Bryan Caplan  

Education, Politics, and Peers

The Economics of Political Bal... What's Wrong With the Rational...
From The Case of Education.  Written pre-Trump.

Abundant research confirms education raises support for civil liberties and tolerance, and reduces racism and sexism.[1]  These effects are only partly artifactual.  Correcting for intelligence cuts education's impact by about a third.[2]  Correcting for intelligence, income, occupation, and family background slices education's impact in half.[3]  All corrections made, education fosters a package of socially liberal views.

At the same time, abundant research also confirms education raises support for capitalism, free markets, and globalization.[4]  These effects, too, are partly artifactual.  Correcting for intelligence cuts education's impact by about 40%.  Correcting for intelligence, income, demographics, party, and ideology halves it.[5]  But when all corrections are done, education fosters a package of economically conservative views.[6]

If educators are as left-wing as they seem, why would education have such contradictory effects on students' stances?  The charitable story is that educators keep their politics out of the classroom.  The more plausible story, though, is that educators are unpersuasive.  The Jesuits say, "Give me the child until he is seven and I'll give you the man."[7]  Society gives liberal educators the child until he's fifteen, eighteen, twenty two, or thirty.  But issue-by-issue, teachers are about as likely to repel their students as attract them.  Educators could protest, "The problem isn't that we're unpersuasive, but that students are stubborn," but students revise their opinions all the time.  The longer they stay in school, the more they revise.  They just don't revise in a reliably liberal direction. 

Critics who highlight educators' leftist leanings usually have an ideological ax to grind (or swing): "Leaving education of the young in the hands of 'politically correct' ideologues endangers our democracy.  School should be a vibrant marketplace of ideas, not a center for indoctrination."  Though they're right about the imbalance, it's a paper tiger.  Even extreme left-wing dominance leaves little lasting impression.  Contrary to the indoctrination story, education doesn't progressively dye students ever brighter shades of red.[8] 

Since education raises social liberalism and economic conservativism, neither liberals nor conservatives should cheer or jeer education's effect on our political culture.  What about people who are both socially liberal and economically conservative?  Should they admit that education really is "good for the soul" after all?  It's complicated.  If teachers aren't molding their students, the logical inference is that students are molding each other.  But peer effects, to repeat, are double-edged.  When schools cluster socially liberal, economically conservative youths inside the Ivory Tower, they inadvertently but automatically cluster socially conservative, economically liberal youths outside the Ivory Tower.  If education is good for the souls of the former, it's bad for the souls of the latter.  Net effect on the polity?  Ambiguous.

[1] See e.g. Coenders et al.  2003, Weakliem 2002, Nie et al. 1996, Golebiowska 1995, and Case and Greeley 1990. 

[2] Nie et al. 1996, and Bobo and Licari 1989.

[3] Kingston et al 2003.

[4] Caplan 2007, 2001; Weakliem 2002.  Althaus 2003, pp.97-144 similarly finds better-informed people are more economically conservative, all else equal.

[5] Caplan and Miller 2010, pp.636-47, plus supplementary calculations from the authors.

[6] Measuring effects issue-by-issue neatly explains education's puzzlingly small impact on ideology and party.  Since education simultaneously increases social liberalism and economic conservatism, its effect on "liberalism" is ambiguous.  And while their social liberalism makes the well-educated more Democratic, their economic conservatism makes them more Republican, leaving partisanship nearly untouched.

[7] AzQuotes 2016.

[8] Lott 1990 argues dictatorships spend more on education in order to indoctrinate their citizens; Pritchett 2002 argues that this indoctrination motive explains why all governments produce schooling.  Plausible claims, but they hardly show the indoctrination is very persuasive.

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Richard writes:
Abundant research confirms education raises support for civil liberties and tolerance, and reduces racism and sexism.

Here's guessing that support for affirmative action is not defined as "racism" or "sexism." Liberal academics have their own special definitions of these words, and then find that people are not "racist" and "sexist" by their standards after being indoctrinated by them.

It's sort of like a Soviet professor determining that after going to his university people were no longer held reactionary sentiments.

Richard writes:
These effects are only partly artifactual. Correcting for intelligence cuts education's impact by about a third.[2] Correcting for intelligence, income, occupation, and family background slices education's impact in half.[3]
This "correcting" for everything under the sun I don't think can be justified, especially when some of the things you correct for like income and occupation people select into.
blink writes:

Very interesting notes; I am more eager to read the book, despite the long wait from now :).

Two thoughts, Brian:

Since education plausibly influences income, I would like to know the fraction explained by only the other regressors (intelligence, demographics, family background, etc.), something intermediate to the "everything" and "intelligence only" results you mention.

Similarly, I would like more differentiated analysis of education. Does early childhood education alone lead to the effects on beliefs about civil liberties, tolerance, etc.? What about secondary education only, or only college education? Is there a differential effect for private versus public education?

Thaomas writes:

Or maybe educators are not as "left wing" as they "seem" to Caplan? :)

Michael Strong writes:

If one happened to believe that a deeper and more accurate understanding of economic institutions, incentives, and information would have a beneficial impact on society, then the anti-capitalism of schools and universities might still be a cause for concern.

My hypothesis is that participating in the economy itself shaves away the most absurd economic beliefs among reasonably bright people. Once one understands that one's employer has to sell goods and services in order to employ, and that as an employee one needs to add value to the organization, then one is already more of an "economically conservative" than are Marxists. If one reads and finds plausible a few arguments about division of labor and the benefits of global trade, one is then significantly to the "right" of academic humanists.

Put differently, only at universities are there entire subcultures of highly respected people who refuse to believe econ. 101.

But insofar as this much economic reality may get someone to the point of an NPR listening, Whole Foods shopping left-liberal who is economically not insane, it is a long ways from a GMU-econ informed citizen. Would both institutions and policy be better off if most educated people were familiar with the arguments of Hayek, Buchanan, Coase, North, Ostrom, Vernon Smith, and Williamson, just to name a few. If most educated citizens had been informed by a version of "robust political economy" rather than MIT neoclassical for the past forty years we might have significantly better policy and less damaged institutions (e.g. Supreme Court decisions, the rise of administrative law).

BZ writes:

Whoa there cowboy.. "from The Case of Education". Is there a name-change I missed?

Adam writes:

Effect of Education? Sources seems dated, few and 'intuitively' correct. But I have reservations:

a. Isn't social liberalism and economic conservatism the definition of educated? E.g., an educated person is able to empathize with deeper humanity of superficially different people, as well as understand the empirical superiority of 'conservative' economics--economics based on liberty, property and justice.

b. We shouldn't confuse education with schooling. It's an empirical question whether K-12 and high grades result in education.

Matt R writes:


I enjoy your research, but are you missing the most damaging part of education signaling? What about the entitlement mentality that results from so much systemic feedback?

Below is one example from a FB debate. My response was snarky only because it was comment #10, and being professional wasn't going anywhere.

Teacher: "I have 2 degrees (both at 22 years old) and don't even make $50K. I also pay health insurance. Stop talking."

Me: "Re: having 2 degrees entitling you to respect or higher pay, I just applied for a degree from the University of Hypo. They have a 90% acceptance rate! Over 90% pass and get their teaching credential (failing people would be bad, because they would tell their friends and we wouldn't get paid by new students).

I go to class every day and get taught stuff by teachers who haven't had any private sector experience in at least a decade! When I graduate, I get this piece of paper that almost anyone who speaks and writes fluent English could get if they had the time. I'm special and I can't wait to demand local taxpayers pay me what I think I'm worth. These people want metrics? They want ways of identifying who the best performers are? They want accountability? Are they nuts?

The best kids are going to succeed anyway, and as for the other ones, there's not much we can do so we'll just blame the parents when it's convenient. We get paid either way, with automatic pay raises every year!

I have two degrees! I can just show up, work hard, and get paid now! Hard work always means I'm making the world a better place. Always! If it wasn't true, why do so many people just like me agree?"

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