Bryan Caplan  

Education and Libertarian Tendencies: An International Pattern

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In the United States, the well-educated are more socially liberal and economically conservative.  In absolute terms, they're statist, but they're nevertheless relatively libertarian.  (See my notes for an intro, and Althaus for broader discussion). 

Question: How does this pattern hold up internationally?  Today I stumbled on interesting evidence from David Weakliem (2002.  "The Effects of Education on Political Opinions."  International Journal of Public Opinion Research).  Punchline:


If academics around the world lean left, why on earth would education work this way?  Peer effects are the obvious answer: Students pay a lot more attention to their fellow students than they do to the faculty.  The longer you stay in school, the more time you spend around socially liberal, economically conservative peers - and the more you conform your views to theirs. 

Why would social liberalism and economic conservatism appeal to the well-educated in the first place?  My preferred answer is that (a) educated people are smarter, (b) smart people are somewhat more likely to notice the wonders of social liberalism and economic conservatism.  But I'm open to other stories.

Before libertarians start celebrating education, however, they should ponder a serious unintended consequence.  If well-educated people push each other in a libertarian direction, less-educated people presumably push each other in an authoritarian direction.  As a result, randomly assigning one individual to either pool predictably changes his convictions.  But moving everyone to the same pool wouldn't predictably change the average convictions of the pool.

P.S. Please don't apply my remarks to revisit the political externalities of immigration until you re-read this.  And this.

COMMENTS (16 to date)
david condon writes:

If your preferred explanation is true and if education increases intelligence to some degree, then wouldn't more education increase libertarianism? I would expect this to primarily improve poor countries. Rich countries already require so much time in school that I wouldn't expect to see any benefit.

Nira writes:

I asked Michael Huemer about the causes of the intelligence-libertarian nexus and his answer was basically the same: libertarianism is correct, and high IQs lead you to noticing.

If this is true, and the Flynn effect holds (Perhaps it's only necessary for it to hold among elites) then Huemer's conclusion in The Problem of Political Authority is even mote plausible.

john hare writes:

1. Successful people are somewhat more likely to be economically conservative and socially liberal.

2. People, especially young people, want to emulate Winners rather than losers or average people.

Tiago writes:


As an admirer of your work, I think you may be creating a blind spot for the benefits of education. Why is it that the obvious answer is peer effects. It can be a true answer, but the obvious answer for most people is that when people reach college they learn a lot of things - about how different societies have had different values, for example, which would make them more socially liberal - and some economics - which would make them more economically conservative. It may be true that most of their teachers are not economically conservative, but you don't come to believe things after your professors have a vote. I studied from a largely Marxist faculty, but I had one economics class which used Mankiw's book and that was enough to significantly change my thinking.

With respect to your explanation that the effect is due to the smart being both more educated and more socially liberal-economicaally conservative, I'm confused. I can't access the paper you linked to from home, but I understood that it was talking about trends, isn't it? So these trends would arguably be due to the Flynn effect exclusively?

Bostonian writes:

As shown by the Indiana RFRA furor, our educated elites are so libertarian about sexual morality that they vehemently condemn someone who does not want to provided services at a gay wedding and threaten boycotts of states that provide protections for religious freedom.

Our universities are creating not libertarians but self-righteous bullies.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I don't understand how you can just say people are getting relatively more libertarian. You always seem to assume on these issues that the gradient in this political ideology space slopes smoothly toward libertarianism.

Assuming people start out fairly populist (which is safe I think), and given that they don't become libertarians in absolute terms I would think the more obvious claim from this is that they've become sort of pro-market center-left welfare state liberals, not more libertarian.

Now libertarians might prefer a pro-market center-left welfare state liberal over a populist, and in that case they're welcome to be happy that it works out this way but I'd be careful about extrapolating out of sample by saying things like "they become more libertarian".

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Another way to put my previous comment that isn't as tied to the center-left is this: if you start out pretty populist by most distance measures you could choose practically any movement could be spun as "moving towards libertarianism", so I would be very cautious about assuming that anything of the kind is happening.

AS writes:

I have 2 theories: (1) Most young people are ignorant of economics (having little to no experience working or handling money) and so their political preferences are mostly defined on social issues, not economic issues. (2) Free market economics is counter-intuitive in contrast to "man in the street" economics. Socialism can be a very appealing philosophy until you haven't taken econ 101.

Hazel Meade writes:

I have a somewhat more complex answer to this phenomenon.

I think what is remarkable is that education increases support for capitalism. I strongly believe that peer effects do powerfully affect people, but that given the generally left-leaning tendencies of more educated people, and the tribal effects of political partisanship, the peer effects will tend to push them in the opposite direction. You see this all the time where socially liberal people identify with the Democratic party and consequently adopt more left leaning economic beliefs.

It is therefore a testament, not to peer effects, but to the persuasive power of the capitalist economic model, that the arguments for capitalism are able to overcome peer effects and push people in the direction of supporting free market economics. People are pushed into being market capitalism supports, in spite of massive social pressure pushing them in the oposite, because the arguments for market capitalism, are simply, purely, that much more convincing.

Hazel Meade writes:

I studied from a largely Marxist faculty, but I had one economics class which used Mankiw's book and that was enough to significantly change my thinking.

Yes. Another testament to how powerfully persuasive libertarian economic arguments are.

I sometimes suspect that this is one reason why liberals tend to circle the wagons socially whenever someone espousing conservative economic ideas shows up. On some level they are aware that these ideas are extremely persuasive, and thus intensely fear allowing others to be exposed to them.

Ergo, why your largely Marxist faculty allowed only ONE book by a libertarian economist into the curriculum.

JJ writes:


Are there even major college textbooks that skew left wing? My impression is that most of them are center or right wing in terms of economics. My impressions might be wrong, but I think Mankiw writes most of the intro Econ textbooks. I doubt that even left wing economists textbooks would have content that is much different than Mankiw's. All Econ 101 textbooks are pretty similar.

Zeke writes:


One of my textbooks was written by Mr. Krugman himself. And it strongly supported largely free market capitalism.

Fred Anderson writes:

If my skim of your notes is correct, my assumption here of a correlation between education effects and income effects is erroneous. But . . .

Isn't a simple -- perhaps, too simple -- explanation just that the educated tend to have higher incomes (and/or expect that result). With higher income, social liberalism / generosity becomes easier to indulge in. But, with higher income, one starts to realize that the opponents of capitalism dislike your success. So the better educated, because they are higher income, will become economically conservative in self-defense.

Don't we have plenty of examples of the wealthy supporting liberal social causes, while hiring teams of the best lawyers to make sure they get to keep what they regard as theirs?

Brian writes:

"Why would social liberalism and economic conservatism appeal to the well-educated in the first place? My preferred answer is that (a) educated people are smarter, (b) smart people are somewhat more likely to notice the wonders of social liberalism and economic conservatism. But I'm open to other stories."

I doubt it has much to do with how smart they are in any direct sense. That theory is a bit self-serving, isn't it?

The simpler theory, I think, is that educated people are more self-sufficient (by training, ability, and inclination) and self-sufficient people hate to be told what to do. Social liberalism is more free of moral constraints, whereas economic conservatism (otherwise known as classical liberalism) is more free of economic constraints. These choices really have nothing to do with how well they work.

Hazel Meade writes:

@JJ: We're talking about higher education in general. Most people aren't economics students. They are largely influenced by peers not in economics and ideas in other non-economics fields. Given typical attitudes academia that would tend to push them towards skepticism of free market economics. If peer effects are strong, I would thus expect that on average higher education would correlate with left-leaning view on economics.

Omegaile writes:

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