It’s OK to be Pragmatic – Politics Isn’t Religion After All

“Even with the caveats in mind, however, the results are important” – Zeljka Buturovic and Daniel B. Klein, from “Economic Enlightenment in Relation to College-going, Ideology, and Other Variables: A Zogby Survey of Americans”

This month, the Econ Journal Watch published the findings of a 2008 Zogby poll on “Economic Enlightenment” as a function of education level and ideology. The full paper can be found here (Economic Enlightenment). It’s an interesting paper, though I’ve only had a chance to read parts. The basic polling methodology is to ask respondents a series of virtually-indisputable, basic economic questions. The performance of various subgroups is then measured as a function of how often they got these questions wrong.

For instance, one question was “Minimum wage laws raise unemployment” with options to strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree, or not sure. For the above question, answers of “strongly disagree” or “somewhat disagree” are counted as incorrect. The question of minimum wages raising unemployment is virtually beyond dispute – even economists who support minimum wage laws can’t dispute that they raise unemployment (which is the point of this post … which we’ll get to in a moment).

Level of education had virtually no impact on the ability to answer basic economic questions. However, incorrect answers were highly correlated to political ideology. Liberals and progressives performed incredibly poorly compared to conservatives and libertarians. To this end, we’d like to make two points. First, that the issue is not solely intelligence, and second that the field of economics may be particularly ill-suited for political liberals in this type of poll.

In some cases, we can only lean to intelligence, or rather knowledge, to understand the results. For instance, 30.8% of progressives, 27.9% of liberals, and 26.0% of moderates answered wrongly on the question “a company with the largest market share is a monopoly.” (Compared to 12.5%, 13.5%, and 6.8% for conservatives, very conservatives, and libertarians.) Now, we can’t defend this on grounds other than intelligence. A monopoly is a situation where one company controls all or nearly all of the market share, not simply the largest market share. To answer this question wrongly is to simply not know the right answer.

If we look at the more politically-charged questions, we see different results, with potentially different explanations. To the statement “rent controls lead to housing shortages” 79.2% of progressives, 70.9% of liberals, and 52.4% of moderates answered incorrectly, compared to 23.0% of conservatives, 14.1% of very conservatives, and 15.7% of libertarians. I think there may be more than ignorance here.

Rent controls clearly lead to housing shortages. There’s no way around this. Are nearly 80% of progressives just idiots? (joined by over 70% of liberals?) I seriously doubt it. The problem appears to me to be one of faith versus reason. Progressives believe in rent controls. They believe rent controls are a good thing to keep the landlord from dominating the market. It’s a sort of redistribution-of-wealth, moral argument.

Now, the fact that I generally disagree with their support of rent controls is irrelevant. The problem here is an inability to argue well – precisely because the argument is sacrosanct to the liberal. Politics is not religion (at least not for everybody). We have to have the ability to say “my preferred policy will cause this good thing and this bad thing to happen, and on the whole I prefer the weight of the good, so I support the policy.” It is OK to make these arguments. As my friend Eric says, sometimes the situation is messy.

Sure, there are times when some bad things are intolerable, and should not be tolerated regardless of the opposing good. But policies are not always trade-offs of unquestionable virtues or principles versus “the greater good.”

The second point is more subtle. Economic justice is a religious issue for liberals. (They don’t at all care for freedom if it results in different people having different amounts of economic success.) As such, it is an issue where they are quite susceptible to this type of reactionary denial.

Had the questions dealt with basic mathematics, or political science, or psychology, I’m sure these groups would have done fine. Such issues are rarely as beatified as economics. On issues of basic Biblical theology we can point to times when southern white Christians quite reflexively denounced racial integration despite clear Biblical mandates to the contrary (Gal 3:28). So, I don’t want to be too harsh on the ultra-left here and I certainly don’t want to make broad sweeping generalizations about how they’re wrong on every issue. This is just an issue where they can’t get past their religion.

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