Are Libs Smarter?

Every teacher knows that one can make any group of kids look smart just by altering the content of the test.  That is what's behind several studies purporting to show that liberals are smarter than conservatives.

Using data from previous studies in Britain, researchers at Brock University in Canada claim to have discovered a relationship between IQ scores and political orientation.  The study suggests that persons of lower IQ choose to be conservatives because conservatism opposes change and is thus "safer" for those who are slow to adapt.  Not only that, the researchers find that conservatives, being persons of low intelligence, are less tolerant, less original, and less open-minded than others.

In a separate study, Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics purports to have found that highly intelligent people tend to identify themselves as liberals and atheists.  Researchers suggest that the link may reflect "evolutionary forces," as smarter humans advance the species with "new thinking," or it may result from smarter individuals competing for status by embracing unconventional and "advanced" ideas. 

There are several fallacies, I believe, behind both of these studies.  Intentionally or not, the "questions asked" -- in this case, IQ tests from as long as forty years ago that measure a subset abstract intelligence but nothing else -- were selected to arrive at the result that libs are smarter.

In fact, on all measures of practical intelligence and performance, conservatives would seem to be brainier.

Standard IQ tests have never been a very good predictor of success because they fail to measure a broad range of mental aptitudes -- everything from mechanical ability to social skills and emotional stability.  Many of these alternative mental aptitudes contribute to one's ability to function in the real world.  They comprise a set of skills that philosophers have traditionally referred to as "good sense," the sort of intelligence that liberals appear to lack entirely if we are to judge from their recent "investments" in green energy and their mishandling of health care reform.  

In contrast to the abstract reasoning measured by standard IQ testing, this deeper intelligence plays a crucial role in making essential life choices.  It involves more than solving problems on paper; it makes possible prudent choices, careful planning, and responsible behavior over the course of an entire lifetime.  The evidence suggests that liberals don't score too well on these benchmarks.  It is a fact, for instance, that those stodgy conservative sorts who marry and stay married over the period of a lifetime live longer.  They also raise children who are less likely to commit crimes, take drugs, or commit suicide.  And they end up donating more to charity and participating more in volunteer activities.  All of these measurements reflect a more profound order of intelligence that exists among conservatives and not among liberals.

Perhaps the best overall proxy for intelligence is happiness.  One would expect that those who are truly intelligent would find a way to obtain happiness.  And yet every objective study of happiness, conducted by unbiased polling, reveals that as a group, conservatives are happier than liberals.  If conservatives are such idiots, why are they so happy?

According to Jaime Napier, a researcher at Yale University, conservatives are happier because they believe in meritocracy.  That is, they believe that in America, with its free-market system, they will be rewarded for their efforts.  When people believe in the system in which they work and live, they have a sense of purpose and fulfillment.  They can work toward a goal, and they have a positive orientation toward life.  This is certainly part of what it means to be happy.  But not all.

The more important reason why conservatives are happier than liberals is because they possess a moral intelligence that liberals lack.  While they may disagree on the details, conservatives believe in the existence of fixed ideas and strict moral accountability.  This deeper level of intelligence involves more than just multiplying numbers or solving word games; it involves making decisions based on crucial assessments of the broader purposes of life.  In other words, it involves the possession of a moral and religious sensibility.

Conservatives display this sort of moral intelligence; liberals, whose moral orientation is based on relativism if not nihilism, don't.  Not only that, liberals spend their lives mocking and sneering at the very sorts of intelligence that would otherwise make them happy.

The most powerful novelistic treatment of this paradox can be found in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Devils.  In this magnificent novel, the "devils" are those who, out of pride and spite, turn their faces away from those simple truths that would actually save them.  Like liberals today, Dostoevsky's devils imagine themselves to be more intelligent than their more conservative-minded neighbors.  They believe that they constitute the intelligentsia, and that, as such, they have the right to decide the future direction of their country.  Unfortunately, their "intelligence," and their penchant for social transformation whatever the cost, leads to violence, anarchy, and ruin.  Dostoevsky understood that the intellectual class, so full of confidence in its own powers to transform life for others (and in its absolute right to do so, based on superior "intelligence"), is the greatest threat to human happiness.  

For one thing, liberal intellectuals pay little if any attention to the cost of their reforms.  Yet fiscal responsibility, which is integrally related to happiness if not survival, is one of the aspects of life that is controlled by this deeper level of intelligence.  The ability to conceptualize the long-term effects of debt, and to restrain one's impulses so as to manage debt responsibly, is a form of intelligence that conservatives possess and liberals lack.  One need look no farther than Obama's 2013 budget proposal, with its endless future of trillion-dollar deficits, for proof.

In reality, the abstract intelligence measured by academic testing -- the testing that "proves" that liberals are smarter than conservatives  -- is precisely the sort of impractical, detached mental functioning that leads to failure in the real world.

Among those who actually produce actual goods and services -- those who are not government bureaucrats, teachers, or community organizers -- a  very different kind of intelligence holds sway.  This practical intelligence involves the ability to focus on outcomes, to display resolve, and to make difficult decisions within an imperfect world.  It involves mental qualities that are not measured on academic tests.

Put simply, conservatives are smarter.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and article on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).