"A liberal can talk coherently about what the conservative view is because people like me actually do listen," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman said in an interview last year. "We don't think it's right, but we pay enough attention to see what the other person is trying to get at. The reverse is not true. ... The other side has dogmatic views."
Is this true? Are liberals like Krugman more open-minded than their conservative counterparts? Do they understand conservative views better than conservatives understand liberal views? University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt has actually studied these questions, and the answers appear to be "no." In fact, the exact opposite seems to be the case.
In his new book, "The Righteous Mind," Haidt describes a study in which more than 2,000 Americans were asked to fill out questionnaires asking them how much they agreed with statements like this one: "I think it's morally wrong that rich children inherit a lot of money while poor children inherit nothing."
One-third of respondents were asked to fill out the questionnaire according to their own views. One-third were asked to fill it out as they thought a "typical liberal" would. And the last third were asked to fill out the survey as if they were a "typical conservative."
Haidt found that moderates and conservatives could accurately predict how liberals and conservatives would judge each statement. But liberals were far less capable of mirroring their ideological counterparts' thinking. Those describing themselves as "very liberal" did worst. Apparently, contra Krugman, the more liberal you are, the less able you are to understand other people's beliefs.
Haidt, who was raised by liberal Jewish parents near New York City and has voted as "a partisan liberal" in every presidential election, later explains how this moral blindness can affect us all.
Liberals, Haidt argues, fail to appreciate the "moral capital" that successful societies have built up over years of cultural evolution. "Moral capital" includes the values, virtues and institutions in a society that "enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible."
When liberals passed the well-meaning welfare programs of President Johnson's Great Society, they failed to anticipate how the new system "increased out-of-wedlock births and weakened African American families."
This blindness is not confined to American liberals like Krugman. Lord John Maynard Keynes, the intellectual father of liberal economics, said the following of himself and his college friends: "We claimed the right to judge every individual case on its merits, and the wisdom, experience, and self-control to do so successfully. ... We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions, and traditional wisdom. We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the term, immoralists."
And in case you thought Keynes might have gained some humility as he aged, he later added: "I remain, and always will remain, an immoralist."
Keynes and Krugman are just the latest in a long line of thinkers that suffer from what Haidt calls the "rationalist delusion," or the belief that one can simply deduce all moral truth through reason alone. "The rationalist delusion is not just a claim about human nature," Haidt writes. "It's also a claim that the rational caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power." Or in the case of Keynes and Krugman, that economists should have more power.
Not that conservatives have any kind of monopoly on moral truth. Haidt believes that although conservatives "do a better job of preserving moral capital," liberals are better at noticing "certain classes of victims" and fighting corporate power. But conservatives who understand that such positive qualities exist in liberals should not necessarily expect reciprocation.
Conn Carroll is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com.