Political beliefs and intelligence

The level of education one has is correlated with many things, chief amongst them is probably intelligence.  It also has a good explanatory power for the political leanings of people. This has been documented in both rich and transition countries.

An interesting to question consider would be to see whether one can somehow explain certain political positions with level of intelligence. Of course, this is obviously a very sensitive topic. But the role of science is not to judge, but to find answers.

First, let me specify what I mean by intelligence. Intelligence as explained in a previous post of mine is a concept largely influenced both by genes and environment, probably more by the latter. By environment I mean the education of parents, the upbringing, but also of course financial support from parents, etc. So intelligence is far from being a concept that is determined at birth. For more info on this, do read my post on intelligence.

Secondly, let me elaborate on what has been found on education and politics so far. On economic grounds, people with higher education tend to favor free markets more. On social grounds, people with higher education tend to favor more freedom. So it appears it is libertarians that are the most educated. People tend towards libertarianism, the more education they have. Note that these studies generally control for things like income and gender, so those are not driving the results.

In another previous post I mentioned how much education can influence a population, and thus that it has a large potential to sway one’s political views (see also this post). The question is then: are educated people more libertarian because of the type of education they received? In other words, are people educated to be more libertarian?

To answer this, we have to make use of an instrumental variable (IV). The problem is that if one regresses libertarian attitudes on education, then it might be that there are factors (such as attending a good school, education itself being biased towards libertarianism, etc.) that contemporaneously influence both libertarian attitudes and education. I.e. education is correlated with the error term. We need an IV that is correlated with education but is uncorrelated with libertarian attitudes.

Nye and Polyachenko (2013) make use of a seemingly weird IV, height. Apparently, it is a fact that height correlates with education and with IQ. Indeed, Nye and Polyachenko (2013) verify this in their sample of several thousand Russian individuals. The reason behind this correlation is probably the fact that taller individuals have better prenatal and childhood nutrition, which helps them develop more both cognitively and non-cognitively (also note that childhood height is highly correlated with adult height). Of course, there is also some genetics involved.

Therefore, if height were to be correlated with libertarian attitudes, then one could say that it is indeed intelligence and being educated that induce libertarianist feelings to some extent. It is, however, not the case that education per se biases people towards libertarianism. This makes a huge difference. If it weren’t true, one might argue that higher educated people are only libertarian because they’re brainwashed by our educational system. If it were true, then we could argue that higher educated people are more libertarian because they’re more intelligent or learned, and apparently this correlates with liberatarianism.

So what do the authors find? First, they run regular OLS regressions, which basically can’t show which of the above two cases we’re in. It can only tell us whether education is correlated with libertarianism. And indeed it is, highly so. Education is significant at the 1% level, and has a positive sign both for economic and social libertarianism. Furthermore, young people (on social and economic issues) and males (on economics only) tend to be more libertarian. As expected, height is not directly correlated with libertarianism. When the authors control for income as well, they find income to be positively correlated with libertarianism, which is not surprising.

Just dropping education and keeping height shows that height now is highly significant (p < 1%), and its coeffiecent is positive, as expected. Finally, the authors move to the IV specification. What they find is that indeed more intelligent people tend to be more economically libertarian. Specifically, they find that these people like it more if the market determines prices and not the government, and that they trust small and medium enterprises more. They do not find a significant effect on some of the other questions, but I must say those questions are not really good proxies for libertarianism in my opinion. The best proxy is indeed the question on who should control the prices.

Two of these questions for which height is insignificant as an IV are:

  1. Who do you think should provide public service for health care/road construction/employment/garbage disposal?
  2. What should be done with previously privatized companies?

For the first one, as long as you’re not a hardcore libertarian the answer is not so straightforward. And of course most libertarians are not hardcore libertarians because then the Libertarian Party in the U.S. wouldn’t have less than 1% of the popular vote.

For the second question, one must understand the Russian situation. Privatization after the fall of Communism was marred by corruption. State assets that were worth billions were sold off for pennies. This created billionaires (now called oligarchs) out of a chosen few who could obtain these assets, mainly because they had the right connections. So whether these people should somehow be held accountable for this now is what’s really asked in the second question. Even if one wants to expropriate those companies, this doesn’t necessarily mean that that person is against good, well-executed privatization.

Finally, height is insignificant for a question on very basic social liberties. The question asks to what extent it is important for the respondent that things like free and fair elections, law and order, freedom of speech, independent press, political opposition, fair courts, or minority rights exist. I would like to give some credit to the Russian population in general, and assume that this is not significant because all people agree that these are important things, so this doesn’t depend that much on education/intelligence. Some more provocative questions on social liberties would have been necessary to make this more interesting.

What we have here then is some actual evidence that more intelligent, or more learned people tend to be libertarians not because they’re brainwashed to be libertarians in the education system, but because apparently intelligence/learnedness correlates with libertarian feelings. Some better phrased questions would be necessary to say the evidence is strong, and that it holds for social questions as well (the authors didn’t design the survey). And of course, there’s also room for conducting a similar study in other countries. But the previous literature on education vs. political attitudes indicates that there isn’t much variation across the world. So one could reasonably expect that these results (1) hold for social libertarianism, and (2) hold in the United States.

Note: if you do read the paper, note that the authors refer to libertarianism as “(classical) liberalism”, which is the European way of saying libertarianism. Indeed in Europe “liberal” generally refers to a person or party that promotes freedom both socially and economically. Wikipedia says of classical liberalism that “primary emphasis is placed on securing the freedom of the individual by limiting the power of the government“, and that “[i]t advocates civil liberties with a limited government under the rule of law, private property, and belief in laissez-faire economic policy.” Clearly something most Americans identify with libertarianism.


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