Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Some Political Vindication

For many who find themselves far from center in their political views, it can become a little lonely. Not only do politicians rarely speak your language, but those around you are slow to agree and quick to label you arrogant (I’m still trying to work out how to believe you’re right and most people wrong and not sound arrogant). If you go long enough without hearing a friendly voice, you begin to wonder if you’re the one with limited sight. I recently came across a book that gave me some respite from my lonely libertarian existence. Scott Althaus’ book Collective Preferences and Democratic Politics shows that when controlling for a range of demographic variables (race, income, gender, etc), an increased political knowledge makes voters more social liberal and economically conservative (aka more libertarian). So it is reasonable to posit that increased political education for the public would shift public preference towards a smaller government.

Here is a summary of Althaus’ method:
You start by administering a two-part survey.Part 1 is a test of objective political knowledge. (How many senators does each state have? Name as many Supreme Court justices as possible. Etc.) Think of it as a "Political IQ" test.Part 2 asks respondents about their policy preferences. (Should we rely more on the market or government? Should we invade Iran? Etc.)

The survey also collects standard information about respondents' income, gender, party i.d., race, etc.Once you've got all this information, you're ready to discover the public's "Enlightened Preferences." In essence, you estimate policy preferences (from part 2) as a function of Political IQ (from part 1), plus a bunch of control variables that you think might influence political preferences holding knowledge constant. If you're finicky, you can even allow Political IQ to have a separate coefficient (and sign) for various subgroups of the population. (Perhaps knowledge makes the rich more pro-market, but makes the poor more pro-government).

The final step is to use these results to simulate what public opinion would look like if you raised Political IQ up to the stratosphere but kept all other characteristics the same. The resulting distribution of opinion is what we call the public's Enlightened Preferences. It's what people would want, if everyone knew a lot more."


  1. "The public's Enlightened Preferences?" I thought you weren't trying to sound arrogant. That survey sounds like the most arrogant thing I've ever heard. "I hold my beliefs because I'm knowledgeable and you hold your because your ignorant." Doesn't get much more pompous than that.

    Even so, it's kindof the basic idea of representative government. The masses elect supposedly informed people to make the decisions for them. The ignorance of the everyday man is what the founding fathers were afraid of.

    On a separate note, I actually find that quite a lot of people are Libertarians these days - particularly on the internet. Social networks like Digg are crawling with them. I find it much harder to find a true-blue big government liberal democrat. I guess Bush has kindof blurred the lines.

  2. Hey that's not my term. Again, I don't know if it's arrogant for an economist (especially one with a PhD) to assume he knows more about the economy than the average person. Justin, surely you can vouch for how shockingly ignorant many people are about their political beliefs. When 80% of America favors protectionism (something almost all economist do not), there is clearly a knowledge gap.

    But the problem with that model of government is what if most people are bias in certain ways. This is something that Caplan talks about in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter.

    I agree, the war between Capitalism and Communism is probably over, but that doesn't mean that most people don't have major misconceptions about good policy. I mean just watch the ads and debates. "I support good education and babies." Well of course you do.

    Finally, the reason I posted those findings was to suggest that libertarianism might in fact be the best form of political ideology. That when people get more political education, they slide towards favoring a less intrusive government. For me, that is a little vindicating.

  3. Harrison,

    Keep up the great work with the blog! I saw this http://www.iousathemovie.com and wanted to get your thoughts and maybe even a blog post about it. I haven't seen any of the movie, but I was wondering what you thought about it.


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.