I wonder if one of the biggest differences between conservatives and liberals is how they view systems. Conservatives seem to believe that systems - whether economic or ecological - are self correcting, whereas liberals seem to believe that systems sometimes require intervention.
I'm talking politics with my buddy Daryl - who is essentially a libertarian. He is intrigued as to why I'm a liberal and decides that we ought to argue climate change to explore why we reach different conclusions.
Daryl is skeptical about the fact of climate change but allows that even if it is happening it's threat to life is much less than even malaria. His argument is essentially that of Bjorn Lomborg's, who says that scientists and politicians warning of climate change are overly emotional about the issue and would divert their resources elsewhere if they were conducting rational analysis of different threats.
I can cede this point, but think that it misses a larger point. The habitat is not really a marginal cost kind of issue. We need it in roughly its current condition in order to survive. If the price of gold goes up and we run out, oh well. If the price of habitat goes up and we run out, oh hell.
Even this Daryl counters to say that no marginal analysis of a habitat is ever going to accept a future value of zero. No calculation would allow that such a price was worth it. Instead, Daryl says, the environment might change and so would behavior. If coastal cities get flooded, people move. All this takes time and the analysis of the cost assumes that human behavior does not change in response.
This conversation took place as I was already puzzling over what cluster of beliefs make conservatives' world view different from liberals. And in this case, I mean conservatives as people who believe in minimal government action because they trust in individual response, as opposed to liberal beliefs' that individuals don't always do what is best for the larger system.
Let's look at the economy, for instance. A conservative says that if unemployment jumps up, wages will drop and eventually people will be hired again. There may be pain for time as people re-train or accept lower wages, but prices will drop and the sooner people accept this new reality the better.
A liberal, by contrast, will argue for intervention. When people lose their jobs, they buy fewer products. As companies sell fewer products, they layoff more workers. As more people lose their jobs, they buy fewer products. Liberals argue that economies do not always self correct and can actually fall into a spiral of worsening conditions. At this point, government intervention to raise spending, lower taxes, or lower interest rates can reverse the downward spiral and get the economy going again.
Listening to Daryl, I realized why it is that so many conservatives are against measures to combat climate change. Such measures are expensive. (Conservatives are more honest about this than liberals, as one would expect from a group arguing that intervention is not worth doing.) And they don't really believe that these systems need intervention. As the climate changes, there will be winners and losers and people will adjust; farmers in Canada and Norway will benefit while farmers in Bengal and Guatemala do worse. Life never was fair. Intervention is likely to be too expensive, the problem is likely to change, and any intervention is bound to have unexpected consequences.
I guess I might agree if it were not for the fact that climate change already seems like an intervention on a process that has evolved over billions of years. And I don't doubt that the planet and even some people will do well on a globe that potentially has more storms and runs 3 to 7 degrees warmer. But I do doubt that the cost for this adjustment will be less than the "intervention" that would lessen the current intervention into the ecosystem that is the product of carbon emissions.
To the extent that conservatives argue for letting systems naturally adjust, theirs will more often be the policy we use. Liberals who want to intervene in systems have more obstacles to enacting their policy: from gaining agreement that intervention is needed to assessing and gaining agreement over exactly what kind of intervention is needed. In order to get their way, conservatives merely have to wait for the rest of the population to reach a stalemate on what to do.
I think that it's true that our knowledge of systems is in its infancy. The language of systems dynamics is not even a century old and still gets little attention. Because ultimately, the battle between conservatives who argue doing nothing and liberals who want to implement policy is a battle between people with simulation models and people with faith in the self-correcting nature of systems. History suggests that systems do not always correct, as studies of the Great Depression and select ecosystems suggest (see, for instance, Jared Diamond's Collapse).
The option is not to cling to faith. Given the importance of systems to life and civilization, our only option seems to radically improve our ability to model, understand, and predict systems' behaviors.
I sympathize with the conservatives' contention that many interventions actually worsen systems or - at best - simply squander resources to change what cannot be changed. And I know that politicians and governments with the power to intervene in economies and financial markets can become the instruments of abuse. But I don't have conservatives' calm faith in systems' ability to self correct before things get worse. I guess that makes me a reluctant liberal.
And it suggests one other thing. We should aggressively invest in the study of systems' dynamics - systems as varied as ecosystems, economies, financial markets, the Internet, international labor markets, the spread of terrorist ideologies, and social progress. We can't afford to be dependant on systems we so poorly understand.