It’s hard to avoid noticing that egalitarians think they’re better than the rest of us. After all, there must be some difference between people that makes progressivism convincing to some but not others; that they are smarter and more compassionate they no doubt find an agreeable hypothesis.
To be fair, there is some evidence in its favor. Some studies have found a definite trend of increasing liberalism with IQ, with the “very liberal” having as much as an 11.6 point advantage over the “very conservative”. (See here and here for a bit of the literature.) While this data is of some interest, most of the attention has gone to the proposed explanations, often some variation on the idea that liberalism is cognitively challenging and too difficult for the dim-witted. Liberalism involves empathizing with strangers, or being comfortable with ambiguity, or challenging received notions–whatever it is, it’s something that smart people do better, or more often, or more easily.
Add to this the longstanding Whig historical narrative that the great men of the past–inventors, writers, artists, scientists, philosophers–have always been “ahead of their time”, i.e. different from their contemporaries in ways that make them more like us. Of course, it will be granted that one may find in any of them this or that regressive opinion, but this is just the influence of their wicked culture. They themselves always broke the mold in a progressive direction, and this is what constitutes their greatness. To sum up, the host culture (if it is a Western culture) gets all of the shame that their great men retained now-disapproved beliefs of their time, but it gets none of their glory.
How important is the liberal IQ advantage?
Let us first ask how big an effect this IQ-liberalism connection is. This question is distinct from the effect’s statistical significance; even a weak effect can be measured with high significance with enough data. 12 points is still less than a standard deviation, so the first guess would be that there is a significant amount of overlap between the IQ distributions of liberals and conservatives. It is possible, though, that the IQ distribution for each political grouping is narrower than the distribution of their aggregate. I did a simple check of this using the most recent GSS data, plotting the distribution of WORDSUM vocabulary scores (with a standard IQ conversion) for each of the self-reported political identifications (“polyview”: 7 point scale, 1=highly liberal, 7=highly conservative). I could have used answers to politically salient survey questions instead, but my hunch is that political self-identification is the more stable feature.
I find that extreme liberals do indeed have a higher mean IQ than extreme conservatives. The difference is 5.6 points, about half that of Kanazawa, who was working with a different data set and a better measure of IQ. My study should not be considered on par with those of the social scientists, but it serves the purpose of allowing readers to view raw data. The IQ distribution of each political class is plotted below. (Note log scale.)
I did not normalize so that viewers can “eyeball integrate” the population of each group. Here is the same thing with each distribution normalized to unit area on a linear scale.
As expected, there is large overlap. In fact, each group peaks at the same IQ (100); the difference in mean comes from asymmetries in the distributions. It would certainly be foolish to assume anything about a person’s intelligence just from his IQ. The most liberal curve does flatten on the right, so liberals may well dominate at very high IQ. That doesn’t help the popular theories, though. For all of these theories, dumb liberals are a bigger problem than smart conservatives. If liberalism is so mentally challenging that my readers and I just aren’t bright enough to figure it out, how does one explain all of these sub-90 IQ liberals?
What is the reason for the liberal IQ advantage?
Remember, the existence of an IQ-liberalism correlation does not itself establish any of the particular proposed explanations. They are, indeed, highly questionable. Empathizing with strangers–even those “very different than us”–is neither complicated nor taxing. Most people do it for relaxation, consuming fiction via novels or television. Nor can empathy settle political disputes. In any dispute, one can sympathize with stakeholders on either side or both. (If the issue did not involve a trade-off of some peoples’ interests vs. others’, it would probably not be a matter of contention to begin with.) But to see on which side justice lies, one must set aside empathy and seek an objective “view from nowhere”. If we mean intellectual empathy, as in the ability to understand and reason from the other side’s moral principles, research shows that conservatives are better at this than liberals. (This should not be taken as a sign of conservative intellectual superiority however, but rather of the prevalence of liberal discourse. Conservatives can’t help but understand liberalism, being surrounded by it, but a liberal must actively seek out conservative arguments.) Liberalism is certainly not the place to find ambiguity and moral nuance; as it exists today, it is a crudely Manichean creed. Nor is there anything bold or counter-cultural in embracing it, since it is authoritative in today’s world.
The importance of self-interest should not be dismissed. It is well-known that in economic matters, higher IQ is associated with more laissez faire (“conservative” as they are inappropriately called) attitudes. It is quite possible that different IQ groups cluster in different economic classes and that each has correctly ascertained its self-interest. Something analogous but less direct may hold true for social conservatism as well. Commenters have pointed out that the brunt of the sexual revolution’s destructive effects–on divorce and illegitimacy–have fallen on the lower classes. One also notices that liberalism is in practice tied to technocracy, meaning status and power to high-IQ credentialed experts.
We may also be seeing an instance of a more general connection between IQ and intellectual docility. IQ has been found to be associated with the personality trait “openness to experience”. This “open-mindedness” is usually described in flattering terms, but I would not be surprised if it predisposes one to credulity when presented with establishment-promoted beliefs. One must be a bit stubborn, a bit closed-minded, to be a dissenter. It is sometimes pointed out that the IQ-liberalism correlation remains even controlling for education, but this doesn’t prove that it is not caused by indoctrination, since one can learn just as well which beliefs are high-status from television as from college.
About those great men
Oddly, the impression that all smart or creative people belong to the Left has been undermined in the last couple of years by Leftists themselves in a new phase of their unending game of moral oneupmanship. This has taken the form of scouring the past for “disturbing” elements.
If Laura Ingalls Wilder were alive today she would be a member of the Tea Party. She would almost certainly have voted for Donald Trump…
sneers Vivian Gornick at the New Republic. A foolish thing to write, both because it is impossible to know such a thing, and because past generations of Leftists knew better than to advertise the anti-progressivism of a widely-beloved author. I would never have known that transistor co-inventor William Shockley, biologist James Watson, and sci-fi horror master H. P. Lovecraft dissented quite consciously from progressive racial egalitarian dogma if I hadn’t so often read Leftists lamenting it.
Such things are becoming more common. I have only recently learned of the French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir‘s general conservatism and un-progressive (even for their time) opinions of women and Jews. Another recent article let me know that Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a great French novelist and a “vile anti-Semite, xenophobe, misogynist, misanthropist, and early pro-Nazi.” Not content to poke fun at Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for Puccini’s music, Slate felt the need to inform us that the famous opera composer actually was a Fascist sympathizer. Which would make him no different (except less vocal about it) than Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats. Fascism had a number of undoubtedly talented sympathizers. Most of us know, because Leftist philosophers are always going on about it, that Martin Heidegger, perhaps the greatest of 20th-century continental philosophers, was an actual, honest-to-God Nazi. Until last year, I would have had the impression that the other, Anglo-American analytic, school of philosophy was entirely the work of cool-headed conforming Leftists. But now, I learn from laments in Prospect magazine that founder of analytic philosophy Gottlob Frege’s unpublished papers reveal him to be, in their words “an anti-Semitic, racist right-winger” and romantic nationalist.
We all know that a common culture promotes group consciousness, a bad thing for liberals. This would be true even if the culture were a product of impeccable universalists. I find myself happening on articles uncovering how some aspects of our common culture were consciously designed with nationalistic aims, such as the Grimm brothers’ folklore collection and Noah Webster’s dictionary.
People argue about whether nationalism and fascism are truly right-wing, but that discussion is irrelevant here, because these men embraced them for their dissent from liberal individualism and universalism. They were, at least in some sense, “behind their times”. One could also list eminent traditionalist conservatives (they’re just of less interest to journalists than fascists) like English romanticists Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey or French legitimists like mathematician Augustin-Louis Cauchy and novelist Honore de Balzac. Or, more recently, T. S. Eliot, Dostoevsky, Tolkien, etc. If strong adherence to Christianity is itself a mark of deplorable-ness, one could draw up a longer list.
I don’t deny that one could make an equally impressive list of great atheist liberals. Perhaps if one were to draw up two lists, the first of great men “behind their time” and the second of those “ahead of their time”, perhaps the second would even be more impressive, but it is the first list that Leftist writers are in the process of compiling. They will also find that many past thinkers were “ahead of their time” in some ways, “behind their time” in other ways, and “with their time” in yet others. Lastly, it will be increasingly obvious as we interrogate the past that there was a great deal more diversity of opinion among intellectuals in the centuries and decades before World War II than there has been after. This suggests that the current consensus was not achieved by new arguments, but by military victory of the Left followed by the brutal suppression of competing views.