David R. Henderson  

Pinker on Intelligence, Liberalism, and Economic Literacy

All Politicians Lie: The Empir... Citizen statesmen no more...

In the second-last chapter of his excellent book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard University psychology professor writes, in a short section subtitled "Intelligence and Liberalism":

Now we get to a finding that sounds more tendentious than it is: smarter people are more liberal. The statement will make conservatives see red, not just because it seems to impugn their intelligence but because they can legitimately complain that many social scientists (who are overwhelmingly leftist or liberal) use their research to take cheap shots at the right, studying conservatism as if it were a mental defect. (Fetlock and Haidt have both called attention to this politicization.) So before turning to the evidence that links intelligence to liberalism, let me qualify the connection.

What is the qualification? He writes:
But the key qualification is that the escalator of reason predicts only that intelligence should be correlated with classical liberalism, which values the autonomy and well-being of individuals over the constraints of tribe, authority, and tradition. (italics in original)

In the next section, subtitled "Intelligence and Economic Literacy," Pinker writes:
And now for a correlation that will annoy the left as much as the correlation with liberalism annoyed the right. The economist Bryan Caplan also looked at data from the General Social Survey and found that smarter people tend to think more like economists (even after statistically controlling for education, income, sex, political party, and political orientation). They are more sympathetic to immigration, free markets, and free trade, and less sympathetic to protectionism, make-work policies, and government intervention in business. Of course none of these positions is directly related to violence. But if one zooms out to the full continuum on which these policies lie, one could argue that the direction that is aligned with intelligence is also the direction that has historically pointed peaceward. To think like an economist is to accept the theory of gentle commerce from classical liberalism, which touts the positive-sum payoffs of exchange and its knock-on benefit of expansive networks of cooperation. That sets it in opposition to populist, nationalist, and communist mindsets that see the world's wealth as zero-sum and infer that the enrichment of one group must come at the expense of another. The historical result of economic illiteracy has often been ethnic and class violence, as people conclude that the have-nots can improve their lot only by forcibly confiscating wealth from the haves and punishing them for their avarice. As we saw in chapter 7, ethnic riots and genocides have declined since World War II, especially in the West, and a greater intuitive appreciation of economics may have played a part (lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy). At the level of international relations, trade has been superseding beggar-thy-neighbor protectionism over the past half-century and, together with democracy and an international community, has contributed to a Kantian Peace.

Just as Dorothy Boyd said to Jerry Maguire "You had me at hello," I would say to Steven Pinker "You had me at 'think like an economist.'"

I do not, though, know what his parenthetical "lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy" means.

HT2 Charley Hooper.

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Daniel Klein writes:

Heartening post, thanks.

Pinker uses a line from Springsteen "The River":
"But lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy"

GregS writes:

Nice post. I think Better Angels is one of the most important books I've ever read. I had totally forgotten that Caplan gets a shout out in.

Following up on Daniel Klein's answer. Pinker has a long section on how language has gotten "smarter" as people have gotten smarter. He says something like, "In an earlier decade, Springsteen would have said something like 'But lately there ain't been much work on account of times are hard.'" The parenthetical piece is referencing an earlier part of the book.

Brian Donohue writes:

Great post, David!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel Klein and GregS,
Thanks. That’s what I get for jumping to the end of the book.
@Brian Donohue,

Pajser writes:

"That sets it in opposition to populist, nationalist, and communist that see the world's wealth as zero-sum and infer that the enrichment of one group must come at the expense of another."

I never met anyone who believes that world's wealth is "zero-sum" or that enrichment of one group must come at the expense of the other group. It is "straw man" at the best.

Ryan writes:

Massive wealth distribution preferences I think gets close to the idea of a zero sum game. It seems to imply that the haves are hoarding wealth from the have nots. I don't think anyone would admit that wealth can't grow for everyone, but they feel the rich capture most of the growing pie. Not zero sum in the pure sense, but in the ballmark.

Jon Murphy writes:

@pajser "I never met anyone who believes that world's wealth is "zero-sum" or that enrichment of one group must come at the expense of the other group."

The income inequality argument is exactly a zero-sum argument.

Conservatives make the argument all the time when they claim immigrants are stealing our jobs or that China is winning a trade war. Liberals make the argument all the time when they claim income inequality is bad or decry outsourcing jobs. It's probably the single most common economic fallacy I've seen.

Brian writes:

"I never met anyone who believes that world's wealth is "zero-sum" or that enrichment of one group must come at the expense of the other group. It is "straw man" at the best."


If so, then you haven't been paying attention. No, no one believes literally or consciously that life is a zero-sum game, but they certainly act like they think it intuitively. Although this thinking can be found on both sides, it's especially prominent on the left. Concern over growing inequality makes no sense unless you believe that some are winning and others are losing. That's zero-sum thinking. When conservatives talk about "a rising tide lifts all boats," (anti-zero-sum thinking), liberals sniff about trickle-down economics. When Mr. Obama says "you didn't build that," or complains about Wall Street, he's advancing the narrative that some people are getting benefits they don't deserve. Framing economic activity within this narrative of ill-gotten booty is a direct result of zero-sum thinking. (i.e., It thinks of economic success not as the growing of value but as a theft of what's already there.)

I agree with Jon Murphy that it's the most common economic fallacy.

Swami writes:


I have repeatedly encountered intelligent, obviously college educated people who make the zero sum argument. Some state it specifically, with physics overtones.

I quit reading/participating at the Crooked Timber blog when one of the commenters specifically said that mathematically it is impossible for the rich to get richer without the poor getting poorer. I asked the regulars to back me up in correcting this guys error and though I got many replies, they could not bear to actually correct the guy. The best they could say was that though he may have been technically wrong in general, in the real world today he is exactly right.

I also saw a comment on a libertarian blog this week which stated the zero sum fallacy.

A related argument made by physicists is that since energy can't increase forever, that the economy can't continue to grow forever. This really is a version of the zero sum argument. Of course, it assumes the only way to increase value is via more energy, an invalid assumption. It is possible to increase value while using less (though not necessarily zero) energy. There is no conservation of value theorem in physics.

Jon Murphy writes:

Paul Ehrlich constantly makes the Zero-Sum argument.

It's been the main plank of Bernie Sanders' campaign.

Jeff writes:

Maybe it's not zero-sum exactly, but there are a lot of people, mainly on the left but some on the right as well, who think of income and wealth in rather collectivist terms: that is, they think of economic activity as a cooperative, collective effort, and if the revenue generated from that activity isn't distributed at least somewhat equally, then this is evidence of greed, exploitation, or corruption or some other anti-social behavior on the part of the people getting the larger share of that income.

(Henderson, via Pinker): "... smarter people tend to think more like economists ... They are more sympathetic to immigration ..."

Party at David Henderson's place tonight. Dibs on the Guinness and the couch after 1 a.m.

Many self-described libertarian economists don't think like economists when it comes to immigration.

1. The Earth's human population cannot grow without limit.
2. The Earth's maximum possible instantaneous human population exceeds it's maximum possible sustainable human population.
3. The Earth's maximum possible sustainable human population leaves little room for wilderness or large terrestrial non-human animals.
4. Value is determined by supply and demand*. Therefore ...
5. A world in which human life is precious is a world in which human life is scarce.
6. The Earth's human population will stop growing when either (a) the birth rate falls to meet the death rate or (b) the death rate rises to meet the birth rate.
7. The Earth's human population will stop growing as a result of either (a) deliberate human agency or (b) other.
8. Human agency is either (a) democratically controlled or (b) other.
9. For every locality __A__ the term "the government of A" names the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality**.
10. All human behavioral traits are heritable***. Therefore ...
11. Voluntary programs for population control selectively breed non-compliant individuals.
12. Human misery is like heat: in the absence of barriers it will flow until it is evenly distributed.

Your choices are limited.

* This is not a principle of capitalist economics or even human economics; it is a fact of life. Compare leaf surface to root mass ratios of plants on the rainforest floor to leaf surface to root mass ratios of plants of the Sonoran desert. Consider how the leaf surface to root mass ratio in water hyacinth varies with the amount of dissolved nutrient in the water.
** Definition, after Weber.
*** Pinker, __The Blank Slate__.

Rick Bohan writes:

The idea that the position that some folks have gamed the system or exploited a system that's already been fixed to benefit them and them alone is another form of the "zero sum" argument is fallacious. We liberals are perfectly happy to stipulate that wealth can increase for society as a whole AND that some folks will use their existing power and privilege to make sure that more than their share of the increased wealth is diverted to their bank accounts.

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