I Was Wrong, and So Are You

A libertarian economist retracts a swipe at the left—after discovering that our political leanings leave us more biased than we think.

Back in June 2010, I published a Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that the American left was unenlightened, by and large, as to economic matters. Responding to a set of survey questions that tested people’s real-world understanding of basic economic principles, self-identified progressives and liberals did much worse than conservatives and libertarians, I reported. To sharpen the ax, The Journal titled the piece “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”—the implication being that people on the left were not.

The op-ed set off fireworks. On The Journal’s Web site, the piece peaked at No.2 in most-e-mailed for the month it was published. The Examiner, in Washington, D.C., ran two opinion pieces in response, one approving and one critical. (The latter noted, correctly, that conservatives were “happily disseminating the results across the right-wing blogosphere.”) The Washington Times reported, “Liberals Livid Over Economic Enlightenment Gauge.” My inbox exploded with messages haranguing me for cynically rigging my results or blessing me for providing proof of a long-suspected truth.

The Wall Street Journal piece was based on an article that Zeljka Buturovic and I had published in Econ Journal Watch, a journal that I edit. In short order, more than 10,000 people downloaded a PDF of the scholarly article. The attention, while slightly unnerving, was also pleasing, and I’ll confess that I found the study results congenial: I’m a libertarian, and I found it easy to believe that people on the left had an especially bad grasp of economics.

But one year later, in May 2011, Buturovic and I published a new scholarly article reporting on a new survey. It turned out that I needed to retract the conclusions I’d trumpeted in The Wall Street Journal. The new results invalidated our original result: under the right circumstances, conservatives and libertarians were as likely as anyone on the left to give wrong answers to economic questions. The proper inference from our work is not that one group is more enlightened, or less. It’s that “myside bias”—the tendency to judge a statement according to how conveniently it fits with one’s settled position—is pervasive among all of America’s political groups. The bias is seen in the data, and in my actions.

Let me back up for a moment. In 2009, a friend forwarded me an e‑mail message he had received from Buturovic about her studies of ideology. Buturovic, I now know, is a gifted researcher. She earned a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University in 2009 and took a research position at a leading public-opinion-polling company, which conducted the surveys used in our articles.

Buturovic was exploring the possibility that ideological differences stem more from differences in people’s beliefs about how the world works than from differences in their basic values. It was in pursuit of that thesis that she undertook the survey, and designed the questions for it. But when I got my hands on it, I saw its potential for assessing economic enlightenment.

Buturovic had asked people to respond to a series of statements, in the following format:

Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.

1. Strongly agree
2. Somewhat agree
3. Somewhat disagree
4. Strongly disagree
5. Not sure
6. Other
7. (Refuse to answer)

Like many surveys, this one throws a single sentence at the respondent, who has to conjure a likely context. Restrictions on housing developments may have certain redeeming features. But by and large, they do make housing less affordable. After all, restrictions restrict. The odd case might turn out otherwise, but the range of responses allows the respondent to register reservations without contradicting the general claim (by answering “somewhat agree,” for instance).

And so, anointing ourselves economically enlightened, Buturovic and I sat in judgment of the respondents, applying a fairly lenient standard. We divided answers into two groups: Incorrect and Not Incorrect. For the housing-restriction question, for example, we counted only the two “disagree” statements under Incorrect. We then reported the percentage responding incorrectly—focusing, in other words, on identifying the people who “know what ain’t so.”

In constructing our paper from the already completed survey, we selected eight statements, including the one on housing, with response options that we believed to clearly constitute “knowing what ain’t so.” The other statements, with the incorrect response in parentheses, were: mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services (disagree); overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago (disagree); rent control leads to housing shortages (disagree); a company with the largest market share is a monopoly (agree); Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited (agree); free trade leads to unemployment (agree); minimum-wage laws raise unemployment (disagree).

The survey also asked people to fit themselves into one of several ideological categories, and we tabulated the average number of incorrect answers for each ideological group. On average, those who described themselves as progressive (or “very liberal”) got 5.3 of the 8 questions wrong, liberal 4.7, moderate 3.7, conservative 1.7, very conservative 1.3, and libertarian 1.4. These were the results published in Econ Journal Watch and broadcast in The Wall Street Journal. I concluded that latter piece:

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.

You may have noticed that several of the statements we analyzed implicitly challenge positions held by the left, while none specifically challenges conservative or libertarian positions. A great deal of research shows that people are more likely to heed information that supports their prior positions, and discard or discount contrary information. Suppose that on some public issue, Anne favors position A, and Burt favors position B. Anne is more likely than Burt to agree with statements that support A, and to disagree with statements that support B, because doing so simplifies her case for favoring A. Otherwise, she would have to make a concession to the opposing side. Psychologists would count this tendency as a manifestation of “myside bias,” or “confirmation bias.”

Presented by

Daniel B. Klein

Daniel Klein is a professor of economics at George Mason University, where he directs the Smithian Political Economy program, and a fellow at the Ratio Institute.

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