Thursday, December 17, 2009

Are Intellectuals Liberal Because They Are Optimistic Problem Solvers?

We've discussed before that intellectuals are usually liberal. Nearly 3/4 of academia identifies as liberal with only 15% being conservative.  But why is this?  Here is yet another possibility.

I have been reading a libertarian book by David Boaz of Cato and economic books by Thomas Sowell of Stanford University.   Both, though unrelated, come to the same conclusion:
  1. Intellectuals are usually very good problem solvers. 
  2. A corollary to #1: Intellectuals usually have great optimism that we can solve society's problems.
Climate Change.

Could it be scientists have studied it out, made breakthrough discoveries and therefore optimistically believe, with everything they've learned, with the government's help climate problems could largely be solved?  I mean, scientists learned what governs jet propulsion, gravitational systems, etc... and with that knowledge, plus government backing, put a man on the moon right?  Why not think any problem could be solved in a similar way?


Many in academics have studied issues relating to poverty their whole lives.  They've seen data and worked out models on all sorts of relating issues.   How easy would it be to think if they could get the government to implement their findings that perhaps poverty would greatly decline if not vanish?

The Free Market Alternative.

Thomas Sowell goes to great lengths to emphasize that the world is too complex for humans to ever do a better job at fixing economic issues than prices governed by market forces. (Maybe this is true about far more than economic issues.) He argues: no matter how good the intensions, when a smart person tries to to intervien in controlling the market more problems are created then if he would have left it to market forces alone.

Could most intellectuals ever believe that our clever solutions to society's problems may only make the world worse?  Laissez-faire solutions are the only ones able to handle problems of such a complex world?


I don't know, maybe they're right.  Maybe if you have found a lot of success in solving problems you begin to assume we as a society should try to come up with clever solutions to our most difficult problems.  Maybe this leads intellectuals to favor a government backing/funding such solutions.

Perhaps such a mindset drives intellectuals to favor more liberal political views.  (Although, it's just one more theory.)


  1. Good post Joe. As one who leans Libertarian I whole-heartedly agree that our insistence on intervening in economics only makes things worse.

    To address the topic at hand I think you make a good point. Another contributing factor could be our inherent psychological need for control. People don't like uncertainty. They don't like chalking up events to random processes. They want meaning in life, to know that their suffering is not in vain, and to believe there is something more to life than just us. In an effort to satisfy, I think we have a tendency to be a bit gullible, to assign to the supernatural what should be chalked up as random processes. And since admitting that it is a random process that dictates life, the economy, etc. makes us feel bad, we feel compelled to try and control it.

    The thing that bothers me the most about our gov't, and both Dems, and Repubs is that they use force to obtain their design. For conservatives, they use force to enforce morality, and for liberals, they force to enforce equality (particularly economically). In either case, to me, the ends do not justify the means. As the Gospel shows, God was willing to sacrifice His children to afford them their agency and liberty, yet He provided a mechanism to overcome the effects of sin. Should we not do likewise?

  2. "People don't like uncertainty. They don't like chalking up events to random processes."

    This is very true. Take evolution. There does not appear to be any macroscopic intelligent intervention, it's just a pure laissez-faire style marketplace where, in some sense, good/bad genes represent prices.

    And arguably evolution has produced more wonder and unforeseen innovations then just about anything else.

    On the other hand it is hard, having studied so much to see what works and what doesn't, thinking I now have great solutions, to just drop those new solutions/interventions and let laissez-faire style forces take full control and do their thing.

    *Maybe evolution is intelligently designed with the Designer being the ultimate libertarian?*

    "For conservatives, they use force to enforce morality, and for liberals, they force to enforce equality ."

    Well said.

  3. Bye the way, just to clear up confusion, I'm not saying Lazzie-fair solutions are the best solutions for our problems, only that:

    1. I think it would be hard to be so good at problem solving, spend years collecting data and obtaining conclusions, and not want to to now apply what you have learned through intervention which in reality can only come from government.

    2. Like the evolution example, Laissez-faire style processes seem to produce breath taking innovations and progress that arguably could not come from some really intelligent government style planning.

  4. I also think intelligent people often seek out problems to solve. In government, it seems that everything is a "crisis," primarily to justify moving specific projects foward. We must fix the economy, health care, global warming, and halitosis crises this year!

    Yet, I've found that many intellectuals (on both sides), don't always look at all the data, especially on how their "solutions" will affect the long term. Global warming advocates are pushing for draconian measures, regardless of whether those changes make any measurable difference in the long run. Scholars agreed that the Kyoto treaty, had it been implemented, would only have changed the world's temperature by a fraction of a degree over the next century. Meanwhile, some scientists have suggested just shooting particles up into the upper atmosphere to reflect the Sun's light, reducing global warming at a very cheap price, are being ignored. Why? Because it means the intellectuals will not be needed long term to drive/save the world.

    Laissez faire methods would seek out the most cost effective and easiest solution, rather than the one which will cost jobs and reduce life style.


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