The Ideological Turing Test

In a recent interview, Paul Krugman argued that liberals generally understand conservative arguments better than vice versa:

A liberal can talk coherently about what the conservative view is because people like me actually do listen. We don’t think it’s right, but we pay enough attention to see what the other person is trying to get at. The reverse is not true. You try to get someone who is fiercely anti-Keynesian to even explain what a Keynesian economic argument is, they can’t do it. They can’t get it remotely right. Or if you ask a conservative, “What do liberals want?” You get this bizarre stuff – for example, that liberals want everybody to ride trains, because it makes people more susceptible to collectivism. You just have to look at the realities of the way each side talks and what they know. One side of the picture is open-minded and sceptical. We have views that are different, but they’re arrived at through paying attention. The other side has dogmatic views.

Bryan Caplan responds:

In a Turing Test, a computer tries to pass for human….

According to Krugman, liberals have the ability to simulate conservatives, but conservatives lack the ability to simulate liberals….

It’s not a perfect criterion, of course, especially for highly idiosyncratic views. But the ability to pass ideological Turing tests – to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents – is a genuine symptom of objectivity and wisdom….

There are important caveats….. we should compare liberal intellectuals to non-liberal intellectuals, and liberal entertainers to non-liberal entertainers, not say Krugman to Beck….

If we limit our sample to Ph.D.s from top-10 social science programs, I don’t see how Krugman could be right. You can’t get a Ph.D. from Princeton econ without acquiring basic familiarity with market failure arguments and Keynesian macro. At least you couldn’t when I was a student there in the 90s. In contrast, it’s easy to get a Ph.D. from Princeton econ without even learning the key differences between conservatism and libertarianism, much less their main arguments… And frankly, it shows….

Indeed, I’ll happily bet that any libertarian with a Ph.D. from a top-10 social science program can fool more voters than Krugman. We learn his worldview as part of the curriculum. He learns ours in his spare time – if he chooses to spare it.

I tend to agree with Bryan. On average, non-liberal scholars and intellectuals know more about liberalism than their liberal counterparts know about libertarianism and conservatism. That’s because the non-liberals are usually surrounded by people with liberal views, and those views are extensively covered in the curriculum of nearly all top colleges and graduate schools. By contrast, it’s easier for liberal intellectuals to ignore non-liberal arguments or at least devote little time and effort to understanding them.

Outside the intellectual world, both liberals and non-liberals often have little knowledge of their opponents’ arguments. But that’s just part of the more general problem of widespread political ignorance. Indeed, a close-minded attitude to opposing views is a general facet of the way most people approach politics. It’s not a problem unique to either liberals or their adversaries.

But, as Bryan says, the proof is in the pudding. In my next post, I will take the ideological Turing test myself, and readers can judge how I do.