Ideology and Economic Ignorance Revisited

Last year, Zeljka Buturovic and economist Dan Klein published an article showing that political liberals were more likely to be ignorant about several economic issues than libertarian and conservative survey respondents. The study got a lot of media and internet attention.

At the time, I noted that its results were interesting, but also pointed out a possible flaw:

[A]s Buturovic and Klein themselves point out, the Zogby survey they relied on didn’t ask questions about issues where conservative rather than left-wing positions are likely to be at odds with basic economics. 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….

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.

To their credit, the authors conducted a follow-up study that includes questions that challenge conservative and libertarian preconceptions. On those issues, conservative and libertarian respondents do indeed display higher levels of ignorance than liberals, just as I would have predicted. The net result, as Klein explains in this Atlantic article, is that “Consistently, the more a [factually accurate] statement challenged a group’s position, the worse the group did.”

Like political ignorance, economic ignorance is common on all sides of the political spectrum.

UPDATE: In the original post, I accidentally forgot to include a link to Daniel Klein’s new article in the Atlantic. I have now corrected the mistake. Thanks to Klein himself for bringing it to my attention.

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