WSJ: Liberals fail economics test, conservative and libertarians score best

posted at 2:55 pm on June 8, 2010 by Ed Morrissey

Consider this an answer to the silly “tests” and psychological reviews that the media likes to use to paint conservatives as either less intelligent or less sane than their “reality-based” opponents on the Left.  The Wall Street Journal reports on a Zogby survey on economics that discovered a significant difference in results based on political ideology.  Liberals scored worst, but who scored best?  Not surprisingly, the purer free-marketeers, but not by much:

Who is better informed about the policy choices facing the country—liberals, conservatives or libertarians? According to a Zogby International survey that I write about in the May issue of Econ Journal Watch, the answer is unequivocal: The left flunks Econ 101.

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.

Unenlightened?  Er, that sounds rather … subjective, doesn’t it?  Wouldn’t it have made more sense to craft questions that have actual right or wrong answers and score the surveys on that basis?  That makes the results that Daniel Klein produces somewhat suspect:

How did the six ideological groups do overall? Here they are, best to worst, with an average number of incorrect responses from 0 to 8: Very conservative, 1.30; Libertarian, 1.38; Conservative, 1.67; Moderate, 3.67; Liberal, 4.69; Progressive/very liberal, 5.26.

Americans in the first three categories do reasonably well. But the left has trouble squaring economic thinking with their political psychology, morals and aesthetics.

I like beating up on progressive economics as much as any conservative blogger, but this looks a lot like a test designed to produce a result, not an objective analysis.  Besides, we’re getting a real-world demonstration of progressive economics over the last sixteen months.  We don’t need a Zogby survey to tell us that it fails; all we need to see are the job-creation numbers coming this year, and the precipitous drop in mortgage applications.

Consider the questions and “unenlightened answers” key that Klein provides:

The other questions were: 1) Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services (unenlightened answer: disagree). 2) Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago (unenlightened answer: disagree). 3) Rent control leads to housing shortages (unenlightened answer: disagree). 4) A company with the largest market share is a monopoly (unenlightened answer: agree). 5) Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited (unenlightened answer: agree). 6) Free trade leads to unemployment (unenlightened answer: agree). 7) Minimum wage laws raise unemployment (unenlightened answer: disagree).

As it happens, I agree with the scoring on these, but some of them are at least arguable.  The rent-control question, for example, prompts a chicken-and-egg argument.  Rent control doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but usually in a market where housing shortages already exist for other reasons (high population, overly strict zoning requirements, and so on.)  A “disagree” on that question might well hinge on a disagreement over the source of the shortage, which is at least a reasonable question to ask.  Likewise, the answer to the question of exploitation of Third World workers is probably not a yes/no answer, but a matter of degree, and of whether the “exploitation” tends to benefit both parties or just one to the exclusion of the other, and the answer is not going to be the same in every single instance of Third World outsourcing.

But I suspect that Klein and the people who will quote this survey don’t care for nuance and substance as much as they will want some ammunition in the who’s-dumber war among pundits.  This is every bit as substantial as the previous salvos, which is not saying much at all, but therefore it has some terrific tu quoque value.  Sling away!

Update: King Banaian takes issue with my taking issue.  Be sure to read it all.  I also fixed a problem in the penultimate paragraph, noted in King’s post with a [sic].  One other point I forgot to add: in the structure of the scoring on this test, one could have “passed” by simply answering “not sure” on every question, which also tends to discount its usefulness.

Update II, 6/11/2010: Apparently, E. D. Kain at TrueSlant didn’t bother to read this post before linking it and characterizing it as a happy dissemination of the “poll”.    Let’s see how long it takes before he actually reads this post, rather than just grabbing the link from Memeorandum and assuming I’m a big fan of this work.

Update III: How long?  Immediately.  Kain sent me a very nice apology and will correct the record in his two blogs.  Many thanks for such a quick response.

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