Are libertarians more intelligent than conservatives and liberals?

The short answer is “yes.”

Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at NYU’s Stern School of Business, published a paper in 2012 with three colleagues exploring libertarian morality. Dr Haidt is well-known for his work on studying morality among conservatives and liberals in the US, but has become increasingly interested in libertarians (or, at least, he can no longer ignore us).

Among the factors that Haidt and his colleagues explore and compare with liberals and conservatives is intelligence, or at least one common measure of it:

The Cognitive Reflection Task is a set of 3 logic questions that have correct and intuitive answers. Correct answers on these questions is said not just to measure intelligence, but also to measure a person’s ability to suppress an intuitive response in service of the cognitive reasoning required to solve these problems.



Table 3 shows that libertarians find the correct answers to these questions at a slightly higher rate than liberals and moderately higher rate compared to conservatives (also see Figure 4).


The cognitive reflection task provides a behavioral validation of the hypothesis that libertarians have a more reasoned cognitive style. In our dataset, this measure inter-correlates with both Need for Cognition […] and Baron-Cohen Systemizer […] scores, with libertarians scoring higher than both liberals and conservatives on all three measures. Taken together, a convergent picture of the rational cognitive style of libertarians emerges.

Although the Cognitive Reflection Task is just one test among many that attempts to measure intelligence, and although I am not a big believer that intelligence tests are any good at detecting intelligence (they are, however, great for analyzing structural issues within a society or across different societies), it’s hard to argue with the results: Libertarians score higher on intelligence tests than either liberals or conservatives. Here is the paper. I’d be very interested in reading through more literature that deals with this, but libertarians are new to a lot of scholars (which is why Haidt’s “common-sense” approach is being considered groundbreaking for including libertarians).

You don’t really need to read the paper though. Dr Amburgey, the house liberal of this blog, explains well why liberals tend to score slightly lower on intelligence tests than libertarians. Here, for example, is Dr Amburgey trying to tell me that the CIA is not really arming rebels in Syria if it goes through proxies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It’s an intelligent response, to be sure, but a libertarian – slightly more superior in his cognitive abilities, according to science – knows better.

Notes  On Liberty‘s house conservative*, Dr Delacroix, amply demonstrates why conservatives are not in the same league as liberals or libertarians.

With the fact that libertarians are more intelligent than liberals and conservatives in mind, I’d like to take a moment to a) bask in the glory of it all, and b) go back to Rick’s question about the One Big Change that I’d like to make.

I think that there is a way to incorporate open borders into a One Big Change-style reform while also leaving room for other improvements such as financial competition in the markets (rather than between governments) and competing tax regimes. I’d dig deeper and go a little more structural. I’d federate the entire world, and I wouldn’t make the federation out of the current agglomeration of nation-states, either. I would destroy the states currently in place and federate the administrative units that currently operate underneath the nation-state.

This, I think, would do a great job of incorporating open borders (everyone is part of the same federal union now), financial competition (no more national banks), tax regimes (you can more easily vote with your feet), and a common legal system that protects individual rights such as private property and freedom of religion.

*Dr Delacroix is, of course, a libertarian. He just calls himself a conservative out of spite for liberals, and because he mistakenly thinks of himself as a paternalistic defender of the common man from Leftist condescension and aggression.

15 thoughts on “Are libertarians more intelligent than conservatives and liberals?

  1. I’m pleased by my appointment as house liberal. I will work hard to be promoted to house progressive.

    I must admit that I’m pained by your bringing up one of the Obama administration’s foreign policy failures [at least in my opinion]. Syria is still a cluster-fuck. I think the lack of military support for some of the rebel groups contributed to the mess.

    I wish that your fantasy about the CIA arming the rebels had been true.

    “Let me try to be clearer. If the CIA helps the Saudis and Qataris arm the rebels then the US hasn’t armed the rebels the Saudis and Qataris have. I assert that the US hasn’t spent a cent buying arms for the rebels do you have any evidence that it has? I assert that the US has not sent any arms owned by the US to the rebels. Do you have any evidence that it has? What you sourced said that the Saudis and Qataris bought arms with THEIR money then the CIA helped them get the arms into southern Syria. The nature of the ‘help’ was unspecified.”

    If giving the Saudis & Qataris some roadmaps and advising them to ‘turn left at the third crossroads’ is the best the administration could do they deserve all the flak they’ve been receiving.

    • Doctor Amburgey,

      You are embarrassing yourself. Please! For the love of God, stop! My sides hurt from laughing at you.

      You’re making me look too good to be true. Let’s stick with the logic here (rather than pointing out your superfluous use of made-up facts), as cognitive ability is what this post is about. I’m going to excerpt a quote you just gave me and I want to see if you can connect the dots:

      If the CIA helps the Saudis and Qataris arm the rebels then the US hasn’t armed the rebels […]

      Can you see anything wrong with this sentence? Anything at all?

      • Nope, the sentence is fine. Now let me ask you a question. Two ice hockey players [Amburgey and Christensen] are swiftly skating towards their opponents net. Amburgey passes the puck to Christensen who slaps the puck into the net past the hapless Delacroix. Who gets credit for the GOAL and who gets the ASSIST? This is not a test for cognitive ability, feel free to look it up on the internet before you answer.

        Ice hockey fans know the difference between helping someone else and doing it yourself. Hopefully this knowledge will diffuse among libertarians.

      • Amazing!

        Uncle Terry: to continue your analogy (and to continue to show why libertarians are smarter than liberals), is there a team that gets rewarded for the goal and the assist? That is to say, does one team get a point thanks to teamwork?

        Again, your facts are wrong but for this exercise I am more interested in cognitive abilities.

  2. Fifty years ago libertarian ideas were far outside the mainstream. Libertarians of the time had to do a lot of thinking and reading, and this required above-average intelligence. Nowadays it’s possible to absorb libertarian ideas through the culture. As new people are attracted to the movement, it’s inevitable that many or most won’t have done much reading or thinking and will gradually lower the level of intelligence.

    • Alas, you are too correct Dr Gibson.

      How do you feel about libertarianism becoming more prevalent? I know I would still be a socialist today if it weren’t for Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns, and there is no way of knowing if I would have have even heard of libertarianism if it weren’t for him.

      At the same time, I can practically feel the movement getting dumber, and you are definitely smarter than me so I can only imagine what the current state of the movement looks like from your perch.

      • For sure, I’m older. Smarter? Who knows?

        How do I feel about the rise of libertarian ideas? Surprised and delighted, especially with the response I get from students. Also realistic about how far we have to go.

        As we learn in economics, averages don’t tell the whole story. You have to look at distributions too. Although the rising popularity likely means the average intelligence is declining, I’m very pleased at the growing number of intellectuals, writers and politicians who espouse at least partly libertarian ideas. The influence of these leaders is a lot greater than that of the masses that may call themselves libertarian without much understanding of what it’s about.

        Postscript: I backed the wrong horse in 1980: the Libertarian Party. Ed Clark got 5% that year and I figured it would be onward and upward from there. I underestimated the influence of Rand, Hayek, Rothbard, and others, and never imagined the success that Cato has achieved. Not so smart, was I.

      • Life has been nuts lately, lots of good things going on with me so unfortunately liberty and the pursuit thereof has been on the back burner but I should be ramping up again soon. I have a few really interesting articles to talk about and as I said that Rothbard piece is percolating. I can’t half-ass my support of “Scripture” as Terry likes to call it.

  3. […] So, ideologically, there are only conservatives and socialists competing for hearts and minds in Syria. Liberals simply emigrate to the West. Letting the post-colonial world devolve into smaller and smaller political units would limit conflicts and casualties, but the road to a peaceful and prosperous Middle East is going to be a long, hard haul without  way to re-introduce liberalism into the region (Jacques has put forth a doable proposal, as has Rick, but my own is too ambitious). […]

  4. […] Preventing dialogue, preventing compromise, and preventing victory in Syria by inadvertently playing different sides off on each other is not a humanitarian option. It’s not even a good “smart power” option. The military power of the West has been overrated for about a hundred years now. Its true power rests in the international institutions – international governmental organizations (IGOs) – it has been creating piecemeal over the past five hundred years. I blogged about wielding this influence most recently here and here. (and here is an older one). Also, open borders is an option that is never entertained by the international relations community (which is probably because it can only be implemented with some sort of political integration). […]

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s