Left versus Right: What's the Big Deal?
By Bryan Caplan
Call me crazy, but I think that McCain and Obama are basically the same. You might like to persuade me otherwise, but you’ve got to understand where I’m coming from.
First, when I classify people’s politics, I think in terms of thousands of years of philosophy, not the last four years of American politics.
Second, despite its predictive power, I think the “left-right” spectrum is philosophically silly. Both views are illogical grabbags of positions held together by group identity. The philosophically insightful breakdown, rather, is the “statist-libertarian” spectrum.
Here’s the best way to sum up my outlook: The endpoints of the political spectrum are not the “far left” Michael Moore and the “far right” Rush Limbaugh, but the totalitarian Josef Stalin and the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard. Is it any wonder that McCain and Obama look practically the same to me?
You might think I’m bringing this up merely to rain on the upcoming political parade. But my real motive is more academic. In a forthcoming issue of Critical Review, Donald Wittman argues that the belief gap between economists and the public isn’t that big. That gave me an idea: Even though I don’t see the disagreement between America’s far left and far right as a big deal, most people do. So to answer Wittman, I compared the size of the disagreement between economists and the public to the size of the disagreement between America’s far left and far right:
…Wittman could grant all these
points, but respond, “I’m still not convinced that the disagreement between
economists and the public is big.” To get some perspective, I calculated belief
gaps between laymen of the far left (very liberal Democrats) and laymen of the
far right (very conservative Republicans). For the SAEE‘s 37 questions, the
average absolute value of this belief gap is .30 on a 0-2 scale. I also
calculated belief gaps between Ph.D. economists and the general public. All
else equal, the average absolute value of this belief gap is .52. In other
words, the belief gap between economists and the public is more than 70 percent larger than the belief gap
between America’s far left and far right. If that isn’t big, what is?
Admittedly, the belief gap between economists and the public is pretty small compared to the gap between Stalin and Rothbard. Even if the median voter were an economist, I’d still have plenty to complain about. Nevertheless, the belief gap between economists and the public is big compared to the gap between Moore and Limbaugh – and in the eyes of most people, that gap is a very big deal indeed.