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.

[…]

Results.

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).

Interpretation.

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.

25 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). […]

  5. One thing that is ignored is that there is a lot of nuance in this.

    There are conservatives who are more liberal-minded and liberals who are more conservative-minded. Also, are we going by what people identify or what positions they actually hold. According to Pew data, many people who hold liberal positions actually identify as conservative.

    Furthermore, there are liberal libertarians and conservative libertarians. I’m willing to bet the former test higher than the latter. I’m more of a liberal myself, but with some liberaltarian leanings. A conservative libertarian might be about equivalent as a high range conservative, and yet might be lower than a high range liberal.

    What is actually being measured here? What liberals and libertarians have in common is they are both on average higher in social liberalism, but that isn’t always the case. Some liberals are only moderate on social liberalism and some libertarians of the religious variety can be quite socially conservative. I’ve even met some self-identified liberals who were surprisingly conservative on social issues.

    If were to measure social liberalism, that is where the highest IQs would be found, as studies show. So, social liberals no matter what label they choose would be at the high end of the IQ spectrum. The libertarians that I’ve met that seem the least intelligent do tend to express more social conservative views.

    All of this is going to throw of the accuracy or at least clarity of what the numbers indicate.

    • All good points Benjamin, though I think the methodology of the paper in question does a good job of accounting for nuances (remember: methodology is what turns “numbers” into “data”).

      For example, I know some really stupid social liberals. They’ll tell me with a straight face that “austerity” is responsible for the bad Greek economy, or that the 2nd Amendment is responsible for black-on-black violence in the United States. Likewise, I know some really smart social conservatives.

      The beautiful thing about Haidt and Co.’s methodology is that we don’t have to rely on personal anecdotes to argue anymore! At least on this issue, we have actual data to point to rather than mere “numbers.”

      • Such things as social liberalism exists on a spectrum. Most liberals I’ve known aren’t extreme on the social liberalism scale. What goes for ‘liberal’ in the US is what would be considered socially moderate in some countries.

        The US is a strange country. Conservatives are in many ways reactionary and anti-traditional. There is nothing conservative about laissez-faire capitalism and hyper-individualism. So, American liberals oddly are in the position of defending traditional conservative values. Even gun regulation is inherently conservative-minded.

        I live in the Midwest. There is a strong politically liberal tradition. But it is equal parts social liberalism and social conservatism. Midwestern liberals often defend liberal values and policies by using conservative arguments of family, community, and work ethic.

        Also, there is the class aspect. The wealthier people are the more they tend to be socially liberal. Being wealthier means having better environmental conditions for healthy brain growth and cognitive development.

        This is complicated. It’s more complicated than even Haidt understands. I’ve written extensively about Haidt’s theory in my own blog. The correlation between high IQ and social liberalism is also strongly supported by research and doesn’t need mere speculation or personal anecdotes, but research always requires interpretation

      • @Benjamin,

        I’m sorry but being socially liberal is only one aspect of having a higher IQ than everybody else. Being an economic conservative and socially liberal is the key to being the smartest ass in the room.

        Liberals are dumber than libertarians. There’s no point in arguing further unless you have some data to back up your speculation.

        PS: You have confused class with income. It’s a common mistake, to be sure, but one that can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.

      • I never claimed social liberalism was everything.

        Part of my point was that it is complex even defining such things. That was one of the problems with Haidt’s research. He takes labels at face value, instead of looking at some of what I consider the most important details. For example, he ignores the disparities between self-identified labels and the positions people actually hold, at least in his past research he ignores this.

        I’m talking about known research. Social liberalism is the one thing that diverse studies have found to be most strongly correlated to high IQ. Most libertarians are more socially liberal than most other people, maybe even more socially liberal than the average US liberal, especially if one equates liberalism with the Democratic Party.

        To understand the complexity, consider authoritarianism, which correlates to lower IQ. In former communist countries, authoritarianism unsurprisingly correlates to left-wing politics. But in the US, authoritarianism correlates to conservatism. Social liberalism will lead someone to challenge the status quo, something that has been shown many studies (authoritarians, whether politically left or right, always test low on social liberalism). Depending on what is the status quo in one’s society will determine what a social liberal would challenge. So, correlations that exist in the US would be different than correlations found in other countries.

        What a libertarian such as yourself calls economic conservatism isn’t conservative in a psychological sense. It’s actually liberal-minded. The agreement between some libertarians and some conservatives about some economic issues is extremely superficial. As American history proves, conservatives are as supportive of big government and big spending as liberals, just in different ways. Instead of spending on welfare, they’ll spend the same amount of money on defense and such.

        BTW class and income are inseparable. People can’t change classes without changing income.

      • Benjamin,

        I never claimed that you claimed social liberalism was everything. Martyrdom will do you no good here.

        The methodology of the paper largely eliminates the (quite good) questions of nuance that you have raised. Nearly ten thousand people were sampled for the IQ portion of the test. That’s going to account for Benjamin’s Nuances and even for Benjamin’s define-as-you-go political categories. (Authoritarianism does not correlate with conservatism here in the US, for example; see the online Social Justice Warrior brigades for more details.)

        Your assertion that class and income are inseparable is just plain wrong. Eminem – the multi-millionaire hip-hop artist – has a daughter that graduated from high school with high honors; she’ll be attending Michigan State in the fall. My old construction boss built a custom home with his own blood, sweat, and tears on a lot in an affluent Sacramento suburb; he was ordered by the housing association to change the color of the house. Twice. You might like the late literary critic Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.

      • “I never claimed that you claimed social liberalism was everything. Martyrdom will do you no good here.”

        That is an odd response. Your projecting your issues about martyrdom will do you no good either.

        “The methodology of the paper largely eliminates the (quite good) questions of nuance that you have raised. Nearly ten thousand people were sampled for the IQ portion of the test. That’s going to account for Benjamin’s Nuances and even for Benjamin’s define-as-you-go political categories.”

        It doesn’t eliminate them. It doesn’t even acknowledge such nuances. There is research that looks both at labels and positions, but the research I’ve seen of Haidt’s doesn’t do this. This isn’t to say that his work has no value, just clear limitations that disallow broad conclusions.

        Even only focusing on labels, Haidt doesn’t consider many other categories. He doesn’t differentiate left-libertarians and liberaltarians from right-libertarians. He doesn’t include Marxists, socialists, anarchists, etc. Most of these non-mainstream ideological labels would also tend to include those of higher IQs.

        “Authoritarianism does not correlate with conservatism here in the US, for example; see the online Social Justice Warrior brigades for more details.”

        I didn’t claim the two were synonymous. I said that authoritarianism correlates with social conservatism (or what sometimes is referred to as cultural conservatism), but not conservatism in general. I was being very specific, because I’m familiar with the social science research. It’s only certain aspects of conservative-mindedness that are common among authoritarians (while less common among liberals and libertarians): upholding traditional gender roles, support of law and order, intolerance of ambiguity, in-group preference, ethnocentrism, thick boundaries, need for closure, etc,

        http://www.psych-it.com.au/Psychlopedia/article.asp?id=388

        None of this should be surprising for those who are familiar with political history. Consider the Soviets and Maoists. Both were strongly socially conservative with a distrust toward homosexuality, feminism, or really any kind of identity politics that competes with communism. Both were patriarchal societies with traditional patriarchal values. That was particularly true of the Maoists who were in some ways just modern Confucians.

        “Your assertion that class and income are inseparable is just plain wrong.”

        Your examples don’t disprove my claim. It’s not as if class is an absolute set of categories. If it was, class mobility would be impossible. In the US, class mobility has lessened, but not entirely disappeared. What a person does with their life may or may not have anything to do with the class they were raised in, although typically in most societies class will be inherited and embraced by each generation.

      • Aw c’mon dude.

        It’s okay to “learn out loud.” That’s what this blog is for. There’s no need to keep moving the goalposts.

        Look, if you can provide a single peer-reviewed paper, from any discipline, backing up your claim that “[m]ost of these non-mainstream ideological labels [left-libertarians, liberaltarians, Marxists, socialists, anarchists, etc.] would also tend to include those of higher IQs,” I’ll continue to take you seriously.

        A single peer-reviewed study, and that’s it.

        If you cannot provide a single peer-reviewed study to back up your claim, then I request that you refrain from lecturing me with boring, predictable anecdotes and instead begin asking questions in the ‘comments’ threads.

      • I don’t get the sense that I’m going to get an honest discussion out of you. You could educate yourself on the subject. That isn’t moving any goal posts. It’s just a choice you have to make or not. If you can provide a single piece of evidence that you aren’t willfully ignorant… just a single piece of evidence… dude…

      • A classy end to a classy dialogue. Thanks Benjamin!

        PS: Feel free to come back with some evidence to support your positions, or to simply talk about specific aspects of Haidt & co.’s paper that interested you.

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

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