Why the Battle Over Healthcare is Even More Important than You Think: Health, Personality & Politics

With attacks on provision of healthcare in the US and a ‘crisis’ in the NHS in the UK, the debate over governmental responsibility towards health has been raging once again in the news and across social media. This has made me reflect how this debate should not just be about the health of a nation, the quality of healthcare may dictate the entire future direction of the US and UK. One theory on the relationship between epidemiology, personality and political preference suggests good healthcare creates more liberals, bad more conservatives. I will try to explain why.

You may have heard that fear of death increases conservative behaviour, what you may not know is that nations with the most conservative, authoritarian governments have the highest levels of mortality from infectious diseases.

I’ve written before about how psychologically speaking liberalism is open-mindedness, at least the strongest predictor of liberal political views is the personality trait associated with how open someone is to new ideas and new experiences. And those countries with the highest mortality rate from infectious disease have the lowest average scores for open-mindedness in personality tests. Conversely those nations with lower levels of mortality from infectious disease have on average more open-minded populations and more liberal governments. It doesn’t even have to be an increase in mortality, but merely an increase in an individual’s perception of their risk of contagion or a compromised immune system.

If we put these together it seems that open-mindedness and deaths from infectious disease negatively correlate with one another. Why the focus on ‘infectious’ disease and not other diseases or causes of death? Well there’s no direct evidence why relief from deadly infections cause liberalism, but if open-mindedness includes openness to people who are different from yourself (whether because they look different, act different, believe different things or simply from other places) then it’s not a trait that would thrive when coming into contact with other groups of people brings a high risk of catching something you might die of. This is what has happened in those rich, Western nations with the best healthcare, they have produced the most liberal societies over the past 100 years. Remove that problem by removing risk of death and openness can flourish.

These are not my ideas; I came across it in Geoffrey Miller’s Must-Have, which gives a great overview of this research and reasoning. Randy Thornhill, who helped originate much of the research cited above even goes so far as to suggest the liberal moral progress of the last 50 to 100 years; rights for women, minorities and homosexual men and women as well as the growth of concern for the environment, may have its root cause in improvements in healthcare in those countries in the 20th century. It may be why the hippie movement in the 60’s came after conditions improved post-war and broad spectrum immunisations became available.

All of this is a fascinating lens through which to view the battles over health provision in the US over Obamacare and in the UK over the NHS funding deficit. Obamacare may have its problems, but its namesake may have unconsciously done more than any other president to create more liberals in the future, who will vote for candidates which share his views. Trumps attack on Obamacare and the UK Conservative government’s neglect of or outright hostility towards the NHS will create more conservative-minded people in the long run. Again this is unlikely to be consciously known by either government; to most liberals and conservatives the fight over healthcare is one of helping those in need versus desire for small government, low tax and who is deserving of handouts. But each political stance towards healthcare helps create more people who will share that stance, so if this reasoning from psychology and epidemiology is correct the battle over healthcare is even more important than expected, it’s also a battle for the very future of these nations.

– Matthew Dickinson
The Spiritual Materialist