In the Dec. 4 edition of the Record, Mike Paarlberg ’02 offered some criticism on Operation Politically Homeless conducted by Williams Liberty in Baxter. Some of you might remember the large diamond- shaped poster on display for a week and a half that purported to chart Williams students’ political views according to the results of a ten-question quiz. The purpose of this article is to address some of the criticisms that were made at the time, and also present some of the results obtained from the quiz.
The quiz (nicknamed the World’s Smallest Political Quiz) was criticized for being a manipulative political recruiting effort conducted by evil Libertarians trying to take over the world. The short of it is that while surveyors asked people to put their initials or logins on the chart so their friends could find them (but did not require it), no one was contacted by Williams Liberty on the basis of the information they provided. (And no, no one was harassed or maimed for his political views either, despite the occasional temptation). Certainly nobody’s information was provided to any group for political recruitment purposes. The only thing that Williams Liberty gained from the operation was the knowledge of the existence of a couple of Libertarians they had not made previous contact with.
This leads us to the second allegation of manipulation that charged the quiz of being somehow biased in favor of getting Libertarian answers. If the results are anything to go by, this is far from being the case. However, 54.7 percent of the 179 respondents were squarely liberal with an additional five percent being on the fringe between liberal and Authoritarian, and another 7.2 percent were on the border between liberal and Libertarian. 13.9 percent of respondents ended up Libertarian, which is higher than expected until one controls for the fact that since the test was administered by Libertarians, Libertarians were more likely to know the surveyors and take the test. Besides, I’m pretty sure I can vouch for all the ones who ended up being Libertarian. It is true that the questions were phrased in terms of self-government, but it is hard to see how this is a confusing concept for anybody but the most mentally challenged. Williams students are smart enough to understand what the implications of ending subsidies to businesses and farms are, for example. Not everybody knows about economics, but in some sense the questions are more about political principles than economic knowledge. Is the government the appropriate institution for taking care of failing people and enterprises? Whether or not laissez-faire is as good in terms of efficiency and maximization of welfare is a different question than whether it is in principle the correct policy for government to pursue. Williams Liberty thought this survey would be an enlightening one, not only in terms of discovering the political preferences of the campus, which after all should be no great surprise (apart from perhaps the 8.9 percent who were squarely Authoritarian), but in making students think about political issues, and yes, issues of self-government versus paternalism for five minutes.
There are issues that are relevant to the Self-Government Chart (no deception there) however. The labels conservative, liberal, Libertarian, and Authoritarian are used in specific ways not all might agree with, and indeed many were surprised to end up in some area of the chart they did not expect because of the way the quiz labels political preference. On the chart, conservatives are individuals who are self-governors on economic issues but paternalistic on social issues, while liberals are just the opposite. Authoritarians tend to favor government control and supervision on all things, while Libertarians favor individual choice in all matters.
Another thing is that there are some issues that were omitted because they are not readily grasped through the prism of self-government. Many asked why abortion, an often determinant factor of political choice in America, was not charted. Abortion is not so much an issue of self-government as one about the legal and moral status of fetuses. Also not figuring in the quiz were issues important to students like environmental policy or school choice. All that can be said is that the chart never purports to show party allegiance or voter preference so much as general political leanings, but granted these omissions do limit the chart’s usefulness in some way.
One criticism that Mr. Paarlberg did not address but is nevertheless problematic is the categorical nature of the choice of answers (YES/NO/MAYBE). Had a sliding scale been used, from 1 to 10 on each of the issues, the survey might have been more accurate. A person who might favor a reduction in the levels of taxation and government service provision would not have to answer NO on the “end taxes” question. While I consider myself a strong self-governor on most issues, I cannot fathom a way of “ending taxation” for some important public good provision.Â
There are many worthy political debates, but the one between individual freedom and paternalism (from the left as well as from the right) is one of the most fundamental from a historical as well as a philosophical point of view. Even the assumption of manipulation of what appears to be an innocuous self-government quiz, gives us an insight into this debate. Mr. Paarlberg’s assumption that students will be manipulated by this kind of quiz does not credit the average Williams student with much intelligence, a common enough assumption among detractors of the idea of individual liberty. After all, what is the main excuse for government expansion but the assumption that individuals are unwilling or incapable to do things for themselves or that it is inappropriate for them to do so (saving for retirement, insuring oneself against unemployment, defending one’s property, finding a job, choosing a school for one’s children, and on and on)?
Rather than creating a ploy to make people say they are friendlier to individual liberty than they really are, the quiz was designed to make people aware that issues can be framed in terms of self-government and plot their reaction. Mr. Paarlberg can take comfort in the fact that most students welcome the “helping” hand of government when it comes to economic issues (70.9 percent of students were less than 50 percent committed to economic freedom). Somehow Williams students can live with the paradox that coercion is wrong when it comes to influencing preferences and lifestyle choices, but perfectly legitimate when it comes to stealing money from the most productive members of society to be given to whomever the majority finds convenient to appease or propitiate while lining the pockets of interested lobbies and bureaucrats in the process. So be it.