Do you care?

It has often occurred to me that we can roughly distribute the population according to what I’ll call ‘a sympathy matrix.’

sympathy matrix

Libertarians, for the most part, occupy the lower left. Socialists, shall we say, tend to inhabit the upper-right quadrant of the matrix. I would situate the modern Republican within the lower-left square; the Democrat somewhere in the middle, though Bill Clinton would be a short step removed from the “me”+”now” (personal aggrandizement).

We can imagine an individual obsessed with getting as much as he can for himself right now, everyone else be damned (lower left). Idealistic social democrats with a strong environmental-protection ethic would be comfortable with spreading around the wealth between current and future generations; they can be found in the upper-right.

The principal factor in the distribution is the level of one’s sympathy for others. Republicans tend to be highly individualistic, believing that what happens to themselves and everyone else is the responsibility of the individual, and one’s circumstances, good or ill, are largely self-created, mostly through dint of hard work and discipline. The Republican worships “strong” leaders, preferably male, and adheres to clear principles of authority, with one’s status and role defined within a hierarchy of power. The Republican is, of course, a conservative. In the extreme, he would extirpate “collectivists” and those concerned with the public good. Conservatives reject the notion of society, as they reject John Donne’s aphorism, that no man is an island. They also tend to be concrete in their thinking, and may very well see the world in terms of dollars and cents, measuring themselves by the size of their bank accounts. There are no saints in this bunch. Indeed, there is no hint of practiced Christianity, though most American conservatives would call themselves disciples of Christ. Hypocrites, to be sure. They are far more likely to embrace “the market” and “greed is good” over the Sermon on the Mount.

At the opposite end, again the upper right, we’ll find idealists, to be sure, people who believe that through cooperation and collaboration humans will progress in harmony with nature, rather than against it. They emphasize collective policies and actions, so they favor universal health care, for example, and economic rights, including the right to a living wage and affordable housing, along with financial security from cradle to grave. The collectivist willingly pays higher taxes to ensure that no one is deprived of life’s necessities. They believe that an individual’s condition has more to do with fate and happenstance than with one’s personal attitudes and behaviors. Because they attach so much importance to life’s vicissitudes, they sympathize with other’s misfortunes and are, therefore, supportive of government transfers to compensate the “losers.”

It has also occurred to me that initial conditions play a huge role in determining future outcomes. This applies to both the individual and the greater political economy. Regarding the latter application, the events that combine to produce American history yield a present status quo, including the sympathy distribution described above. This inertial quality, which I think is quite high, militates against moving those in the lower left toward the upper right. Thus, I do not believe that facts, figures, and argument can persuade the conservative to become the socialist, though there have been a few exceptions in both directions. Moreover, most of us are now enslaved by confirmation bias: we focus on those media outlets that echo what we already believe and simply ignore those of a different perspective. (Paul Krugman has suggested a “Foxification” of the right.)

This latter point is, naturally, pessimistic. We do not change our views, however inconsistent with the facts, because we don’t have to. Indeed, one can believe anything, no matter how outrageous, knowing that there are legions of equally daft people of like mind. Just check the Internet. No one is really an outlier.

Nevertheless, those in the upper-right quadrant should continue their journey against ignorance, selfishness, and cruelty, with the knowledge that future generations and our very planet depend on it.