Why socialist ideas persist

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By FTN Editorial Team

In this series we will publish weekly cutouts from the book by Kristian Niemietz

Haidt’s social intuitionist model and Caplan’s theory of ‘rational irrationality’

When reading the accounts of socialist pilgrims, one cannot help wondering how so many highly educated, highly intelligent, well-informed and well-meaning people can be so colossally and persistently wrong. Of course most of us are not experts on the economy, political system or social structures of a foreign country, and it is easy for an outside observer to come up with a wrong assessment. But socialist pilgrims were not just wrong in the way in which, say a finance journalist who mistakes a short-lived boom for a genuine increase in prosperity, is wrong. Those pilgrims travelled to some of the most hellish places in the world and came back convinced that they had seen paradise.

Hollander’s (1990) work leaves no doubt that pilgrims were not simply being naive. A naive person does not want to be deceived – they are just not good at spotting deception. Being a socialist pilgrim, in contrast, requires a deliberate effort of self-manipulation and reality-filtering, of selective seeing, not-seeing and un-seeing. Being a socialist pilgrim is hard work.

Haidt’s social intuitionist model

This is where Jonathan Haidt’s (2012) research into how our faculties for moral and political reasoning have evolved, and how they work, is insightful. Haidt shows that a lot of our moral and political reasoning is post-hoc rationalisation. Its primary purpose is not to arrive at a conclusion, but to justify a conclusion after we have reached it. We often arrive at a broad conclusion quickly and intuitively, and then selectively look for arguments to back it up retrospectively. Haidt sums this up in the formula ‘Intuitions come first, strategic reason comes second’. Thus, our mind does not work like a judge, who studies evidence, weighs it, interprets it, and only then comes to a conclusion. It works more like a lawyer, who settles for the broad position they want to take in court early on (forexample, ‘my client is innocent’) and then builds a case for it. That case can be perfectly logical, coherent and persuasive. But it is not the reason why the lawyer arrived at that position. The lawyer started from that position and then `reverse-engineered’ a case for it. If that case breaks down (say, if their client’s alibi turns out to be false), the lawyer will not discard their position. They will keep the position and just justify it in a different way. They will build a new case that will arrive at the same conclusion. If evidence against it is so overwhelming that there is no way the position can be maintained, they will settle for the smallest concession they can possibly get away with.

For example, Haidt runs a series of interviews, in which participants are asked for their moral judgement on some hypothetical action X, and to explain their reason(s) for that judgement. When participants claim to oppose X, on the grounds that it can lead to negative outcome A, the interviewer changes the setup (it is just a thought experiment, so the interviewer can change it at will) in such a way that X could not possibly cause A. But rather than softening their stance on X in response, most participants simply reach for a different line of attack: if X does not cause A, then surely it causes the equally undesirable outcome B. When the interviewer then takes that argument away as well (by changing the setup again to rule out B), most interviewees jump straight to attack C. And so on.This shows that neither A nor B nor C were ever the reasons why the interviewees opposed X. They were post-hoc justifications for an intuitive and visceral dislike of X. This has important implications (Haidt 2012: 48):

“The social intuitionist model offers an explanation of why moral and political arguments are so frustrating: because moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog. A dog’s tail wags to communicate. You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.”

We often think of emotion and reason as forces that are independent of each other, which can pull in opposite directions. The emotional part of our mind supports a particular policy because it feels good and is based on good intentions; the rational part of our mind opposes it because the policy has been tried elsewhere and failed. Haidt’s research shows that this is not the way it works. Emotion and reason are not antagonists. The relationship between them is more like an employer–employee relationship. The emotional, intuitive part of our mind settles for a position and then ‘employs’ the reasoning part to come up with good arguments for it.

It is, as Haidt also points out, not a master–slave relationship. If the employer comes up with completely unreasonable requests, the employee can refuse to do it. Most of us could not persuade ourselves that the world is ruled by humanoid lizards or that the Holocaust never happened, even if we had a desire to believe that. But conspiracy theorists who do hold such beliefs are not outliers who lack ‘normal’ reasoning skills. Rather, they show tendencies which we all show and just take them to extremes. It is a difference in degree, not a qualitative difference. Conspiracy theorists are able to reach the conclusion they want to reach even when all the evidence is unambiguously against them, whereas most of us need at least some ambiguity. But since there is almost always some ambiguity, and it is almost always possible to find support for a range of positions, we usually find reasons to reach the conclusion that we want to reach.

This tendency can manifest itself in various ways. One is ‘confirmation bias’ – our well-documented tendency to magnify evidence which supports what we already believe and to overlook or dismiss evidence to the contrary. A related, often more sophisticated, form of post-hoc rationalisation is ‘motivated reasoning’.

As Haidt (2012:84) explains:
Psychologists now have file cabinets full of findings on 
‘motivated reasoning’, showing the many tricks people use to reach the conclusion they want to reach. When subjects are told that an intelligence test gave them a low score, they choose to read articles criticizing (rather than supporting) the validity of IQ tests. When people read a (fictitious) scientific study that reports a link between caffeine consumption and breast cancer, women who are heavy coffee drinkers find more flaws in the study than do men and less caffeinated women.

A motivated reasoner does not completely ignore or deny evidence that contradicts their beliefs, rather, they will try to pick holes in it. They may, for example, demand impossible standards of accuracy from sources of inconvenient information, usually coupled with lax standards for sources of convenient information.

Haidt’s findings are not as pessimistic as they may sound at first. Haidt does not say that we cannot reason our way to the truth. He just highlights the strength of intuitions in moral and political arguments. This is not always a problem. On many issues, most of us do not have strong intuitions one way or another. We may feel strongly that Britain should leave the EU or remain in the EU. But most of us will not have strong feelings on, say, whether Britain should remain part of the Single European Sky agreement. Reasoned argument prevails when its findings do not run up against strong intuitions.

More importantly, our intuitions will often be conflicted. We may feel strongly that Britain should consolidate its public finances and keep government debt under control. But we may also feel strongly about protecting people who rely on government support. If we just see ‘austerity’ as pointless cruelty (that is, if we do not have conflicting intuitions), we will not be receptive to arguments about the dangers of runaway deficits. But if our intuitions give us mixed messages, there is no reason why we should not go wherever the best evidence leads us. Haidt emphasises that very simple things, such as being friends with people with opposing political views, can change political intuitions, because it takes the hostility and bitterness out of political disagreement. We may still disagree, but we are more likely to give opposing arguments a fair hearing. It is very difficult to concede that a political opponent may have a point when we feel resentment towards them. This is why Haidt emphasises the dangers of political self-segregation and hyper-tribalism, of the kind that we currently see on social media or in university campus culture wars. In such environments, people with similar political views cease to be just a loose alliance and become a moral tribe which commands loyalty and punishes dissent. People with opposing views, meanwhile, cease to be just political opponents and become an enemy tribe; their views cease to be just wrong and become actively malicious.

The tendency to use reasoning as a tool for justifying and confirming existing beliefs, rather than for finding the truth, exists at the best of times – but some settings counteract that tendency, while others magnify it. Turning politics into a moral crusade turbocharges it. We can see this process in action when opposing views, or the people holding them, are described in the same terms we would use to describe rotten food or milk: ‘disgusting’, ‘repugnant’, ‘repulsive’, ‘sickening’, etc. If this is our visceral response to a point of view, the reasoning part of our mind will immediately switch into ‘lawyer-mode’. Haidt’s research is not specifically about intellectuals, but he cites a study which investigates how reasoning skills vary by education level and intelligence. Study participants were asked to pick a side in a contemporary policy debate, to write down the case for their own position, and to write down the case for the opposing position. This latter task is about testing people’s ability to put themselves into the mind of a political opponent and to argue as an opponent would argue. When it comes to defending one’s own position, the study results are as one would expect: reasoning skills are positively correlated with education and intelligence. But on the second task – arguing from the perspective of an opponent – there was no such correlation:

Smart people make really good lawyers and press secretaries, but they are no better than others at finding reasons on the other side. Perkins [the study’s lead author] concluded that ‘People invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and even-handedly’.

Haidt’s research does not lead us to a fatalistic position; it does not suggest that rational inquiry and persuasion are impossible and that we should just give up trying. But it shows that it takes an extraordinary amount of intellectual self-discipline to discard a political/moral position that we are emotionally comfortable with, and to embrace a position that we are emotionally uncomfortable with instead, purely on the basis of superior evidence in support of the latter.

Caplan’s theory of ‘rational irrationality’

Bryan Caplan’s (2006) research on ‘rational irrationality’ provides additional insights. Caplan shows that there are a lot of economic policy ideas that are demonstrably wrong and rejected by economists of virtually all political persuasions and methodological schools – but that nonetheless remain widely popular. He does not look at socialism (although some of the policies he refers to could be reasonably described as socialist) and he does not specifically  look at attitudes among intellectuals. But it is not a huge stretch to extrapolate from his findings.

Caplan explains: 

Economists usually presume that beliefs are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. In reality, however,we often have cherished views, valued for their own sake. […] Outside of economics, the idea that people like some beliefs more than others has a long history. […] Few dispassionately accept their religious teachings as the ‘current leading hypothesis.’ […] Like the adherents of traditional religion, many people find comfort in their political worldview, and greet critical questions with pious hostility.

Thus, holding on to a demonstrably wrong belief can be entirely rational, if that belief is a source of pleasure, pride, emotional comfort and perhaps even a sense of identity. It only seems irrational if we erroneously assume that the person holding that belief is motivated solely by a desire to know the truth. Beliefs that are emotionally appealing confer a benefit on the person holding them, irrespective of whether or not they are true.

What about the costs? According to Caplan, there is a huge difference between holding (or rather, acting upon) irrational beliefs in our personal lives and holding irrational beliefs in political life. We bear the full cost of the former, but there is no cost associated with the latter. If we bear the cost of holding an irrational belief, there is a strong incentive to revise it, or at least, to find an excuse for not acting upon it. This is why we often see, for example, people who hold xenophobic beliefs, but who would not hesitate to buy a foreign product, hire a foreign worker or work for a foreign employer, etc., if this makes them better off than buying a domestic product, hiring a compatriot or working for a compatriot, etc. They may still cherish their irrational beliefs, but they act as if they hold rational beliefs. Irrational political beliefs, of course, also come at a cost if they turn into irrational policies. But that cost is not borne specifically by the people holding those beliefs. It is shared across the whole population, and no single member of the public has a perceptible impact on political outcomes. Unlike in the sphere of personal choices, there is therefore no correlation between the political beliefs we hold individually and the politics we get. There is no need to be careful what we wish for, because there is no relationship between what we wish for and what we actually get. We could fervently advocate a policy which, if it were ever enacted, would quickly ruin the country, including ourselves. Holding that view comes at no cost to us. Economists have long known the concept of ‘rational ignorance’: it is rational not to be well-informed about politics (unless we find the subject interesting in its own right) because we cannot change its outcomes anyway. Caplan proposes an alternative, or rather, an extension to the concept of rational ignorance, namely rational irrationality

[I]rrationality, like ignorance, is selective. We habitually tune out unwanted information on subjects we don’t care about. In the same vein […] we turn off our rational faculties on subjects where we don’t care about the truth. Economists have long argued that voter ignorance is a predictable response to the fact that one vote doesn’t matter. Why study the issues if you can’t change the outcome? I generalize this insight: Why control your knee-jerk emotional and ideological reactions if you can’t change the outcome?

If a false belief is emotionally satisfying, and if there is no cost associated with holding it, we would expect it to be widely held: ‘we should expect people to “satiate” their demand for political delusion, to believe whatever makes them feel best. After all, it’s free’ 

In Caplan’s model, political irrationality is the result of a straightforward (implicit) cost–benefit analysis. Discarding a cherished political belief is painful. It involves an emotional cost. But there are no corresponding gains. So why do it? It is rational to stick to a cherished belief, even if it is refuted by all the evidence. It is rational to be politically irrational.

Applying Haidt’s and Caplan’s findings to socialist intellectuals

Haidt’s and Caplan’s research is not specifically about socialism or intellectuals, so drawing inferences is necessarily a bit speculative. But it is a starting point. Confirmation bias, for example, is written all over practically every pilgrimage account. Pilgrims constantly see people who ‘seem happy’ or ‘seem content’. It is as if pilgrims suddenly acquire telepathic abilities as soon as they touch socialist ground. They ‘sense’ the enthusiasm of the masses. They are ‘struck by’ a pervasive spirit of solidarity and community. They ‘cannot help but notice’ how dedicated to the revolution everyone is. In the same vein, completely ordinary observations that one could also see in any Western country acquire a different meaning in a socialist country. An unremarkable sight like a train station becomes a marvellous achievement by virtue of being located in a People’s State; it becomes a People’s Train Station, built by The People, for The People.

Luise Rinser sees a child in Pyongyang smile at her, and attributes this child’s happiness to socialism, and to the genius of Kim Il Sung. Carla Stea sees a North Korean woman wearing high heels, and marvels about how ‘a woman’s shoes, especially high heels, are very often an expression of her self-esteem’. Seumas Milne and George Galloway marvel about how East Germany offered free healthcare and free schooling, even though this was equally true of West Germany. These are all peculiar forms of confirmation bias. To see why, one only need to imagine somebody writing in a similar vein about a Western country. Take a random passage by Luise Rinser, describing a completely ordinary observation, such as a smiling child. Replace ‘Pyongyang’ with ‘Munich’ (Rinser’s home town), ‘the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ with ‘the Free State of Bavaria’, ‘President Kim Il Sung’ with ‘Governor Franz Joseph Strauß’, and ‘the Workers Party of Korea’ with ‘the Christian Social Union’. The absurdity would be self-evident.

All the techniques of motivated reasoning are in evidence as well. When somebody raises allegations of human rights abuses and/or economic failure in the socialist paradise du jour, pilgrims ask what the people who make those allegations might have to gain from it – cui bono? If they can find one critic who might indeed have some ulterior motive, it is reason enough to dismiss all criticism as a fabrication. The Orwell quote that ‘some things are true even though the Daily Telegraph says they are true’ is lost on the motivated reasoner. Seumas Milne, for example, finds two German historians and one Austrian philosopher, whose work on Stalinism was indeed widely construed as an attempt to relativise the Nazi holocaust. Milne goes on to imply that this is the ‘true’ motivation of all critics of socialism. For the motivated reasoner, a few atypical cases, combined with guilt by association, is all it takes. For others, the tainting associations can be even more tenuous. In Noam Chomsky’s account, everything that appears in ‘the Western media’ becomes by definition suspicious, because ‘the Western media’ – a homogeneous block – is part of ‘the Western propaganda system’.

One of the pilgrims’ favourite techniques is whataboutery/whataboutism. What about Western colonialism? What about American foreign policy interventions? What about the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia? What about racism in Western countries? It is never fully spelt out what the point of this exercise is supposed to be, especially given that most critics of socialism would not defend Western colonialism, or US foreign policy interventions or the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Whataboutery seems to have no purpose other than to raise a counter-accusation (even if it is a false one), and to reclaim the moral high ground in this way.

Pilgrims also demand impossibly high standards of rigour and accuracy from critics, but quickly relax those tandards when a source of convenient information comes along. When evidence of mass murder in Cambodia emerged, Western Khmer Rouge apologists demanded chapter and verse, which was impossible to provide at the time, given that the regime would obviously not show its mass graves to the Red Cross or Amnesty International. Unverifiable statements from the odd sympathetic foreign observer, however, were taken at face value.

If anti-capitalism is mainly visceral, and anti-capitalist arguments mainly post-hoc attempts to rationalise that visceral dislike of capitalism, we would expect anti-capitalists to quickly replace one line of attack with another, if it is convenient to do so. This has indeed happened many times. Capitalism has always been under attack, but not always for the same reasons. For example, during the post-war boom, the criticism quickly shifted from ‘capitalism immiserates the workers’ to ‘capitalism promotes a vulgar consumerist culture and shallow materialism’. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the anti-globalisation movement, which saw ‘globalisation’ as the exploitation of poor countries by rich countries, was extremely fashionable on Western campuses. Then Western perceptions of countries such as China changed: they were no longer seen as poor sweatshop economies, but as emerging markets, and as serious competitors. As a result, the anti-globalisation movement lost prominence – but it never engaged in any soul-searching. It simply shifted its focus to more generic left-wing causes, such as opposition to welfare cuts, privatisation, tax avoidance, etc., and was absorbed by other movements. Haidt highlights how moral tribalism turbocharges the tendency to go with our gut feelings and use reasoning purely for post-hoc rationalising. The anti-capitalist left is a clear example of a moral tribe. One of the most successful anti-capitalist books of the last decade was Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. The main message of that book was not that free-market economics produces bad outcomes, but that its proponents are malevolent, demonic figures, who are happy to cause human suffering on a massive scale. The book became an instant bestseller and award-winner. Although all the major claims made in the book are wrong (see, for example, Norberg 2008), it was a tremendous success because it arouses the righteous rage of a moral tribe. It is the ideal book for a reader who starts with a strong emotional dislike of the market economy and who seeks validation for it. This is the climate in which Venezuela-mania took off.

Pilgrims also show a tendency to talk themselves into the role of a victimised minority. They frequently insist that ‘the mainstream media’ relentlessly attacks socialist countries, while turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Western-allied, non-socialist countries. The Khmer Rouge’s apologists were probably the ones who took this line of argument furthest. But it was never remotely true. Ear (1995: 69–71) references a study which analyses the coverage of human rights abuses in the US’s leading newspapers and news channels. It contains a breakdown of such coverage by country, which shows that in 1976 South Korea was mentioned more than five times as often as Cambodia, while Chile was mentioned more than eight times as often. (Cuba and North Korea were barely mentioned at all.) Yet Khmer Rouge apologists such as Noam Chomsky saw themselves as the lone voices in the wilderness, speaking truth to power. This self-perception is bound to amplify moral tribalism and motivated reasoning tendencies. Last but not least, it is worth noting that most pilgrim statements are not so much wrong as unfalsifiable. They are unfalsifiable because they are too abstract to be falsified. A frequent claim is that the socialist utopia du jour may look like a system of autocratic rule, but in reality The People are in charge. The dictator, or the ruling party, is just a medium through which The People exercise their collective will. This cannot, strictly speaking, be refuted.

How would you ‘prove’ that this is not true? Perhaps the best example is Jan Myrdal’s book Albania Defiant. Myrdal repeatedly asserts that Albania is different from the Warsaw Pact countries, because the latter are run by a bureaucratic elite, while Albania is run by the Albanian working class. He never quite explains what this is supposed to mean in practice. How does Myrdal know that ‘the Albanian working class’, as a whole, is ‘in control’? How does he know that there is such an entity as ‘the Albanian working class’, and how does he know that Enver Hoxha’s policies are in line with the desires of that entity? How does this hypothetical entity exercise that control? Myrdal would have a hard time proving his assertion to a sceptic – but a sceptic would have an equally hard time proving Myrdal wrong.  The same goes for the idea that repressive measures are just a response to external threats. Pilgrims tend to think of socialist regimes as one would think of a teenage bully who is not genuinely malicious, but who feels insecure, and who overcompensates for that insecurity through aggressive behaviour. Give them the respect and recognition that they crave and their behaviour will change. In some cases, this has been refuted by events, because the external threats identified by apologists later disappeared, but the character of the regime in question never changed. But most of the time, the threats they identify are much more intangible. A hostile comment from a US politician, diplomat or civil servant becomes evidence of efforts to ‘undermine’ a socialist government, which, in the eyes of Western pilgrims, makes all kinds of repressive measures excusable.

Finally, the Caplanite cost–benefit analysis is different for pilgrims than it is for the ‘Average Joe’. Caplan argues that it is often rational to stick to a demonstrably false, but cherished, political belief, because the (emotional) cost of discarding it outweighs the benefits. Caplan’s work focuses on the median voter. A pilgrim is, almost by definition, much more strongly invested in the ideas they cherish than the median voter could ever be. Those ideas may be part of their very identity. This is especially true in the case of public intellectuals, whose ideas are the defining feature of their public persona. Imagine if a public figure such as Owen Jones wrote an article with a title like ‘I remain committed to social justice, but after Venezuela I have finally given up on socialism’, or ‘Let’s be honest with ourselves: Yes, it WAS socialism that ruined Venezuela’.

They would disappoint a fan base of hundreds of thousands of people. They would be called sell-outs and traitors. They would endanger their very position as a public intellectual. For them, the cost of giving up on a wrong idea would be infinitely greater than for the Average Joe. Being wrong, however, has no cost whatsoever. With the exception of Malcolm Caldwell, it is hard to find an example of a Western pilgrim who suffered negative consequences for being wrong. The pilgrims did not have to live under the systems they admired from afar. They did not go hungry while they denied or made excuses for food shortages. They did not have to toil in the forced labour camps they romanticised or rationalised. They did not even suffer reputational consequences in their home countries. The Webbs and George Bernard Shaw remain highly regarded figures to this day. Noam Chomsky remains a ‘rock star intellectual’, while the people who had been right about Cambodia have been largely forgotten. At least in his native Sweden, Jan Myrdal, who idolised Mao TseTung, Enver Hoxha and Pol Pot, remains an anti-capitalist icon. After writing a book glorifying North Korea, Luise Rinser could still become a presidential candidate in West Germany. After idolising Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi went on to a successful career as a parliamentarian, both in her native Italy and at the EU level. After Venezuela fell off a cliff, some of Britain’s most eager Chavistas went on to become some of the most senior political figures in the country. With this in mind, the question ‘How can so many highly educated people be so completely and so consistently wrong?’ becomes a bit moot. Why would they not indulge in their favourite fantasies, given that there is absolutely no incentive to be right?