In a long essay in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, “What the Tea Partiers Really Want,” University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt argues, as the subtitle puts it, that “the passion behind the populist insurgency is less about liberty than a particularly American idea of karma.” Taking his cue from Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe’s claim in their new book, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, that tea partiers “just want to be free, … so long as we don’t infringe on the same freedom of others,” Haidt notes that his research shows that while self-described libertarians agree most strongly with that view, liberals are not far behind, in contrast with the social conservatives “who make up the bulk of the tea party,” who are more tepid in their endorsement of that idea.
So why are libertarians and conservatives largely teamed up in the tea party? Haidt doesn’t really answer that question. Rather, his main aim, as noted, is to show that the tea party’s moral passion is not so much about liberty as about “an old and very conservative idea” of karma, which “combines the universal human desire that moral accounts should be balanced with a belief that, somehow or other, they will be balanced.” In other words, “kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it’s just a law of the universe, like gravity.”
Yet in “the last 80 years of American history” the welfare state has undermined that moral balance, Haidt continues, nowhere more clearly, recently, than with the Bush bank bailout, using taxpayer dollars, which Armey and Kibbe claim was the real start of the tea-party movement.
Listen, for example, to Rick Santelli’s “rant heard ‘round the world” on CNBC last year and its most famous lines: “The government is promoting bad behavior,” and “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors’ mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” It’s a rant about karma, not liberty.
Haidt is certainly on to something here. And he develops and illustrates his thesis in some detail, including how the modern liberals’ focus on equality, and their attraction to government programs securing it, makes them uneasy with this karma, separating them from libertarians and conservatives. But he also argues that research that he and a colleague have done on “the five main psychological ‘foundations’ of morality” shows that “libertarians are morally a bit more similar to liberals than to conservatives,” leading him to conclude that it’s not clear how long the tea party blend of libertarians and conservatives can stay blended.
I won’t go into the details of Haidt’s five main psychological foundations of morality, except to say that, at least as presented in this essay, they raise as many questions as they answer. I will add, however, that lumping people into even self-identified ideological groupings is always problematic, since any such “group” will be constituted by individuals with a range of views and tendencies. Moreover, and more important, the contrast Haidt draws between liberty and what he calls karma is doubtless overdrawn. After all, the “libertarian” focus on liberty and the “conservative” focus on “karma” most often come to the same thing, at bottom. The “conservative” notion of individual responsibility, coupled with positive and negative sanctions, is fully realized only in a regime of liberty of a kind that “libertarians” have long promoted. In fact, to flesh that out more fully, the Journal has another useful essay this morning on the editorial page, Peter Berkowitz’s “Why Liberals Don’t Get the Tea Party Movement.” Much to think about as we cruise to the elections little more than two weeks away.