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Chris Long

Self-identification is not an ideal approach. It could be the case, for example, that what an economist means by the label "conservative" differs significantly by what a historian means by "conservative". In fact, I'd be surprised if this wasn't the case. Also, the tendency is use the overly broad and simplistic buckets "conservative" and "liberal" is unnecessary and consequently troubling. People generally have very complex political views, and can be socially conservative, but economically liberal and a centrist on immigration policy. If forced to self-identify into a single category, economists and accountants would likely use economic philosophy as a basis, but I wouldn't expect to see this in historians or artists.


When I started college I thought commerce was a right-wing conspiracy and prices were set by a fascist cabal. I was brought up by liberal parents and the rest of my blood relatives are all liberal. The one economics course I took showed me what Becker points out--long-run and indirect effects are at odds with the simplistic leftist caricatures. Perhaps the politics of professors isn't that decisive, but what I studied certainly was decisive in opening my eyes to more practical, and I'm convinced, correct models of how the world works. My one bit of luck was that my sociology teacher was obviously a dumbhead, but what my econ prof said made sense.

G Dixon

Wishing you a happy and safe new year.

Thank you


Presumably there's been a variety of studies that attempt to correlate political affiliation with IQ. Did any of these find anything (i very vaguely recall that a study that said there was a correlation between higher IQ and liberal bias)? There would be a fairly obvious selection process at work if it was found that democrats on average had a higher IQ. I realize that were it the case, the difference wouldn't be enough to explain the vast differences that one sees in the affiliation now, but it might be enough to trigger the self selection process that you discuss.


Does this study consider any effects of people categorizing themselves as liberal or conservative based on issues that are often framed on the
Left-Right spectrum
but which would be more accurately placed on the
Counterfactual –Factual spectrum?

An example would be the issue of climate change. Scientists have known this was going on for quite a while. For most of this time, the conservative party line was to deny it was happening at all. Then the claim was that it was happening, but was unrelated to human activity. It is only within the past few years that the link became widely accepted across the political spectrum.

For most of the time people have known about climate change, someone expressing concern about it would have been classified as a liberal, but they might not actually have been liberal leaning, they may have just been more informed about the issue. Phenomenon like this would create a measurement skew that would tend to classify more knowledge people as more liberal when they might not actually be more liberal leaning.


Prof. Becker's last paragraph is the most important one. Ultimately this issue is much to do about nothing. Perhaps I was fortunate, but I never had a professor who was a propagandist, either as a liberal or conservative. I can't even say that of the professor I had for Marxist Economics, an avowed Marxist. He was merely a superb teacher and a very decent man. I don't recall any students becoming converted because of the subject matter or his personal views.


By and large Professors are human(though we've all had a few about whom we wondered). Although better educated, I see no reason to assume they are above the influences that effect the rest of us. Being "liberal" is simply what people expect of college students and professors in this particular day, age, and country. To some extent it is probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I were a behavioral scientist perhaps I could articulate this better, but I would expect academics to be just like the rest of us in many subconscious respects: the same game with different toys.


For me, Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind explains it all. Recommended reading.

Bertil Hatt

I believe to understand this, such a study would demand to compare what it means to be a “liberal” and a “conservative” in different countries, and were the preference actually leans: e.g. in (continental) European politics, both are often associated; interventionnism is not always politically loaded; Left & Right are not the most relevant political aspect of Latin America's politics, though there are important. I doubt many Asian voters would understand you point.

One counter-example to the general “teachers are socialists because it is their interest” explanation might come from European federalism: most teachers are in favor of closer relation between member countries, especially policital science teachers; a small minority of academics, often politically on the right, are strongly against for well-understood reasons, but these have little to do with the majority of right- or left-wing arguments, generally based on misunderstandings and fear.

In the same vein, I would consider the rest of the higher IQ, and higher-degree hilding population, or people in similar revenue bracket, residence area or in other market-driven, ‘intellectual’ industry: writers, artists, publishers. How are these skewed? Is it due to social ties with acadamics, or other reason?

Regarding the self-enforcing bias: wouldn't that effect make a skewed univertiy lean even further, while preserving a more balanced case? Could a dynamic distribution help to measure this? What other industry have peer-awarded positions?


Will, I thought it was global warming? Now it's Climate Change. I see ....


Liberals feel, conservatives think. Students self select themselves into their chosen majors. Those that think (or reason) appreciate hard facts and self select into more concrete majors. Those that feel (or empathize if you will) self select into majors which allow the greater fuzziness of feelings.

I, as a conservative thinker would not do very well in a pseudo science or a humanities major. I self selected into the hard sciences and math/computers. I think this will explain a large amount of the discrepancy in students.

The discrepancies in professors is most likely a whole nother matter as the professorate does not match their students in political orientation. I would guess this is probably due to allowing a liberal faculty to chose those they wish to work with.


"Every boy and every girl that is born into this world alive,
Is either a little Liberal or else Conservative."

W.S. Gilbert, in the 19th. century, made a comic song out of this silly dichotomy. I find it hard to credit that intelligent 21st. century academics have stumbled into being stuck in it.


Good professors introduce all reasonable sides of an issue no matter what their personal opinion is and will accept well-reasoned arguments. Historians are probably liberal because they look into history deeper than the patriotic fables people learn when they are in school. Professors normally don't go into that profession to earn the big bucks, they want to share their knowledge with the world, so greed, more associated with conservatives, doesn't enter into the equation.


With regard to the comment about historians, perhaps one could consider that in addition to dealing with "various disasters brought about by government ventures" historians are also more aware than (say) economists of the actual (as opposed to theoretical) outcomes of "libertarian" (or as they used to be called "anarchic") social systems.


Like most everyone here I'm immediately struck by the use of data that is generated by self selection.

I'm reminded of when my father administered a survey to high school students. When asked to provide data on race nearly all of them checked the box for Inuit rather than a correct answer because Inuit 'sounded better'.

I'm sure that, like the comment above on climate change, most liberal responders consider themselves 'moderate' (and in climate example the individual self describes as 'more informedl - very telling approach), rather adopt the liberal label.


Prof Becker: If the following is true:

"but Keynesian interventionist attitudes also lost favor, and many more studies have shown the harmful effects of different attempts at government interventions in labor and other markets."

........ what then are the economic justifications of the DEBT building deficit spending of the last three "conservative" administrations?

(I'll admit that Keynes would not have prescribed tax cuts for those of high incomes with the lowest propensity to spend for the, claimed, reason of spurring the economy. So in effect I guess that $8 trillion of the $9 trillion of combined deficits were in effect politically driven slopping of the hogs?" With the result that our nation has been weakened with far fewer options for dealing with our many problems.

oscar jordan

for the chap above who postulated that history profs are "probably liberal because they look into history deeper than the patriotic fables taught in school", a quick question: huh?

if history profs are so gimlet-eyed and realistic, then why are history's 2 largest holocausts never EVER mentioned in history texts? *everyone* knows about the evil "right-wing nazis" and their holocaust, right? 6 million butchered, right? every schoolkid out there knows that from 3rd grade on. no patriotic fables **there**!!

and yet pretty much NO american schoolkid is aware of the fact that hitler's state-sponsored murder is but the 3rd worst - in terms of numbers - of the 20th century. stalin's slaughter of the ukraine in the early 30's killed somewhere between 7-10 million. (oddly, the soviet government chose not to publish exact figures.) mao's 'great leap forward', and subsequent 'cultural revolution' of the late 50's-late 60's managed to murder somewhere north of **50,000,000** human beings. all killed to assuage the dear leader's ego.

yet the liberal history profs do not speak of such things. why not? might their curiously embarrassed silence be somehow political? ya think? why else do history profs routinely downplay the statist impulse to kill their own people? "well, you must understand that you have to break 50 or 60 million *eggs* to make an omelette! anyway, those rotten americans were mean to the indians!"

that about it?


Professors are more informed and more intelligent than the average person. Thats why they have a liberal "bias". Sometimes one side is just wrong. Thats been true throughout history, look it up.

I'd say that the younger professors are less liberal because the old ones were on campus during and after Vietnam. I'm not sure why you were afraid to bring up 'Nam, maybe because it was a disaster for the conservative idealogy. Another thing is that it seems as though "liberal" has become an epithet in recent years, older people might not be as sensitive to the baggage thats been attached to the word. Also I think there might also be some sampling bias in the 26-35 age group. I know there are very few scientists who become faculty before age 30. Does anyone know if the business and health sciences departments have a similar set up?

Another thing, I agree that many liberals could stand to learn a few things about economics (like when they try to shut down sweat-shops to help those poor workers), but at the same time most conservatives could probably learn a lot from econ too. They don't seem to understand the concept of market failure, maybe they'll get it once the earth melts.

Another thing i take issue with is the implication that liberals are for government intervention while conservatives are against it. Here are a few things that conservatives support:

a) a government thats allowed to kill private citizens who are of no danger to anyone
b) a government thats allowed to imprison private citizens who've done no harm to anyone
c) a government that spends mad money on military intervention in other countries who pose no threat to our safety
d) a government that decides whether or not a woman should have a baby
e) a government that advances a state-sanctioned religion
f) a government that censors protests of said government

You could argue that both sides are equally pro- and anti-government. The difference is that liberals want government that helps people whereas conservatives want government that shoots people.


Oh yeah, i almost forgot to make fun of your absurd persecution complex. Your blog is the socio-political equivalent of White Rap, and you're not Eminem. The great thing about Marshall Mathers was that he knew he was ridiculous.


As a historian, it is perfectly obvious to me why my colleagues should overwhelmingly turn out to be "liberal" in outlook. The job of the historian involves, as a simple practical matter, the accumulation and synthesis of dozens or hundreds of perspectives on the historical event or process in question. Historians usually hate (HATE!) explanations that rely too much on theory or on the point-of-view of one person or class of people. We respect the totality, as near as we can come to describing it. We also recognize that we will always fail to do so. As a result, it is natural for us to want our political institutions to operate the same way: by conscientiously canvassing various possible solutions in order to preserve the non-reducible truth(s) of our society.

Conversely, it boggles the mind to think that a good historian could ever countenance the cramped partiality of economic conservatism, or could accept the caricature of the conservable past as a state free of complexity and conflict.



I have no idea what your argument was as it was high on babble and low on common sense. My rather elementary argument is the following: historians should, at least in theory, be conservatives because they study history. Thus they are more aware than anyone else that socialism has failed everywhere it has been tried. There has yet to be a successful state that has implemented socialism throughout the entire existence of mankind.

Hence the idea that historians are largely liberal always baffled me. I can only suppose that the profession requires significant bouts of cognitive dissonance or poor moral character.


Phil, how have the plutocracies done?


Phil sez:

"My rather elementary argument is the following: historians should, at least in theory, be conservatives because they study history. Thus they are more aware than anyone else that socialism has failed everywhere it has been tried. There has yet to be a successful state that has implemented socialism throughout the entire existence of mankind."

........... Since the history of the rise of America has been one of progressivity I can't help wondering which bits of history should be cherry-picked to favor the conservatism of lassez faire, devil-take-the-hindmost capitalism replete with sweat-shop labor policies and the exploitation of child labor.

...... Also it strikes me as silly in discussing US economic policy to attempt to roll out the bogey-bear of "socialism", but since you introduced the term I'd point out how well a number of the more "socialist" nations of Canada and the EU are doing with lesser geographical advantages than we enjoy in the US.

For example it hardly fits conservative rhetoric of today that per hour productivity in France is higher than that of the US. Nor does there seem a "conservative" explanation as to why so many "socialist" nations continue to provide health care at half the cost of the US with seemingly better outcomes.

Phil warns:
"There has yet to be a successful state that has implemented socialism throughout the entire existence of mankind."

.......... Offhand I can't think of a nation that has succeeded with an unregulated capitalism either. Can you?

Also, I'm having a difficult time imagining solutions to our health care "system" and that of our crumbling infrastructure that does not at least require government leadership, if not more government intervention.

(Does anyone here happen to know of a cost/benefit comparison of the VA and Medicare as compared to insurance company-paid, fee for service? or even why they are a couple decades behind other industries in adopting electronic information technology?)


Hey Jack,

Heres a recent article on the cost/benefit of Medicare as opposed to private sector coverage.


These guys studied the emergency room visitations of people in the weeks right around when they become eligible for Medicare. I guess there was a 20 percent drop in the death rate with only a 4% increase in costs for people with medicare vs people without. They said the drop in the death rate was widespread, not confined merely to those who would otherwise be uninsured. They believe this is because Medicare has fewer restrictions on treatment options than private insurance. This is in keeping with the grand irony of the whole health care system, which is that the private sector has more red tape and bureaucracy than the government.

Does anyone ever talk about the fact that single payer insurance would in effect make the government like a massive Wal-Mart? Wal-Mart has the ability to strongarm their suppliers into bargain basement prices. It seems like what they should do is have the government offer a free government health care plan to everyone. People could opt out of the government plan and buy private insurance. Middle class people would get maybe 50 percent of the cost of the government plan as a rebate if they opted out and bought private. Rich people would get nothing back, and i doubt they'd even feel it. Anyway, maybe like two thirds of the people would have the government plan, and the government could use its wal-mart like leverage to strongarm hospitals into lowering prices and improving service.


Thanks to Terry, who helped me understand that my conservative beliefs are quite simple: I do not want a government that helps people, I want a government that shoots people!

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