Inertia - conservative and liberal thought


Newton's laws of motion tell us that a body will continue to travel with the same velocity unless acted on by another force. That force may accelerate it or slow it down. But the tendency to carry on in a straight line is, of course, its inertia. Inertia is not though confined to the realm of physics. Economics, too, has its own brand of inertia - goodwill.

Goodwill has been defined as the likelihood that a customer will return to do business with you again and again. It is, or ought to be, a very valuable part of any company’s balance sheet. But like so many aspects of economics, we are not here looking at some abstract mathematical notion. We are looking at the way that we as human beings act. If we have found a source for what we want to buy - be they potatoes or warships - at a reasonable price with ready availability and good service, then we are likely to take the easy way out in the future and go back to that same supplier. Human nature tends to welcome continuity rather than continual change.

But we also know from our own experience that some people are inherently more resistant to change than others. We call those most resistant to change ‘conservatives’ and those at the opposite end of the spectrum ‘liberals’ - in each case in the non-political sense.

And now it seems that there is neurological basis for this distinction. Those who had scored high on psychological tests for one extreme or the other were found to demonstrate that same trait in neurological tests. Conservatives were more likely to react as they had before in superficially similar situations than judge each situation on its merits. And so they got the answer wrong more often than the liberals.

EEG’s done at the same time showed that liberals had twice as much activity in a region called the anterior cingulate cortex. This area of the brain seems to help the mind recognize those slightly different situations where following the usual course of action is not the right thing to do.

And so liberals would seem to be able to react to what goes on around them in a more appropriate and flexible way than conservatives. But is such a trait always a good thing? Conservatives argue that liberals spend to much time thinking about things and not enough time doing. What I think they mean is that the hyper-liberals spend so much time pondering the variables that they find it difficult to come to a conclusion sufficiently firmly to act upon it. Conservatives have no such difficulty. You do the same again. And then there is the criticism that many liberals want change for the sake of change - the opposite of the conservatives who want things to remain the same because... well, just because.

Which brings us to why we have such a diverse range of thinking in the first place. Although evolution does not always get it right, I think that perhaps, in this case, there may be an underlying benefit.

You have the uber-conservatives on the one hand, desperate to cling to life as it always has been and the liberals wanting, as they see it, to put the world right, to progress, engage in new forms of art or challenge accepted scientific or philosophical thought.

Now such free thinking may be and has been a driving force for development of our society, but it has not always worked well. It has taken us down many blind alleys - to mention only the current crop of contemporary artists. A willingness to change one’s mind does not always mean that there is a well-though out case for a particular change.

Too often, liberals get swept away on a tide of woolly thinking. Conservatism helps preserve a certain stability in the world, by preventing the wilder excesses of the liberals, obstinately requiring them to justify the changes they are proposing. Life needs to have a system of checks and balances and the conservatives are the necessary, if to me sometimes annoying, inertia in the system.


25 June 2008

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