Conservatism as Small-Circle Thinking

Rice University’s John Alford, associate professor of political science, co-authored a paper in Science in which he studied a group of 46 adults with strong political beliefs. Those individuals with “measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq War”. Conservatism is fear-based. Fear constricts our sense of self in space and time and relationship, and is fundamentally the wrong response to an interdependent world where systemic and inclusive thinking is needed in order to survive. A classic example of this is the conservative romance with market mechanisms. Market mechanisms can work very well if everyone makes their decisions based on their individual assessment of the inherent worth of the stock being traded. But investors are actually driven largely by their perceptions of how much other people value the stock ( These inter-dependencies result in volatility and market crashes. So you need to understand markets using “large circle” thinking to make good choices about when and how they are and are not appropriate. But conservatives are famously blind to these vastly destructive effects because they conflict with their central commitment to small-circle thinking.

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7 Comments on “Conservatism as Small-Circle Thinking”

  1. Martin Lewitt Says:

    So does this sense of conservatism align with the American political left and right? After all, although the examples mentioned are from the right, fear is hardly exclusive to the American right. The left fears climate change, population growth, meat eating, harm to animals, guns, corporations, globalization, fundamentalists, etc. more than the right. With the right favoring globalization and free trade, that would seem to fall into the big circle category.

    The conservative romance with market mechanisms probably has far more to do with the production and consumption of goods than with today’s stock market. The stock market is generally perceived as having been turned into a casino driven by sentiment rather than fundamentals because of government tax policies. The government double taxes equity (dividends and capital gains) and favors debt financing by only single taxing transfers of interest payments. This results in our economy being highly leveraged and the returns to equity to be highly volatile since a leveraged company can more easily go into the red.

    I find most academic attempts to “study” the right of the political spectrum to be biased by prejudice and ignorance and they would be amusing if they didn’t ultimately spread misinformation and prejudices.

    • klein1960 Says:


      Thanks for your comments, they’ve given me food for thought. I’d like to clarify though what I am thinking of when I say “big” or “small” circle. I’m thinking of the boundaries of the group that we consider to be in or out of our circle of compassion,. To the extent that we support globalization, for example, despite the very negative social and environmental effects it can have on developing countries, that’s “small circle” thinking: the people in developing countries are “out” of our circle of compassion. Climate change and population growth and harm to animals are, I would argue, “big circle” issues, since they involve worrying about harm that will most directly and seriously impact others, e.g. animals, people in developing countries, future generations. Taxation and gun control are, by the same token, “small circle” concerns since they focus on worrying about the personal impact of actions taken to benefit others. I think market mechanisms are a good fit with small circle ideology because each player considers solely their own interests and trusts in an invisible hand to make everything come out all right on a societal scale. And this is despite the fact that markets clearly do not make things come out all right when important things (clean environment, social capital, the welfare of future generations) are externalities.

  2. Martin Lewitt Says:

    So in the original post, “fear” and “small circle” were really orthogonal and fear isn’t necessarily more characteristic of the right.

    If the trust “in an invisible hand to make everything come out all right on a societal scale” is usually fulfilled then the “small circle” methodology might be the better “large circle” approach. Examples are the reduced inequality resulting from huge middle classes being lifted out of poverty in China and India, and the resulting health benefits from better nutrition and healthcare that on the net outweigh the health risks from the increased pollution. “Small circle” and “large circle” thinking may not be orthogonal and may actually converge.

    Conservatives recognize the negative impacts of information costs and externalities and usually favor having prices that reflect externalities. Most conservatives favor taxing imported oil or consumption of heating oil and gasoline to reflect the security cost externalities associated with the policing and risks associated with the Persian Gulf, Hormuz Strait, OPEC and rogue nations such as Venezuela, Iran and Libya.

    As a practical matter, we should consider not what sphere of compassion motivates different economic systems, but how they fit with human nature, including its frailties and vulnerabilities. Humans are social animals that evolved in small groups, but it is a myth that those social qualities just include the “virtues” willingly claimed by humanitarianism. Probably the leading hypothesis today to explain the small effective human population size is no longer an ancient population bottleneck, it is group competition, with inbreeding groups exterminating other groups or displacing them to marginal resources where their contribution to human diversity “disappears”. Human socialization isn’t just teamwork, love, sharing, altruism and compassion, it is also divisive collective identities, hatred, fundamentalism, fervor, fanaticism, demonization, dehumanization of the “others”, anonymous mob behavior, religion, ideology, etc. “Loyalty”, “heroism” and “martyrdom” aren’t always on the “right” side.

    The last two centuries offer plenty of examples the vulnerability of national, racial, class, and ethnic identity. It is not a human universal to view hatred and dehumanization as negative emotions and behaviors. We have real examples of societies where hatred and dehumanization of blacks, jews, slavs, japs, krauts, hindus, muslims, Tutsis, whites, etc. were not just socially acceptable, but were actually considered virtues. Even marxism, which superficially favors community and communal virtues, cynically fosters and exploits class, race and ethnic identities.

    Is it any wonder that the founders and “big circle” thinkers today can honestly conclude that fanaticism and fundamentalism about individualism and constitutionally limited government might be a useful way to simultaneously divert and limit human vulnerabilities.

    The alternative “big circle” solution, that the human circle of compassion can be spread wide enough to encompass all of humanity, the animal kingdom and Gaia so that there is no out group to hate, is associated with considerable risks if it falls short, and has no historical precedent.

    • klein1960 Says:

      You make some excellent points. My hope is that we can be guided, as societies, by large-circle goals, while making mindful (probably very extensive) use of small-circle tactics to achieve them, since such tactics align with the competitive and self-interested elements in our nature. Markets (a small-circle tactic) were used very successfully, for example, to radically reduce sulfur emissions in the US (a large-circle goal). I hope that the same strategy of internalizing externalities (carbon tax, cap and trade) will be applied to greenhouse gas emissions. The thing that really scares me, though, is when small-circle goals dominate our decision-making from bottom-to-top. In small-circle thinking, for example, environmental degradation is downplayed as even being a problem because the costs impact us now and the benefits accrue to people who lie outside of our circle of compassion. That kind of short-sighted-ness can be disastrous for us as a species.

  3. Martin Lewitt Says:

    There is a timely article in the journal science summarized here, and with links appended. The “big circle” of “compassion” is probably biologically “parochial altruism”, the basis for intergroup conflict.

    Oxytocin and Intergroup Conflict

    Human society is organized into groups, such as those based on nationality or religion, which can lead to intergroup conflicts, with sometimes devastating consequences. Intergroup conflict engages a human behavior termed parochial altruism: For example, a soldier who fights against the enemy at risk to themselves to protect their country is a parochial altruist. De Dreu et al. (p. 1408; see the cover; see the News story by Miller) have discovered a role for oxytocin, a neuropeptide produced in the hypothalamus, in regulating parochial altruism during human intergroup competition and conflict. Oxytocin is already known to play a role in trusting behavior, and naturally occurring genetic variants of the oxytocin receptor exist within the human population. Administration of oxytocin modulated defense-related aggression toward competing groups, but did not affect unprovoked, hateful behavior. Thus, there may be a neurobiological basis for intergroup conflict in humans.

    • klein1960 Says:

      Interesting link, thank you. It seems to me that the problem in this case is the “parochial” part, not the “altruism” part. In other words, the problem is not that people’s circles of compassion are too big, it’s because they’re too small. It’s also interesting to observe, I think, that people have been able to radically increase the size of their circle of compassion as our cultural forms have evolved. It used to be that people outside of our small tribe or family grouping were “others” to be treated with as competitors, less human than ourselves. Nowadays, people often treat an entire nation, or even a multi-nation region, as being their “in-group”.

  4. Martin Lewitt Says:

    You are not alone in wanting to think the problem is with the parochial part and not the altruism part. But both are human parts. The altruism part apparently is with us because it enhanced how well the parochial part worked. The expanding circle of compassion, doesn’t seem to go through a great instant inflation, but must go through intermediate stages, racism, sectarianism, nationalism, class solidarity, etc.

    It is hubris to assume we are so culturally advanced now. Look at those segments of western culture that probably most aspire to that hubris, e.g., the progressives. Go to a progressive web site like huffington post, or pharyngula and the social cohesion is still based upon mocking and spitting vitriol towards the “other”, and purges of those who don’t agree. Europe and revolutionary black theology are still rife with anti-semitism, demonization of corporations, etc. The “compassion” often isn’t for the individual but for the “right” of a culture to oppress. Look at those that think a theocracy is legitimate collective identity, as those in the “free” Gaza movement or advocating withdrawal from Afghanistan. Look at the social acceptance of Bill Ayers, who is still unapologetic, even though the Weather Underground contemplated the need to exterminate 25 million die-hard capitalists”. Look at those in the Zero Population Growth movement who advocate restrictions on reproduction and demonize those who don’t agree. In groups, human “compassion” doesn’t exist in isolation, but with a whole mix of other tendencies and emotions that apparently had survival value in group discipline, cohesion and competition.

    There are those that will argue that even if we have to go through the painful intermediate stages, the end result is worth it, and it is too bad that Stalin “international socialism” didn’t succeed. There are always apologia for these experiments gone awry, but there are things that perhaps we should have learned. Human nature may not be as mutable as these idealists hope. It frustrates even the most concerted education and “re-education” efforts.

    But that experiment and others such as N. Korea, Cuba, Yogoslavia, Iraq, colonial India, and others do teach us some things, while there are limits to human mutability, there is a human vulnerability to terrorism. State terrorism works, these systems are suprisingly stable even in the face of underlying ethnic tensions and failures to supply basic needs. There is indication that those that are gone, couldn’t have persisted indefinitely, if not for external competitive or other pressures or the failure of internal will.

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