The Trumping Factor

One of the mysteries of life is that once you have established that someone is an economic socialist or an economic conservative you can then go on to predict with a fair degree of accuracy their views across a range of contentious non-economic matters. Of course, you can also proceed by going from another non-economic matter and reach the same end. I choose to start the process with economics because of my own background in economics but also because it is through economics and Karl Marx that the modern cultural Left–conservative divide originates.

It has puzzled me for some time. You are having coffee with someone who you are still getting to know and venture out of mundane conversation into some news item. From your companion’s response you will know immediately that you will either agree about everything of importance or about nothing. There is seldom an in-between.

The question I will try to address is why those on the Left think as they do across a diverse range of subject matter and issues—and why those on the conservative Right think as they do. Is there a common factor that once understood makes sense of the fall of views? My geographical context is the Anglosphere (the UK, North America, Australia and New Zealand) and Western Europe. I am not sure that the same Left–Right divide applies in the rest of the world.

As a broad generalisation, and without trying to be exhaustive, those on the Left tend to have economic views as follows:

• Free markets produce chronically unfair outcomes that must be corrected by government intervention to redistribute income and wealth.

• Cyclical downswings must be countered by Keynesian stimulus spending.

• People are entitled to a minimum level of income, adequate shelter, quality education and health (and now to child minding services).

• Globalisation has a range of deleterious side effects on local communities.

• Wealthy nations have a duty to provide substantial aid to poorer nations.

To some extent the demarcation between Left and conservative views is one of degree and emphasis but it is still easy enough to spot the differences. An economic conservative would want a minimum of intervention and then to improve opportunities rather than to equalise outcomes; would disagree about the worth of stimulus spending; would replace the concept of entitlement with one of aspiration; would point to the benefits of globalisation in increasing prosperity; and would not see foreign aid as an obligation but as a transfer payment from domestic taxpayers, with an attendant need to assess its affordability and effectiveness pragmatically.

Now consider the position of those on the Left and conservatives on a number of issues across three different subject areas: biology, the environment and politics. To some extent I have put the Left and conservative positions in too sharp a relief. But I think the general thrust and character of the different positions is fairly close to the mark. In some cases the positions are not diametrically opposed but have a different emphasis or focus. Again, the issues brought into play are meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive. I have also deliberately left out some particularly contentious issues: abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, capital punishment, even though they tend to exhibit a political divide bias, because to an extent views on them are greatly influenced by religious affiliations. I have also left out Darwinian evolution, even though scepticism about the completeness of Darwinism is more prevalent among conservatives than among those on the Left, again because positions are often decided (inappropriately) on religious grounds. Scientists like Richard Dawkins are as bad as Creationists in giving Darwinism the cloak of an alternative “religion” when it is purely a set of scientific hypotheses that is still work in progress.


Those on the Left tend to believe that there is no difference of substance, apart from the superficially obvious, between men and women. Conservatives believe that there are innate differences, which can bear on performance.

Those on the Left tend to believe that there are no differences of substance, apart from the superficially obvious, between different races and cultures. Conservatives believe that there are innate differences which can bear on performance.


Those on the Left are more likely to place environmental protection above economic growth than are conservatives. Consistent with this they are more likely to accept and want to counter perceived threats to the environment, such as man-made global warming, without the same regard for costs as conservatives.

Those on the Left support the development of green energy and oppose nuclear energy. Conservatives support any form of energy provided it can stand on its own economic feet and meet appropriate and measured environmental and safety requirements.

Those on the Left support taxing or otherwise impeding or preventing the development of energy sources, particularly fossil fuels, which despoil the environment. Conservatives are not opposed to imposing taxes to compensate for environmental damage, provided such damage is objectively assessed across all energy sources. And provided any consequential costs of imposing taxes, for example, in lessening the international competitiveness of local industry, are brought into account.


Those on the Left believe that American “imperialism” has caused much harm in the world. Conservatives believe that America has been a powerful net force for good in the world.

Those on the Left believe that the Palestinians often have right on their side in their conflict with Israel. Conservatives believe that Israel’s security is non-negotiable.

Those on the Left readily accept, whether it is true, false or indeterminate, that indigenous peoples were cruelly and extensively exploited by colonisers and, accordingly, they support apologies and reparations. Conservatives believe that indigenous disadvantage should primarily be tackled by improving opportunities for advancement rather than by looking to the distant past. Of course, those on the Left also support improving opportunities for indigenous people, but accompanied by a grievance agenda which they believe is justified.

Those on the Left tend to be more critical than celebratory of their nation’s past. Conservatives tend to be more celebratory than critical of their nation’s past.

Those on the Left favour opening doors wider to refugees. Conservatives believe that immigration should primarily be geared to the national interest.

Those on the Left believe in nuclear disarmament and peace. Conservatives believe that eliminating the West’s nuclear weapons would be too risky whatever international disarmament agreements and monitoring policies are put in place; and that freedom can only ever be assured by a preparedness to go to war.

Why Only Two Camps?

The objective is to assess whether there is a common factor that cuts across different subject areas in a way which makes sense of the dispersion of Left and conservative positions, and explains their predictability. After all, why should those who believe in government intervention to modify the outcomes of capitalism necessarily believe in man-made global warming? Why should those who believe in the primacy of free market capitalism be, on the whole, sceptical about man-made global warming? Why should those who passionately advocate using green energy, support making apologies and reparations to indigenous peoples? Why should those who believe that America has done net harm; that Palestinians have more right than wrong on their side; and who favour nuclear disarmament, also tend to dismiss any idea of performance-related gender and racial differences? Why in other words are we in only two camps? Why aren’t there many camps? As an example, why aren’t there lots of economic conservatives belonging to peace movements?

It is understandable having only two camps when we consider warring nation-states. It doesn’t matter what your views happen to be across a number of matters, your nationality trumps them all. Something is also doing the trumping when it comes to Left and conservative views. There are a number of potential candidates: intelligence, socio-economic status, personality type, or what might be loosely called “gender orientation”. I will suggest that the latter, more rigorously explained and defined, seems to offer an answer which best fits the evidence.

It is fairly clear that whatever is doing the trumping, it isn’t intelligence. Even though both sides often express exasperation with the other’s inability to grasp “the point”, neither side has, or believes it has, any measurable edge on intelligence. It is also clear that socio-economic factors are not the trumping factors. In Sydney, upmarket Balmain leans Left. Billionaires can be found on either side, as can professionals, like lawyers, engineers, economists and doctors. You can’t say that actors and entertainers can be found much on the conservative side, but then again we have the late Charlton Heston’s line that more closet Republicans live in Hollywood than closet gays. The media and academia tend to be Left but it is by no means a monopoly.

Personality might come into it but on examination this seems unlikely. There are many variants of personality. Sixteen seems to be the magic number when you search online. I quickly found three different sets of sixteen personality types in one search, which gave me no confidence at all in the science. But the “Big Five Factors” in psychology are openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, each contrasted with its opposite. (See, for example, Handbook of Personality, by John, Robins and Pervin.) When I looked at the various personality types, however they were described, it seemed unlikely that they could explain what makes Left and what makes conservative. I have known, and observed, extroverted people (externally-focused people) and introverted (internally focused people), conscientious and cautious people, and maybe a few disagreeable and neurotic people. They appear to be distributed among the Left and conservatives. So I doubt that personality type is the trumping factor. This leaves what I called “gender orientation”.

Social welfare entitlements have grown rapidly in scope and size since the end of the Second World War. Government entitlement spending is growing at unaffordable rates across Europe. The example of Greece has been in the headlines. President Obama is busy extending entitlements in the United States, seemingly with ambition to match the European model; and we recently had Tony Abbott promising new parents six months leave on generous pay. Providing people with entitlements might be considered a nurturing and protective thing to do. This appears to be quintessentially feminine in its orientation.

There is a view that Western society is becoming more feminised. I Googled “feminization of society” and got 640,000 references. I looked up “masculinization of society” and got only 50,000 or so references; and, at least on the first page, they were mostly about physiology rather than sociology. I also recalled two recent articles in Quadrant. Patrick McCauley in the September 2008 issue wrote entertainingly that for some years, “Australian Rules football has been in the hands of feminine social engineers who wish to establish equity and social justice in the football community”. Michael Evans, writing in the January-February 2010 issue on stoicism and the military, commented that “radical feminism” is one of a number of developments since the 1960s representing the “greatest challenge to the Western profession of arms”.

Any number of conservative views can be found suggesting that feminisation and the Left’s agenda go hand-in-hand and, moreover, that this agenda has been responsible for feminising Western society. In this context, the growth of the nanny state and a culture of entitlement are often cited as epitomising the Left’s agenda.

While I will return to the question of whether feminism is on the march, my main focus is on the influence of feminism and masculinism on the Left–conservative (L–C) divide. Football, the military, a culture of entitlement span a wide area suggesting that the influence of gender orientation may be far-reaching. The question arises as to whether a feminine–masculine (F–M) divide could account for the entire L–C divide? Is it the trumping factor?

First, it is necessary to think of feminism and masculinism in rather different ways than the obvious. Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who gave the United Kingdom its welfare state, and President Roosevelt, who through the New Deal started the process in the United States, hardly epitomised femininity, at least to my mind.

I turned to the Encyclopedia of Sociology (Macmillan, 2000) and specifically to a paper by J.E. Stets and P.J. Burke titled, “Femininity/Masculinity”. The feminine temperament in Western culture is characterised as “passive”, “co-operative” and “expressive”; the masculine temperament as “aggressive”, “competitive” and “instrumental”. These characteristics of temperament (a person’s nature as it affects their behaviour) cut across women and men. The import of passive versus aggressive and co-operative versus competitive is fairly self-evident. In this context, “expressive” means a commitment to, or socialisation with, others (arising out of, say, affection or kinship) as an end in itself; as against “instrumental”, meaning a social action purposefully pursued after evaluating the costs and consequences in order to achieve practical goals.

I will use the Stets and Burke categorisation of feminine and masculine temperament to assess whether the F–M divide might be the trumping factor in explaining the L–C divide across economics, biology, the environment, and politics.

If we look at the economic positions held by those on the Left and by conservatives, a pattern emerges which is consistent with the F–M divide, as it is exhibited in the expressive–instrumental divide. In particular, the Left’s position is characterised by a lack of calculation. The overriding objective is one of showing commitment to others. That is the be-all and end-all. The conservative position on the other hand is goal-oriented and full of calculation. Will stimulus spending actually work? Can we afford those entitlements? Do the benefits of globalisation outweigh the costs? A lot falls into place when the L–C economic divide is put in context of the expressive–instrumental divide. It is why those on the Left can think conservatives lack empathy and why conservatives can get exasperated with those on the Left who celebrate yet another new entitlement without regard to its cost and achievability. President Obama was fond of citing cases of apparent hardship in supporting his health care agenda—stories of people falling ill and being forced to sell their homes. This has obvious appeal to those whose temperament is more expressive than instrumental.

The other components of the F–M divide—passive–aggressive and co-operative–competitive—also have explanatory powers in the economics area. Capitalism is underscored by a determined and energetic (aggressive) pursuit of profit and reward. It is competitive in its nature. It is understandable that those with a passive and co-operative temperament would favour intervention to moderate the outcomes that capitalism produces; built as it is around aggression and competition.

Though it is a leap to turn from economics to biology, the F–M divide retains its explanatory power. The L–C biological positions I have identified refer to different views about whether innate performance-affecting differences exist between different groups. Performance is the key in this case; and it is evident that those whose temperament is weighted towards being expressive, co-operative and passive will not so much focus on performance. Consequently they will have no imperative to look for innate differences or acknowledge them. On the other hand, those whose temperament is weighted towards being instrumental, competitive and aggressive will very much focus on performance. Consequently, they will have an imperative to discover and identify innate differences, if such differences exist. The F–M divide again therefore fits well with the L–C biology divide.

Among other things, the Left’s support for affirmative action falls out of the biology divide. Affirmative action is based on the view that any under-representation of particular groups in particular occupations is because of environmental factors, rather than because of innate differences in abilities between different groups. If that is the case, affirmative action makes more sense than it does if there are in fact innate differences. Conservatives think that there may in fact be innate differences. Harvard president Larry Summers suggested at a conference about women in science in 2005 that there may be innate differences between men and women in their aptitude for the hard sciences. Universities these days are not the place for outspoken conservative views; particularly on touchy biological matters, as now ex-president Summers discovered.

At first glance, it is not immediately obvious that the L–C environmental divide can be explained by the F–M divide. After all, environmentalists are not particularly passive in pursuing their objectives. Nevertheless, the lack of attention to the achievability and costs of proposals put forward by environmentalists (for example, on moving to green energy or in combatting global warming) has the hallmark of an expressive temperament. Moreover, the actions taken by environmental zealots often have a Mahatma Gandhi quality about them: chaining oneself to a tree, or standing in front of bulldozers. Finally, environmentalism can be seen as co-operative action opposing an individualistic competitive credo—capitalism—which puts economic advancement ahead of the interests of the planet. All in all, the F–M divide does a fairly good job of explaining the L–C environmental divide.

The political divide covers a wide canvas, but one of the major themes running through it is a view about Western civilisation’s military and economic dominance, and how it was achieved. Dominance is only ever achieved through being purposeful (instrumental), determined and energetic (aggressive) and competitive. It is understandable therefore that the outcome of this process is celebrated by conservatives and regarded with an amount of distaste by those whose temperament is largely governed by opposite characteristics. Nor is it surprising that the epitome of dominance, the United States, is regarded with particular odium by those on the Left. This also explains the Left’s empathy with those it regards as victims of the process: Palestinians, indigenous populations, and Third World countries who continue to suffer at the hands of the “rapacious” West. It explains national “self-loathing”, which conservatives have particular difficulty in comprehending, as a logical outcome of despising the process that put us, as a nation (whether that nation is United States, Australia, the UK or some other Western nation), in the position we are in.

On immigration and refugees, an expressive, co-operative and passive temperament does not focus on costs and potential threats. Conservatives with their opposite temperament precisely focus on costs and threats. On disarmament and peace, an expressive, co-operative and passive temperament always searches for a negotiated outcome. Republicans in the United States were extremely sceptical and scathing of proposals by President Obama to negotiate with Kim Jong-il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They implicitly knew, whether they acknowledge it or not, that Kim Jong-il and Ahmadinejad are like them, mainly instrumental, aggressive and competitive, and that appeasement would not work. As Ronald Reagan put it: “If history teaches us anything; it teaches: simple minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly—it means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.” President Obama is largely “governed” by a temperament opposite to that of President Reagan, and it is hard to understand his actions against the lessons of history unless that is understood.

My hypothesis is that the L–C divide can be explained by the F–M divide. The temperament of those on the Left, I suggest, is weighted more towards being expressive, co-operative and passive than it is to being instrumental, competitive and aggressive. The temperament of conservatives is weighted in the opposite direction. This explains why Left and conservative views fall predictably along “party lines” across all subject matter, related and unrelated. It explains why the two sides exasperate each other in reaching quite different conclusions based on the same information and evidence.

Personally it helps me to deal with views that I otherwise find inexplicable and hard to deal with. I was copied in on an e-mail exchange between two neighbours of mine both decrying the attention given to the so-called boat people. One wrote that we are all (in Australia) descended from boat people as though that finished the debate. By the way, they both believe in man-made global warming. I haven’t tested their other views; I am too afraid to, it might ruin our future coffee chats.

Where does all this lead? A first point to make is that one kind of temperament is not better than the other. Individuals and societies need to have a balance of feminine and masculine characteristics. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there is a time for being expressive and a time for being instrumental; for being passive and for being aggressive; and for being co-operative and for being competitive. One could imagine a society having only masculine characteristics being totally uncaring and being constantly at war economically and militarily; and one with only feminine characteristics being subjugated economically and militarily. Neither is appealing. Balance is the key. This leads on to whether we have the right balance now; and back to the view previously canvassed that Western society is becoming progressively more feminised.

If it is right that gender orientation explains the positions of those from the Left and conservatives across all subject matter, then a process of induction clearly points to Western societies becoming more, and too, feminised. Entitlements and the promise of entitlements are everywhere growing, even though most governments outspend their revenue and are heavily in debt. Green political parties are gaining increasing support, even though the implementation of their policies would cause impoverishment. There is widespread support for disruptive and expensive (and likely ineffective) policies to counter an unproven climate threat. Off-shore drilling for oil is often resisted and disallowed because it might cause limited environmental harm. Affirmative action is an accepted part of public sector employment policy; except when it is particularly egregious, as in the recent case of the New Haven Connecticut firefighters refused promotion because too few black firefighters passed the applicable exams. Western governments acquiesce to large inflows of displaced people and refugees, even though the numbers involved are clearly straining social cohesion and budgets. Apologies to indigenous populations are de rigueur whatever the rights and wrongs. Wars can never be prosecuted without dealing with trenchant media criticism and what in an early age would have been called defeatism. The United States and its allies have singularly failed to deter North Korea and Iran from developing nuclear weapons. President Obama has committed the United States not to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state that is a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, even if the United States is attacked with chemical or biological weapons. In making this commitment, Obama has reportedly removed ambiguity about the United States’ nuclear policy. Having a quite different temperament, President Reagan no doubt saw advantage in ambiguity to confound and confuse potential enemies.

A priori it is problematic to say that this or that societal balance of feminine and masculine temperament is right or wrong. However, sometimes the evidence speaks for itself. It helps in acknowledging this evidence to have a masculine-weighted temperament; but in some areas the facts become insistent whatever your temperament. Greece is finding out that it can’t go on doling out entitlements that outstrip its ability to go on borrowing. Other Western countries, not least the United States with its massive public debt, will all eventually come up against financial constraints of the kind we are all used to in our personal lives. At some point comes a hard realisation that a country is simply a collection of people who cannot go on forever paying themselves more than they earn. The problem is that a long road of undermining self-reliance will have been travelled before that point is reached. And it is difficult to know whether it can ever be substantially retraced.

The lessons can of course be harder for countries that lose the will to wage war. Unfortunately, the barbarians are always at the gate and it’s an unequal battle unless a Churchill or a Thatcher or a Reagan or a Bush is around to draw a line in the sand. And they are less likely to be around if society continues to become more and more feminised.

Why Western society is becoming more feminised, I don’t know. Sociologists are insistent that temperament is not hard-wired, but learnt. This certainly accords with the evidence. It is hardly likely that relatively more people are now being born with a Left-temperament bias. An iterative process may be involved, with the entitlement society engendering dependency which, in turn, engenders claims for more entitlements, rather like an addiction. That appeals to me because it has an economic base to it that I can understand. It may also have something to do with the rise of the feminist and gay rights movements or with the increasing predominance of women in early childhood education, or with other social or physiological factors that I don’t understand.

I read a piece which suggested that the purposeless (my word) social networks created by Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and the like, were playing a part in feminising society. This made sense in so far as “expressive” social interaction for its own sake is a characteristic of a feminine temperament. It is not promising if it is true, because the internet will not go away and it has been with us for only a relatively short time. Its full impact has still to be felt. Whatever the cause of feminisation, it would be nice to think that its unbalanced growth might be countered in some way before it irretrievably drags down Western civilisation.

Peter Smith is a former CEO of the Australian Payments Clearing Association. He wrote “Taxing the Rich and Spreading the Wealth” in the March issue.  

One thought on “The Trumping Factor

  • DG says:

    The two attitudes to the environment, in my view, have a differing complexion to that described. On the left, care for the environment is a religious quest for humanities dominance by nature (we modern think nature is a lovely tame romantic thing), On the right, care for the environment is about making places for human thriving. This entails care for nature, and its management to produce outcomes that care for people and their interests. Its a question of balance both ways. Only at the extremes is it extreme, but as I was musing at the site of a development I worked on, rejected by a local council, the local council rejected jobs for a township, enjoyment for its denizens and visitors, and spin off business activity providing livelihoods for young people who would no longer have to leave the area. Developers care for people…otherwise, no profit.

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