Among the Intellectualoids

Ignorance Is Liberal Bliss

Cluelessness has never enjoyed greater appeal.

By 6.24.10

A Zogby International survey has confirmed what I've long suspected -- when it comes to economics, liberals are clueless. The survey of 4,835 respondents was designed by Daniel Klein, an economics professor at George Mason University, and Zeljka Buturorvic, a research associate at Zogby International.

The survey asked respondents to self-identify as progressive/very liberal, liberal, moderate, conservative, very conservative, libertarian, and not sure. On the basis of eight economic questions, wrong answers correlated consistently and significantly with ideology. Progressive/very liberal respondents got four times more wrong answers than libertarians.

The survey results demonstrate the strong connection between economic ignorance and interventionist enthusiasm. Those who are most determined to interfere with the economy know the least about it. Conversely, knowledge leads to humility. The more you know about the economy the more reluctant you'll be to try to fix it. You realize "fixing" is not as easy or as simple as it appears. Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread.

When I taught economics, a quote I would sometimes put on the course syllabus was this: "In relation to social questions, the concept of an interdependent system has two important implications: that things are the way they are for some powerful reason or reasons, which have to be understood if effective social solutions are to be devised; and that any social solutions so devised and applied will have repercussions elsewhere, which will have to be faced and which ought to be taken into account."

The quote is from a lecture, "The Economics Approach to Social Questions," by the late brilliant and prolific University of Chicago economist Harry G. Johnson. Liberals don't seem to care that "things are the way they are for some very powerful reason or reasons." Johnson's observation is a concise explanation of why unintended consequences are so common and why results are so often the opposite of intentions. Johnson did not say we should never attempt to change things, he was just saying we ought to know a little something about what we're doing before we do.

What's always amazed me is that liberals don't seem to be even the least bit curious about how the economy works. They love taking and using the wealth created by a market economy, but don't care a whit about the necessary ingredients for creating that wealth -- incentives, the price system, or the critical role of private property rights, for example. They all but come out and say, "I don't know the first thing about economics, and I'm proud of it!" They despise the market economy and, therefore, don't want be corrupted by knowing anything about it.

Liberals' ignorance of economics is deliberate. They are intent on a certain agenda and being reminded of such things as "unintended consequences" or "what happens next?" would spoil their fun. For liberals there is a negative payoff for knowing about the complexities of the economy. They have no real incentive for learning about economics. "My mind's made up. Don't bother me with the facts." In a recent column Thomas Sowell observed, "Those who are convinced that the government should 'do something' when the economy has a problem almost never bother to find out what actually happens when the government intervenes."

Another important reason for the left's disregard for economic understanding is their almost exclusive focus on intentions rather than results. Minimum wage laws, for example, are intended to increase the incomes of low income workers. The actual result, of course, is just the opposite. Such laws reduce employment opportunities and, therefore, increase unemployment. Minimum wage laws result in zero income for anyone whose job opportunities disappear. Liberalism is not an evidence-based vision of reality. Wishful thinking is as close as they ever get to real thinking.

I couldn't count the times I have been astonished by the abysmal economic ignorance I've seen displayed by politicians. It would be interesting to know how many congressmen have ever taken a single course in economics. If Barack Obama ever took an economics course, he does a good job of hiding it.

The main problem with liberals' economic ignorance is the issue of "externalities." Liberals aren't just indulging their misguided policies in some harmless video game, they're imposing them on the rest of us. Virtually all of us, for example, will be suffer from their abominable Obamacare.

What we're seeing all too often is "the arrogance of ignorance." Both arrogance and ignorance do enormous damage in the world, but together they are a toxic brew.

When it suits their purposes liberals do emphasize repercussions in complex systems. They tell us, for example, that increases in carbon dioxide are heating the planet with disastrous long-range consequences. They believe that the Earth's atmosphere is in a delicate equilibrium and that driving an SUV could destroy that equilibrium. You can mess with the economy all you want, but don't mess with the atmosphere or the ecosystem!

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About the Author
Ron Ross Ph.D. is an economist who lives in Arcata, California. He is the author of The Unbeatable Market. Reach him at