Why should the US lead in Libya? This is a question I've been asking myself a number of times as I've heard one common criticism of Obama and our actions in Libya, specifically that we aren't demonstrating leadership. Personally, I would like Gaddafi stopped and perhaps most importantly, I'd like us to save lives when possible with minimal risk and cost, but I don't necessarily understand why it is important if we lead the effort. In fact, as a taxpayer, I would love it if France decided to bear the cost of the endeavor or better yet, an Arab country that is less likely to cause reactance in the population. And if they would like our help, I would be happy for us to follow.
In contrast, Sarah Palin was perturbed that "We get in the back of the bus and wait for NATO, we wait for the French." Newt Gingrich said that when Obama stated that Gaddafi has to go, "he pitted the prestige and power of the United States against a dictator who's been anti-American for over 40 years." Conservative Charles Krauthammer believes that Obama is "overly modest about his country" at a time when "the world is hungry for America to lead".
Does it really matter if we are perceived to be leading or following and does every desire the President expresses have to come true, lest we are diminished? A belief certainly isn't wrong just because I don't share it. There are many things that people value more than me (e.g. etiquette or aesthetics) that are nevertheless important in the world. However, what puzzles me about calls for the US to lead in Libya is that I don't necessarily understand the underlying value differences that drive this. What do we get for being the "leader" in Libya? Would it be so bad to let the French bear the cost and risk involved?
I don't have a good empirical answer for this, but I did examine some value differences in our yourmorals dataset that I wanted to share, in part because certain hypotheses I had are demonstrably wrong. Below is a graph of how much conservatives, liberals, and libertarians value humility, influence, social power, and authority from the Schwartz Values scale in our dataset. The overall average bars are the average across all values on the scale, indicating that none of these values overly important in any group. Still, these differences may play a role in the underlying psychology of geo-political leadership.
Perhaps blinded by my liberal bias, I thought one possibility was that liberals believe in humility more than conservatives and/or perhaps conservatives have a greater desire to be influential. Surprisingly, though probably not to conservative readers, some of whom likely share Krauthammer's belief that liberals are immodest, conservatives in our dataset value humility more than liberals and both groups value being influential fairly evenly. The belief that the US should lead does not appear to be a function of conservatives lacking modesty about our country or wanting to wield influence in the world.
Conservatives do report valuing being in positions of authority and having social power more than liberals. One hypothesis that is possible, is that conservatives might believe that it would be a bad thing if the US had less power and authority in the world, as these are things which they value more than liberals. Some people may get a sense of power and authority from being associated with a powerful and authoritative country. From that perspective, it might make sense to want the US to take a leadership position, even if it does result in a higher tax bill and more risk.
Of course, bear in mind that I haven't actually connected these values to any attitudes toward Libya, and these results may only hold for the types of educated internet users that tend to visit our website. Still, this was informative to me for the hypothesis that this rules out, as it seems unlikely that pride is driving calls for the US to lead intervention in Libya amongst conservatives, given that liberals may actually be more prone to pride. The desire for our country to remain in a prestigious position of power and authority is a more likely candidate and perhaps underlies the desire to see us play a leading role in Libya.
I would welcome any other hypotheses or ideas, especially from conservatives who do feel that it is important that the US take a leadership role in whatever we do. Why do you feel this is this important to you? What am I possibly missing? Perhaps those thoughts would help me design a more conclusive study. In addition, I'm going to start monitoring my own levels of modesty.
- Ravi Iyer
I was recently asked about the psychology of scarcity and it gave me an excuse to revisit an old paper by Skitka and Tetlock (1992, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology) that contains a more complex version of the model I depict below. Like many who are interested in politics, I've been following the recent budget debates with interest. Beyond the issue specific partisanship (e.g. defunding NPR or Planned Parenthood), there is the larger issue of how much government can afford to provide a social safety net. As the simplified model based on this paper argues, the desire to help others is based in large part on appraisals of how scarce resources are and how deserving people are of those resources.
This is basically common sense, but the interesting part is when we combine the model with research suggesting that conservatives are more likely than liberals to react to threats and avoid negative outcomes, suggesting that in the first decision box, even given the same facts, conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe that scarce resources(e.g. the budget deficit) are likely to lead to ruin and therefore cut public assistance. For example, this might explain why a recent Pew Research Poll found that Republicans feel that the deficit is a bigger economic priority than adding more jobs (37% vs 22%), while the numbers were reversed for Democrats (41% think jobs is the most important economic concern vs. 15% for the deficit).
Further, when you get to the second decision box (appraising deservingness), conservatives are more likely to attribute success and failure to internal-controllable causes vs. liberals. For example, this is a graph of yourmorals.org data and you'll notice that conservatives are more likely to attribute their success at work and in relationships to effort (an internal-controllable trait) versus ability (internal, but not necessarily controllable) or context/luck (external). This attributional divide has been documented in other published research.
When you combine these two factors, it is no surprise that liberals and conservatives have very different ideas about a social safety net. Each group may be psychologically predisposed to believing in more or less scarcity and more or less personal responsibility for outcomes, even given the same information about the world.
These dispositions may actually also cause people to be more liberal or conservative, or to support such policies, as research on mortality salience has succeeded in increasing support for conservative candidates. There is a lack of research on causes of liberalism, but anecdotally, Michael Moore recently told a liberal audience that "America is not broke." and in my anecdotal experience of religion, one of the main principles of many liberal churches is the idea that we need to think of the world as full of abundance, not scarcity. The ironic thing is that just when people need help most (conditions of scarcity) and Keynesian economics would suggest we should spend more, the psychology of the situation predisposes us to be less generous. Of course, that's from my liberal point of view, where I'm predisposed to such beliefs.
- Ravi Iyer
ps If anyone knows of studies where an abundance mentality leads to liberal beliefs, I'd love to hear from you.