Liberals and economic knowledge


Who might you guess is better informed on issues of economics: liberals who promote government intervention in the economy, or conservatives and libertarians who oppose it?

A recent study found some surprising — or maybe not surprising — results. The study is titled Economic Enlightenment in Relation to College-going, Ideology, and Other Variables: A Zogby Survey of Americans. At this link you can read an abstract of the study and the entire document, too.

An article by one of the authors that appeared in the Wall Street Journal is Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? Self-identified liberals and Democrats do badly on questions of basic economics.

In the study, researchers asked a series of questions designed to “gauge economic enlightenment.” Conclusions included these: First, and surprisingly, “for people inclined to take such a survey, basic economic enlightenment is not correlated with going to college.”

Perhaps more importantly, who scored best: conservatives or liberals? Here’s the rundown:

Adults self-identifying “very conservative” and “libertarian” perform the best, followed closely by “conservative.” Trailing far behind are “moderate,” then with another step down to “liberal,” and a final step to “progressive,” who, on average, get wrong 5.26 questions out of eight.”

The authors say “we should acknowledge that none of the eight questions challenge typical conservative or libertarian policy positions.”

The authors also note:

At least since the days of Frédéric Bastiat, many have said that people of the left often trail behind in incorporating basic economic insight into their aesthetics, morals, and politics. We put much stock in Hayek’s theory that the social-democratic ethos is an atavistic reassertion of the ethos and mentality of the primordial paleolithic band, a mentality resistant to ideas of spontaneous order and disjointed knowledge. Our findings support such a claim, all the caveats notwithstanding. Several of the questions would seem to be fairly neutral with respect to partisan politics, particularly the questions on licensing, the standard of living, monopoly, and free trade. None of those questions challenge policies that are particularly leftwing or rationalized on the basis of equity. Yet even on such neutral questions the “progressives” and “liberals” do much worse than the “conservatives” and “libertarians.”

Author Daniel B. Klein concludes in the Wall Street Journal piece: “Adam Smith described political economy as ‘a branch of the science of a statesman or legislator.’ Governmental power joined with wrongheadedness is something terrible, but all too common. Realizing that many of our leaders and their constituents are economically unenlightened sheds light on the troubles that surround us.”


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