Intelligence and Liberalism

A recent study by psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa concludes that people who are more intelligent are more likely to be politically liberal. CNN and Time have given a good amount of publicity to this, as it provides fodder for the long-standing progressive notion that conservatism denotes lack or intelligence at best and mental disorder at worst (a notion that has helped justify numerous “re-education” camps and eugenics programs among communist and fascist regimes).

Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy takes apart the study and its conclusions, citing methodological flaws and blatant bias on behalf of the researcher.

Kanazawa uses a highly idisoyncratic definition of liberalism: “genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others.” This definition doesn’t distinguish liberalism from conservatism or libertarianism. It distinguishes universalism from particularism. For example, a libertarian who believes that free market policies best promote the welfare of “genetically unrelated others” and contributes a great deal of his money to charities promoting libertarian causes counts as a liberal under this definition.


Kanazawa also cites surveys showing that the more intelligent are more likely than others to describe themselves as “liberal” and less likely to call themselves “conservative.” However, decades of research show that large percentages of the population have a poor understanding of political ideology and have a poor grasp of the meaning of terms like “liberal” and “conservative” (at least as they are understood by pundits and scholars). This is part of the more general phenonemon of widespread rational political ignorance. Ideological self-identifications are notoriously unreliable as indicators of real political views.


Interestingly, Kanazawa himself does not claim that intelligent people are more likely to endorse liberalism because it is true. Instead, he argues that the result is due to the fact that liberalism is more at odds with our genetic instincts than conservatism is, and intelligent people are more likely to endorse “novel” ideas. I don’t agree with the “Burkean conservative” view that we should have a strong presumption in favor of following tradition. But the opposite presumption is also an error.

Well worth the read, and Somin cites alternative studies very effectively.


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