Conservatism, Libertarianism, and "The Authoritarian Personality"

The Myth

There is a renewed effort to identify conservatism with racism and authoritarianism. It’s not quite as overt as that (except on the hard Left), but it goes like this (corrective analysis in brackets):

  • Bush voters (and only Bush voters) are “conservative.” [What kind of “conservative”? A Burkean, limited-government, classical liberal who knows that evolved social traditions contain much wisdom and who therefore opposes change when it is imposed by the state? A neo-isolationist protectionist like Pat Buchanan, who spouts many of the same lines as “liberal” Lou Dobbs? A “redneck” who hates government except when it comes time to pick up his welfare check? A life-long Democrat who goes to church and tries to obey the Ten Commandments? The Burkean is a conservative. The Democrat has conservative tendencies (probably unacknowledged). Pat Buchanan, Lou Dobbs, and the “redneck” simply exude certain attitudes, not coherent philosophies of governance. Define your terms.]
  • Research “shows” that Bush voters are racist. [Actually, an uncontrolled, online “experiment” (see first three links above) purports to find an unspecified degree of correlation between (a) persons whose (unverified) zip codes coincide with congressional districts where Bush prevailed and (b) a somewhat more negative, self-reported (i.e., calculated) reaction to black persons than that of test-takers whose (unverified) zip codes coincide with congressional districts where Bush did not prevail. It would be just as valid to conclude that Bill Clinton is a racist because his daughter did not attend public schools in the mostly black District of Columbia. Actually, Bill Clinton’s condescendion toward black persons does strike me as a form of compensation for latent racist tendencies.]
  • Hitler and his adherents were racist authoritarians. [The part about “racist authoritarians” is an undeniable truth, which — when linked to the myth that Hitler was “conservative” — ties Republicans and “conservatives” (of whatever stripe) to racist authoritarianism. The modern liberal agenda of taxation and regulation is patently authoritarian in nature, yet a “good liberal” — who cannot see that his or her agenda is authoritarian — also denies his or her own racism by bending over backward to seem non-racist, regardless of the truth of the matter.]
  • Therefore, conservatives are racist authoritarians. [The implication here is that conservatism is authoritarian (and therefore racist, by the Hitler analogy). Yet, the reverse is true. Modern liberalism is authoritarian, and Burkean conservatives-classical liberals-libertarians have resisted modern liberalism since its ascendancy in the 1930s.]

The line of “reasoning” that I have just “fisked” illustrates three types of logical fallacy: false dilemma, false choice, and package deal. In this instance, the perpetrators of the fallacies do not know, or care, about their logical failings. Their aim is simply to convey the following message: Conservatism is sociopathic, if not psychopathic. They do not wish to distinguish among brands of conservatism: all are anathema to those who perpetrate and pertpetuate the myth that conservatism is a psychological illness on a par with Hitler’s pathological racist authoritarianism.

Academic Origins and Echoes

The effort to portray conservativism as an aberrant psychological disorder goes back to the publication in 1950 of The Authoritarian Personality, about which I was instructed by Prof. Milton Rokeach, author of The Open and Closed Mind (related links). Here is how Alan Wolfe, who is sympathetic to the thesis of The Authoritarian Personality, describes its principal author:

Theodor Adorno, the senior author, was a member of the influential Frankfurt school of “critical theory,” a Marxist-inspired effort to diagnose the cultural deformities of late capitalism.

Hmm. . . . Very interesting.

Wolfe continues:

Unlike much postwar social science, The Authoritarian Personality did not present data showing the correlations between authoritarianism and a variety of variables such as social class, religion, or political affiliation. Instead the authors tried to draw a composite picture of people with authoritarian leanings: Perhaps their most interesting finding was that such people identify with the strong and are contemptuous of the weak. Extensive case studies of particular individuals were meant to convey the message that people who seemed exceptionally conventional on the outside could be harboring radically intolerant thoughts on the inside.

Despite its bulk, prestigious authors, and seeming relevance, however, The Authoritarian Personality never did achieve its status as a classic. Four years after its publication, it was subject to strong criticism in Studies in the Scope and Method of “The Authoritarian Personality” (Free Press, 1954), edited by the psychologists Richard Christie and Marie Jahoda.Two criticisms were especially devastating, one political, the other methodological.

How, the University of Chicago sociologist Edward A. Shils wanted to know, could one write about authoritarianism by focusing only on the political right? In line with other works of the 1950s, such as Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, Brace, 1951), Shils pointed out that “Fascism and Bolshevism, only a few decades ago thought of as worlds apart, have now been recognized increasingly as sharing many very important features.” The United States had its fair share of fellow travelers and Stalinists, Shils argued, and they too worshiped power and denigrated weakness. Any analysis that did not recognize that the extremes of left and right were similar in their authoritarianism was inherently flawed.

Herbert H. Hyman and Paul B. Sheatsley, survey-research specialists, scrutinized every aspect of The Authoritarian Personality’s methodology and found each wanting. Sampling was all but nonexistent. The wording of the questionnaire was flawed. The long, open-ended interviews were coded too subjectively. No method existed for determining what caused what. Whatever the subjects said about themselves could not be verified. The F scale lacked coherence.

Composite pictures, case studies, exclusion of Leftist dogmas, not to mention seriously flawed methods. Wolfe nevertheless defends the flawed methods by saying “social science being what it is, fault can be found with any methodology” — which is really a condemnation of social science, not its critics. (One might use Wolfe’s reasoning to excuse murder.)

Wolfe then tries to deflate Shils’s “political” criticism by arguing as follows:

Certainly the criticisms of Edward Shils seem misplaced 50 years on. Communism really did have some of the authoritarian characteristics of fascism, yet Communism is gone from the Soviet Union and without any influence in the United States. . . .

If one could find contemporary “authoritarians of the left” to match those on the right, the authors of The Authoritarian Personality could rightly be criticized for their exclusive focus on fascism.

Wolfe would have us believe that Communism and fascism are essentially different. They are not, in that both are extreme manifestations of authoritarianism. Wolfe also would have us believe that the official demise of Communism somehow precludes the rise of “authoritarians of the left.” But Wolfe, like a fish in water, is unable to see that liberty in the United States has receded largely because of the efforts of the Democrat Party. “Democrat” simply has a nicer ring than “Communist.” (It’s like the Ministry of Peace in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.) Wolfe sees authoritarianism only when it seems to emanate from the Republican Party. Actually, now that the Communist Party is safely beyond criticism, Wolfe is free to apply the label “authoritarian” in the same undisriminating way that John Birchers used to apply the label “Communist.”

How does Rokeach’s work relate to Adorno’s? Here’s Rokeach, in his own words:

The Open and Closed Mind grew out of my need to better understand and thus to better resist
continuing pressures during my earlier years on my intellectual independence, on the one side from orthodox religion and on the other side from orthodox Marxism-Leninism.

Research as a continuation of adolescent rebellion? Hmm. . . . I wonder what Dr. Freud would make of that?

An Academician’s Corrective

Let’s turn to Australian psychologist John J. Ray, who assesses The Authoritarian Personality, The Open and Closed Mind, and related works in “Does Authoritarianism of Personality Go With Conservatism?“:

The problem that has plagued 30 years of work on authoritarianism is doubt about the validity of the scales used to measure it. From the start there was the apparently inexplicable fact that authoritarian governments on the world scene were at least as likely to be Left wing as Right wing. . . .

We now have data from three separate societies which suggest that when authoritarianism of personality is validly measured, it shows no association with political ideology. To reconcile this with previous findings we must insist on the distinction between authoritarianism of attitudes and authoritarianism of personality. One refers to how a person habitually feels and the other refers to how he behaves. . . .

It was because they failed to make such a distinction that Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford (1950) [The Authoritarian Personality] mistakenly identified the person who tended to admire traditional authority with the person who himself liked to dominate others. . . . One group admires authority because they would like to exercise it themselves while the other group admires it because they are so incapable of exercising it themselves. It is the former group that most of us would identify as authoritarian but the latter group which gets high scores on the F and related scales [devised by Adorno, Rokeach, and others]. . . .

It would seem, then, that if we wish to detect people something like the ones Adorno et al. (1950) had in mind, we need to know their scores on both a scale of authoritarian attitudes and a scale of authoritarian personality. It is only high scorers on both who fit their image of the Fascist personality. Authoritarian personalities alone are equally likely to be found on either side of the Left-Right divide. [All emphasis added by me.]

There’s more in Ray’s article about “Libertarians and the Authoritarian Personality.” Keep in mind, as you read the following excerpts, the proximity of Burkean conservatism to libertarianism:

The literature starts out with the now-famous book by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality. This book had its genesis in an attempt by these four Jewish scholars to explain the rise of German Nazism. Most of the research reported in the book, however, was done in California.

These authors constructed a “scale” (list) of authoritarian attitudes which they administered to a wide variety of population samples. They found that those who “scored high” on this scale (endorsed most items on the list) tended to be sympathetic to the political Right and in fact showed “pre-fascist” personalities. . . .

A follow-up book by Christie and Jahoda challenged the California findings on both methodological and substantive grounds. . . . Methodologically, the point was raised that Adorno et al. had included in their list of attitudes only pro-authority items. There were no actual pro-liberty items. One could only express pro-liberty attitudes by rejecting pro-authority statements. . . . A high scorer could be either simply agreeable or a genuine authoritarian; in such circumstances, one could never be sure whether it was acquiescence which was correlating with right-wing attitudes or whether it was genuine authoritarianism.

The substantive point raised against the California studies [by Adorno et al.] was that they were simply obviously false. Right-wingers such as Nazis and Fascists may be authoritarians but equally so are Communists such as Mao and Stalin. Authoritarianism was to be found not at one end of the political spectrum but rather at both ends. . . .

A new proposal that substantially helped to resolve this dilemma was a long overdue reconceptualization of political allegiance along two dimensions rather than one. This reconceptualization was associated with the names of Rokeach and Eysenck. . . . They rightly identified authoritarianism/libertarianism as being at right angles to (unrelated to) the normal radical-conservative dimension of politics. . . .

Communists and Fascists could be shown to fall at opposite ends of the first dimension (radicalism-conservatism) but at the same end (authoritarian) of the second dimension. Democrats and Republicans on the other hand could be shown to fall also on opposite sides of the radicalism-conservatism divide but in the same position on the authoritarianism-libertarianism dimension (half-way between the two). . . .

Neat as this schema was, however, there proved to be a great deal of difficulty in showing that people’s individual attitudes could in fact be ordered in accordance with it. . . .

Rokeach’s scale (the “D” scale) also shared with the Adorno et al. “F” scale, the problem of one-way wording. Again there were no explicitly libertarian items.

Three attempts to remedy this problem were made by [me] using Australian data. . . . Three new scales were constructed wherein there were equal numbers of authoritarian and libertarian items. . . . The results obtained with balanced scales are then much more trustworthy than results from one-way-worded scales.

Thus, at this point, although we have seen that there are theoretical inadequacies in a one-dimensional description of political options and although there have been methodological inadequacies in much of the research in the area, the overall conclusion when all these are taken into account is still the same as that originally drawn by Adorno et al. — it is authoritarians, not libertarians, who tend to be politically right-wing and fascist.

In fact [I] showed that both by the mechanical/statistical procedures of factor analysis and by the criteria of various historical definitions, the Adorno et al. “F” scale was indistinguishable from a measure of conservatism. . . .

There are two very important ways, however, in which the Adorno et al. account has not been shown to be true. First, authoritarians /conservatives can not be shown to be psychologically sick, and, second, authoritarian attitudes can not be shown to go with authoritarian behaviour.

Various measures of authoritarianism have repeatedly been found not to correlate with various measures of maladjustment. . . . Attributes that authoritarianism has been found to correlate with (e.g., rigidity, dogmatism) are obviously not always maladaptive. As “stick-to-it-iveness”, such attributes might in some circumstances be, in fact, rather admired. . . .

The failure of authoritarian attitudes to relate to authoritarian behaviour is . . . a more serious failure of the Adorno et al. account. In fact, to psychologists the attitude/behaviour discrepancy is a familiar phenomenon. It is certainly true in other fields such as racism. . . . One cannot even guess whether the acknowledged motivation is the real motivation or not. . . .

Since a distinction is necessary between authoritarian attitudes and behaviour, a very obvious question becomes: Given that we have seen authoritarian attitudes to be characteristically conservative, is it also true that those who behave in an authoritarian way are conservative? The evidence on this question is not yet extensive but so far all available results show no relationship between the two whatever. . . . People who behave in an authoritarian way are equally likely to be from the Left, the Right or the center. [All emphasis added by me.]

In sum, the authors of The Authoritarian Personality define conservatism to be authoritarian. They then wrongly assert that “authoritarians” (conservatives) are psychologically “sick” and that they behave in an authoritarian manner. The fact, however, is that authoritarian behavior knows no ideological bounds. The histories of Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia, Britain (under Labour), and the U.S. (beginning especially with the New Deal) amply demonstrate that fact.

Obiter Dicta

One can be a rigid Democrat, a rigid Republican, and even a rigid libertarian. Rigidity, like compromise, is sometimes a useful way to approach the world, and sometimes a self-defeating way to approach the world. As a Burkean conservative-libertarian, I find anarcho-libertarianism especially rigid and self-defeating. Anarcho-libertarians are loathe to face the reality that government is unlikely to go away. Their answer to all problems, it seems, is to wish government away. All would be better in their best of all imaginary worlds.

Other libertarians (those whose beliefs are closer to mine) take the prosaic view that half a loaf is better than none. For example, in the best of all possible anarcho-libertarian worlds there would be no Social Security. That “best” world being an extremely unlikely one, pragmatic libertarians applaud Social Security reforms — such as private accounts — that would at least make Social Security something more like a real investment program and something less than the transfer-payment Ponzi scheme that it is.

Rigid, impractical libertarianism is no defense against the authoritarianism of Left and Right.