Bryan Caplan  

Left versus Right: What's the Big Deal?

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Call me crazy, but I think that McCain and Obama are basically the same.  You might like to persuade me otherwise, but you've got to understand where I'm coming from

First, when I classify people's politics, I think in terms of thousands of years of philosophy, not the last four years of American politics. 

Second, despite its predictive power, I think the "left-right" spectrum is philosophically silly.  Both views are illogical grabbags of positions held together by group identity.  The philosophically insightful breakdown, rather, is the "statist-libertarian" spectrum.

Here's the best way to sum up my outlook: The endpoints of the political spectrum are not the "far left" Michael Moore and the "far right" Rush Limbaugh, but the totalitarian Josef Stalin and the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard.  Is it any wonder that McCain and Obama look practically the same to me?

You might think I'm bringing this up merely to rain on the upcoming political parade.  But my real motive is more academic.  In a forthcoming issue of Critical Review, Donald Wittman argues that the belief gap between economists and the public isn't that big.  That gave me an idea: Even though I don't see the disagreement between America's far left and far right as a big deal, most people do.  So to answer Wittman, I compared the size of the disagreement between economists and the public to the size of the disagreement between America's far left and far right:

...Wittman could grant all these points, but respond, "I'm still not convinced that the disagreement between economists and the public is big." To get some perspective, I calculated belief gaps between laymen of the far left (very liberal Democrats) and laymen of the far right (very conservative Republicans). For the SAEE's 37 questions, the average absolute value of this belief gap is .30 on a 0-2 scale. I also calculated belief gaps between Ph.D. economists and the general public. All else equal, the average absolute value of this belief gap is .52. In other words, the belief gap between economists and the public is more than 70 percent larger than the belief gap between America's far left and far right. If that isn't big, what is?

Admittedly, the belief gap between economists and the public is pretty small compared to the gap between Stalin and Rothbard.  Even if the median voter were an economist, I'd still have plenty to complain about.  Nevertheless, the belief gap between economists and the public is big compared to the gap between Moore and Limbaugh - and in the eyes of most people, that gap is a very big deal indeed.

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
ed writes:

So do you really think that, for example, invading Iraq is "basically the same" as not invading?

I don't think you would say that if you lived in Iraq.

N. writes:

I guess I tend to see it as a question of which margins shift in which directions... and you have to admit, all the action is at the margins.

But no, we don't get Caligula one cycle and Claudius the next. (And Nero the one after that!)

English Professor writes:

It's certainly true that in the spectrum from Stalin to Rothbard, American political beliefs fit into a fairly narrow band, but Bryan's claim is that these differences lack significance, and that's where I have to disagree. The American left doesn't want Stalinism, it simply tends to admire the European social welfare model and would like to make the US government more interventionist in this manner. The American right (at least the old Reagan Republicans) want[ed] to limit (and perhaps roll back somewhat) those forms of intervention. For Bryan's argument to succeed, he has to claim that there are no significant differences in the results of political policies carried out according to these differing views--but there are.

Since the end of WWII, the Western democracies have conducted an extended experiment in the economic performance of nations following these different policies. As I understand it (though I don't have the figures before me), the US has grown, on average, about one percent per year faster than Europe, while the US has also maintained most of Europe's defense costs in addition to its own. The difference between 3 percent annual growth and 2 percent is enormous over time. So these beliefs, however narrow the spectrum, are not insignificant in economic reality.

manuelg writes:

> Call me crazy, but I think that McCain and Obama are basically the same.

You are crazy.

Caliban Darklock writes:


How has invading Iraq changed the world?

I suggest it hasn't, not really, and that every country - even Iraq - has experienced minimal impact to the daily lives of its populace.

ao writes:


I'm surprised to hear you say this. TMOTRV drastically altered the lens through which i watch politics. I thought Obama could be a president of the kind you argue is ideal: he has the ability to persuade the people they are getting the bad policies they want, but smart enough and well meaning enough to give them the policies that are best for them. This is the lens through which I have optomisticaly watched as he rose on sheer powers of ambiguity and rhetorical skill; always thinking he is ideal if TMOTRV is correct. What am I missing?

Matt C writes:

I think McCain would be much more likely to initiate war with Iran than Obama. This is an important difference.

If Obama wins, we can expect him to clean out most of the loathsome Bush officials and appointees, many of whom would probably hang around in some capacity under McCain. I am not certain this is an important change, but I think it might be.

If Obama wins, we have a Democratic president and a Democratic congress. That's the big downside to Obama IMO.

In a lot of other respects, they would be the same wine in a different bottle. Tough years ahead for friends of liberty.

Bill Stepp writes:

Rothbard was not quite all the way to the outer limit of libertarianism. In a couple areas, he was wrong, such as copyright, and money and banking; but to his credit he didn't want the state enforcing copyright or interfering with private money and banking. He did nail the proper libertarian position on patent though.

Daniel writes:

You're arguing that the gap between the lay public and economists is bigger than the gap between left and right on the basis of a survey about the economy and economic policy. I don't know exactly what's on the survey, but I'm assuming that things like free trade and rent control come up more than gay marriage, adoption, and foreign policy. It shouldn't be any surprise that on a survey about these issues, differences between economists and the lay public would look bigger than differences between left and right. To take an extreme example, certainly if you took a survey asking people the values of various integrals, the mathematician/public gap would be bigger than the left/right gap, but that doesn't tell us mean that the axis of real importance is one with Joe the plumber at one end of the spectrum, and Riemann at the other.

To make your point, you should be looking at the gap between economics and the public, and left/right, on a more general survey (maybe something like the GSSS, though I don't think they have economist-specific data on that, and I'm also not sure that it asks the relevant sorts of questions).

Kurbla writes:

"The endpoints of the political spectrum are not the "far left" Michael Moore and the "far right" Rush Limbaugh, but the totalitarian Josef Stalin and the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard. "

From my point of view, there is no that much difference because property and the state are essentially same thing, and in both cases, individual rules that property=state. Difference is more in granularity.

Alan Watson writes:

I agree that modern liberalism and conservatism are descriptions of ad hoc coalitions rather than fundamental philosophies, and that a statist-libertarian axis is a better description of reality. In fact, I believe that the contest between these two contrasting visions of society, the bottom-up libertarian and the top-down statist, is one of the two essential themes of modern history (the development of science and technology being the other).

But isn't it also silly to expect that a single dimension would explain the full variety of our policy preferences? Why not also look at a populist versus economically literate dimension, that describes the extent to which one ignores or recognizes and tries to cope with the secondary and tertiary effects of policy choices? What about a power versus leadership dimension, that describes the extent to which policy preferences are primarily self serving? How about logically consistent versus erratic? Of course one could go on and on, but I suspect that a reasonable amount of research and principal-components analysis would show that a small number of dimensions explains most differences in political preferences. And who knows, maybe better understanding would lead to better choices?

Morganovich writes:

I think McCain would be much more likely to initiate war with Iran than Obama.

He can't do it without congress.

It appears that the Democrats and Republicans are only different when they don't control both branches of government. Both Obama and Mcain are disaster. Gridlock is our best hope - but that's true even if the presidential candidates are better. The less government does, the better. Just my 2 cents.

Kurbla writes:

Sure, there are lot of dimension of difference, not one "the real one." One might think religion is important, for him Caplan and Stalin are essentially the same, and all that talk about economy is irrelevant. Whatever the difference one chose, he can say it is the real one.

However, not all of these opposites cause strong emotional response. Left - right difference does, and that's why national politics is usually defined by moving along that line. Statist- anarchist difference is not that provocative. Very few people are actually anarchists. Even if they are, they know little about society they want, and if they describe it, it frequently looks dangerously similar to statist conception they supposedly oppose. Anarchocommunist syndicates, congresses and persons as Mahno and Durruti are very similar to communist parties, soviets and their dictators." On the same way, Arnold's Island is strikingly similar to Saudi's Arabia, Ramses's Egipt and Stalin's USSR.

Why it happens? I think because motivation of people who advocate anarcho- versions is mostly psychological, i.e. they believe because they want to believe. However, it is not criticism, people do that all the time. Criticism is to show that libertarians maintain double criteria and they cannot give up.

Case for that exist in externalities that break private properties, for example, electromagnetic waves. Libertarian should advocate my right not to be exposed to EM waves, even if it leads Earth back to 18th century. But - they do not do that. Obviously they believe that property rights should be broken if it is for greater good ... interesting, isn't it?

Steve Roth writes:

ao: "Obama...has the ability to persuade the people they are getting the bad policies they want, but smart enough and well meaning enough to give them the policies that are best for them."

Spot on! Bryan, what say you?

MOTRV also points out that such political "slack" can result in corruption and rent-seeking as well as sound policy. But realistically, really, would you expect to see more of that in a haphazard administration like McCain would give us, or a tight ship like Obama's? (This without even taking into consideration the kind of people each one gathers around him.)

Gary Rogers writes:

The important difference between candidates is whether they believe in larger or smaller government. Unfortunately those who enter government from either party believe that they can make a difference if given the chance to implement their plans or they enter government for some type of personal gain. With that framework, every candidate promises policies that will create jobs and provide better health care. So, we end up with two parties pushing competing government programs to solve our problems while nobody represents the other side of the political spectrum, which is to take fewer taxes and let people solve their own problems.

With the choice we have for this election, I worry about how either candidate might do real harm to the country but at the same time hope my worries are unfounded. I also think that, as bad as the Bush administration has been, neither candidate looks like an improvement. I want a candidate that will actively start shrinking the government. I just don't know how to get him or her elected.

English Professor writes:

"Obama...has the ability to persuade the people they are getting the bad policies they want, but smart enough and well meaning enough to give them the policies that are best for them."

The assumption behind this is that Obama does not really BELIEVE the things that he says--that he does not believe that government can solve most problems, that we should protect jobs against foreign competition, that the tax code should be used for redistributionist ends (e.g., by increasing top marginal rates, corporate taxes, and cap gains taxes). I, at least, take the man at his word, and I see no reason to believe that he is meerly giving us political rhetoric. Almost all my friends are academic liberals, and they ALL believe these things. So why shouldn't Obama? Democrat presidents move to the left immediately upon election; even Clinton did it, and he was the savviest politician of my lifetime. Yet some people commenting here seem to expect Obama to move to the center. This, my friends, is truly "the audacity of hope."

jsalvati writes:

Your claim that the gap between economists-others is bigger than the left-right gap is interesting. Do you have a paper on this or is it just an analysis you did?

Giovanni writes:

I don't see how you can believe that.

The left-right gap is primarily about big, paternal government with more social programs and economic redistribution vs. small regulatory government and a more capitalism driven society. That's a very clear philosophical divide.

Sure, religion, social policy, and foreign policy are thrown in grab-bag style, but the core left-right divide is very clear and very real.

Beyond basic left/right ideology, Obama and McCain have very clearly different policy plans regarding trade and tax structure. I don't see how they are the same at all.

Lord writes:

Don't you mean big paternal government with more social programs or big paternal government with more financial and military programs? No, the primary difference seems to be religious and social, but since these aren't primarily economic, they don't amount to anything to Bryan. It would be nice if we had some other choice, but these are too visceral to change.

anon/portly writes:

"For the SAEE's 37 questions ... the belief gap between economists and the public is more than 70 percent larger than the belief gap between America's far left and far right."

Following the link, I don't understand why differences in the responses to the SAEE questions are characterized as "belief" gaps and not "knowledge" gaps. Especially for differences between economists and lay people.

Steve writes:

In your discussion of the happiness of extremists you mentioned Katrina Van Heuvel as an example of an extremist. But in this post you seem to be saying that she's a moderate while you and Chairman Mao are at the opposite ends of the extreme pole. Is this a contradiction, or am I missing something?

Jason Malloy writes:

How are you operationalizing "far left" and "far right" in your analysis? Are these self-descriptions?

If you are really looking at the far left and right instead of the representative left and right, then you are probably underestimating the true distance between the two parties. It's precisely because the statist spectrum is often more illuminating that economic views tend to converge at the poles of the right-left spectrum. Paleoconservatives share more economic premises with Greens than Obama shares with McCain. (See Pat Buchanan's interview with Ralph Nader)

... also I wonder what the belief gap is between the average economist and a free market economist like Dr. Caplan?

Randy writes:

I'm thinking that the best way to understand politics and politicians is to understand that all the negative things that any given politician's opponents say about him or her are true. All the negatives - about all the politicians - are true. Politics, therefore, is not a thing that any decent person would want to be involved in.

Jason Malloy writes:

Oops, make that: "This is precisely why the statist spectrum is often more illuminating: important variables like economic views tend to converge at the poles of the right-left spectrum."

Hitler and Stalin being the classic example of right-left convergence at the far poles.

Three economists go hunting and came across a large buck. The first shoots but misses by a meter to the left. The second shoots, but misses by a meter to the right. The third jumps up and shouts, "We got him!"

Your argument might (might) hold in the abstract; but few of us have the luxury of living in that particular domain. We are left to live with the consequences of consequential decisions in an unforgiving world.

And when one contrasts the inevitable results of McCain's policies - and in particular the increasing economic disparity they would impose on a nation where the divide between the "have's" and "have not's" has increased more than at any time in history, (Note the historical Gini Index and the economies alongside which we have come to rank under the present administration) - and under whose policies thousands more of the soldiers with whom I served will likely loose their lives in a meaningless pursuit - the decision between the two parties is hardly inconsequential. As Yoga Berra once said: In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.

Contending that there is no real difference between McCain and Obama is not just disingenuous, it is dangerous. Those who don't know better are looking to those of us who do (or are supposed to) in order to help them make a more informed decision. What our fellow citizens need now are not economic abstractions, but rather for economic scholars who have the courage of convictions Truman was looking for when he asked for a One-Handed Economist.

Brian Macker writes:

I don't think you would say that if you lived in Iraq.

Yeah, I hear the Iraq's are pro-McCain.

From my perspective however the war as executed was a waste of my money. I have no relatives killed there either or I would mention that too. It was a cost from my end and I don't see the benefit.

Not only was it a cost but the war could have been run much more cheaply and I'm sure the Iraqis would not be as pleased with it then. For example, I would have been much cheaper for us to lift the embargo, leaflet the palaces as a warning, then bomb them to dust.

Would have punished Saddam and not allowed him to blame embargo related suffering on us. With the bonus of giving him a disincentive to waste oil revenues on palaces. The average Joe Blow Iraqi might have know in his heart that Saddam was harmed more by this than he was.

So same effect as the invasion from my perspective without all the cost.

ao writes:

English Professor,

Have you read MOTRV?

Austen Goolsbee told the Harper administration that Obama doesn't mean what he says on free trade. He is not a politician running for office, nor is there any reason to tell the Canadians that if it's untrue, therefore I think his word on the issue is much more likely to be true than the things Obama must necessarily tell Michigan factory workers to win there votes.

So his rhetoric is more leftist than he intends to govern on free trade, and if that is true, than you can't say his leftish rhetoric should always be taken at face value.

English Professor writes:

ao--I know about Goolsbee's remark, but I think your interpretation is too optimistic and too broad. What Goolsbeen said, as I understand it, was technically correct: Obama would not insist on renegotiating NAFTA, which was the specific issue at hand. But I doubt that he will support free trade generally. He has, as Thomas Sowell would call it, the vision of the anointed; and all his instincts will push against market solutions to problems. And quite frankly, I suspect his advisors, even the economists, share his vision.

Bill writes:

Your post about the lack of a difference between republicans and democrats is well-taken, as many positions championed by either side do seem to be a "grab bag."

That being said, I have never really seen the difference between a "libertarian" and a "really socially liberal, really fiscally conservative person."

In essence, I feel like libertarians pick from the nuttiest of both grab bags. Unless you are an anarchist, you want some government. You want a government that provides only the rule of law, national security, and maybe orphanages for kids whose parents die in car accidents, and a patent office, maybe or maybe not a common currency, gold-backed or otherwise, an unbiased and publicly accountable police force, and about a half dozen other "minor" things. But, even that is already a heck of a lot of government, which requires taxes and regulations regarding what the government can and can't do. If you want some taxes and regulations than you are with the rest of us picking a "grab bag" of taxes and regulations. At this point you are no longer a libretarian but rather a really socially liberal but fiscally conservative person.

So isn't libertarianism just another way of saying you are a republican in terms of money only but a democrat in terms of social things only?

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