Bryan Caplan  

Education and Anti-Market Bias: The Illusion of Perversity

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Most libertarians and free-market economists are surprised when I tell them that more educated people are more libertarian and more pro-market than the general population.  I think they're in the grip of two illusions:

1. Sampling bias.  Well-educated leftists cling to universities like barnacles.  If you endure four years of their company and tutelage, it's easy to believe that education and leftism go hand in hand.  But in the general population, the two are barely related.  If you're a well-educated non-leftist, you get your diploma and move on with your life - or end up at GMU.

2. Relative/absolute confusion.  There's a world of difference between saying "More educated people are more libertarian and more pro-market than the general population," and saying, "More educated people are libertarian and pro-market."  The former is true; the latter is false.  I agree that the typical non-leftist with an advanced degree is woefully anti-market; but compared to the typical non-leftist who dropped out of high school, he's practically Milton Friedman.

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
endorendil writes:

In stead of parsing language, it might be more convincing to use corroborating data, as the more educated people are more interested in establishing what is actually true based on hard fact.

I realize I made a mistake in the above paragraph, as it assumes that most libertarians and free-market economists are more educated. That's not what you said, and in my experience, it's wildly untrue.

But there are data about what education does to people's political views. For instance:

Hmmm. Only 6% of scientists identify themselves as republicans, only 9% as conservative. You can look through the other tables, they all show that scientists largely take very un-libertarian and anti-free market viewpoints - much more than the public. Even those that don't work for universities. Remarkable is also how irreligious scientists are. Maybe that's why they don't buy into libertarianism or the free-market dogma.

I don't know where you get your numbers, but clearly not from the views of scientists. Considering that the majority of medical doctors supports universal healthcare, I can't imagine libertarianism running rampant through that profession. I didn't look into lawyers - can't imagine that they're very much into libertarianism as a whole, considering how they make money.

So what kind of "highly educated" profession is more libertarian or free-market oriented than the general public? If I'ld hazard a guess, I'ld say it may be true for MBAs. Of course, it's arguable that a very focused two-year degree is hardly comparable to the amount of training scientists, physicians and lawyers have to go through.

If it is true that MBAs are more libertarian/free-market oriented, maybe the conclusion is that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing?

Steve writes:

"I agree that the typical non-leftist with an advanced degree is woefully anti-market; but compared to the typical non-leftist who dropped out of high school, he's practically Milton Friedman."

Why? What policies does the latter support that the former wouldn't? Is there evidence for this?

Henry writes:
I agree that the typical non-leftist with an advanced degree is woefully anti-market; but compared to the typical non-leftist who dropped out of high school, he's practically Milton Friedman.

How are we defining "non-leftist"? I've heard a lot of broad definitions for left-wing, the anecdote about Ludwing von Mises yelling "You're all a bunch of socialists!" to a group of libertarian economists coming to mind. If it's based on self-identified political ideology or voting patterns, then there's the issue of social conservatism being the driving force. If it's based on how "pro-market views" one's views are... your statement doesn't really make sense. This is like defining "smart" as IQ > 120, and then saying that smart rich people are smarter than smart poor people. Unless there's something odd about the distributions, I don't see why that would be the case.

One way it would work is if "non-leftism" was defined by one's professed general beliefs, whereas "pro-market" is defined by one's support for actual policies. "Non-leftist, pro market" people are the kinds you love to show examples of, those who support spending cuts in theory but in no specific areas in practice.

Brian Clendinen writes:


Were you go wrong is misunderstanding the modern U.S. science education system. I do not know how many scientist or people who dropped out of heavy science focused degrees complain about the religious hostility and how much atheism is preached. The system weeds out, causes high barriers or converts thoughts who believe otherwise. It is difficult with-out keeping ones mouth shut in most institutions to believe in intelligence design or is a true believer in differing religious belief systems and can get graduate degrees. It is possible just a up-hill battle.

Tom writes:

From your Pew article:"An overwhelming majority of scientists say they have heard a lot (55%) or a little (30%) about claims that the Bush administration did not allow government scientists to report findings that contradicted administration policy. "

Of course you've HEARD a lot, with the like of Hansen claiming he's been shut up because he's not allow to give his 400th speech on global warming. Once they ask him to stay and do his work and there a vast conspiracy to mussel him.

And oddly enough, the complainers are the ones turning out to be frauds. Very surprising.

The Pew report also seems to be surveying the scientist funded by the government. No surprise anyone being funded by a source would would support that source. I wonder what a survey of corporate researchers would reveal.

endorendil writes:


That's a pretty big tangent on my point, but fine, why not.

I'm sorry, I don't believe people fail out of school because their religious beliefs are not appreciated. But I do believe that this myth (that scientists are against faith) stops many young Christians from pursuing science degrees. That is the fault of the churches, and in this modern world, it is pure sin.

I've been through the science education system myself. Religion is rarely if ever discussed among students, unless of course you seek out discussion groups that focus on it. If you want, you can join with like-minded people as well. Even on the most rigidly science-oriented campuses (like my alma mater MIT), there are prayer groups and witches' covens, and rather more militant groups like the Campus Crusade for Christ.

While there are no barriers against people of faith at science-oriented universities, there is enough silly discourse going on that anyone who wants to can take offense. Scientists relish free discourse and will be happy to engage in vigorous arguments - with no hard feelings afterwards. That may be difficult or even painful for people that are weak in their own faith, especially if they have existing problems combining faith and science. Maybe there should be more emphasis placed in US churches on teaching young people why there should not be any friction between these two pillars of western civilization. They might feel more confident engaging fellow students in debate, or they might decide that they don't need to seek out useless debates.

As a last point, it is important to note that most scientists aren't atheist (in that Pew poll only about 17%) or even agnostic (11%). The majority of scientists believes in God or a higher power. What I will say is that most of these faithful will still be very skeptical of churches and religion in general. It's one thing to believe in God. It's quite another to believe some schmuck speaks for Her, or that some books written almost two thousand years ago are the only, unchanging Word of God. The dogmatic approach doesn't work for scientists, but fortunately faith doesn't require dogma, however much Christopher Hitchins and Richard Dawkins would like you to believe otherwise.

endorendil writes:


The report included scientists working in academia, NGO's, government and private businesses.

endorendil writes:


Just to be sure: are you actually saying that the Bush administration didn't suppress scientific reports about climate change generated by the Pentagon? You're saying the Surgeon General was lying when he claimed he had been censored, that undesirable research was banned and partisan research forced on his department? Those changes in the EPA report on the environment didn't happen? Seriously?

Tom writes:

I'm not sure what you are specifically referring to, but way too much that comes out of the EPA is strictly dogma that does require editing.

When scientists need to quiet down because research does not follow the (EPA, not administration) storyline, and can only speak after they retire, there is a problem.

It's not the Bush administration who has been anti science, but anti dogma.

David Welker writes:


If someone thinks that using the claw of a hammer to remove contact lenses from one's eyes is an inappropriate and unwise use of a hammer, then does this mean that they are anti-hammer?

I think this labeling of anyone who disagrees with you concerning the optimal uses of markets as being anti-market is simply inaccurate. I suspect that if you were completely intellectually consistent with your labeling, you would have to label Paul Krugman or John Kenneth Galbraith as anti-market as well.

Ryan writes:

Does the general population consist of the 70% in this graph? If so, then I would consider MBAs and any 4-year degree more educated. Caplan didn't say highly educated.

Funny though, I always considered myself part of the general population even with a MS. Can I not be?

The Pew survey was of members of the AAAS. Maybe the conclusion is not that scientists tend to be liberal atheists but that members of an organization with vague goals and a leftist reputation tend to be liberal atheists.

endorendil writes:


MBAs that don't have undergrad degrees are indeed part of the 70% of that graph, i.e. the general population.

And no, you're not part of the general population if you have a proper MS degree (you didn't get it in a cracker box, did you?). If you do think that you're just your average schmo, you should really try to meet people outside your current social circle. I think you'll find that people with only a high school degree have a very different view on economic, social and political issues, which is why your views (and - of course - mine) aren't representative.


The Pew survey shows that the scientists surveyed were strongly liberal, but it also proves they are absolutely not atheist. It's a small minority, although it is of course much larger than the general population (at least for the US, it is actually perfectly in line with the rate of atheism in other western nations).

The image of the atheist scientist is cultivated only by populists trying to make a buck (Dawkins/Hitchins/Coulter/...), politicians trying to avoid having to deal with real issues (take your pick) and priests/pastors trying to defend a very limited interpretation of faith (one that keeps them in the drivers' seat).

Anyway, all this is getting far from the point, namely that higher education correlates clearly with less belief in libertarianism and free markets, the opposite of what Caplan claims.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

I'd hazard a guess that there may be more libertarian doctors than people think. It's just that physicians (like Ron Paul) don't get a lot of respect for questioning the hoops that doctors have to jump through, just to practice medicine. He could talk about this openly were it even part of the debate, and so the only debate of this sort tends to happen between physician and patient. If it were possible for doctors to embrace libertarianism more openly, they would not have such a hard time being the entrepreneurs they once were.

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