Study of Politics and Analytical Thinking Puts Libertarians on Top

(Bloomberg View) -- You might think being “analytical” is a good thing. We associate “analysis” with people who are smart, well-informed and relatively dispassionate in their assessments.

You might think that politics is an area where being analytical is especially useful. If you do, well, I have news for you: Libertarians measure as being the most analytical political group. That’s according to something called the cognitive reflection test, which is designed to measure whether an individual will override his or her immediate emotional responses and give a question further consideration. So if you aren’t a libertarian, maybe you ought to give that philosophy another look. It’s a relatively exclusive club, replete with people who are politically engaged, able to handle abstract arguments and capable of deeper reflection.

What else can we learn from this new study of political and analytical tendencies, conducted by Gordon Pennycook and David G. Rand of Yale University?

For the 2016 election, one group that measured as especially nonanalytical was Democrats who crossed party lines and voted for Donald Trump. There is a stereotype of a less well-educated voter, perhaps both white and male, who reacts negatively and emotionally to Hillary Clinton, who decided to vote for Trump even if Trump’s actual policies will not prove in his best interest. For all the dangers of stereotyping, the study’s data are consistent with that picture.

Both nonvoters and independents do poorly on the analytic dimension. There is a myth of a reasonable, rational politically independent America, sitting in the middle of the spectrum, weighing arguments carefully and seeing which candidate or party has the better ideas and platform. In reality, that group measures as relatively impulsive and prone to less informed judgments.

If you are a Democrat, you might take some cheer in the fact that Democrats/liberals measure as somewhat more analytical than Republicans/conservatives. But if you take being analytic as a positive mark, you might feel at least a slight tug toward the libertarians. At the very least, you might find it harder to attack or make fun of the Republicans for being intellectually backward, because you as a Democratic liberal no longer sit atop of the totem pole of reason. Note that individuals who are conservative along economic dimensions measure as more analytical than those who are not, again on average. That is a slightly uncomfortable result for those on the left. The opposite is true for social conservatives, by the way: They are less analytical on average.

Do these results, combined with the presumption that being analytical is good, mean you really ought to be a libertarian? Well, no, and I write this as someone with relatively strong libertarian leanings.

First, any test has biases, and this test was conducted online, as was earlier and broadly compatible work by other researchers. Maybe it is only the internet-savvy libertarians who have greater analytical skills. There might be some other group of less rationalistic libertarians, snorting up dirt and pounding their fists against the wall while cursing the state, too caught up in the rage of the moment to take an online survey. I can assure you that I have met my share of not-always-so-rational libertarians. In fact, you might expect that a niche view will have some especially smart, responsible people, and some of the opposite. I don’t just mean that as a description of libertarians; I believe the same is true of socialists and Marxists.

Second, being very analytical in some ways puts you out of touch with the American citizenry. For better or worse, people have emotional and nonrational components that can be reduced or better managed, but never really go away. Extremely analytical leaders might be best for managing an organization of predominantly analytical people, but that doesn’t mean they will be good national politicians. Ronald Reagan would be one example of a successful American leader, who shared some (not all) libertarian leanings, but arguably his strengths were more intuitive and communicative than analytical. I haven’t found, for instance, that the most analytical people are the most effective on television.

Maybe a political philosophy can’t be much more analytical than the people who live in a given society. If leaders move too far from emphasizing the obvious, up-front empathetic dimensions of their choices, they might confront rebellion and eventually backlash. That too is a reason to keep the libertarians somewhat at bay.

At the end of the day, it’s difficult to believe that the U.S. is being too analytical right now. So the online libertarians? Whether or not you agree with them, they deserve higher status for their analytical proclivities. I say bring ’em on.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”

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