Is the Pope too Catholic?

One good thing about not having time to read the news recently is that I have been spared from some very silly and tiresome debates—such as whether the press has liberal bias.  I don’t know which view is sillier; liberals who deny the liberal bias of the press, or conservatives who complain about it.  Here is a news clip that reminded me of this issue.  If most reporters weren’t obvious liberals, why would Obama’s joke even be funny?  So am I taking the conservative side in this debate?  Not at all.  But first let’s back up a bit, and consider what it actually means to be “liberal.”

At various points in history, people identified as ‘liberals’ have been on both sides of virtually every major issue; including the desirability of free markets, an interventionist foreign policy, a color-blind society, restrictions on commercial and hate speech, eugenics, paternalist laws against “vice”, etc.  Classical liberals are now often (misleadingly) viewed as conservatives.  There is no stable set of public policies that are viewed as being “liberal,” rather liberalism is generally defined as merely representing what liberals happen to believe.

[Here of course I am referring to liberalism in America; in Europe the term does have a different and more stable meaning—something related to the term “liberty.”  But I doubt whether the French people complain much about liberal press bias, as their media tend to oppose liberalism.]

So if liberalism in America is what liberals happen to believe, then who are the liberals?  It seems obvious to me that throughout all of American history liberals have been the class of idealistic intellectuals.  Elsewhere I have argued that this group has a vaguely utilitarian value system, which should be obvious to anyone who reads or listens to the elite news media.  And what type of person becomes a reporter?  For the most part, it is a field comprised of idealistic intellectuals, i.e. liberals.  If I am right, then the press will always have liberal bias, because liberalism will always be defined as representing what reporters happen to believe at any point in time.  To complain that the press is too liberal is about as silly as complaining that the Pope is too Catholic.

If conservatives are not happy with the press, which is a free market institution, then they should try to change liberalism itself.  I won’t say try to make liberalism more conservative (an oxymoron), but at least try to make liberalism have a more right wing worldview.  Try to make liberals (who, BTW, teach reporters in that other liberal institution, academia) have a better understanding of how markets work, the importance of indirect effects, of incentives, etc.  Try to show how reality is very counter-intuitive.  And that’s one of my goals with this blog.

[I don’t want any Catholics complaining about my simplistic view of their religion.  Yes, I know Catholicism is actually very complex, but I needed a jarring analogy.]



15 Responses to “Is the Pope too Catholic?”

  1. Gravatar of Slugger Slugger
    12. May 2009 at 09:17

    In American politics words are used the same way they are in advertising. They are intended to imbue the product being sold, politicians in this case, with their favorable aura. The political parties tell us that they are ” for the families of hard-working people.” This means as much as saying that your soft drink is ” the pause that refreshes.”
    Both sides carp about the press. In my view, this is a way of working the referees.

  2. Gravatar of Alex R Alex R
    12. May 2009 at 12:09

    I’ll be the first to make the fairly obvious point that if the question is whether the press has a certain bias, then statements about the beliefs of reporters are only loosely related to that question. Because, after all, reporters tend to write what their employers pay them to write, and therefore the beliefs, bias, goals, and class interests of the employers of reporters has more to do with what actually gets printed than the beliefs of the reporters.

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. May 2009 at 13:26

    Slugger, Yes, a few people on both sides work the refs, but it is also true that lots of people on both sides (not including me) feel passionately about this issue. Average people who have no influence on the media also complain. It’s not all play-acting.

    Alex, Actually, the only economic study I saw on this topic suggests that media do not reflect the beliefs of the employers–they reflect the class interest of employers, which is very different. Thus conservative employers in liberal towns put out liberal papers, because they make more money that way (class interest.) But that’s not what I am talking about here. I am talking about the reporters biases, which are invisible to the reporter, but obvious to someone with different biases. Thus liberals who listen to NPR often don’t see the liberal bias of NPR, and conservatives who watch Fox News think it is “fair and balanced.” BTW, I have no complaints with either outlet–they both serve their markets.

    Employers deal with the reality that 90% of journalists vote Democratic. That means 90% of reporters talk about issues the way a Democrat would talk about issues. There is nothing wrong with this, it is perfectly natural.

  4. Gravatar of Morgan Morgan
    12. May 2009 at 14:12

    I’m going to use the liberal word in it’s US sense, but I thought it might be worthwhile to contrast with the UK, where most print media (as distinct from the broadcast media) is generally held to be right wing or anti-liberal. Broadcast media here is largely dominated by the BBC, which has to be pretty much down the middle to avoid public criticism.

    Why do we have an conservative press in the UK? I think it’s supply factors. Newspapers don’t make much money, so running them is often a vanity project, so tend to be funded by rich men with axes to grind. Also, because we have a larger public sector, there’s more scope for idealistic liberals to find jobs other than journalism which they can ‘make a difference’. Owners supply the editorial line they want, journalists and particularly comment writers don’t tend to be that much more liberal than society as a whole.

  5. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    12. May 2009 at 15:12

    You sound just like Mencius Moldbug in Why there’s no such thing as “liberal media bias”.

    I heard once that NPR has more conservative listeners than liberals. Maybe because theie listeners tend to be older than average?

  6. Gravatar of cheap cheap
    12. May 2009 at 21:20

    You write so good.

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. May 2009 at 04:52

    Morgan, Are you saying the BBC is unbiased? Is not liberal in the American sense? I’ve lived in England, and often listen to BBC reports on NPR, and I always found them to be very left wing. Perhaps the problem is one of perspective. Many conservatives think Fox News is fair and balanced, whereas many liberals believe NPR is fair and balanced. I understand how this could happen—if the media are feeding you views that seem in some sense “reasonable” then I suppose the media will look “fair” or middle of the road. I consider The Economist magazine to be moderate, in that they sometimes support Republican candidates and sometimes support Democratic candidates. But I know people who regard it as conservative.
    I do agree that the tabloids are more right wing than the respectable press, but that is equally true in America. It is also driven by cultural differences in the audience. Wealthy readers tend to be more liberal (not in the sense of being more left wing, obviously, but in the sense of being more utilitarian, and therefore less religious, ethnocentric, xenophobic, nationalistic, etc.)

    TGGP, That’s a good essay (much better than mine). But there is a difference. Moldbug says conservatives are wrong about liberal media bias; that the media is the mainstream. I am saying they are right that the media is liberal, but they are wrong that it is too liberal.

    Cheap, Thanks, I think.

  8. Gravatar of Morgan Morgan
    13. May 2009 at 05:52

    I’d say that the BBC is liberal in the american sense, compared to average American opinion, but pretty centrist compared to average UK opinion. I think average UK opinion is slightly more liberal than that of the US. Of late the BBC has got pretty touchy about accusations of left-wing bias – it refused to air an appeal by the DEC for humanitarian assistance in Gaza for fear of appearing too liberal, which generally backfired and brought more criticism. I think it has also been rather cowed after the Hutton enquiry, so it’s less strident generally.

    Are the reports you’re watching on NPR foreign reports? Most UK coverage generally adopts a liberal pro-Palestinian outlook, even in the non-liberal press. This generally reflects public opinion – though Isreal-Palestine is a much less salient issue over here and we have larger populations of those with arab descent rather than those identifying as Jewish.

    I feel I should probably also fess up as a self-identifying liberal, in the US sense of the word (probably a social-democrat in the UK sense), so I’ll probably accept that my definition of fair and reasonable is to the left of yours – I’d say the Economist was generally conservative, though not massively so, because the editorial line is usually pro-degregulation/privatisation.

  9. Gravatar of Lord Lord
    13. May 2009 at 14:22

    Conservatives (libertarians) who hold liberals need a better idea of how markets work are probably deceiving themselves. In the words of DeLong, a liberal is a libertarian who was mugged by reality.

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. May 2009 at 15:32

    Morgan, I can usually tell if someone is liberal or conservative by the media they regard are “unbiased.” The fact that the BBC gets accused of left-wing bias doesn’t surprise me a bit. They are slightly to the left of NPR, but then, as you say, Britain is slightly to the left of America. What matters isn’t what liberals think, it is the bias of media compared to the average person. The vast majority of intellectuals don’t regard NPR as biased, and why should they? NPR presents the news in the way most liberals think it should be presented. The Economist seems conservative to most intellectuals, because it is conservative compared to to most intellectuals. But it is not conservative relative to the average American voter.

    The pro-Palestinian position became liberal in recent decades, whereas the early post-WWII liberalism was more pro-Israeli. This changed not because facts on the ground changed, but rather because liberalism itself changed from its post-WWII emphasis on statism, democracy, and anti-fascism, to it’s more recent turn toward victim-centered ideologies in the neoliberal era.

    Lord, I have a lot of respect for liberals in countries like Denmark, who understand the value of free markets. In the U.S., not so much. One of the interesting things about studying economics is that even liberal economists (such as Larry Summers) are viewed as “conservatives” by liberal non-economists. Why are liberal economists so much more pro-free market than liberal non-economists? My answer is that they have studied markets and have a much better idea of how they work. What is your answer?

    I gather a lot of liberals feel our current problems are due to “free markets” or “deregulation.” That was also the original view of the Great Depression, until economists (including Brad DeLong) showed that deflationary monetary policies were the real problem. I’m trying to use this blog to educate the public about the causes of our current crisis–which most assuredly have nothing to do with “free markets.”

  11. Gravatar of Morgan Morgan
    14. May 2009 at 01:34

    “Why are liberal economists so much more pro-free market than liberal non-economists? My answer is that they have studied markets and have a much better idea of how they work. What is your answer?”

    I’d agree with you mostly on that. I think it’s a base-mindset thing also though.

    As an economist, you have, (by self-selection), more faith in economics and free markets than the layman, and so are more inclined than non-economists to support markets. Analogously, a lawyer probably has a lot more faith in legal redress than a layman who believes that the law is a rich man’s tool.

    Would you concede that your point works the other way too? I mean that conservative economists are generally less conservative (economically rather than socially) than conservative non-economists? I think conservative economists who have studied markets are probably more open to the possibility of market failure/the limitations of markets, than are non-economists, who necessarily have to include an element of faith or ideology to replace the necessary knowledge.

    For instance, I don’t think the hypothesis that tax cuts always pay for themselves would be accepted by most conservative economists. It seems to be far more popular amongst conservative non-economists, because the economists have a much better idea about taxation and the putative stimulative effect.

    Essentially, I’m not surprised that economists are more moderate than non-economists, because there’s a certain core set of knowledge that (currently) precludes extremism of either strand. That hasn’t always been the case – Liberal (UK sense) economists such as Ricardo would have been left-wing for their day in arguing for free trade, being opposed by the landed conservative interest. Now, economists in academia and in policymaking seem to be (rightly or wrongly) clustered around the centre, hopefully led as much by evidence as by ideology.

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    14. May 2009 at 06:18

    Morgan, I have some earlier posts that discuss what I call the economistic way of thinking. I find that conservative economists are far more conservative on economics than non economists, not less conservative. On the other hand they tend to be much less conservative on non-economic matters. The idea that tax cuts bring in more revenue is very counterintuitive, so even conservative politicians like Bush based their arguments for tax cuts on demand-side grounds.

    When I talk to conservative non-economists I usually end up thinking “if that is really your worldview, then why the h*** are you not a left-winger?” And then I realize why, they have different values from those on the left. Not just different from left wing liberals, but different from right wing liberals (i.e. conservative economists.) They see issues in terms of who deserves what, not the incentive effects. Conservative non-economists talk about whether it is “fair” that the government takes 1/2 their money in taxes. Of course it is “fair” if they make $400,000 a year and there are billions of peasants in Asia slaving away just as hard on tiny farms in the hot sun. Whose only sin was to be born in the wrong country. The issue isn’t whether it’s fair, it’s whether high tax rates discourage wealth creation. Conservative non-economists are not able to offer any cogent arguments against progressive income taxes. There are cogent arguments—they just don’t know them.

    I also don’t agree that the core knowledge pushes one away from extreme. I disproportionate number of Nobel prize winners come from the University of Chicago–far more than other schools. I think this is because the more seriously you take economic theory (Ratex, efficient markets, supply and demand, etc) the more right wing one’s views. The economic way of thinking leads to very small government, just correcting market failures. The views of many of these economists (drug legalization, price gouging is OK, no minimum wage, completely free trade, replace public school system with vouchers, and on and on, is actually quite extreme in the American political context. Most conservative non-economists don’t have these views.

  13. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    15. May 2009 at 15:07

    Scott is right that most non-economist conservatives are really not that pro-market. Stephen Miller discusses that in “Conservatives and Liberals on Economics: Expected Differences, Surprising Similarities”, Critical Review Vol. 19 Issue 1.

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    15. May 2009 at 16:53

    Thanks TGGP, Even more reading for me to catch up upon.

  15. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    16. May 2009 at 14:12

    If anyone wants a copy of it, they can email me (not for other issues, though, it’s the only one on my harddrive).

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