Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Pew poll with some surprising results

At Coordination Problem, Steve Horwitz writes about a Pew poll with some seemingly contradictory results. However, he doesn't really write about what surprises me and what he writes about I'm not particularly surprised by.

Steve starts by remarking on the seemingly contradictory result that a lot of 18-29 year olds are positively disposed towards "libertarianism" and a lot are also negatively disposed towards "capitalism". Steve writes:

"At first this seems contradictory and one's first thought might be that young people don't know the meaning of one term or the other. Or both. But I have a different hypothesis. I suspect they might generally know the meaning of libertarian, or at least know enough to have a decent idea. But I also suspect that they think "capitalism" describes the status quo in the US. After all, don't both left-wing critics and right-wing apologists talk about our capitalist economy?"

I think he's probably right that respondents don't have quite as sophisticated an understanding of "capitalism" as readers and commenters of this blog or of Coordination Problem do, but I doubt that's the driving factor. The term I think the American public is less likely to have a clear definition of is "libertarianism". Ron Paul does a prettty decent job laying it out in plain language, but libertarians can't even agree amongst themselves about who's a "real" libertarian (not that I expect them to, granted). After adding a subset of the population familiar with Noam Chomsky's "libertarian socialism", and "libertarianism" is a vague term as well. I've come across lot's of Tea Partiers that think they're libertarians because they've heard the term float around, but if you really talk to them they're just run of the mill conservatives or populists. So I suspect at the very least there is ambiguity in both terms, if not more ambiguity in libertarianism.

On the other hand, though, there is nothing inherently paradoxical about this result at all. 45% of 18-29 year olds reported feeling positively about libertarianism and 48% of 18-29 year olds feel negatively about capitalism (a plurality in both cases). I surmised in this post that Austrian economists that don't like to work with aggregated data are at risk of committing a fallacy of composition, while economists who work with aggregates risk committing an ecological fallacy. But here, Steve commits an ecological fallacy by even thinking that this data presents a problem in the first place. There is no reason at all to think that the 48% of the young population that feels negatively about capitalism is containted in the 55% of the population that isn't familiar with or feels negatively about libertarianism, and that the 45% of the population that feels positively about libertarianism is contained in the 52% of the population that isn't familiar with or feels positively about capitalism. Bingo - problem solved. I don't think Steve is naive enough to commit the most blatant version of the ecological fallacy, of course. But the fact that he labels it "contradictory" I think suggests that he's at least committing a mild version of it. There's nothing at all in these results that presents an immediate contradiction.

Those weren't the numbers that surprised me. What surprised me was that among 18-29 year olds 43% felt positively about socialism and 49% felt negatively, and 84% felt positively about "states' rights" while 14% felt negatively. The first finding is very discouraging and the second is very encouraging.

43% felt positively about socialism? That seems enormous. Perhaps this is the GOP attempt to brand Obama as "socialist" backfiring. People say "well he's socialist, and I like what he's doing, so I guess I'm positive towards socialism". I'm guessing that's not a lot of it, but perhaps that's playing into it. It could also be the equation of social democracy with socialism. The definition might be somewhat merited, but if that's the case then "socialism" isn't really the "socialism" that we think about and talk about here and the finding isn't quite as disturbing. I think in America at least it's safest to understand the term "socialist" as "Marxist socialist" of some variety, just like we use our definition of "liberal" rather than Europe's definition. I'm perfectly comfortable calling social democrats "socialists" - there's good reason for it - but if we do that we need to clarify that it's not the American understanding of "socialist". I'm not sure what's driving this strong positive showing - maybe it's simply a generational thing (that seems to be indicated by the difference between ages). This generation didn't grow up with Communism. I didn't either, but at least I learned from history. The idea that we could forget this lesson so quickly is scary.

The encouraging number, of course, is the 84% support for "states' rights" which was beaten out only by "family values" and "civil rights". In the past, I've bemoaned the unfortunate association of "states' rights" with reactionary politics, and cited this as the source of the dismemberment of robust federalism in the United States. I'm not sure whether these poll numbers signal a turning point in this trend (there's strong support for "states' rights" among all age groups), but hopefully it is.

One last point I'd make is that it's really unclear exactly what feeling "positively" or "negatively" about these things means. I'm not sure that saying you have a "positive" feeling for a certain ideology suggests that that ideology represents you. If I were to answer this survey, for example, I would say that I was positive towards everything on the list except for socialism. I'm not a libertarian. I think it has positive contributions to make, but I wouldn't call myself a libertarian. And I'd say precisely the same thing about "progressivism". So how do we interpret a "positive" disposition? It's pretty vague.

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