Why should the US lead in Libya? Liberal-Conservative Value Differences.

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



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