Liberals Are Smarter Than Conservatives, But Liberals Are Stupid at Economics and Libertarians Are Smarter Than Both of Them

Some time back, the always controversial Satoshi Kanazawa made the claim that liberals were smarter than conservatives stating:

Liberals usually support such social welfare programs and higher taxes to finance them, and conservatives usually oppose them. Defined as such, liberalism is evolutionarily novel.  Humans (like other species) are evolutionarily designed to be altruistic toward their genetic kin, their friends and allies, and members of their deme (a group of intermarrying individuals) or ethnic group.  They are not designed to be altruistic toward an indefinite number of complete strangers whom they are not likely ever to meet or interact with.  This is largely because our ancestors lived in a small band of 50-150 genetically related individuals, and large cities and nations with thousands and millions of people are themselves evolutionarily novel.

Studies then show that those who call themselves “very liberal” have an IQ of 106.4 and very conservative have an IQ of only 94.8. Obviously, liberals repeated the study ad-nauseum (I wonder if Steven Jay Gould rolled over in his grave).

Others have even gone so for as to pathologize conservatism. A study for the University of California Berkeley (gee, I wonder where this is going) stated that ”conservatism is pathological or that conservative beliefs are necessarily false, irrational, or unprincipled.”

Now everything about both these IQ tests and the Berkeley “study” are questionable. Does a college student voting for tax increases upon other people to finance his or her own education count as “altruistic?” What about a public employee supporting public unions which will increase his own wages? What about some activist group asking for money to finance their own operation (and salaries)? Indeed, what does the government have to do with personal altruism. After all, studies have repeatedly shown that conservatives donate more money to charity, give more time to charity and donate more blood than their liberal counterparts. Apparently, they even hug their kids more. Sorry to say, but voting for tax increases does not in itself make you a good person.

And since, as Noel Sheppard points out, the definitions used for liberal and conservative really come down to unselfish vs selfish, if that assumption is wrong (which it appears to be), the whole study is bunk. And even if it it isn’t, correlation doesn’t equal causation (liberal universities indoctrinating the typically smarter individuals who go to college may have something to do with this).

All that being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if your average latte-drinking-pot-smoking-yuppie-urbanite liberal is a bit smarter than your average gun-toting-tobacco-chewing-flag-waving-backwater conservative. But there does appear to be one area that liberals are just utterly stupid in: economics.

As Daniel Klein notes:

Zogby researcher Zeljka Buturovic and I considered the 4,835 respondents’ (all American adults) answers to eight survey questions about basic economics. We also asked the respondents about their political leanings: progressive/very liberal; liberal; moderate; conservative; very conservative; and libertarian.

Rather than focusing on whether respondents answered a question correctly, we instead looked at whether they answered incorrectly. A response was counted as incorrect only if it was flatly unenlightened.

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.
Unenlightened: Disagree

2. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services.
Unenlightened: Disagree

3. Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago.
Unenlightened: Disagree

4. Rent control leads to housing shortages.
Unenlightened: Disagree

5. A company with the largest market share is a monopoly.
Unenlightened: Agree

6. Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited.
Unenlightened: Agree

7. Free trade leads to unemployment.
Unenlightened: Agree

8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment.
Unenlightened: Disagree

How did everybody do?

Very conservative: 1.30

Libertarian: 1.38

Conservative: 1.67

Moderate: 3.67

Liberal: 4.69

Progressive/very liberal: 5.26

(Based on number incorrect, from 1-8)

This is truly sad. Just guessing would get you a 4, which means both liberals and progressives are worse at economics than your average monkey. Good thing such questions aren’t on the Stanford-Binet ehh Satoshi? I mean honestly, what would a restriction on housing do other than raise the prices?

I’m surprised and a bit saddened that the ultra conservatives beat out libertarians. I thought they were more interested in proving that rabbit fossils could be found in the Cambrian age than in learning basic economics.

Oh well, after all, the blog Half Sigma, has looked at the Wordsum test to see which scores correlated with which political beliefs. Libertarians dominate.

He looks at government spending, welfare, regulation, price controls, housing and the environment. With each one, other than the environment (smart people apparently like mother nature and don’t trust property rights with her) the better the score on Wordsum, the more libertarian the position. For example, on price controls, people who scored between an 8-10 (10 is the best, 6 is average), 18.6%  were strongly against while only 3.2% were strongly in favor. 54.8% were against price controls while only 22.6% were for them.

Another spurious correlation? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s just that smart people like freedom the most.

Photo Credit: Tbeckett and Complex Search

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9 Comments

  • Regarding altruism toward strangers, here is an interesting piece…economic games help show us that being kind to strangers is a product of evolution http://www.economist.com/node/21524698 #cooperation

    Of course altruism need not be defined by higher taxes and welfare programs, even assuming welfare really helps people in the long-run.

  • Andrew


  • Eli


    Thanks Andrew! Thinking these statements/questions will be useful for interviewing :)

  • Ken Brosky


    Absolutely awful survey designed to skew in favor of libertarian ideology. Hope you don’t mind if a bleeding-heart Liberal schools you quick!

    First, “Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited.” It’s an open-ended question that was probably intended to mean “overall,” because it’s incredibly easy to agree to this simply by viewing this:
    http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/law/lwsch/journals/bciclr/24_2/06_TXT.htm
    That isn’t to say worker exploitation is COMMONPLACE EVERYWHERE, but it DOES happen, especially in China where American companies who regulate themselves make a point of NOT visiting factories on a regular basis. You’d have to be a fool to ignore the evidence that workers are being mistreated … but then again, is “mistreated” the same as “exploited”? Hard to tell. Here’s a documentary that clearly shows at least SOME exploitation where the factory owner withholds wages knowing his workers can’t afford to leave:
    http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/chinablue/jeans.html
    Again, that’s not to suggest ALL American employers exploit third-world labor, and even a Liberal can argue that cheaper wages can lead to a more efficient company. So this isn’t a very clear statement for Zogby to make, but obviously libertarians are going to disagree with the statement because it runs contrary to what their ideology tells them.

    Here’s an even better example: “Free trade leads to unemployment.” We can prove this is true SOMETIMES as well, with ease (provided you can set aside ideology and “trust” unbiased sources):
    http://www.nctimes.com/business/article_538faa9f-52d6-5c41-9237-8e3af2150062.html
    Simple example, but we can ascertain that the free trade deals with China in this case have “lead to” 55 unemployed people. The BETTER question to ask would have been whether free trade leads to NET unemployment. Does the company use the money it saved on cheaper labor in China and spend that money in the United States on more efficient jobs? Maybe. Maybe the executives pocket the additional profits. Maybe the 55 people don’t ALL find another job right away, and end up UNEMPLOYED. In fact, according to this article, all 55 were at least temporarily on unemployment insurance, which you usually can’t get if you’re employed.

    One more example, because right now you’re probably pretty embarrassed for buying into such an awful survey: “Minimum wage laws raise unemployment.”
    Really? Maybe. Maybe not … here’s a new study just out recently:
    http://www.uvm.edu/~vlrs/doc/min_wage.htm
    This, and a couple other studies, have shown that the minimum wage and unemployment aren’t correlated–or, if they are, the correlation is WEAK at best. This doesn’t necessarily PROVE that minimum wage laws DON’T raise unemployment, but reading these *peer-reviewed* studies DOES suggest that one would be ignorant to AGREE with the Zogby poll.
    Perhaps Liberals are just more up-to-date on economic issues than Zogby?

    Not a surprise there. In fact, Zogby is considered one of the worst pollsters out there:
    http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2010/06/pollster-ratings-v40-results.html

    Maybe the reason Zogby polls are so horribly inaccurate is because their polls are:
    1. Poorly worded.
    2. Inaccurate to start with.
    3. ideologically skewed.

    • Col. Byron Bojangles III


      Well, as a libertarian, I had a similar reaction to some of the questions. For one, they’re based on the assumptions of neoclassical economics. A Marxist would question most of them, and I wouldn’t call them ignorant, just deeply skewed perspective-wise (but consistently so). I think you’re oversimplifying in the liberal direction, like the OP oversimplified in the conservative direction, but I’ll let that slide. At least you acknowledge the uncertainty, and you cite empirical studies.

      Still, I think the Zogby issue is a bit more interesting than you’re letting on. I read the Nate Silver column a while back, and I’m pretty sure they were criticized for having a Democratic bias. John Zogby himself is a well-known Democratic booster. So the question is, why would they want to put forward a pro-fiscal conservative bias?

      Not that I’m questioning your idea that Zogby’s sheer incompetence might have had something to do with it. If, say, Rasmussen put this out, I might agree with all three points. But your attempt to allude at Zogby being conservatively biased (point 3) is a rare example of partisan hackery in an otherwise refreshingly non-hackish post.

  • Andrew


    The first five questions are obvious, but I’d actually agree with you on 6. Without a word like “tends to” or “on the whole” answers can be both simulatenously right and wrong, examples of exploitation vs a trend of paying market (or above market wages) could lead to opposite conclusions. I should have noted this, thank you for “schooling” me there. For question 7, the way I read the question I immediately thought overall employment rate. Given creative destruction and comparative advantage, most economists believe it does not increase unemployment overall (conversely, Smoot-Hawley would make one think protectionism would increase unemployment). As the minimum wage is now, with only like 3% of the population, the effect on unemployment will be low. But the effects are there nonetheless (what if we raised the minimum wage to $20/hr, then what would happen). Furthermore, the studies you point to, for the most part, don’t look at the real minimum wage (adjusted for inflation) and instead just at the wage itself. Here’s a graph of real minimum wage and teenage unemployment: http://www.house.gov/jec/cost-gov/regs/minimum/against/fig-1.gif. As far as the Card and Krueger study the link you gave referenced, it was reevaluated by David Neumark and William Wascher and they came to the exact opposite conclusion: http://ideas.repec.org/p/nbr/nberwo/5224.html. Here’s some more studies: http://www.house.gov/jec/cost-gov/regs/minimum/50years.htm. It should also be noted that black teenage unemployment was actually slightly less than white teenage unemployment in 1954 (although blacks were paid much less).

  • Pingback: Libertarian’s Dilemma … Plus, Lifting for Litigators « Eoin MacAodh

  • Cody


    Conservatism is not a pathology. It’s just a mental pre-disposition to cling onto beliefs and to be skeptical of novel ideas. This can impede learning sometimes, but it can also sometimes prevent me from believing something totally stupid. I am conservative.

    There is a problem with some of the more ardent supporters of individualism and freedom, though. And this is basically because when you start to say selfishness is the ultimate good, you are being a little naughty. People who are willing to destroy the world to make a buck are complete nutjobs. As a conservative, I believe in being kind to my fellow man, treating the world with some respect, and listening to authority who have these goals in mind.

    • Cody


      As an addendum, think about this for a second. So, an ideological “individualist” is basically someone who believes that self-interest should guide decision-making. Ok, so what other mentality do we know that says the same thing? Oh yeah, sociopathy. 30% of your population are conservative, and I can tell you, not 30% of your population are psychos. It’s only like 1 in 25. Johnathan Haidt did some good research on this.

      The major problem with conservatism is that it is too slow to adapt to changing situations. The major problem with liberalism, on the other hand, is that it is too experimental.

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