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Changing political views

John Quiggin has a post on people who switch from one side of politics to the other – from “left” to “right” or visa versa.  There are profound semantic issues here that, if taken seriously, can trivialise the analysis of such shifts – most of us are, in fact, social democrats. However despite this broad homogeneity of mainstream political views (the Tweedledum/Tweedledee theory of consensus politics, median voter theorems etc.) there does seem to be a recognisably “left” and “right” view of the world.  I delayed commenting on JQ’s post because of the slightly pejorative tone it conveyed towards those who have changed their views.  JQ (apparently) has never done this – he sorted his political perspectives out initially and has seen no reason to change his broad stance. I congratulate him – temporal consistency is a virtue and suggests initial clear thinking.

I have been much less consistent myself. In my youth I was a left-wing member of the Labor Party who came from a working class background and who flirted with Marxism without ever taking it very seriously. Apart from the litany of Cold War Stalinist atrocities I had read Das Capital as an undergraduate and I could see the problems and the narrowness in Marx’s class-based analysis.  I supported an increased role for government in the economy during the Whitlam years but also greatly applauded the sensational 25% tariff cut that Whitlam introduced. This was one of the most profound economic changes ever to impact on the Australian economy and a change that initiated decades of on-going microeconomic reform.  My dissatisfaction with Labor reflected my view that Labor comprises incompetent managers and intellectually low-level people who have sentimentality but often not a lot of administrative intelligence.  In my original home state of NSW the Labor Party comprise third-raters who cloak their incompetence with hypocrisy and dishonesty. Generally I have maintained this negative view of Labor  for decades. I think that, whatever the transparent failings of the Coalition – there are many – they will be better economic managers and generally smarter when it comes to making policy judgements.  For this reason I have voted for the Liberal Party for more than 2 decades.

At the last election however I voted for the Greens and at the next election I will vote for Labor mainly because of the criticality I see in the climate change issue. I see it as a long-term priority issue potentially impacting on the survivability of the human species.   If Malcolm Turnbull had been leader of the Liberal Party I would have voted for and campaigned on behalf of the Liberals. But my views at this last election also changed because I think the costs of addressing social inequality through redistributive measures were being overstated by conservatives. Maybe my revived social consciousness is partly an age- and income-related change.

I was lucky enough in my youth to get a good university education partly because of a scholarship and partly because university fees were so low in those days.  My parents could not otherwise have been able to let me pursue my studies.  I was also faced with the prospect of being conscripted to fight in Vietnam, a war I did not support.  It was natural for me to be fairly left wing.  As I grew older the practical issues of raising a family, buying a house etc. made me less idealistic and more pragmatically right wing.  Now that I earn a reasonable income and live quite well I guess I can afford the luxury of being less narrowly focused on economic imperatives.  But I just find the more strident varieties of libertarianism illogical and narrow-minded. Those with a doctrinaire pathological hatred of the state are as irrational as those who see the state alone as embodying the common good. Overall my current political stance is a fairly dull endpoint – I think I have returned to the views expressed in Paul Samuelson’s Economics text that I first started reading in 1967.   Samuelson argued that markets are generally a good thing and to be preferred to bureaucrats but markets do sometimes fail and market outcomes are often not distributionally fair.  The world is uncertain and insurance markets are incomplete so the state has a role to protect those dealt a bad hand of cards by life.  Yes, I am a social democrat as, indeed, are almost all Australians.

Hopefully I have converged on a steady state political identity.  I cannot see myself ever supporting the Labor Party longer-term but have real problems with the Liberals under Tony Abbott. I guess that the difficulty of working within the Liberal Party to provide a better leadership is something I am just to lazy to do and reforming the trade union dominated Labor Party seems impossible.  Hence I will probably continue to snipe from the sidelines.


13 comments to Changing political views

  • Oliver Townshend

    I would have to concur with your end conclusion. Having been a member of the Libs at Uni, I have since voted for them, and thought about rejoining them, but at the moment I just can’t see them as anything but a right wing populist party devoid of skills. Giving up on them a voting Labor disappointed me, but it was inevitable.

  • Jim Rose

    The US voting data is most at hand:
    1. Americans who identify as independents is inversely related to age. More than one-third of the youngest Americans identify as independents, a percentage that drops steadily as the population ages.

    2. The percentage who identify as Republicans follows roughly the opposite pattern. Only around 20% of Americans below 25 identify as Republicans.

    3. Democrats are quite strong among those under age 24. The percent Democrat stays at the one-third mark until about age 45, when it climbs slightly and remains higher through the 50s and early 60s, hovering at around the 40% point.

    Why specific people change is more interesting because as Hayek said, aggregates conceal more than they reveal.

    For a discussion of how as people lose their youthful radicalism see

    The paper is based on a study of 136,000 people in the World Values Survey. The data was from 48 different countries, during five periods between 1981 and 2008.
    • Participants were asked to choose whether they saw themselves as leftwing or rightwing;
    • The results were then compared with their responses to more detailed questions about their views, to determine how closely the participants own perception matched their real position on the ideological spectrum.

    Well-educated individuals are more likely to wrongly characterise their political position, thinking that they are more left-wing than they actually are. Holding down a job and raising a family leads them to adopt a more conservative outlook.

    One reason those on the left do not realise that they have shed their youthful liberalism is that they socialise with people going through the same ideological shift. Detached from the broader electorate, they fail to notice that their views have become more conservative.

  • John Quiggin


    We seem to have ended up pretty close together at any rate!

    While I haven’t shifted my views all that much, I have changed radically on some specific issues. On industry policy, I went from free trade to protectionist (on the basis of the Stolper-Samuelson theorem) in the 70s, and then gradually moved back to a qualified free trade position. On central planning, I started out on the Lange-Lerner side of the calculation debate and have now moved to a view that is hostile to any scheme of comprehensive central planning, but equally sceptical of unfettered markets.

  • conrad

    “If Malcolm Turnbull had been leader of the Liberal Party I would have voted for … the Liberals. ”

    What sane person wouldn’t?

    “But I just find the more strident varieties of libertarianism illogical and/or narrow-minded.”

    What sane person would?

    I must say that after reading your blog for a few years now, I don’t think I’m really too far from you in terms of your actual policy ideas (with the noteable exception of drugs, where I think harm minimization should be slowly tested/introduced), although curiously, I’m not sure if I could ever vote Liberal unless there was a huge discrepency between the two parties (say, Gillard versus Turnbull). So perhaps this just cognitive bias on my part (and perhaps your part also).

  • Jim Rose

    why libertarianism is used in the mix to define poles to measure how political preferences change over time is a mystery to me.

    the libertarian right are way out there, few know who they are, and even fewer vote for them.

  • hc

    One thing about my political views is that they are so mainstream. You are right Conrad – according to a poll this morning 62% of voters prefer Turnbull over Abbott who gains support of 34% which is only marginally above the support for Gillard.

    On drugs my views are, again, mainstream – a strong majority of voters oppose decriminalisation of drugs as I do.

    Jim the libertarian strand of thinking has almost zero direct electoral support although it has an impact on then Liberal Party. It has an influence on the media out of all proportion to its general significance because NewsCorp favours publishing op eds by its supporters particularly the nonsense that comes from the IPA.

  • Jim Rose

    thanks HC, I think you might mix up small government liberals with libertarians.

    Milton Friedman maybe once said he was a libertarian, preferring to be called a classical liberal, as I recall. His ideal sized state – pre-1997 Hong Kong – was far larger than what libertarians want?

    Dan Klein has enough trouble finding republicans, much less libertarians, in the U.S. economics profession. In ‘Is There a Free-Market Economist in the House? The Policy Views of American Economic Association Members”, he found that
    – about 8 per cent of American Economic Association members support free-market principles, and less than 3 per cent may be called strong supporters; and
    – By voting behaviour, even the average Republican American Economic Association member is middle-of-the-road, not free-market; 7 of his 264 American Economic Association survey respondents were libertarians.

    Klein speculated that the difference between the actual and publicly attributed views of the economics profession is partly explained by the superiority of free-market positions.

    Like all newspapers, the Murdoch press published a mix of op-eds that help sell papers to their readerships. Newspapers tend to locate near the median voter in their city who also buy papers. London is the main and wonderfully British exception

    Murdoch is like Kerry Packer. Murdoch has a long history of backing whoever is this election’s winning side: supporting and then turning away from Whitlam, Hawke, Keating and Blair with the political winds to stay on the winning side.

  • derrida derider

    Harry I’ve seen some dreadful people in the ALP, but I’ve also met lots of sincere and competent ones too. It’s not as though the other side doesn’t have its share of clowns, careerists and crooks (along, yes, with some good people). But like you I think climate change is important enough to swing my vote on its own. I would probably vote Lib at the moment if Turnbull was running the show, though I do think the Gillard government is better than most (including you) give it credit for.

    As an aside, Harry, I too am genuinely puzzled by the dream run the IPA gets. It’s not only the Murdoch press – the Fin (IMO the best paper in Australia, though that’s a low bar to set) also runs their stuff. The arguments are always dreadful shilling for their funder-du-jour expressed in lousy prose. The real puzzle is that there are plenty of much more interesting op-ed writers around, even on the Murdoch Right.

    Maybe you should try scribbling a couple yourself and see how you go.

  • Jim Rose

    derrida derider, attacking motives is the easy way out. It is better to look at the supply and demand for public intellectuals.

    As Stigler (1976) noted, the ideas behind any reform, Left or Right, have been around for a long time. To affect public policy, these reforming ideas must find a market among those influencing political change.

    Stigler contended that economists exert a minor and scarcely detectable influence on the societies in which they live.

    Stigler said that if Richard Cobden had spoken only Yiddish, and with a stammer, and Robert Peel had been a narrow, stupid man, England would have still moved to free trade in corn as its agricultural classes declined and its manufacturing and commercial classes grew from the 1840s.

    As Stigler noted, when their day in the sun comes, economists seem to be the leaders of public opinion.

    But when the views of these same economists are not so congenial to the current requirements of the clashing interest groups, these same economists are left to be the writers of letters to the editor in provincial newspapers.

    These days, these out-of-favour economists would run an angry blog and be obsessed with who is paying the currently more popular public intellectuals they dislike and envy.

  • JB Cairns

    I see both parties as pretty similar.

    You always for for the other party after they have been in government for two terms.

    Australian history is littered with governments, (mostly alleged conservative)who have been in government far too long.

  • Jim Rose

    JB, As Gordon Tullock observed:
    “If the parties would rather be elected than beaten, and they choose their policies accordingly, they would attempt to take the position of the median voter, because that assures them of success against any other policy taken by the other party.

    In practice, of course, we observe that in most two-party democracies the parties are very close together and near the dead centre of opinion.

    … We would anticipate that the two parties would be found close together near the centre of the distribution of the voters, and that they would split the voters about 50-50 unless one of them had made a mistake and wandered off from the centre”

  • hc

    I agree Derrida, the attention given to the IPA lunes is amazing. I wonder if it is NewsCorp political bent or a shortage of op ads. It is worth watching and trying to understand. Fox News comes to Australia?

    I have (not very successfully) made a few efforts at spreading my views. The stuff on plain packaging I wrote is one of the most downloaded research papers around – has been for weeks. But I couldn’t get newspaper interest here in Australia.

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