It has long been a source of both amusement and irritation to those of us on the right: We have no choice to but understand the liberal point of view—we’re immersed in it from kindergarten through graduate school. But many liberals just don’t get either conservatism or libertarianism. They truly don’t understand what we believe—a phenomenon empirically documented recently by Jonathan Haidt.
The latest evidence comes from a twelve-item quiz that purports to tell you “where you fit on the partisan political spectrum.” It is billed as a joint effort by the Pew Research Center and the PBS NewsHour. The items themselves were prepared by Pew. You get four options as answers: “completely agree,” “mostly agree,” “mostly disagree,” and “completely disagree.” Here are the items along with my commentary.
There needs to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.
The correct answer for a conservative is that some environmental problems may well require stricter laws and regulations. Conservatives are not against protecting the environment. On the contrary, externalities are characteristically associated with environmental problems that qualify the environment as a classic public good—that is, one of the handful of functions of government that conservatives and libertarians accept as legitimate. We object to liberal environmental policies that are aimed at a made-up problem (e.g., increments in air purity that serve no purpose), fake solutions that often cause more environmental damage than they prevent (e.g., many recycling programs), and ones that apply the sledgehammer of national law to environmental problems that can be handled by tort law (e.g., one business causes environmental harm only to the business next door).
The government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper in debt.
I know of no one on the right who says, “I don’t want to help the needy because it costs too much.” The centerpiece of the conservative critique of the welfare state is that it creates more harm than good for the people on the bottom of society; that we fought a war on poverty, and poverty won; that the liberals’ efforts to help the disadvantaged have created the underclass. Liberals don’t have to agree with that argument to know that conservatives really, truly believe it. This item doesn’t give conservatives a way to respond that remotely corresponds to what they believe.
The growing number of newcomers from other countries threaten traditional American customs and values.
This item fairly states a real difference of opinion. But if we’re going to use it as a way of distinguishing liberals from conservatives, how does one explain advocacy for immigration on The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page? Answer: many people on the right, and almost all libertarians, are in favor of high levels of immigration, believing that it does not threaten traditional American customs and values. And hasn’t anyone at Pew or PBS noticed that unions, mainstays of Democratic party funding, are among the most vocal critics of immigration?
I never doubt the existence of God.
So let’s say you’re the Pew researcher making up the test, you know that conservatives tend to be more religious than liberals, and you want an item that will capture that tendency. So far so good. But then do you say to yourself, “The very most religious people are the ones who never doubt the existence of God”? “Lack of doubt in the existence of God has a statistical correlation with conservatism”? This item is clueless. Clueless about the nature of deep religious faith, clueless about the relationship of conservatism to religiosity, and clueless about the different tendencies of libertarians and conservatives regarding religious faith.
Business corporations make too much profit.
All libertarians and a very high proportion of conservatives are in favor of free markets. Profits earned in a free market are fine with us, and we don’t mind if they are big profits. But libertarians and a very high proportion of conservatives are angered by, and oppose, profits made by crony capitalism that restricts competition and by profits that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for government policy (e.g., ethanol used for fuel). It’s not that hard to understand: We on the right will go to the wall to protect your freedom to make profits, not to protect profits. We will also go to the wall to protect your freedom to lose your shirt.
Gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry legally.
Nothing wrong with this one, except the myopia of the entire quiz: It ignores that some libertarians are among the most ardent advocates of gay marriage, and other libertarians don’t think the state should be involved in marriage at all, except as an enforcer of marital contracts.
The government needs to do more to make health care affordable and accessible.
Paul Ryan is a conservative, right? Conservatives were mostly ecstatic about his selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate, right? And Paul Ryan has a very detailed plan involving a major change in government policy that in his view will do more to make health care affordable and accessible. I understand that Pew and PBS don’t like his plan. But if Paul Ryan takes this quiz, is he as a conservative supposed to say that he completely disagrees with the item?
One parent can bring up a child as well as two parents together.
This item partakes of a common and pernicious misstatement of one of the most important social problems in the country, the extremely high proportion of children growing up in single-parent families. As stated, just about anyone with any experience in the world must “completely agree,” no matter what their political convictions, because just about all of us have seen examples of single parents who have raised wonderful children. If instead the item had been worded “On average, children do as well in one-parent families as in two-parent families,” then everyone who has followed the data must “completely disagree,” no matter what their political convictions. The data do not permit any other conclusion.
Government regulation of business usually does more harm than good.
The best item in the quiz. The more conservative or libertarian you are, the more certainly you “completely agree.”
Abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
Failure to distinguish between libertarians and conservatives again. Libertarians tend to be pro-choice. Even if they’re against most abortion in principle, they often don’t think the government can frame suitable laws on the issue.
Labor unions are necessary to protect the working person.
This one’s not perfect, but I didn’t feel like I was misrepresenting my position when I answered “mostly disagree.”
Poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs.
This one’s okay too for people on the right. I’m not sure whether it gives liberals choices that are fair to their position. Isn’t it common to be quite liberal, in favor of expanded efforts to help the poor, but also believe that the current set of programs have fostered dependency? That’s a main theme among many on the left who want to replace our piecemeal welfare state with a full-blown European welfare state.
To my social scientist colleagues at Pew, let me first say that I use Pew data all the time. You do lots of great stuff. This quiz just happens to be not so great. Second, let me be explicit about my problem with the quiz. I understand the role of indirect indicators. I understand the usefulness of items that correlate at only moderate levels with the construct of interest. My problem is that the people who made up these items don’t understand the construct of interest. They don’t get the distinction between the free-market right and the social right. Even if we set aside the libertarians, they don’t get what makes conservatives tick—not our empirical positions nor our passions. You need a little more ideological diversity in your workplace. And if those assertions don’t convince you to go back to the drawing board, here’s a datum to ponder. Your quiz classified me as a “Moderate Republican.” Does that sound right to you?