By Benny Huang
In what is being called “the mother of all corrections,” the American Journal of Political Science has admitted that the results of a study it published were unintentionally misrepresented. The study, “Correlation not Causation: The Relationship between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies,” purported to show that conservatives are marked by an authoritarian streak. After the study had garnered much scholarly attention, Steven Ludeke and Stig H. R. Rasmussen of the University of Southern Denmark noticed that the data did not support the published results. The correct conclusion is that liberals, particularly economic liberals, lean toward authoritarianism.
This study, which was found worthy enough to be cited 45 times before the correction, will probably disappear down the old memory hole. It doesn’t fit the narrative—and for that it must die.
Not that I put much stock in the study; not now and not before the erroneous conclusion was noticed and corrected. Social sciences are the softest of all scientific disciplines and this study seems downright squishy. It’s not a physics experiment conducted in a laboratory but the very subjective exploration of a political and sociological question, fraught with gray areas and malleable definitions. Take “authoritarianism,” for example. While such a thing certainly exists, it is nonetheless an intangible commodity that cannot be measured in the same way we measure newtons or watts. And what exactly do “conservative” and “liberal” mean? Those words describe attitudes found on the left/right political spectrum, a useful but imperfect mental model created by humans to better understand political philosophies.
Study or no study, people on the Left clearly exhibit symptoms of authoritarianism. Did we really need the American Journal of Political Science to tell us that? I certainly didn’t. To know the Left’s true nature just listen to their words and, more importantly, watch their actions. As columnist George Will once wrote: “[S]ince the 1960s, liberalism has been concerned with who thinks what, who acts when, who lives where and who feels how.” Brilliant!
If you want to observe authoritarian liberals in their natural habitat just visit New York City. The government there has tried, and in many cases succeeded, in clamping down on everything from Big Gulps to baby formula. Exercising your Second Amendment right is laborious and expensive. It’s illegal to donate prepared food to homeless shelters because the city government can’t determine the salt, fat, and fiber content. Smoking is illegal almost everywhere, cigarettes cost more than $13 a pack, and e-cigarettes, which have no harmful externalities, are also banned in many public places. You can be slapped with a $250,000 fine for “misgendering” someone. It’s illegal to refuse to serve alcohol to a pregnant woman.Urinating in public, on the other hand, has been decriminalized because laws against it are, you guessed it, racist.
Now do you believe the results of the study?
The question remains of how the study’s conclusions could have been so badly blundered. The answer, I believe, is confirmation bias. The authors admitted that they expected “P” scores (measuring psychoticism) to be associated with “conservative political attitudes, particularly for militarism and social conservatism.” Seek and ye shall find!
Nor did anyone else notice this ginormous error, which might again be attributable to confirmation bias. Assuming that most of the academics citing the study (but apparently not reading it) were political lefties, it would only have made sense to them that conservatives are controlling and liberals are open-minded and tolerant. Isn’t that what “liberal” means? Yes, but it’s an ill-fitting adjective, one that I stopped using for a little while because the thugs who claim it don’t deserve it. I dropped my boycott of the word “liberal” after realizing that, in order to communicate effectively, I had to use words as they are commonly understood. It’s just another example of how our lexicon has been perverted to portray people on the Left in a positive light.
Language is often deliberately altered to avoid associating authoritarianism with the Left. Ever wonder why the Nazis are so rarely referred to by their full name—the National Socialist German Workers’ Party? Whether or not the Nazis were a left-wing party is a debate for another day but the fact remains that that was their name. People on the Left avoid using it because they wouldn’t want any of the Nazis’ hard-earned toxicity to rub off on two of their most beloved words—socialist and worker. They dismiss the party’s name with the help of the No True Scotsman fallacy—it’s literally impossible for authoritarians to be on the Left, you see, because people on the Left can’t be authoritarian. Authoritarians are always and everywhere right-wingers.
The notion (or misconception, really) that conservatives are little Gestapo agents at heart emerged not long after the end of World War II. The Frankfurt School’s Theodor Adorno (et al) wrote about the “authoritarian personality” in their 1950 book of the same name, which was cited in the footnotes of the aforementioned study. Adorno’s thesis was that most people harbor fascistic tendencies even if they are completely unaware of them. The only people who weren’t crypto-Nazis were people like himself on the far Left. Adorno, whose communist politics and partial Jewish heritage drove him to flee Nazi Germany for America, spoke with authority when he smeared regular Americans as closeted brownshirts. Prevailing wisdom held that if Adorno, himself a refugee from Nazism, diagnosed the American mainstream with latent authoritarianism then it had to be true.
How it must disconcert some people to have a new study conclude that liberals are the real authoritarians. Anyone who thought the study had value before is now stuck with the revised conclusion. It’s science!
The study tells us, for example, that economic liberals—those most obsessed with banishing economic inequality—tend to exhibit authoritarian tendencies. That doesn’t surprise me at all. Class warriors like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders aren’t heroic. Their policies are wrong-headed and they don’t care how many eggs they have to crack to make their elusive omelet.
What’s so wrong with economic equality? Besides the fact that it not nearly as fair as it sounds, it also has an adversarial relationship to freedom. Whenever free people are allowed to tend to their own lives, inequality naturally arises. The guy who takes a year off to “find himself” will probably fall behind on the seniority scale at work. The guy who starts his own business out of his garage might strike it rich—but more likely his startup will fail within five years. And so on.
The brutal and endless process of economic leveling cannot be achieved without the heavy hand of the state to act as its enforcement mechanism. Economic equality requires a perpetual policing of people’s decisions, mandating nearly as much as it prohibits. This person must hire that person and must pay her this hourly wage. This person must pay for that person’s birth control pills. That person must lend this person this much money at this interest rate. This person must not earn more than this sum of money in a given year or else pay exorbitant taxes. This person must pay for his own college education but also that person’s college education because that person can’t afford it.
And let’s not get started on groups! This group has had it too good for too long. They must be held down so that others can be lifted up. This group is “overrepresented” (I hate that word) in this field. Other members of this group, by no fault of their own, will have to be punished as a result. Members of another “underrepresented” group will be hired instead, whether or not those people are the best candidates for the job.
This is what authoritarianism looks like. It’s petty, it’s suffocating, and it’s done by people who consider themselves to be a force for good.