Gilbert & Sullivan, Hannity & Colmes

Last week the University of Toronto released the news that

There is a strong relationship between a voter’s politics and his personality, according to new research from the University of Toronto.

Researchers at UofT have shown that the psychological concern for compassion and equality is associated with a liberal mindset, while the concern for order and respect of social norms is associated with a conservative mindset.

I have not read the full study, so I cannot say whether its authors have properly cited their antecedents, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, who presaged these findings in their 1882 comic opera Iolanthe:

I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!
How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Fal, lal, la!

Not being one to argue against both the comic arts and the social sciences when they are in clear accord, I am moved to speculate upon the hereditary or environmental factors that can plausibly be thought to induce such a simple and stark dichotomy in political views.  I believe the answer is to be found in what economists call, with their customary infelicity of word choice, the subjective rate of time preference, which is what the rest of us would call one’s general level of impatience.

People with relatively high rates of time preference strongly prefer immediate over deferred rewards.  They are therefore willing to accept a smaller payment that is received in the near term rather than a larger payment to be received in the distant future. Indeed, the relative magnitude of the future payment necessary to induce anyone to forego an immediate payment net of actual interest payments is the very measure of one’s degree of impatience.

The relation of subjective time preference to one’s political views is clear and direct whenever a policy proposal involves a balancing of near-term gains against long-run costs, or its opposite.  The canonical example of this is the policy debate between advocates of Keynesian deficit spending by the federal government and those who worry about the future tax burden represented by the ballooning public debt.  Lord Keynes gave his side of the argument quite pithily:  “In the long run we are all dead.”  The obvious retort to this truism is that our most fervent hope is that our children and our children’s children are alive and well over that same period of time.

It is natural to imagine that there is smooth, continuous variation in people’s rates of time preference, so that one might suppose that there is a similarly wide variation in people’s political opinions that would defy the simple liberal-conservative dichotomy.  Yet we are told that this is not so; the political battle lines are sharply drawn. As it turns out, the field of game theory offers a simple and, to me appealing, explanation through the analysis of “infinitely (or indefinitely) repeated games.”

The analysis considers situations in which two or more individuals interact in such a way that narrowly self-interested behavior dominates more restrained, other-regarding behavior if a sufficiently low value is placed on future outcomes relative to current ones. To an impatient person, it makes little sense to forego the possibility of taking the maximum possible amount today in the hope of sustained rewards in the future that are each relatively small but may add up to a significant sum.  It happens that for each such repeated “game” there is a unique rate of time preference that will separate “players” into two groups:  those who always choose the “shortsighted” actions and those who might instead choose the “farsighted” actions.  Despite potentially continuous variation in attitudes toward the future, only two types of behavior emerge.  Each of us either takes the long-run view or the Keynesian view.  Neither view is wrong;  each is correct given a particular balancing of the near-term and the long run.

I hasten to point out that the potential for two highly distinct observed types of behavior to emerge exists for any one particular repeated “game.”  If the policies under discussion differed materially in the way in which benefits and costs varied over time, then variable rates of time preference could give rise to a wide range of policy preferences.  It seems, however, that there is sufficient similarity in the relative magnitudes of short-run vs. long-run gains and losses in the usual policy proposals that most of us regularly come down on the side of the long run (which typically means adherence to rules of behavior or policy) or the short run (which typically means paying attention to the particulars of the moment rather than the governing rules).

So conservatives are not necessarily cold-hearted; they may merely weigh the future heavily. Similarly, liberals are not necessarily incapable of rational analysis; they may simply discount the future severely.  And it turns out that Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ant is not merely a cautionary tale but perhaps the basis for a satisfactory theory of politics.

The most remarkable anomaly that remains to be explained according to this view of politics is why Alvin Greene, a diligent saver and therefore a man with a low subjective rate of time preference, is a Democrat.

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