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.”

Buturovic and I openly acknowledged that the set of eight statements was biased. But these were the statements we had available to us. And as we explained in the paper, some of them—including those on professional licensing, standard of living, monopoly, and trade—did not appear to fit neatly into a partisan debate. Yet even on those, respondents on the left fared worst. What’s more, in separate research, Buturovic found that the respondents themselves either had difficulty classifying some of the statements on an ideological scale, or simply believed those statements were not, prima facie, ideological. So while we thought the results were probably exaggerated because of the bias in the survey, we nonetheless felt that they were telling.

Buturovic and I largely refrained from replying to the criticism (much of which focused on myside bias) that followed publication of the article. Instead, we planned a second survey that would balance the first one by including questions that would challenge conservative and/or libertarian positions.

Here’s what we came up with, again with the incorrect response in parentheses: a dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person (disagree); making abortion illegal would increase the number of black-market abortions (disagree); legalizing drugs would give more wealth and power to street gangs and organized crime (agree); drug prohibition fails to reduce people’s access to drugs (agree); gun-control laws fail to reduce people’s access to guns (agree); by participating in the marketplace in the United States, immigrants reduce the economic well-being of American citizens (agree); when a country goes to war, its citizens experience an improvement in economic well-being (agree); when two people complete a voluntary transaction, they both necessarily come away better off (agree); when two people complete a voluntary transaction, it is necessarily the case that everyone else is unaffected by their transaction (agree).

Buturovic began putting all 17 questions to a new group of respondents last December. I eagerly awaited the results, hoping that the conservatives and especially the libertarians (my side!) would exhibit less myside bias. Buturovic was more detached. She e-mailed me the results, and commented that conservatives and libertarians did not do well on the new questions. After a hard look, I realized that they had bombed on the questions that challenged their position. A full tabulation of all 17 questions showed that no group clearly out-stupids the others. They appear about equally stupid when faced with proper challenges to their position.

Writing up these results was, for me, a gloomy task—I expected critics to gloat and point fingers. In May, we published another paper in Econ Journal Watch, saying in the title that the new results “Vitiate Prior Evidence of the Left Being Worse.” More than 30 percent of my libertarian compatriots (and more than 40 percent of conservatives), for instance, disagreed with the statement “A dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person”—c’mon, people!—versus just 4 percent among progressives. Seventy-eight percent of libertarians believed gun-control laws fail to reduce people’s access to guns. Overall, on the nine new items, the respondents on the left did much better than the conservatives and libertarians. Some of the new questions challenge (or falsely reassure) conservative and not libertarian positions, and vice versa. Consistently, the more a statement challenged a group’s position, the worse the group did.

The reaction to the new paper was quieter than I expected. Jonathan Chait, who had knocked the first paper, wrote a forgiving notice on his New Republic blog: “Insult Retractions: A (Very) Occasional Feature.” Matthew Yglesias, writing at ThinkProgress, summed up the takeaway: “Basically, there’s a lot of confirmation bias out there.” Nothing illustrates that point better than my confidence in the claims of the first paper, especially as distilled in my Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Shouldn’t a college professor have known better? Perhaps. But adjusting for bias and groupthink is not so easy, as indicated by one of the major conclusions developed by Buturovic and sustained in our joint papers. Education had very little impact on responses, we found; survey respondents who’d gone to college did only slightly less badly than those who hadn’t. Among members of less-educated groups, brighter people tend to respond more frequently to online surveys, so it’s likely that our sample of non-college-educated respondents is more enlightened than the larger group they represent. Still, the fact that a college education showed almost no effect—at least for those inclined to take such a survey—strongly suggests that the classroom is no great corrective for myside bias. At least when it comes to public-policy issues, the corrective value of professional academic experience might be doubted as well.

Discourse affords some opportunity to challenge the judgments of others and to revise our own. Yet inevitably, somewhere in the process, we place what faith we have.