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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ranking Values – How Much Consistency?

by Scott Winship
A central line of social psychological research maintains that people have stable rank-ordered values, each of which inform behavior across diverse settings. On the other hand, political behavioral theory offers a number of reasons why voting might not be a simple matter of consulting one’s ordered values. Values may be in conflict, and choosing to prioritize one may come at the expense of others. Another possible complication is that voters may be indifferent, thus unable to rank two competing values. Or value rankings may be situational. Finally, the possibility that value ordering may be manipulable by political elites is highlighted by the current popularity of “framing”.
In his new paper, “Value Choices and American Public Opinion” (American Journal of Political Science 50(3), William G. Jacoby examines the question of how values are ordered. The survey Jacoby used first defined four values for respondents: liberty, equality, economic security, and social order. It then asked respondents to rank pairs of these four values presented one at a time so that each value was evaluated against each other value.
Jacoby found that economic security was ranked highest, followed by liberty, equality, and social order at the bottom. When he considered how many people produce a clearly ranked set of values from the pair comparisons (as opposed to a set of inconsistent choices), he found that four in five adults have a clear ordering. And when he looked at sets of three values, between 90 and 94 percent of adults ordered them consistently.
These figures overstate how many people truly have consistently ranked value preferences however. Some people who end up with ordered rankings really have non-ordered ones but for one or more pair comparisons, they couldn’t prioritize the two values and essentially chose one randomly. If people who are truly ambivalent or indifferent between a pair of values flip a coin when stating a preference, then the one-fifth of adults whose responses were inconsistently ranked would translate into one-third of adults actually having non-ordered preferences.
Another interesting finding is that adults with less education, political knowledge, and income are more likely to order the four values inconsistently. Jacoby persuasively argues that this is evidence that inconsistent rankings are primarily due to indifference arising from a lack of political information and, more generally, education and time.
Finally, Jacoby provides a creative test of whether framing affects policy preferences. If framing is effective, it should be the case that the influence of some values on support for policies increases while the influence of other values decreases under alternative frames. In contrast, Jacoby finds that the effects of liberty, equality, and economic security on support for government spending are statistically the same regardless of whether spending is framed as being for the poor, for minorities, or for the general public. Jacoby doesn’t seem to appreciate, however, that values could be operating through partisanship, which is also included in the models and which does have different effects depending on the framing.
Jacoby’s study shows that for most adults, there is a clear ordering of values. Apparently, choosing between competing or conflicting values is not a problem for most people in forming policy preferences. Americans value economic security above liberty, liberty above equality, and all three above social order. Where values are not clearly ordered, it is mainly due to low education levels. Those who are less educated consider questions of value ordering less than well-educated adults do, perhaps because they have less time, interest, or ability to do so. Unfortunately, Jacoby didn’t look at whether the policy positions of the least educated reveal similar indifference and whether the positions of the most educated are consistent. This question is crucial to interpreting survey responses on preferences for spending, tax cuts, deficit reduction, and other policies.
Update: Here’s a link to the paper.

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