Reason Pollsters: Check Your Premises

It’s a common observation that polls can produce virtually any response desired, depending on how the questions are worded. Emily Ekins, ostensibly reporting on the political and economic attitudes of millennials (“Are Millennials Far Left on Economics? No,” Reason, August 18), displays almost total conceptual incoherence in framing the results of a Reason-Rupe poll of “millennials” (young Americans age 18-29). Since she played a central role in designing that poll, it’s a safe assumption its results say more about her premises than the attitudes it supposedly measures.

So what’s wrong with Ekins’s premises? First of all, she uses “far left,” “leftists” and “economic liberals” interchangeably.

Second, she implicitly defines “left” as “focused on economic redistribution,” or favoring larger government. The fact that millennials are “very wary of government,” on the other hand, is prima facie evidence they’re not “leftists.”

Third, as evidence of millennials’ “libertarian streak,” Ekins points to their favorable attitude toward business and profit, and their greater propensity than older generations to believe that “corporations generally strike a fair balance between making profits and serving the public interest.”

“If millennials had veered hard left economically,” Ekins says, “we would have observed them becoming less friendly to business and more supportive of regulation. … Instead Reason-Rupe finds millennials have favorable views of business, profit, competition and entrepreneurship.” Further, “[i]f millennials were veering leftward on economics, we would not expect an increase in government skepticism …” In addition, a majority of millennials favor “a free market with less government involvement” rather than “strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems.”

Ekins’s awareness of the political spectrum spans all the way from M to N. She really should get out more. There’s a group far to the left of run-of-the-mill state socialists and Social Democrats — let alone the center-left goo-goos she identifies with the “left” — who are far more “wary of government” than she can imagine. We’re called anarchists.

American “liberalism,” on the other hand, is a managerial-professional ideology going back to the turn of the 20th century. Far from favoring class struggle or promoting the interests of workers against management, it takes an engineering approach to society as a whole, seeking to stabilize it and reduce defects in the same way industrial engineers do to production processes. To adherents of this ideology, class conflict is a source of irrationality. The proper approach is to transcend class conflict through the application of disinterested expertise and planning, so that — in a “we’re all in this together” viewpoint that explains liberal adulation for “patriotic billionaires” like Warren Buffett — the state intervenes both to guarantee profits to giant industrial corporations and provide a minimal social safety net to workers. But the domination of society by giant, hierarchical institutions run by Taylorist managers like themselves is a given.

If Ekins wants to hear management, hierarchy and planning denounced in terms that would make Friedrich Hayek clutch his pearls, she should hang out with some anarchists.

Her treatment of “leftism” as equivalent to a focus on government redistribution also reflects an assumption that the present distribution of wealth results from the “free market,” and only government intervention can prevent it. This ignores a long tradition of radical left-wing analysis of the role of the state in capitalism — including left-wing market anarchists like Thomas Hodgskin, Benjamin Tucker and Franz Oppenheimer — who see government’s main function as enforcing artificial property rights and enclosing commons from which the economic ruling class extracts rents. From this “far left” perspective, income is presently redistributed upward by government to the wealthy, and the way to reduce economic inequality is to stop what government is doing right now.

Ekins also identifies libertarianism as “pro-business,” “pro-profit” and taking a positive view of corporations. Now, I’ve seen more than one libertarian commentator point out that libertarians are “pro-market, not pro-business.” But I guess Ekins didn’t get the memo. In fact large corporations are intimately connected with the state; it subsidizes and socializes their operating costs, protects them from competition, absorbs their surplus output and maintains a global empire to enable their looting of other countries’ resources.

As the cyberneticists say, “Garbage in, garbage out.” And Reason’s poll is statist garbage.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory