The article below was written in 1991 for the International J. Psychology but was not accepted for publication


J.J. Ray

University of N.S.W., Australia


Moghaddam & Vuksanovic (1990) purport to show that Right-wing Authoritarianism (RWA) as measured by Altemeyer's scale is a strong predictor of opposition to human rights. It is shown that this is a naive proposition and that their alleged scale of respect for human rights has a Leftist slant. Their findings are thus artifactual and misleading.

Left-wing authoritarians

A paper by Moghaddam & Vuksanovic (1990) seriously tells us that Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) is a strong predictor of disrespect for human rights. The authors justify this conclusion on the basis of survey research they carried out but seem to have neglected the wider context of such a claim. Little thought seems to have been given by these authors to the absolute crushing of human rights that was practiced for many years by the now defunct Left-wing authoritarian regimes of Eastern Europe. To say that authoritarian regimes repress human rights would simply have been true by definition (i.e. trivially true) so it is the "Right-wing" label that gives the Moghaddam & Vuksanovic findings their potential interest. Considering the findings within the context of world events, however, surely deprives Right-wing authoritarians of any claim to uniqueness as far as disrespect for human rights is concerned.

The invalidity of the Altemeyer RWA scale

Be that as it may, however, the Moghaddam & Vuksanovic findings are flawed in other ways. Principal of these is their reliance on the Altemeyer (1981) RWA scale to measure Right-wing authoritarianism. As I have shown at some length elsewhere (Ray, 1985 & 1987), this scale bears strong resemblances to an ordinary conservatism scale, correlates highly with other scales of conservatism and correlates negligibly with a behaviorally valid scale of authoritarianism. It is true that Altemeyer (1988) has defended his scale against my charge that it is "only" a measure of conservatism but his principal objection to my work seems to be that I devised the conservatism scales concerned. I might with equal cogency object to the RWA scale because Altemeyer devised it! If Altemeyer had attempted to show that my conservatism scales were in some way unusual, his defence might have had some substance but he in fact made no such attempt.

Additionally, Altemeyer (1988, p. 239) himself shows that, although scores on his scale seem to be fairly normally distributed, the scale nonetheless has negligible success at predicting people's political candidate preference. This suggests that the RWA scale, in addition to being a poor measure of authoritarianism, also measures conservatism of a sort that has no current political relevance: A truly remarkable measure of Right-wing authoritarianism!

Is Conservatism opposition to change?

Altemeyer's (1988) definition of conservatism is essentially "opposition to change" and what the RWA scale principally measures would appear to be conservatism in this dictionary sense. One of the leading writers on conservatism in the psychological literature rightly observed some time ago, however, that conservatism in this sense has little to do with Left-Right orientation (Wilson, 1978). If it did Britain's Mrs Thatcher (surely an ardent advocate and practitioner of change) would rate as a Leftist and Brezhnev, Li Peng and their ilk (staunch opponents of change in their respective societies -- cf. Brahm, 1982) would be Rightists! The fact that leading Right-wing intellectuals can write of the status quo as "tyranny" (Friedman & Friedman, 1984) also seems not to have been integrated in any way. The RWA scale, therefore, is not valid as a measure of anything Right-wing, let alone of Right-wing authoritarianism. And in Russia, it actually predicts Communist sympathies! See Ray (1992).

Rightism and small government

The real demarcation between Right and Left, of course, depends on attitude to State power, control and influence. Leftists generally want more of it (if only in the form of higher taxes) for the alleged benefit of the poor and disadvantaged whereas Rightists generally tend to want to limit State power, control and influence on the grounds that it infringes individual liberties and will not in the long run help the poor anyway. This description of Rightism has obvious applications to Mrs Thatcher and her Rightist contemporaries but is far from unique to her or even to the 20th century. Although some historians see a certain pragmatism as the only enduring attribute of the British Conservative party (Feiling, 1953; Norton & Aughey, 1981; Standish, 1990) others note an opposition to big government as going back to the very beginnings of that party:

"The principles of Tory paternalism do not lend themselves to effective legislation or improved administration. Coleridge, the most profound and influential if these theorists, looked to the moral regeneration of the individual, not to the reforming State, and he envisaged the Church of England as the head of a paternalistic society. He despised what he called "act of Parliament reforms, and he exalted the Church as much as he feared the State."

Of a slightly later period we read:

"Only State aid to all voluntary schools could extend education, but the Tories would not tolerate State intervention in a sphere reserved for the Church. In a grandiloquent speech to the Commons, Disraeli played deftly on this deep jealousy of the State. He raised the spectre of a centralized despotism comparable to those which oppressed China, Persia and Austria, and sombrely warned that the grant would force a return "to the system of a barbarous age, the system of a paternal government."

Or as another towering figure among conservatives said:

"Isn't our choice really not one of left or right, but of up or down? Down through the welfare state to statism, to more and more government largesse accompanied always by more government authority, less individual liberty and, ultimately, totalitarianism, always advanced as for our own good. The alternative is the dream conceived by our Founding Fathers, up to the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society. We don't celebrate dependence day on the Fourth of July. We celebrate Independence Day".

The first two quotes are from Roberts (1958). The third is from the 1984 speech by Ronald Reagan accepting the Republican Presidential nomination. Minimal government was clearly the conservative message to the great conservative communicator. The more things change.....! Obviously, neither Moghaddam & Vuksanovic (1990) nor Altemeyer (1981 & 1988) were much guided by history in formulating their patently inadequate conception of what is Right-wing.

Leftist and Rightist "human rights"

This political naivety also extends to the definition of human rights employed by Moghaddam & Vuksanovic. Unlike anarchists, conservatives do want SOME government and, as Libertarians and anarcho-capitalists (cf. Friedman, 1978; Brittan, 1968) have long pointed out (e.g. Ray, 1982), this means that both the Left and the Right have their own preferred but often mutually exclusive lists of freedoms. For instance, the Left favour various sexual liberties where the Right are morally restrictive (e.g. wishing to censor pornography). Again, the Right favour economic liberty (free enterprise) while the Left favour economic restrictions (regulation, nationalization and high taxes). Libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, by contrast, want to maximize liberties of all types.

Moghaddam & Vuksanovic, however, appear to overlook most of this and produce a list of "human rights" that features a preponderance of Leftist "rights". Of the ten positive "rights" that they list in their scale of human rights, seven are ones that conservatives would be likely to disagree with (items 2, 7, 9, 10, 14, 16 and 20). It is thus, at least in part, a measure of conservatism and its correlation with another scale of conservatism is hence mere artifact.


In short, the paper is in several ways so badly affected by political naivety as to be wholly uninformative and is hence capable of seriously misleading many readers.


Altemeyer, R. (1981). Right-wing authoritarianism Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Altemeyer, R. (1988) Enemies of freedom: Understanding Right-wing authoritarianism San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brahm, H. (1982) Die Sowjetunion -- eine konservative Gesellschaft? Osteuropa 32(7), 531-544.

Brittan, S. (1968) Left or Right: The bogus dilemma London: Secker

Feiling, K. (1953) Principles of conservatism. Political Quarterly 24, 129-133.

Friedman, D. (1978) The machinery of freedom N.Y.: Arlington House.

Moghaddam, F.M. & Vuksanovic, V. (1990) Attitudes and behavior towards human rights across different contexts: The role of Right-wing authoritarianism, political ideology, and religiosity. International J. Psychology 25, 455-474.

Norton, P. & Aughey, A. (1981) Conservatives and conservatism London: Temple Smith

Ray, J.J. (1982) Authoritarianism/libertarianism as the second dimension of social attitudes. Journal of Social Psychology, 117, 33-44.

Ray, J.J. (1985) Defective validity in the Altemeyer authoritarianism scale. Journal of Social Psychology 125, 271-272.

Ray, J.J. (1987) Special review of "Right-wing authoritarianism" by R.A. Altemeyer. Personality & Individual Differences 8, 771-772.

Ray, J.J.(1992) Defining authoritarianism: A comment on Duckitt & Foster, Altemeyer & Kamenshikov and Meloen. South African J. Psychology, 22, 178-179.

Roberts, D. (1958) Tory paternalism and social reform in Early Victorian England. The American Historical Review 63, 323-337.

Standish, J.F. (1990) Whither conservatism? Contemporary Review 256, 299-301.

Wilson, G. (1978) The psychology of conservatism: Comment on Stacey New Zealand Psychologist 7, 21.

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