conservatives governed primarily by their logic? There are countless ways to examine this – to wit:

Did the entirely valid emotional desire to see financially less-fortunate families become homeowners create the edifice of sand upon which the financiers of Wall Street built their derivatives house of cards?

Did the hyper-literate, ruthlessly logical calculations of economists and bankers – who thought they had mastered the art of risk management – completely backfire on them? Was the forest of fundamentals obscured by trees of logic?

In the above set of scenarios, emotion and logic both backfired, but a cynic would disagree with both assessments. A cynic would suggest policymakers knew perfectly well their attempts to sell homes to anyone regardless of their earnings or credit history was bound to fail, and that they pushed these manifestly irresponsible policies because they were taking money off the table the whole time. A cynic would make a similar claim against the Wall Street folks – that they knew the whole scheme was going to crash, but they collected their bonuses, bet against their own clients, concocted elaborate models that obfuscated the otherwise obvious financial chicanery of it all, and laughed all the way to the bank.

The point so far is perhaps this – logic is an amoral, bipartisan phenomenon that can be put to use for good or ill, and logic itself is no guarantee of accuracy, just an essential tool to help us hopefully be more accurate than we might otherwise be. And to the extent emotion governs politics, it is generally sincere, whereas logic is only an emotionless tool. Evidence suggests, overwhelmingly, that in a democracy, emotion is a far more powerful political weapon than logic. But sincere emotional appeals that aren’t vetted with logic can be dangerous. Our financial crisis that was enabled by a sincere emotional desire to empower poor families – and to embrace free market principles – is not the only example of valid emotional imperatives producing bad results.

  • We emotionally respond to the desire to help the poor, and instead create huge self-interested bureaucracies of overpaid taxpayer-funded unionized public employees, whose programs create a cycle of dependency and further harm the people they are supposedly going to help.
  • We emotionally respond to the desire to protect the environment, and instead tie all land development and resource development up in knots of regulations and lawsuits, undermining our economic growth and personal liberties.
  • We emotionally respond to the desire to provide health care to everyone, and instead create a new layer of government bureaucracy, drive capable doctors and other health practitioners out of the business in disgust, grossly increase rates of health insurance for people who can barely afford what they’ve already got, challenge the ability of medical device manufacturers to stay in business, reduce the amount of private research, and ultimately, slow the rate of growth and the rate of innovation across the entire health care industry.

Do we need to help the poor, protect the environment, and reform health care? Of course – but we need to first ensure that sincere emotional motivation has not been hijacked by coldly logical cynics for personal gain, or has been passionately embraced by so many people that cautionary logic is swarmed under and insufficiently employed. Logic takes time. Logic is cold. Logic is heartless. But only logic can ensure a well-intentioned policy will have its intended effect.

In a commentary by Daniel Klein entitled “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader,” published in the June 8th, 2010 edition of the Wall Street Journal, some interesting data on this divide between logic and emotion in politics was presented.

Klein cited a Zogby International survey that attempted to measure the economic literacy of the respondents, and then correlated their answers to whether or not they self-identified as either Very Conservative, Libertarian, Conservative, Moderate, Liberal, and Very Liberal. The poll had eight questions that tested the respondents understanding of supply and demand, free trade, and other basic economic concepts. In some cases, particularly with the two questions centered on free trade concepts, one may allow for some remaining debate on what might be the right answer, but the results nonetheless showed a sharp divide, with Conservatives and Libertarians scoring four times better than Liberals in terms of the number of answers they got correct.

Does such a test conclusively demonstrate that logic is more likely to inform the policy preferences of conservatives, and emotion is more likely to inform the policy preferences of liberals? If so, it would explain a lot. But asking such a question or making such a generalization is futile if, at the same time, the emotional dimension of enlightened altruism vs. cynical opportunism as the motive for a policy preference is not equally explored.

In an earlier post entitled “Fiscal Conservatism is Social Justice” this concept is developed further, and is summarized as follows:

The left has a rhetorical advantage because their policies are so easy to cloak in virtue. Does this advantage make the left the magnet for the sinners, the opportunists, those with no virtue – their ability to prevail politically merely because they can more easily tar and feather the right with the unjustified but easily applied stigma of having no altruism, no empathy? Ponder this need to redefine the perceived premises of left and right, before descending into the details of the debate. We all want the same things.

Without emotion, logic is rudderless and heartless. Without logic, emotion is a potent, capricious hydra, capable of utterly destroying productive institutions as often as it reforms or refines them.

Fiscal conservatives need to learn to express the altruistic heart that informs any policy they espouse, especially when they must otherwise depend on the financial literacy of their target audience. And perhaps fiscal liberals need to take classes in finance, and resist the all-too-normal tendency to become overwhelmed by the emotional appeal of their cause.

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