Ideology and Economic Ignorance

Co-blogger Todd Zywicki links an interesting article by Zeljka Buturovic and Dan Klein showing that certain forms of economic ignorance are more common among self-described “progressives” and “liberals.” These findings are very valuable. But they are subject to several caveats.

First, as Buturovic and Klein themselves point out, the Zogby survey they relied didn’t ask questions about issues where conservative rather than left-wing positions are likely to be at odds with basic econoimics. For example, I expect that many more conservatives than liberals deny that the War on Drugs creates black markets and violence, believe that immigration is a zero-sum competition for jobs between immigrants and natives, and deny that laws banning prostitution and gambling have various negative economic side-effects (black markets; domination of these activities by organized crime, etc.). Thus, the study doesn’t really allow us to say whether liberals or conservatives are the ones who with the greatest levels of economic ignorance. Survey data shows that ignorance about politics is widespread on both sides of the political spectrum. The same thing is likely to be true of economic ignorance.

Second, the authors don’t really address the issue of whether being on the left causes people to be more ignorant about the economics of the issues addressed by the Zogby poll or vice versa. It’s possible that ignorance about the effects of price controls causes people to take more left-wing views on the issue. But it’s also possible that being a left-winger causes you to deny that policies you favor for other reasons (perhaps simply because they are supported by your fellow liberal Democrats) have any negative effects. People have a strong tendency to reject out of hand any information or argument that cuts against their preexisting political views, and this is especially true of those most committed to their ideology or political party. Unfortunately, voters have strong incentives to be both ignorant about public policy and irrational in their evaluation of the information they do know.

Overall, I think both factors are at work. To a large extent, both conservative Republicans and left-wing Democrats tend to “root for their political team” with little regard for objectivity or truth. But it is also the case that knowledge makes a difference. Increasing political knowledge tends to alter one’s views towards greater skepticism about most (but not all) government interventions in both economic and “social” spheres (taxes are an important exception). These results hold true even after controlling for ideology, education, race, gender, and partisanship. Increasing political knowledge doesn’t necessarily make you a libertarian; far from it, in most cases. But it does, on average, make people significantly more libertarian than they would be otherwise.

I suspect that the same is true of increasing knowledge of basic economics. Bryan Caplan’s important 2007 book The Myth of the Rational Voter shows that even liberal Democratic economists are, on average, much more pro-market than the median American (to say nothing of the average self-identified “progressive”). These results, too, hold even after controlling for various demographic variables, including income, education, race, and gender. The key nondemographic difference between liberal economists and liberal voters is of course the much higher economic literacy of the former.