WHY do the old swing Right?

Back in 1985, I reported, in one of the academic journals, the results of a large body of attitude surveys that showed what beliefs were characteristic of older people.  Both in what they favoured and in what they rejected, old people were shown to be very conservative.

Most people do swing rightwards as they get older, with the best-known examples being, of course, Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill.  Reagan was even a union official in his early days and yet became arguably the most beloved conservative leader of all time.

And there are other examples.  The person may not always change party loyalties but their views may evolve within that loyalty.  A good example comes from my home state of Queensland, in Australia.  Following is a brief excerpt from his Wikipedia entry:

Edward Michael (Ned) Hanlon (1887 - 1952) was Premier of Queensland from 1946 to 1952. After leaving school, he worked in the railways, and soon became a union official. In the 1912 Brisbane General Strike he played a prominent part as a militant....  Over the years Hanlon's outlook mellowed, and he shifted to the political right. He ended up, as [Labor Party] Premier, sending the police to suppress union demonstrations during the 1948 Queensland Railway strike.

So, again, why?   It couldn't be simpler: The essence of conservatism is caution.  And underlying that caution is a perception that the world is an unpredictable place.  So change has to take place in small steps if its objectives are to be achieved.  Massive changes such as Obamacare are to be avoided in case large unforeseen negative consequences emerge -- consequences  of the sort that emerged rapidly in the case of Obamacare.

And as we get older that unpredictability of the world is forced upon us -- and that makes us cautious.  Experience conservatizes us.  And that is why the young tend to be Leftist:  They lack experience.  Shielded by their parents, they have yet to realize that the world is full of surprises -- many of which are unpleasant.  As the great Scottish poet Robert Burns put it so memorably (and prophetically):

"The best-laid plans o' mice and men gang aft agley

and leave us nought but grief and pain for promised joy".

Apologies for quoting the less-known next line of the verse. But it is undoubtedly apposite.

The transformation wrought by experience is only part of the reason for the differences I found, however. The world has undergone large changes in the last couple of hundred years or so, with a big swing towards socialism in many countries in the middle of the 20th century, ending in a decisive swing worldwide back to broadly free-market economic policies after that.

The large economic upswing   -- greatly increased prosperity -- that began with the abandonment of socialist economic policies in the Reagan/Thatcher years, however, had consequences as well.  As economic concerns became less pressing for most of the population, the policies and attitudes that accompanied economic struggle became less pressing too.  People could afford to reduce greatly the strategies they saw as needed to put bread on the table.  So there was an upsurge in permissiveness all-round.  Survival was no longer a harsh master.  So social (non-economic) attitudes liberalized  -- reaching rather absurd lengths as time went by -- as with the idolization of homosexuality in the early 21st century.

So the age-related attitude differences noted in my research also partly reflected the era in which the individuals concerned were born.  People who grew up in times of economic stringency acquired attitudes appropriate to that.  Homosexuality, for instance, had to be anathematized because it threatened the survival of the family.  And the family is of course the original social security safety net.

And so people who grew up in times of economic ease formed the more permissive attitudes allowed by that.  People acquire attitudes in their youth which tend to last for the rest of their life  -- unless powerfully contra-indicated by life-experiences  -- which is the sad fate of many who enter adulthood with socialistic ideas.

A FOOTNOTE:  The USA is a very successful country economically and yet also has large pockets of social conservatism.  Why?  It's at least partly because many Americans don't FEEL economically secure.  And why is that?  Because the only way many Americans can find to keep their families reasonably safe is to engage in "white flight".  They need to get away from the extraordinarily high rate of violent crime that pervades black or partly black neighborhoods.

But the only presently legal (post-segregation) way to get away from such neighborhoods is to move to the more expensive suburbs that blacks can rarely afford.  And that takes money, rather a lot of money.  So Americans are economic strivers at a huge rate.  The pursuit of money is America's biggest religion.  It's a great pity that their society makes Americans so unrelaxed

The truth of all that can be seen in Australia.  Australia's largest non-European minority is hard-working and law-abiding East Asians  (mostly Han Chinese) -- at about 5% of the population.  And Australia is also an economically prosperous place with very conservative economic policies.  Australian Federal governments even bring down surplus budgets on some occasions!  Contrast that with the trillions of debt run up by the Obama administration.   So a prosperous but safe country should have a very relaxed population.  And that is exactly what Australia is known for.

Apropos of that, I remember reading about 30 years ago (in "The Bulletin", I think) that Australia had at that stage the world's highest proportion of half-millionaires.  Once they had accumulated that much, smart  Australians tended to hop off the treadmill and retire to more recreational pursuits.  Americans, by contrast, stayed on the treadmill for much longer -- because money is at least part of their religion.  They reject St. Paul's view that the love of money is the root of all evil.  They know money as the root of all safety.  Even in their churches, Americans are often subjected to a prosperity gospel that would do Calvin proud. -- JR.

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