Understanding The Other Side
Paul Krugman thinks liberals understand conservatives but not vice versa. He's half right.
Paul Krugman makes a bold claim: liberals understand conservatives but not vice versa. He’s half right.
In my experience with these things – which I find both within economics and more broadly – is that if you ask a liberal or a saltwater economist, “What would somebody on the other side of this divide say here? What would their version of it be?” A liberal can do that. A liberal can talk coherently about what the conservative view is because people like me actually do listen. We don’t think it’s right, but we pay enough attention to see what the other person is trying to get at. The reverse is not true. You try to get someone who is fiercely anti-Keynesian to even explain what a Keynesian economic argument is, they can’t do it. They can’t get it remotely right. Or if you ask a conservative, “What do liberals want?” You get this bizarre stuff – for example, that liberals want everybody to ride trains, because it makes people more susceptible to collectivism. You just have to look at the realities of the way each side talks and what they know. One side of the picture is open-minded and sceptical. We have views that are different, but they’re arrived at through paying attention. The other side has dogmatic views.
Bryan Caplan terms this an “Ideological Turing Test” and enthusiastically agrees that “the ability to pass ideological Turing tests – to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents – is a genuine symptom of objectivity and wisdom.” He’s highly dubious, however, of Krugman’s claim that liberals are better than conservatives at it.
Don Boudreaux wisely observes that we should compare liberal intellectuals to non-liberal intellectuals, and liberal entertainers to non-liberal entertainers, not say Krugman to Beck. I’d add that we should compare people in the same field: Rand’s inability to explain Keynesian economics would be no more telling than Krugman’s inability to explain Nozickian political philosophy. (Of course, if Krugman could correctly explain Nozickian political philosophy, that would be fairly impressive).
With all these caveats in mind, let’s return to Krugman’s empirical claim. If we did an apples-to-apples comparison, would liberals really excel on ideological Turing tests?
If we limit our sample to Ph.D.s from top-10 social science programs, I don’t see how Krugman could be right. You can’t get a Ph.D. from Princeton econ without acquiring basic familiarity with market failure arguments and Keynesian macro. At least you couldn’t when I was a student there in the 90s. In contrast, it’s easy to get a Ph.D. from Princeton econ without even learning the key differences between conservatism and libertarianism, much less their main arguments.* And frankly, it shows. I’ve known many liberal Ph.D.s from top-10 social science programs – and even those who know me best can’t articulate my views well.
My challenge: Nail down the logistics, and I’ll happily bet money that I fool more voters than Krugman. Indeed, I’ll happily bet that any libertarian with a Ph.D. from a top-10 social science program can fool more voters than Krugman. We learn his worldview as part of the curriculum. He learns ours in his spare time – if he chooses to spare it.
Boudreaux’ caveat is very important. We too often compare our best with the opposition’s worst, proving nothing. Caplan’s right, too, that the liberal worldview is baked into the social science and humanities curriculum, which would seem to give conservatives and libertarians thus educated a leg up on understanding the other side.
Ultimately, though, my experience tells me that Krugman and Caplan are both wrong on the larger comparative point.
Educated elites on both sides of the aisle understand the basic arguments of the other side and could likely answer objective questions. At the same time, neither will do a good job of articulating the view of the other side, since they tend to hold it in disdain and will thus couch it in the most negative terms possible–usually by violating Boudreaux’ caveat.
Meanwhile, not only will few in the mass public be able to identify the arguments of the other side, most won’t be able to articulate the views even of their own side. Instead, they’ll focus almost entirely on the personalities of the politicians involved and, to a much lesser degree, define arguments in terms of current policy debates. Most conservatives in this group see liberals as anti-American, pro-criminal, crypto-commies who don’t love Jesus while liberals see conservatives as racist religious nuts who hate the poor.
The shame of the thing is the political elites on both sides of the aisle actively pander to and reinforce the mass views, perpetuating the ignorance.
Hat tip: John Personna