Our political ideology reflects how we think societies should function and what we think needs to be done to achieve the social order we desire. In many cases, this relates to public goods that structure our collective lives, such as health care or education—all of which require cooperation from the individuals benefitting from them, for instance, by paying taxes. Accordingly, earlier work has proposed that ideological values may shape individual tendencies to cooperate on public goods, proposing that leftists and rightists differ in how cooperative they are.
But cooperation is not a given, as from an individual perspective it is often most beneficial to free-ride and benefit from collective goods without contributing oneself. How do people solve this moral dilemma between serving the collective and benefiting personally? Some have suggested that the solution depends on their ideology, with leftists tending to cooperate more—but experimental evidence to date has been inconclusive. What we do know, however, is that one of the most consistent differences found between leftist and rightist ideology is that leftists hold more egalitarian values, whereas rightists tend to value (economic) hierarchies and self-reliance. As a case in point, in his recent State of the Union address, President Biden stressed the relevance of public education, claiming that the Democratic Party has been “making progress by reducing student debt and increasing Pell Grants for working- and middle-class families.” Prominent Republicans likewise support public education but stress the importance of “parental rights” in public schools, advocating to scale down diversity and equity programs, and publicly opposing Biden’s student debt relief plan that “threaten[s] to deprive the Nation of nearly half a trillion dollars.” Both leftists and rightists can assume cooperation on a public good, but why and how can be very different.
Public good features speak to ideological values
One implication of these and related insights is that specific features of public goods may speak to the different ideological values, thus prompting different levels of cooperation between leftists and rightists only when their values do not align. We examined this possibility in our experiments (n = 735). Individuals in groups of three could either keep a fixed endowment to themselves and/or contribute (parts of) it to public goods that provide payoffs larger than the sum of contributions. There were two public goods, with one providing equal payoffs to all group members and the other providing unequally distributed payoffs, meaning that one individual always benefitted least, one benefitted moderately, and one benefitted most. Additionally, the equal and unequal public goods sometimes differed in efficiency, meaning that one produced a higher return on investment than the other, producing more value for the group.
Leftists do not cooperate more than Rightist, but...
Varying these features allowed us to examine whether ideological differences in cooperation emerge regardless of the type of public good at hand, or only when the public good generates wealth in a way that corresponds to the values of one ideology, but not the other. We find, in fact, that leftists do not cooperate more than rightists overall, meaning that rightists do not generally free-ride more than leftists. Indeed, the specific features of a public good matter: Leftists cooperate more than rightists when doing so serves everyone equally—but not when cooperating creates inequalities.
We also find that leftists cooperate more on equal than on unequal public goods, with the only exception applying when a public good benefits people unequally but provides a higher benefit to the group as a whole than the equal public good: In that case, leftists’ value for group welfare appears to trump their preference for equality, and they cooperate more on the unequal public good.
(Don't) Trust your gut
Rightists, on the other hand, do not differentiate between the two public goods. But why? The answer seems to lie in both the trust people have in others, and in the norms they perceive to govern social interactions. We asked our participants how much they trusted their fellow group members to cooperate. We additionally asked uninvolved individuals what they find the socially appropriate way to behave in such a dilemma and how they expect people to solve the dilemma in actuality (n = 120).
The results uncovered an interesting and, for us, unexpected mismatch: Whereas leftists’ behavior was consistent with their trust towards fellow group members and reflected what other leftists find morally appropriate and expect other people to do, rightists’ responses painted a more complex picture. While rightist participants’ levels of cooperation and trust did not depend on the (in)equality of returns from a public good, the uninvolved rightists we probed differentiated between what they expected people to do in practice and what they deemed socially appropriate. Despite expecting people not to differentiate between the public goods—just as rightist participants did not— they did—just as leftists did— deem it socially appropriate to cooperate more on equal than on unequal public goods.
So, does ideology shape cooperation?
We find that ideology shapes cooperation, but not always. Understanding ideological differences in cooperation depends on our ability to understand the values associated with cooperation—and these depend on the features of the public good at hand. Leftists and rightists may not differ in their willingness to, for instance, provide excellent education—but only in their willingness to cooperate towards an education system designed to generate equality to all its beneficiaries, consistent with the value leftists attach to equality.