The World's Smallest Political Hook

Quiz results

Have you ever taken the "World's Smallest Political Quiz?" If so, how'd you do? Did you discover you were a libertarian? As the results show, the overwhelming majority of the 800,000+ people who have taken the test at that site are. Even accounting for the fact that this is a libertarian political site, so libertarians are more likely than others to take this quiz, the results are still remarkable. The percentage of "libertarians" as determined by the quiz is completely out of proportion with the number of Libertarians in this country, and even the somewhat anarchistic internet.

Why the disparity?

It raises a good question: if so many people are libertarians, why don't they vote Libertarian? According to Alejandro Chafuen as quoted on the web page about Advocates for = Self-Government, "For decades, libertarians have had the best ideas and the worst marketing."

While the second half of that statement probably has merit, many people would take issue with the first half. Indeed, there is a much simpler and more likely explanation: the quiz itself is flawed.

Flaws in the quiz

Many of the flaws in the quiz present themselves immediately. Others require a little analysis.

Size

The selling point of the quiz is that it is small. It attempts to tell you what your political philosophy is based on the answers to ten questions. But smaller is not necessarily better. On the contrary, there are countless issues woven into the political tapestry. Read any internet political discussion group and you'll see. Often even one thread may split into tangents covering more topics than the quiz. The fewer the questions, the less likely we can determine anything significant from the answers.

Dimension

The other selling point of the quiz is that it is = two-dimensional. Rather than trying to put a person on the standard one-dimensional Left/Right scale, the quiz adds a dimension, drawing a distinction between opinions on economic and personal issues.

Of course such scales, one and two-dimensional, are mostly intended for convenience. When faced with a choice of two or more political candidates we cannot compare each candidate's stand on every issue with our own. We have to get a more general idea about where we land on some simpler scale, and how the various candidates compare. In reality, an accurate scale would have many more dimensions. Ideally, at least one axis for every major political issue. But that's not practical, so we reduce the number of dimensions.

The authors of the quiz, however, have chosen two axes which unnaturally inflate the significance of libertarianism and authoritarianism in the space of political ideologies. The quiz improves the standard classification of political ideologies by recognizing that there are people who believe the government has a role in nearly nothing, and others who believe the government has a role in nearly everything. But the quiz authors ignore very important political questions which determine not whether the government has a role, but the nature of that role. It leaves us with the same left/right dichotomy for those people who believe that the government has a limited role in society.

Indeed, if the quiz were written to address the variety of real political issues in America, it would include a number of other axes beside "economic" and "personal". The result would be a drastic increase in the number of potential data points which do not fall within the "libertarian" and "authoritarian" regions. We would see the prominence of libertarian ideology decrease with each new axis.

So the quiz limits the questions to those libertarians are interested. Does that in itself skew the results toward libertarianism? No, but it does inflate the potential that respondents might end up classified as either libertarian or authoritarian. Every question provides a choice between government action and inaction. Each choice categorizes the respondent as more libertarian or more authoritarian. All the authors have to do now is phrase the questions in a way which will incline the respondent to answer "yes" more often than "no".

Leading questions

The questions in this quiz are designed to lead people to a "yes" response. This is not to say that people will always answer yes, or even most of the time. Indeed, many readers will consider the questions thoroughly and answer "maybe" or "no". However, given the already exaggerated prominence of libertarianism in the political philosophies the quiz measures, it only takes a few leading questions to get most respondents to score as libertarian.

Many of the questions are over-broad. Respondents who might support the repeal of regulations in a specific case may answer "yes" to a question which actually covers a much broader class of cases they wouldn't necessarily agree with. Some of the questions are so broad it's not actually clear to what they're referring. Which "regulations on sex" are they talking about? Sodomy laws? Prostitution? Libertarians want to repeal laws against both. Those who support the repeal of sodomy laws, however, may answer "yes" even though the question covers prostitution as well.

Some of the questions make unsupported (not necessarily = unsupportable) statements followed by questions based on them. That is more than a little leading. Questions that exploit a sense of fairness ("let peaceful people...") are also leading.

Notice also that the questions listed especially appeal to youth, and cover subjects (draft, drugs, taxes) about which netizens tend to be the most anarchistic.

For these reasons and more it's not surprising that the questions tend to get more "yes" answers than "no".

The Quiz as Libertarian evangelism

I'm not the first observer to compare the Nolan quiz with religious evangelism. The comparison is hard to avoid! As soon as the respondent is scored (likely as a "libertarian") there is an offer for more information on the libertarian philosophy. As the Advocates for = Self-Government point out, "the ones who score libertarian will be amazed, even delighted, to learn there is a name for their beliefs. Many give their names for follow-up."

Much like religious evangelism, the Nolan quiz is intended to offer people a home for their beliefs. Much like religious (especially cult) evangelism, the intention and misleading nature of the "hook" is not always obvious. Unhappy people are offered Christ (or Buddha, or the Bagwhan) as a source of happiness. Politically frustrated people are offered libertarianism as a comfortable political ideology. Critics have long compared libertarianism with religion in the sense that both are highly ideological and offer easy answers to complex questions. It should not be surprising that both use the same techniques to draw members.

A Modest Proposal

I'd like to offer an interesting exercise. I'll re-write the ten questions. Go back and take the quiz again, but answer my questions, not the ones in the original quiz. The purpose is to demonstrate how through a different choice of phrasing, the same questions will get different answers. My questions are phrased to incline the respondent to answer "no" more often than "yes".

Personally I won't answer "no" to all of these questions, and they are not intended to illustrate my own bias. I just want to show how easy it is to make the questions biased in the opposite direction.

So here are the questions:

Personal:

Economic:

More Info

For an exhaustive critique of libertarianism and links to other pages about libertarianism, pro and con, check out Mike Huben's excellent Critiques of Libertarianism page.

Mark Rupright -- 1/24/97