Saturday, March 26, 2011

Where Liberals and Conservatives Are Born

Liberal vs. Conservative in Abstract

For the past couple months I've been applying for various summer internships and other research opportunities. With applications on my mind, I've had a lot of time to think about how we allocate scarce opportunities.

Obviously, any allocation scheme has to have some criteria for picking candidates. Do we focus only on the applicant's recent work, or do we weight all of it equally? Do we focus on tests/scores/proven results, or do we look for potential?

Once we come up with certain criteria/weights for considering the application, then we automatically favor certain applicants and disfavor others. Some people will have a natural ability in the chosen criteria, so their application will be favored; meanwhile, other applicants will have natural abilities in other aspects, which they will likely to consider also important and relevant, but they will be disfavored. (To put this in concrete terms: colleges favor strong extracurriculars in the undergraduate admissions process, which advantages extroverts and suck-ups, and disadvantages introverts.)

So it doesn't seem possible to come up with a system which doesn't disfavor anyone. Someone has to lose out—and when they do, it's likely that they'll feel that the process was unfair, that they were structurally disadvantaged. But when things go well for them, then they're likely to think the system works just fine, and that they deserve the rewards they get in some way.

I say that because that because that's been my own experience. In and through this application game, I've found my attitude towards the process shifting between these two extremes, depending on whether things worked in my favor or not. When I get the opportunities I apply for, then I see myself as the deserving recipient of it. But when I lose, and especially when I lose consistently, then I start to feel maligned and cheated. I start to think the whole selection process is arbitrary and meaningless, and the person who got selected as just lucky.

I have a hunch that this thought process is both natural and widespread. For one, it matches very well with the discourse that divides liberals and conservatives. On an issue like poverty, for example, conservatives will likely say that the poor can escape poverty if they just work harder; many conservatives have rags to riches stories (i.e. the system worked for them); and they likely feel deserving of their place in the social order. Liberals, meanwhile, will argue that certain people, no matter how hard they try, cannot better their position, and point to structural disadvantages of race, class, and gender. We're accustomed to thinking of these differences as purely ideological, but I think the source of these contentions is that people have a natural tendency to think their personal experience accounts for the way the whole world works. (Including myself, since, after all, I'm arguing this post based on my own experiences. What else do we have to go off of?)

If this is correct, what's remarkable about the story I've told is that it's impossible for a liberal/conservative split not to exist. It seems to be a product of the very act of choosing an allocation scheme, which inevitably favors some qualities and disfavors others. Obviously, the full story is more complicated than this (e.g. Asians, though they do well, tend to vote liberal), but it's a starting point, I think, for a potentially rich understanding of politics.

No comments:

Post a Comment