Bryan Caplan  

Surveying on the Cheap: Role-Playing an Average American

One Manifesto, Two Responses... Judge This Book By Its Cover...

Near the end of "Is There a Free-Market Economist in the House?," Dan Klein and Charlotta Stern say: "Economists, then, are free-market compared to other social scientists. What about compared to ordinary Americans? Unfortunately, no one has a good handle on that question." They kindly tip their hats to me, but still, the question remains: How would the average American score on their survey?

We could actually administer it to a random sample of Americans, but that's a lot of work. So I propose the following short-cut: I will take the survey while role-playing an average American. I think I am well-qualified for this task: Not only am I an avid student of public opinion, but I've been playing role-playing games since I was nine years old!

All of Klein and Stern's questions mention a government policy, then ask one's attitude toward it. The options are: "strongly support," (=1) "mildly support," (=2) "have mixed feelings," (=3) "oppose mildly," (=4) and "oppose strongly" (=5). Here are the questions, followed by the answer I would give if I were a typical American.

Getting into character... OK, now I'm an average American. Here's what I think:

1. Tariffs on imported goods to protect American industries and jobs.

Strongly support.

2. Minimum wage laws.

Strongly support.

3. Workplace safety regulation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Strongly support.

4. Pharmaceutical market regulation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Strongly support.

5. Air-quality and water-quality regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Strongly support.

6. Laws making it illegal for private parties to discriminate (on the basis of race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion or sexual-orientation) against other private parties, in employment or accommodations?

Strongly support.

7. Laws restricting the use and exchange of “hard” drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Strongly support.

8. Laws restricting prostitution.

Mildly support.

9. Laws restricting gambling.

Mildly support.

10. Laws restricting gun ownership.

Mildly support.

11. Government ownership of industrial enterprises.

Have mixed feelings.

12. Redistributive policies (transfer and aid programs and tax progressivity).

Mildly support.

13. Government production of schooling (k through 12).

Strongly support.

14. Using monetary policy to tune the economy:

Mildly support.

15. Using fiscal policy to tune the economy.

Mildly support.

16. Tighter rather than looser controls on immigration.

Strongly support.

17. American military aid or presence abroad to promote democracy and the rule of law.

Have mixed feelings.

18. Foreign aid and assistance by such organizations as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and US AID.

Oppose strongly.

OK, now I'm out of character.

My simulated average American's average score: 1.78/5, versus an average score of 2.64/5 for Klein and Stern's sample of economists. Not much difference? Well, considering the fact that all of these policies are the status quo, I think it's a big difference.

To see this, suppose we transform Klein and Stern's score into a Doubt Index. A person who gets all 1's has a 0 Doubt Index - he strongly supports all existing policies. A person who gets all 5's has a 1 Doubt Index - he strongly opposes all existing policies. My average American has a Doubt Index of about .2. Their average economist has an average Doubt Index of .41 - more than twice the average American's.

Is my role-playing methodology sound? Well, I'm not going to use it in an academic article. But I think my approach does give us a pretty "good handle," on whether economists are more pro-market than the average American. The right answer is: Of course.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (11 to date)
CurlyWurly writes:

> 4. Pharmaceutical market regulation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
> Strongly support.

Don't you forget about all those retirees who are quite happy to import their drugs from Canada or Mexico even if the FDA does not approve?

Swimmy writes:

I think you did a good job role-playing. I would change the answer for "Laws making it illegal for private parties to discriminate. . ." to "Have mixed feelings." Because 1) the question could be spun into support for affirmative action, which does not have as broad American support as many other things on the list and 2) Americans have little solidarity about many private non-business (or non-profit) organizations discriminating, even though some of them do "employ" or "accommodate."

David N. Welton writes:

I wonder what an "average american" role-playing an economist would be like?

I think you've misstated the right answer.

The right answer should actually be "DUH".

Brad Hutchings writes:

I don't like your methodology. I don't even like the question. But then, I'm no Ph.D. and no Ph.D. Economist!

I do know this... Take the tariff question where you think AVG-AM strongly supports. Ask liberal AVG-AM female if she's willing to spend an additional 25% at WalMart to protect American jobs and she gets a lot less compassionate.

Klein's methodology assumes that economists who weigh in on these issues are fully informed of the consequences. They are being asked to make a value judgement. Your methodology with AVG-AM can't assume that. I think you could bracket AVG-AM though. Give strongest argument for each conflicting consequence for each question. Let AVG-AM allow his/her own biases to credit/discredit those arguments. Ask each question once for each argument. e.g. "Protecting 2,000,000 American jobs to make things you buy at WalMart would add $25 to your $100 WalMart bill. Would you be in favor of doing this?" and "Removing tariffs on [whatever] would reduce their price by X% but might cost Y,000 jobs. Would you be in favor of doing this?"

Tom West writes:

I think the point Bryan is trying to make is that most citizens *aren't* informed, hence we get anti-market policies.

While I strongly support most of the status quo, I do think attempting to educate people about the costs of policies is the right thing to do. If the majority are unwilling to accept a price for certain policies that I am willing to pay, then I lose. Better that than winning only out of the citizenry's ignorance.

I will say I believe that a lot of free-marketers undervalue security compared to the citizenry as a whole. I suspect a lot of economic attitudes can be boiled down to "I would you be willing to forgo a moderate amount of future growth in return for increased stability of job, salary, and pension".

I've always wondered if economics professors were kept on continuous 3 month contracts, and thus had their employement subject to the budget, management fad, student enrollment, and boss' mood for this month, whether they might better understand the willingness of the citizenry to make this tradeoff.

JMG3Y writes:

Why do we need an FDA? Why not go to Mexico for drugs? In a perfect world of perfect information, we wouldn't and we could. But in this world I wouldn't even buy medicines for my dog in Mexico.

Inside the world of counterfeit drugs

liberty writes:

You're just making guesses? Thats all I can see in your methodology. There are surveys that can get you some of this information.

I would be surprised if more people strongly support the minimum wage than laws against prostitution.

There are many areas which have enacted high minimum wages (living wage laws) and had disastrous outcomes, and any business owner intutively understands the problem with such laws. 8% of Americans at any given time are entrepreneurs and many more have attempted to start a business, have a family member with a business or work closely enough with the owner of a business (eg work for a family owned business) that they also understand the problem. A further number have lost a job after a minimum wage hike.

So, getting people to understand the consequences does work.

Horatio writes:

"I wonder what an "average american" role-playing an economist would be like?"

A senator trying to help the economy by raising the minimum wage and imposing tariffs on foreign goods.

Ben Fulton writes:

Too bad the survey didn't include "Smaller Government", and "Lower Taxes". Those are two other items which the average American probably strongly supports.

DK writes:

Hmm. most of the average Americans I know would disagree vehemently with #10. Maybe that's because I live in the South, but IMHO, the tide has turned against gun control. Even Howard Dean has accepted it, and gun rights advocates are moving from ending gun control laws to expanding the definition of "self defense."

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