Science, engineering and political identity

Some commenters on my post on the academic backgrounds that that the science and engineering graduates should be distinguished. I have done this and also separated out those with qualifications in IT.


As can be seen, while science graduates were the largest single component of the original broad ‘science and engineering’ category for both groups, social democrats are relatively speaking more likely to come from a science background, and classical liberals from an engineering or IT background.

Do classical liberals and social democrats study different things?

The political identity survey included a question that asked graduates and uni students about their major field of study. The idea was to see whether there were significant ideology-related differences in their academic backgrounds.

There were quite a variety of responses, but I have tried to classify them into the following categories: arts, business, economics, law, science and engineering, and what I called ‘social’ degrees, which included education, the health professions, and social work. People who put two major fields of study were sometimes counted twice, if they fitted more than one of my categories. The results for classical liberals (205 respondents) and social democrats (308 respondents) are below.

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Ideological role reversal on the will of the people

Leftist critics of the right like Norman Abjorensen see them as opponents of popular sovereignty. Certainly, in the past conservatives have sometimes supported quasi-democratic upper houses as a way of keeping a restraint on popularly elected Labor governments. Labor responded by planning to abolish upper houses, successfully in Queensland, and didn’t get rid of its pledge to abolish the Senate until 1979.

But over the last 15 or so years there has been something of a role reversal. Conservatism developed a strong populist strain, while Labor governments and their left-wing supporters started thinking of ways to frustrate the will of the lower houses of parliament. This is most advanced in Victoria, where Labor changed the Legislative Council’s voting system to make it difficult for either major party to secure a majority, and introduced a charter of rights, handing substantial power to the judiciary, while reserving the parliament’s power to ultimately over-ride ‘rights’.

The political identity survey suggests that conservatives (combining self-categorised ‘conservatives’ and ‘social conservatives and economic liberals’) are now quite distinctive in their opposition to further ceding power to the judiciary and preserving the democratic system’s role in protecting individual freedoms, though a slim majority of the classical liberals in the survey also prefer the democratic system.
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Orwell’s great reach

For all the differences between ideological groups in the political identity survey, they had one thing in common: for all of them, George Orwell was the most read writer.


Perhaps this is partly because he was one of only two writers on the survey list who is most famous as a novelist (though he was a very fine essayist as well), and not even the greatest treatise writers can absorb readers in the way novelists can. But clearly it is not simply the fact of being a novelist – the other novelist, Ayn Rand, came fifth even among libertarians.

Orwell’s cross-ideological appeal is presumably some mix of his skills as a stylist and observer of life, and the capacity of people from all political backgrounds to find something that appeals to their beliefs. Continue reading “Orwell’s great reach”

Hayek vs Friedman on school choice

Commenter Robert suggests, regarding my post suggesting Milton Friedman influenced views in favour of competitive curricula on government not delivering school education, that

It could just be that better read classical liberals tend to favour freedom in education (and perhaps freedom in other areas) and it’s not Friedman specific. Is it worth testing whether the effect from Friedman is greater than having read other liberal thinkers?

I’m sorry to report it, as I like and admire Friedman rather than just admire Hayek, but a test comparing Friedman readers and Hayek readers (Hayek being the second most popular classical liberal writer among classical liberals, after Friedman) suggests that Robert is right. Hayek readers are slightly more likely to give the ‘correct’ classical liberal responses to questions on school curriculum setting and funding.

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A Friedman effect on school opinion?

One of the surprising features of the Australian political identity survey results for classical liberals was the large proportion with statist views on education. From a purely ideological perspective, it seems unlikely that a classical liberal could conclude that any monopoly control of curriculum was a good idea, and especially not a government monopoly. And from a purely practical perspective, the public education system isn’t exactly the greatest advertisement for the state as a service provider.

No 20th century classical liberal did more to argue the case for decentralising control of school education than Milton Friedman. So I wondered if the classical liberals in the survey who said that they had read Milton Friedman would have different views on education issues compared to those who had not. It turns out that they do.

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Why don’t social democrats read work by their think-tanks?

Over the last few years, the left has boosted its think-tank operations through Per Capita and the Centre for Policy Development, joining the more established Australia Institute.

But if the results of the Australian political identity survey are a guide, the left-wing think-tanks are yet to make a big impact among those identifying with the left labels in the survey, social democrat and green.

As the chart below shows, none of the three left-leaning think-tanks attract more than a quarter of social democrat or green identifiers as regular readers. Indeed, in the case of social democrats more read work from the classical liberal Centre for Independent Studies than by any of the left-leaning think-tanks. By contrast, around half of classical liberals, conservatives and libertarians regularly read work by the CIS, and about 40% read work by the Institute of Public Affairs.

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On what do classical liberals and conservatives agree?

Early last year I wrote a post on common ground between classical liberals and conservatives. The Australian political identity survey helps me test my argument, though given the relatively low conservative response rate I have combined the answers of those who described themselves as ‘conservatives’ (69 respondents) and those who described themselves as ‘social conservatives and economic liberals’ (94 respondents). Because of this, I have not analysed responses to economic questions, as the economic liberal responses would dominate. The comparison charts can be found here.

As I thought, conservatives and classical liberals hold similar views on schools – neither gives majority support to monopoly curriculum, and larger numbers agree rather than disagree that while the government should help fund school education, it should not deliver it. Both groups disagree that the trend away from federalism is a positive development (both groups, though much more so conservatives, are Coalition voters – the Howard government was way out of line with its ideological supporters on national curriculum and other forms of centralisation).

I thought conservatives and classical liberals would hold similar views on anti-discrimination law. Conservatives are considerably more likely to think that it should be repealed altogether. However, on the current debate – whether or not the exceptions to anti-discrimination law should be preserved – conservatives and classical liberals are both firmly on the side of exceptions.

I thought both groups were welfare sceptics, and this is certainly true. Both very much oppose further redistribution of income and tax-funded maternity leave. Conservatives are also more sceptical of family benefits than I would have thought, though not as sceptical as classical liberals.

Inevitably, however, there are differences, particularly on some social issues – though these are not as large as expected.
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Do classical liberals and social democrats agree on anything?

As with classical liberals and libertarians, general knowledge of the worldview associated with a political label – in the case of social democrats, that state power should be used to alter the outcomes of voluntary exchange to favour groups deemed as lacking power or material resources – was confirmed in the Australian political identity survey as being highly predictive of the views of people identifying as ‘social democrats’.

Indeed, more so than for classical liberals the social democratic results (more detail and analysis here) contain few surprises. The pattern observed in the classical liberal responses of on some issues significant minorities holding views apparently at odds with their philosophy is largely absent among social democrats. The main diversity of view among social democrats is not on which side of the debate they line up, but on how strongly they back the social democratic perspective.

For example, only a tiny minority of social democrats opposed unfair dismissal laws, with the ‘dissidents’ being people who wanted to exempt small business. Only a tiny minority opposed minimum wage laws, with the division being between those prepared to concede that the laws may cost some jobs and those who – despite apparently thinking prices are important, judging by their response to price control questions – believe that the laws of supply and demand do not apply to low-wage workers. Only a tiny minority would let schools choose their own curriculum, with the dissidents being those who favour state-based curriculum.
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Are classical liberals and libertarians the same?

A few years ago I tried to explain why I felt more comfortable with the label ‘classical liberal’ than ‘libertarian’. The Australian political identity survey can help see if the distinctions I was trying to make hold up.

One of my claims was that libertarians tend towards a rights-based view of politics. Consistent with this, 59% of the 184 libertarians in the survey supported either a constitutional bill of rights or a statutory charter of rights. By contrast, 52% of the 256 classical liberals preferred leaving the protection of individual freedoms to the democratic system, which among other things allows broader considerations to be taken into account. (Charts containing classical liberal and libertarian views compared, and further analysis can be found here.) However, a large minority of classical liberals want freedoms to be protected by the courts, and a large minority of libertarians preferred the democratic system.

Across most issues, there was a pattern of classical liberals and libertarians being on the same side of a broad debate but with libertarians taking the more radical stance. For example, while 40% of classical liberals chose the most radical option of cutting tax as a proportion of GDP to 20% or less, 57% of libertarians chose that option. While 46% of classical liberals thought that minimum wage laws should be repealed, 59% of libertarians took that view. While 50% of classical liberals would legalise marijuana entirely, 65% of libertarians would do so. As I said in 2006, ‘if libertarianism and classical liberalism are not identical twins they are at least first cousins, which is why classical liberals can end up appearing like “moderate” libertarians.’
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