Are most people ideological?

Nice little argument about opinion from economists Bryan Caplan vs. Robert P. Murphy, Jason Weeden, and Robert Kurzban.  The root of the argument is Caplan’s somewhat blithe assertion that:

There are countless issues that people care about, from gun control and abortion to government spending and the environment…  If you know a person’s position on one, you can predict his view on the rest to a surprising degree.  In formal statistical terms, political opinions look one-dimensional.  They boil down to roughly one big opinion, plus noise.

Kurzban and Weeden respond:

This is just getting weird. You explicitly said of individual issues that “If you know a person’s position on one, you can predict his view on the rest to a surprising degree.” And we ran a test of that proposition, showing that it can be pretty weak stuff, depending on the issue pair. (I’ve got a blog post showing similar points here:http://www.pleeps.org/2014/06/30/if-being-routinely-liberal-or-conservative-is-a-human-universal-why-is-it-true-only-of-recent-college-educated-whites/)

Well…leaving aside the issues of tone and proof, they’re kind of both correct.   What Caplan is describing is generally thought of as “constraint”; highly-constrained people “know” what ideological positions go together.  Highly-constrained people look exactly like Caplan describe.  On the other hand, loosely constrained people are generally less informed and don’t necessarily have well-defined political opinions.  They also don’t know which opinions go together, and so generally have very low correlation between their opinions.  Most people are pretty loosely constrained, except for the highly educated.  This explains, incidentally, both why constraint is low in general and why it seems like only college-educated follow the pattern Caplan describes.

Finally, unlike Caplan I am happy to cite literature.  It’s from a book called “The American Voter”, published…in 1960.  Political scientists actually know what they’re doing, and economists could look at their work sometimes.  On a sad sidenote, one of the authors Philip Converse, just passed away.

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