Liberals will never disappear (neither will atheists)

In Quillette Hrishikesh Joshi and Jonny Anomaly* ask Are Liberals Dying Out? Since the piece has been shared a fair amount (judging by my Twitter timeline), I thought I should respond to why I don’t think that is a major concern. Let me jump to their last paragraph:

Nevertheless, despite cultural trends, the best available evidence suggests that political ideology is heritable, and that people with liberal personality traits currently have far fewer children than conservatives. If this trend continues, it is possible that the reproductive choices people are making today will influence the political climate of future generations. Over the long run, conservatives could end up winning the ideological contest with fertility rather than arguments.

First, I don’t think the title reflects the modest contentions of the piece. I beseech the editors of Quillette to not engage in the titular hyperbole so common in the mainstream media!

I agree that political orientation seems heritable. That is clear in books like Born That Way. But heritability expresses itself in an environmental context. If you had a totalitarian government most of the phenotypic variation would disappear. Yes, there would be dissidents, but they’d be freaks. Most humans would conform (no, I don’t think the citizens of Soviet Russia were genetic freaks unable to grasp freedom like Howard Roark). The correlation between religiosity and fertility varies by society as well. The more secular the society, the bigger the gap (though last I checked this was not true in China). In a totally conservative future heritable variation for liberalism could just reemerge.

Second, political orientation exists on a relative plane. If one imagines it as some specific thing, or disposition, one can imagine that in the future the liberal-conservative spectrum would exist, but just be shifted. Quantitative genetics has shown that selection can move the mean many standard deviations. I don’t think this is a strong objection to their overall point, but it gets at the fact that we view liberal-conservative tendencies along a distribution (1980s liberal commentator Jeff Greenfield was widely known for making disparaging comments about gays i the prime of his career; that did not destroy his career as a liberal pundit at that time). Perhaps liberal have already won in an age when most conservatives understand and accept that gay marriage is here to stay.

Third, some of the variation is not heritable. It’s random. In fact around half of it within the population. Some people may just be liberal for stochastic reasons. You aren’t going to get rid of this with selection.

Perhaps most essential in terms of theory: frequency dependence. The dynamics of human interaction and decision making are such that the frequency of liberals declining might have an impact on their fitness. To give a weird example, perhaps an economically post-Malthusian society needs a certain number of sub-replacement liberals who engage in particularly productive work to maintain itself. If society slouched rapidly back toward Malthusianism perhaps everyone would just trudge along at replacement.

The big picture problem is assuming constant directional selection and exhaustion of heritable variation is all well and good when you are selecting for wax-seed oil, but human societies are non-linear systems which are subject to big shocks. They aren’t controlled agricultural genetic experiments.

Finally, let me use an analogous case to make an empirical objection. Many people tell me that the future will be religious due to the same dynamics above. This despite the century long trend toward secularization (parenthetical, God is Back was an ill-timed books, as the United States was shifting toward secularization at that time).

But I want to go back further. France was the first nation to start the demographic transition. In the early 19th century the secular elite was worried about the fertility of devout Roman Catholics, in particular the Poles who were arriving. The secular future they envisioned was threatened. It’s been nearly 200 years since these worries, and in those 200 years France has become more and more secular.

My point with this illustration is that if your theory can not predict the past, it can’t predict the future. At least not robustly. Liberal people will always be with us. So will shy people. And atheists too. They may wax and wane, but human variation persists. On the evolutionary genetic level I think frequency dependent dynamics are such that the fait, in the medium term, of low fitness traits is generally to become oddballs, not extinct. And once they are odd they may become fortunes favorites….

* For real, is that his real name?

17 thoughts on “Liberals will never disappear (neither will atheists)

  1. The fertility arguments are nonsense. Culture and fertility are changing much too fast now to actually assign a religion or lifestyle to a real population growth rate.

    Just look at the Old Order Amish. Are they going to take over the world by each having 14 children?

  2. * Fertility patterns aren’t permanent. In addition to the near universal demographic transition associated with economic development, there has been a more recent post-industrial shift.

    The historically anomalous period during which the poor had more children than the affluent has recently ended. Now, the rich have more children (often late in life, often with the assistance of fertility treatments), while the number of children in poor families has fallen (in part due to being at the tail end of demographic transition that has finally reached them too, and in part due to wider availability of more effective birth control).

    A lot of apparently declining liberal fertility probably comes from poor people who slightly lean left, having fewer kids.

    * Also, rather than being demographically overwhelmed, a more likely scenario seems like a movement towards a caste society (not so far as India, but perhaps with the social class rigidities of early modern England or post-aristocratic Germany and Poland which had upper classes of former aristocrats).

    As wealth inequality grows, we could see the same thing happen in reverse with economic elites becoming a hereditary aristocratic class rather than a hereditary aristocratic class becoming an economic elite. We could see a low fertility endogamous capital owning class as meritocracy is replaced by ossification (a well known side effect of prolonged period without war or catastrophe). If your income is based on assets, low fertility achieves while primogenitor sought to accomplish by consolidating economic estates without all of the troublesome younger children to disrupt the social order, without undermining the aggregate power of the capital owning class whose members grow more wealth not just through growth but through consolidation with each generation.

    One of the paradoxes of meritocracy and assortive marriage is also that once meritocracy does a pretty good job of sorting people by economic fitness into social classes, for the next few generations the practical difference between a predominantly hereditary scheme and a meritocratic one aren’t huge. It takes generations for the lower classes to accumulate a critical mass of high merit folks again under a hereditary approach who can lead the next revolution, and a modest amount of meritocratic cooption of the meritorous poor can forestall that even more as the best and brightest potential revolutionaries are integrated into an upper class.

    * Of course, any genetic determinism approach also ignores the power of ideas. For example, until Darwin, people who would become atheists today became Deists believing in a clockwork god that was a logically philosophical conclusion to draw from Newtonian physics. The Big Bang, a pervasively scientific world, credible theories about the origins of life itself, immediate access via telecommunications and immigration to the global diversity of religion, and the PR hit Christianity took at the grass roots from the political intertwining of Evangelical Christianity and politics, have all made being non-religious more common.

    The Cold War provided a widespread push towards conservatism. Birth control and the Vietnam War and the age of the Baby Boomers swung us towards liberalism starting in the mid-1960s. New trends will shift the pendulum again.

  3. even more as the best and brightest potential revolutionaries are integrated into an upper class.

    This is not a fait accompli. It depends upon whether the potential revolutionaries are seduced by the rewards of joining the upper class; some will and some won’t. Some have a strong class loyalty emotion that cannot be overcome by the material. It also seems to me that the mix is different at different times and I don’t understand what changes the mix. In any case, a look at past “revolutionists” shows a cross section of members of different social classes. Further, the dynamic between a revolutionary period and the efforts of the revolutionists is complicated. You have to have both. Rest assured that there are revolutionists available when and if a path to revolution opens up, or is opened up by an effective revolutionist. Maybe the elite will fracture which always provides a good chance for “us” to get something done.

  4. First of all, these kinds of articles have a bad habit of conflating religiosity and (social) conservatism. They’re related, but not identical.

    Second, it’s probably more valuable to think of which personality traits are being selected for, rather than political orientation or religiosity directly.


    First, a short primer on personality:

    Big 5 Openness divides into subfactors Interest in Ideas and Interest in Aesthetics.
    Big 5 Conscientiousness divides into subfactors Industriousness and Orderliness.
    Big 5 Extraversion divides into subfactors Assertiveness and Enthusiasm.
    Big 5 Agreeablenss divides into subfactors Compassion and Politeness.
    Big 5 Neuroticism divides into subfactors Volatility and Withdrawal.

    These are derived empirically from factor analysis and do a better at predicting real world things than the original Big 5.


    When it comes to politics, there are three personality traits that matter: B5 Openness, B5 Conscientiousness subfactor Orderliness, and B5 Agreeableness subfactor Compassion.

    High Openness is the biggest predictor of social liberalism. Low Orderliness is the second biggest predictor of social liberalism. High Compassion tends to predict leftist economic views, but also tends to predict political correctness. Compassion (like Agreeableness in general) is tricky, because if you’re otherwise conservative it tends to predict compassion, but apparently only towards the ingroup.


    When it comes to religiosity, the major trait is Conscientiousness subfactor Orderliness. High Orderliness predicts high religiosity, while low Orderliness predicts the opposite.

    Low Openness, the biggest predictor of conservatism, does not appear to have much relationship with religiosity.


    The trait that matters most for the entrepreneurialism in a modern economy is Openness (along with the politically irrelevant trait of Industriousness). Openness tends to predict social liberalism, but is orthogonal to Orderliness, and thus religiosity. So, it is perfectly possible to have high Openness creative entrepreneur types who are also highly religious.

    It’s a bit ambiguous as to where such individuals will end up in terms of politics. Their high Openness pushes them towards social liberalism, but their high Orderliness towards social conservatism.

    In terms of entrepreneurialism, we probably can’t do with out socially liberal tending personalities, but we probably can do without the non-religious, though low Orderliness personalities may help with the risk taking necessary for entrepreneurship (however high Openness, high Industriousness and high Extraversion matter more). Since Openness is also the trait that predicts interest in ideas and aesthetics, the same goes for intellectuals and artists.


    I know of no good numbers on the difference in fertility between conservatives and liberals, but there are some for religiosity.

    The higher fertility of more religious people seems to be mostly mediated by traditional sex roles: religious women tend to stay home more and start having kids earlier.

    I don’t know to what extent traditional sex roles are a result of low Openness or of high Orderliness, though, because of the correlations with religion, there has to be a component of the latter.


    Creativity will always be somewhat rewarded, so the socially liberal tending trait of Openness will always be with us. Likewise low Orderliness likely has some utility, as it enables you to cope with chaos more easily, and so will likely be with us always as well.

  5. BTW, personality also helps understand the liberal dominance in academia.

    1. A low Openness intellectual is an oxymoron, so a large slice of conservatives are going to be excluded from academia, almost by definition. Low Openness is also associated with low IQ.

    2. High Orderliness people are dutiful and so tend to self select out of academia to enter more practical careers.

    3. As academia becomes more liberal due to 1 and 2 it tends to become a less hospitable place for conservatives. Who wants to be in a place where your most cherished values are frequently disdained.

    4. In such an environment, some leftist academics will feel free to outright discriminate against conservatives.


    I tend to think 1 and 2 are the most important, but they enable 3 and 4, which feeds a cycle that, in turn, amplifies 2.

    Academia, particularly the humanities, could probably do a better job of seeking out and retaining high Openness/high Orderliness conservatives, where they would likely be very valuable, but low Openness conservatives are a lost cause.

    Most of the above does not apply to libertarians (predicted by low Agreeableness, in addition to high Openness, low Orderliness and high IQ).

  6. A lot of apparently declining liberal fertility probably comes from poor people who slightly lean left, having fewer kids.

    How do you know this? From what I’ve seen, in life and in the data, is that affluent and middle class liberal women are postponing fertility in favour of career. The lower classes, particularly the women, are still among the more fertile parts of the West.

  7. “So, it is perfectly possible to have high Openness creative entrepreneur types who are also highly religious.

    “It’s a bit ambiguous as to where such individuals will end up in terms of politics. Their high Openness pushes them towards social liberalism, but their high Orderliness towards social conservatism.”

    In a country with a established church, perhaps they will end, religiously, as adherents of a dissident religion (probably accusing the mainstream religion of being corrupt and an hotbed of moral depravation), and, politically, as liberals fingting for equal rights for religious dissidents and against the privileges of the established church (like the Non-conformists in England in the 19th century).

    “2. High Orderliness people are dutiful and so tend to self select out of academia to enter more practical careers.”

    Why? I imagine that academia could be interesting for dutiful people; the preference fore practical things seems more a low Openess / low Interest in Ideas thing, and perhaps also high Extroversion (“I want action, and talk with people; not spending all day thinking or doing research”)

  8. I imagine that academia could be interesting for dutiful people

    Getting a PhD in the humanities is wildly impractical career move.

  9. Jonny Anomaly

    For real, is that his real name?

    Destined for a career in statistics? And that is a rather anomalous spelling of “Johnny.” I’ve seen “John,” “Johnny,” and “Jon,” but never “Jonny.”

    Also, I find this kind of a wild prediction a “clickbait” at best. There are so many variables (not to forget definitional problems) that go into demographic projections of this sort that any claim to a semblance of accuracy is laughable.

  10. @Thursday

    How do you know this? From what I’ve seen, in life and in the data, is that affluent and middle class liberal women are postponing fertility in favour of career. The lower classes, particularly the women, are still among the more fertile parts of the West.

    A summary of the facts derived from census data and vital statistics reports in the U.S. from 2008 lays out the facts. For example, African-American women have had fewer lifetime births per woman than white women in the U.S. since 2002 (although African-American women tend to have their children at a significantly younger age).

    Since 2008, the trend has continued. I’ve written blog posts touting all time lows for U.S. teen births in most of the years since then.

    For example, there were about 1,030 children born to mothers aged 15 to 17 in New Jersey in 2014, a rate of 5.8 per 1,000 girls aged 15-17 down 15% from 2013 and down 78% from a peak in 1991 Similarly:

    “Birth rates are down a whopping 51 percent among Hispanics age 15 to 19 since 2006, and down 44 percent among black teens, according to a survey of census data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Teen pregnancy rates among whites also fell by a third.”

    The previous year, I noted that teen births had declined at an annual rate of 7% per year from 2007 through 2013.

    This plays out against a background of dramatic divides between those with more and less education in the timing of when they have children and their marital status. The average age of a woman when she first marries (currently 27) had grown higher than the average age of a woman having her first child in 1989. The average high school educated woman has a first child two years before marrying while an average college educated woman has a first child two years after marrying.

    “73 percent of black children are born outside marriage, compared with 53 percent of Latinos and 29 percent of whites. And educational differences are growing. About 92 percent of college-educated women are married when they give birth, compared with 62 percent of women with some post-secondary schooling and 43 percent of women with a high school diploma or less”

    The likelihood of divorce is also extremely different between women with college degrees and women with only high school educations:

    “the divorce rate among college-educated women has plummeted. Of those who first tied the knot between 1975 and 1979, 29% were divorced within ten years. Among those who first married between 1990 and 1994, only 16.5% were [divorced within ten years].

    At the bottom of the education scale, the picture is reversed. Among high-school dropouts, the divorce rate rose from 38% for those who first married in 1975-79 to 46% for those who first married in 1990-94. Among those with a high school diploma but no college, it rose from 35% to 38%.”

  11. One more recap of TFR by race and ethnicity in the U.S. over time:

    1980 – 1.8
    1990 – 2.0
    2000 – 2.1
    2004 – 2.1
    2013 – 1.9

    1980 – 2.2
    1990 – 2.5
    2000 – 2.1
    2004 – 2.0
    2013 – 1.9

    American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut:
    1980 – 2.2
    1990 – 2.2
    2000 – 1.8
    2004 – 1.7
    2013 – 1.3

    Asian or Pacific Islander:
    1980 – 2.0
    1990 – 2.0
    2000 – 1.9
    2004 – 1.9
    2013 – 1.7

    1980 – NA
    1990 – 3.0
    2000 – 2.7
    2004 – 2.9
    2013 – 2.1


  12. “Getting a PhD in the humanities is wildly impractical career move.”

    Perhaps, as a Portuguese-speaker, I am not uderstanding what “dutiful” means, but, if it means what I think it means, I am not seeing the connection between being “dutiful” and choosing “practical career moves”.

  13. I am not seeing the connection between being “dutiful” and choosing “practical career moves”.

    Your imperfect grasp of English is likely the problem. Not intending any snark by saying that.

  14. By liberals are we using the actual definition or the American one? Progressives and much of academia are anything but liberal these days.

  15. Political views might be genetic (to a certain extent) but I have a hard time believing they’re totally genetic or even predominately genetic.

    Heck I believe most individuals and their political views have nothing to do with genes. However even if was (hypothetically) genetic the gene for liberalism would remain forever even due to a low total fertility rate.

    Take the country of Niger (for example) which has an extremely high fertility rate in comparison to Japan. Does this mean Japan is no longer going to exist in the future because of people from Niger outproducing the Japanese on a sexual level? No and it’s like the individual who made that statement has never heard of atavism or assumes that since popular A is procreating at a higher rate than populaton B the latter must cease to exist.


  16. “Liberals will never disappear”

    Stupidity is an integral part of the human condition.

  17. “Some people may just be liberal for stochastic reasons.”

    Will you please STOP using the word “stochastic” in cases where “random” is the more appropriate adjective. It makes you sound even more pompous than usual which is a trait you need to strive to avoid if you aspire to be a more effective writer.

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