Political Ignorance and Perceptions of “Capitalism” and “Socialism”

This recent Pew survey has some interesting data on public opinion regarding various political and economic ideas, including “capitalism” and “socialism.” To me, the result that stood out the most was this one:

Perhaps surprisingly, opinions about the terms “socialism” and “capitalism” are not correlated with each other. Most of those who have a positive reaction to “socialism” also have a positive reaction to “capitalism”; in fact, views of “capitalism” are about the same among those who react positively to “socialism” as they are among those who react negatively (52% and 56%, respectively, view “capitalism” positively). Conversely, views of “socialism” are just as negative among those who have a positive reaction to “capitalism” (64% negative) as those who react negatively (61% negative).

I strongly suspect that many of the survey respondents simply don’t understand the meaning of the words in question. It’s theoretically possible that large numbers of people believe that both “socialism” and “capitalism” work well, while others think both work badly. But it’s hard to believe that either view could be a well-informed one, given that the case for socialism relies on arguments that cast severe doubt on the merits of capitalism and vice versa. I can understand, perhaps, a pessimistic view that holds that both socialism and capitalism are bad. Even so, however, I would expect informed people to, on average, have a relatively more positive view of capitalism the more they oppose socialism, and vice versa.

Even more difficult to understand is the positive view of capitalism held by 52% of those who have a positive view of socialism. The whole point of socialism is, of course, the abolition of capitalism on the grounds that that system causes great harm in a variety of ways. It seems likely, therefore, that many of these people are simply confused about what socialism and capitalism are, or at least about the basic arguments for and against these systems. The survey does suggest that more educated segments of the population are more likely to hold consistent views on capitalism and socialism:

There are some differences in the relationship between these terms by demographic groups, although the association is not particularly strong among any group. For instance, among college graduates, 71% of those with a positive reaction to “capitalism” have a negative reaction to “socialism.” By contrast, among college graduates who have a negative view of “capitalism” a smaller proportion have a negative view of “socialism” (51%).

The educated are also far more likely to have negative views of socialism generally, and positive views of capitalism. I suspect that result will hold even after controlling for income, since previous research shows that people with greater political knowledge tend to be more supportive of free markets (controlling for both education and income, among other variables). Education and political knowledge are not the same thing. But the two do tend to be highly correlated.

None of this is surprising, in light of research showing that large percentages of voters are “rationally ignorant” and often lacking in basic political knowledge. Ignorance about economic issues is also quite common.

Some of the other interesting results in the Pew Study may also have ignorance-based explanations. For example, some 56% of self-identified Republicans have a positive view of “progressive.” Presumably, most of them associate the term with being in favor of “progress” rather than with the increasingly standard use of the word as a synonym for left-wing.

David Weigel points out that “[o]verall, 38 percent of Americans view ‘libertarian’ favorably to 37 who view it unfavorably. Democrats (39-37) and independents (44-32) view the term most favorably, while Republicans view it negatively by a 13-point (31-44) margin.” It’s possible that Republicans really do, on average, dislike libertarianism more than independents or Democrats do (even though the 10-15% of the population who hold libertarian policy views are much more likely to vote Republican than Democratic). But it’s also possible that many in all three groups simply don’t know what the word means and conflate it with either “liberal” or “civil libertarian.” Both of these latter descriptions are associated with the political left, so Republicans are likely to view them negatively. Independents tend to be the least knowledgeable of all voters, and some of them may have positive associations with “libertarian” simply because the word sounds vaguely similar to the widely beloved concept of “liberty” (obviously people with nonlibertarian policy views may react positively to the idea of “liberty” but have a very different idea of its content than libertarians do).

Without looking at more of the underlying data and correlations (which I will try to get), I am far from certain of the validity of these conjectures. But I do consider it likely that ignorance accounts for at least a substantial portion of these results, especially the lack of correlation between attitudes towards capitalism and socialism.

Some might dismiss the importance of these results on the grounds that people are entitled to their own definitions of terms such as “socialism,” “capitalism,” and “progressive.” Why can’t we all use them in whatever sense we want? I don’t object to variations in word usage in principle. But voters who don’t understand the meanings of basic political terms as they are used by the media and public officials may find it extremely difficult to follow what is going on in the political world. And their ignorance reduces the quality of the political process for everyone, not just themselves.

UPDATE: I should emphasize that the key point here is not, simply, that there are people who have the same positive or negative view of both capitalism and socialism. It’s the lack of statistically significant correlation between attitudes towards the two. Even if there are idiosyncratic individuals or groups who have well-considered reasons for viewing both concepts the same way, on average one would expect a reasonably well-informed population to have an inverse correlation between attitudes to the two systems. Having a negative view of socialism should make you more likely to have a positive view of capitalism even if the one doesn’t automatically lead to the other.