Liberalism vs Civics

In an essay for The Chronicle, Jill Laster reports that while higher education is correlated with more liberal views on civics issues, it has little effect on an individual’s knowledge of civics.

The institute found that people who had attained at least a bachelor’s degree were more likely than Americans whose formal education ended with a high-school diploma to take a liberal stance on certain controversial social issues. For example, 39 percent of people whose highest level of education was a bachelor’s degree supported same-sex marriage, compared with 25 percent with a high-school diploma. The trend continued with advanced degrees: About 46 percent of people with master’s degrees supported same-sex marriage, as did 43 percent of people with Ph.D.’s.

Previous surveys have found that, in general, college does not bring students up to a high level of civics knowledge. According to the institute’s 2008 report, based on a survey of 2,500, people whose highest level of educational attainment was a bachelor’s degree correctly answered 57 percent of the questions, on average. That is three percentage points lower than a passing grade, according to the survey’s authors.

This is a popular meme on comedy shows and YouTube. We’ve all seen them. Someone goes out with a fake petition against women’s suffrage, or Jay Leno surveys people on the street about poplar figures…even CNBC had one where football players were unable to identify Ben Bernanke or what the Fed does (in a particularly comical moment, one player said that the “feds” lock you up). While these situations are embarrassing, I don’t find them very troubling. Ostensibly, people can get by just fine in life without being able to identify the US founding fathers, or know who Tim Geithner is.

What is most troubling to me, personally, is that people who don’t have a college education hold more conservative civic values. This would not be a problem in a highly federalist society where capital and labor are free move to places that suit individual preferences, but unfortunately, we are moving further and further in the opposite direction. Education and health care are perfect examples. More often, we are turning to “one-size-fits-all” solutions for a very diverse group of people. The basics of network theory state that there is a trade-off between “degrees of freedom” and “degrees of possibility”. We are moving in the direction of a higher degree of possibility…the Federal government is immense and has the ability to do a lot. However, the cost is shrinking degrees of freedom. This increases the chances of decisions that benefit a certain group to create “knock-on” effects through the network that have aa exponentially greater negative impact on other parts of the network. It also increases the marginal cost of entry and exit, reducing choice.

In a truly free society, people should have the power to choose the rules by which they live. However, moving knowledge of preferences further from power to influence rules diminishes people’s ability to choose. This is the problem, not people’s level of education or the values they hold, but the diminishing ability for people to choose the rules and values by which they live.


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