BROOKE GLADSTONE: It turns out that political intransigence is by no means confined to Capitol Hill. Consider the study Economics Professor Daniel B. Klein conducted in 2010 that found that conservatives knew more about economic policy than liberals. Klein wrote about it in The Wall Street Journal. Right wing media outlets were thrilled. Left wing ones cried “bias.” Was his study biased? Well, for his survey, Klein asked liberals and conservatives to agree or disagree with eight economic policy statements from a previous study intended to measure something else. It just so happened that some of those statements implicitly challenged liberal assumptions, while none of them challenged conservative beliefs.
So Klein and his colleague ran a second study, this time with statements implicitly challenging positions held by the right. That study found that right wingers are just as resistant to inconvenient truths as lefties. Let’s start with an example from Klein’s first survey, the one with statements that challenged liberal dogmas, quote, “A company with the largest market share is a monopoly.” That’s simply false. But Klein found that liberals and progressives were far more likely than conservatives and libertarians to agree with that statement.
DANIEL B. KLEIN:That was one of the four questions, four of the eight used, which I thought were not ideological. And that's one reason that I had confidence that these results were telling us something real. The progressives and liberals did quite much worse on that question, and I thought this is just the definition of monopoly. We thought we were seeing, yeah, there are some that are clearly challenging the left but there are some that we thought did not, and because even on those, the progressives and liberals did noticeably worse, we thought we were picking up something real. Folks on the left were extremely upset; they said the questions were biased and skewed. I thought that I was acting more or less responsibly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What pushed you to do a second study, if you were quite comfortable with the questions you'd originally offered and your assumption that they were non-ideological?
DANIEL B. KLEIN: I – you know, honestly, I’m not sure how much it was a balance of the following two things. One of them is well, we’re getting a tremendous amount of pushback on this, and maybe they're right and we ought to really see what happens when you turn the questions against the conservatives and libertarians.
On the other hand, there's no question that I was doing it hoping that the conservatives and libertar – especially the libertarians, ‘cause that’s my side, would do well in the face of questions that were inconvenient for them. I was hoping to vindicate what we'd done, by showing that, okay here, now I've turned it around, I’ve made it sort of equal or symmetric. And look, the left still does a lot worse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you asked a, a new set of questions.
DANIEL B. KLEIN: We created nine new questions, and all of them challenged conservative and or libertarian positions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:One of the questions, for instance, was: Gun laws fail to reduce people's access to guns. The wrong answer to that, the answer favored by the right, was yes. They agreed with the proposition that gun laws fail to limit access to guns. Which question bothered you the most?
DANIEL B. KLEIN:Drug prohibition fails to reduce people's access to drugs. Eighty-nine percent of the libertarians agreed that drug prohibition fails to reduce people's access to drugs, which is a very convenient thing to believe if you're going to oppose drug prohibition, as libertarians do, an overly convenient thing. I think it's clear that drug prohibition reduces people's access to drugs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I was particularly interested in the question involving the value of a dollar.
DANIEL B. KLEIN:Yeah, that's created a great deal a controversy. Even some my libertarian economist colleague have been challenging me on that. The question is: A dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person. I think it's clearly true that a dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person. But the very conservatives got this wrong almost 44 percent of time and the libertarians almost 31 percent of the time, whereas the progressives got this wrong only 4 percent of the time. So they did much, much better. The left did much, much better on this question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, obviously, the crucial finding in the second study isn't that it proved that people on the left were any smarter - they weren't - only that everyone suffers from what you call “my side bias” or what psychologist call confirmation bias. You want to give us a little clearer explanation of how that manifests itself?
DANIEL B. KLEIN:People embracing statements that make defending their positions simpler. You know, if someone who opposes the welfare state admits that a dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person, that makes it harder for them to defend their position.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To quote from your piece, “A full tabulation of all 17 questions found that no group clearly out-stupids the other. They appear about equally stupid when faced with proper challenges to their positions.”
DANIEL B. KLEIN: I mean, the way I sort of pounced on the left when I had the first study, sort of the high confidence I had at that time, I think you could to some extent call “my side” or “confirmation” bias.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So after the first study you wrote that, quote, “Governmental power joined with wrongheadedness is something terrible but all too common. Realizing that many of our leaders and their constituents are economically unenlightened sheds light on the troubles that surround us.” Do you still feel that way?
DANIEL B. KLEIN: I do. [LAUGHS] I do. And in a way widespread “my side” bias shows how difficult intelligent deliberation is going to be in a governmentalized system. You're gonna get, I think, more of this problem, which is pervasive. It’s going to have larger effects.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you have drawn from these two studies and the fact that everyone out-stupids everyone else, that government just isn't workable. Spoken like a true libertarian.
DANIEL B. KLEIN:There you go. [LAUGHS]
But I mean, I'm actually serious about that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, I know.
DANIEL B. KLEIN:But I mean, I – I think there’s – there’s sense in that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let’s say we’re all a bunch of apes, is it better for apes to try and create a government or for them just to run around in the jungle without one?
DANIEL B. KLEIN: [LAUGHS] Um, I’m not sure. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's a very fair answer. Professor Klein, thank you very much.
DANIEL B. KLEIN:Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel B. Klein is an economics professor at George Mason University. His piece in the December Atlantic is titled “I Was Wrong and So Are You.”