Bryan Caplan of the blog EconLog has a post which he titles Intelligence and Economic Beliefs. Bryan has coauthored a paper with Stephen Miller in which he alleges the above statement to be true based on data in the General Social Survey. The GSS happens to be my recent area of expertise.
I have posted recently in my blog that intelligent people are more libertarian on economic issues. However, Bryan Caplan goes far beyond this simple correlation and writes that “Basic economics is true, and smart people are more likely to believe what is true.” I find this to be obnoxiously self-congratulatory and not entirely supported by the data.
Bryan and Stephen also seem to be confusing economics in general with right wing economics in particular. A left wing economist like Paul Krugman would surely disagree with Bryan on a lot of economic issues.
So let me explain what the data really says:
(1) More intelligent people are more libertarian on all issues, whether it’s abortion, free speech, or legalization of marijuana. In fact, the link between intelligence and libertarian thinking is actually weakest in the economics area.
(2) For almost all attitudes questions in the GSS, the score on the Wordsum vocabulary test is more strongly predictive than educational attainment. This is because education doesn’t make a person any smarter. One very important exception is when it comes to predicting income. Educational attainment predicts income and the Wordsum score barely has any effect (surely an example of labor market inefficiency).
(3) On most economic issues, income has a stronger effect than the Wordsum score. People with more money are more likely to be in favor of “conservative” economic policies. And people with less money favor government redistribution of wealth. This is a case of people voting their perceived self-interest and not a case of people using or not using their brains.
(4) After income, intelligence is a secondary predictor of more libertarian economics views. This is part of the more general principle that smarter people are more libertarian. But I would not go so far as to say this proves anything about economists in particular. Because political issues are more about emotion than logic, smart people more often use their brains to justify their feelings than to try to use the scientific method to ascertain the truth.