Conservative vs. Liberal Jobs

My last post got me thinking about the liberal vs. conservative slant of different jobs. Here are two sources of data.

Consider some jobs that lean conservative: soldier, police, doctor, religious worker, insurance broker. These seem to be jobs where there are rare big bad things that can go wrong, and you want workers who can help keep them from happening. That explanation can also makes some sense of these other conservative jobs: grader & sorter, electrical contractor, car dealer, trucker, coal miner, construction worker, gas service station worker, non-professor scientist. Conservatives are more focused on fear of bad things, and protecting against them.

Now consider some jobs that lean liberal: professor, journalist, artist, musician, author. Here you might see these jobs as having rare but big upsides. Maybe the focus is on small chances that a worker will cause a rare huge success. This is plausibly the opposite of a conservative focus on rare big losses.

But consider these other liberal jobs: psychiatrist, lawyer, teacher. Here the focus may just be on people who talk well. And that can also make sense of many of the previous list of liberal jobs. It might also makes sense of another big liberal job: civil servant.

I’m not suggesting these are the only factors that influence which jobs are liberal vs. conservative, but they do seem worth exploring.

Added 20Nov: This post was quoted in full at Marginal Revolution, and commenters pointed to two related data sources.

Added 3Dec: A new article with data.

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  • Michael Blume

    Steve Yegge thinks all software engineers can be thought of as either liberal or conservative in how they approach their work

    • His view fits – conservatives focused on software safety protect against big harms, startups as liberals focus on the chance of a big upside.

  • adrianratnapala

    Most of the data on those plots can be explained by a rule that says “People who who tell other people what to think for a living lean left. Nearly everyone else leans (nominally) right.” The most notable exceptions being bartenders and lobbyists. Lobbyist are centrist on average because democracy works by splitting the politicians they court into roughly equals halves. I don’t know why bartenders are so heavily left-wing.

    I say “(nominally) right”, because a theory-heavy version of my observation is that: People who tell other people what to think form a somewhat coherent social class with common interests. Nowadays “leftist” is the name for their shared political outlook. The name “rightist” then gets defined to have enough parts, aspects and forms to include everyone else.

    • g

      I’m pretty sure the following jobs lean left rather than right (some are from Robin’s list, some not): software engineer, industrial designer, nurse, household cleaner, musician, civil servant. These do not involve telling other people what to think for a living.

      The following jobs lean right rather than left: general, corporate executive, religious minister, financial adviser. These all involve telling other people what to think for a living, at least to the same extent as the typical allegedly-left-leaning job does.

      • Salem

        “[Being a] civil servant… do[es] not involve telling other people what to think for a living.”

      • g

        Thank you for that cogent criticism; I am completely convinced by your detailed argument.

        Or I might be, if I had any idea what it is. Would you care to engage in actual discussion, or did you just want to point and laugh?

        I wonder whether we mean different things by “civil servant”. Perhaps, e.g., you have in mind the most senior managerial roles in the civil service, which involve telling people what to think in the same way as senior managerial roles in any other organization (note: those senior managerial roles tend to lean right rather than left.)

        On reflection, it seems to me that “civil servant” (at least as I use the term; I’ve checked that my usage matches definitions elsewhere but it might still differ from yours) isn’t so much a job description as a *context* for a job description; a “civil servant”‘s actual job might be (for instance): middle manager; accountant; database administrator; lawyer.

        See e.g. for some information about civil service jobs in the UK.

      • adrianratnapala

        @Salem, and has a point, even relatively junior guys write reports with policy recommendations. But overall you are right: civil-servants are not professional idea-mongers. And, private-sector bureaucrats are not left wing (although they are not particularly right wing either according to the graphs).

        I see the alliance as a contingent fact about how politics works in leading democracies. Ideas-people try to get their preferred visions implemented through bureaucratic government. Culture among civil-servants comes to smile upon such visions.

      • adrianratnapala

        I was seeking to explain the data points on Robin’s two graphs. Of which only civil servant makes it on your list.

        But there is a hugely important exception to my rule: “Religious workers” lean heavily right wing. That term is vague, but I grant it seems likely that the average Protestant pastor and Muslim mullah is very right wing by the standards of his society.

        I think I should call my social class the “anti-priest” class. A priests job involves to tell people to think in accordance with ancient tradition, this class has other ideas.

      • My recollection of some studies on college faculties was that the nursing department was the most Republican (the general tendency was for vocational disciplines to be less Dem).

      • AspiringRationalist

        That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true of the people who graduated from those departments.

      • Yes, Bryan Caplan has written about that.

    • Peter David Jones

      Yeah, the police just tell people what to do.

      • adrianratnapala

        Yes, and I bet that “people who tell people what to do for a living” can also form itself into a political class. Then we get authoritarian dictatorships. It’s where democracy works and persuasion matters, that idea-mongers have slowly formed into a powerful class. It’s a sign of health.

    • oldoddjobs

      I’m surprised that you find bartenders to be heavily left-wing. Depends on the country/state, I guess. Any further thoughts?

  • Frog Doe

    The lawyer, teacher, professor, civil servant all fit some major narratives of liberal society/religion/culture: that laws must be explicitly written down and are universal, the education is the (religious) rite that turns “the ignorant (read un-Christian)” into “the educated (read Christian)”, high education confers the priesthood, and the civil servant/journalist as the proper position of lay people.

    I don’t have a clever description for artist, because I mostly think they go with what is popular and/or transgressive.

  • asdf

    Those on the right tend to be ethical monotheists. As such, they take object morality. They tend to favor careers which promote Justice and Good.

    Those on the right tend to be secular rationalists with some sort of utilitarian based morality. They tend to favor careers with promote /social/ justice and /social/ good.

    • asdf

      A couple of mistakes above:
      – I said “those on the right” in both paragraphs.
      In the second, I meant “those on the left”.
      – “object morality” should read “objective morality”

      I think most all of the delineations proposed here reveal the biases of the proposers. FWIW to any readers who hadn’t assumed, I am on the right.

    • Sieben

      You could interpret causality as going the other way.

      I don’t think being a police officer reinforces anyone’s utilitarian ethics.

      • asdf

        I said nothing of causality.

        I don’t know what you’re trying to say in your other sentence.

      • Sieben

        You certainly are stating “taking objective morality” causes you to favor “careers which promote justice and good”.

        Regardless, it’s not my job to make you understand. Forget I replied.

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  • Ivan

    I think a lot of it has to do with the amount of creativity that is required of the a job vs. following a pre determined rules.

    A good example is the difference between a medical doctor and a college professor. Both require approximately equal level of intelligence and conscientiousness to attain and be successful at, yet college professor jobs are a lot more focused on creativity and working in a nebulous environment. Contrast this with a physician, where he/she has to largely determine which established treatment patterns to follow for certain patient type. This requires a lot of intelligence and very good memory, but not a whole lot out of the box thinking. This is why there is so much talk of Watson-like computer replacing medical professionals in the future.

    I am not at all saying that physicians cant be creative, but on average, being a college professor requires a lot more creativity and working in an uncertain environment. Similar case can be made for the rest of the occupations that Robin listed. Think about how much of a key job requirement creativity is for these professions: journalist, artist, musician, and author.

    • Silent Cal

      This may not be incompatible with Robin’s claim. Creativity makes good sense when there’s a long tail upside, procedure makes sense when there’s a long tail downside.

    • IMASBA

      Yes, creativity would be my choice too if I had to choose one factor that divides conservative and liberal jobs the most. It’s really clear when you look at the difference between engineers and scientists (medical doctors could be called “medical engineers”, as opposed to medical researchers). Not that engineers cannot come up with creative solutions ever, but they feel more comfortable operating in familiar territory with familiar, unquestionable rules, while scientists like to challenge the rules, find out when the rules don’t apply anymore.

  • arch1

    1) Robin, did the creators of the 2nd chart say why they filtered out non-repeat givers which (as they say in their caption) changed the aggregate totals considerably?
    2) I am surprised that non-lobbyist lawyers trend so far left.
    3) Aside: No wonder so many lawyers wax eloquent about political contributions as protected speech: Far more than any other profession (and conceivably more than *all* others), it is they who pay the piper. If one lumps “other lawyers” with the trial lawyers and the 30%(?) of lobbyists who are lawyers, one has already reached half the total of all categories shown. (Of course many of the *pipers* are lawyers, too:-)

    • arch1

      I take back the “all others” comment, as I don’t know what fraction of total contributions are unrepresented on the chart.

  • Jackson

    Have we considered the real effect here for at least some of these is path dependency? That people, on average, prefer those who share their views, and whomever the first cohort(s) were determine the later slant and it’s essentially random based on the first group?

  • Curt Adams

    There’s a number of studies of brain function now showingconservatives are more fearful and liberals more self-controlled. There’s a kind of two-state system in the brain where the amygdala can shut down the frontal lobes (mostly due to fear) and the frontal lobes can partially shut down the amygdala.

    It makes perfect sense that jobs where fear is more of an issue would tend to have conservatives. I would expect both that people more prone to fear would be more likely to pick jobs where that’s an asset, and that people exposed to nasty stuff would become more fearful.

    The liberal connection is not so clear. The “liberal brain” with its greater ability to suppress emotional reactions can obviously confer benefits, but they’re more subtle than “avoiding really bad stuff”. Generally it’s best where natural emotional reactions are a hindrance for what you need to do but details probably differ.

    For professors, it’s an advantage not to get caught defending bad theories. For the various artists, it’s probably more of an advantage to be able to analyze and control emotional responses to figure out how to evoke them. For psychiatrists and teachers, I’d guess it’s about being able to keep cool in the face of provocative or obnoxious behavior.

    For lawyers and civil servants, I’d suspect the bias to liberalism is driven by financial self-interest more than job requirements – similar to how the wealthy lean conservative.

    • asdf

      ” The “liberal brain” with its greater ability to suppress emotional reactions ”

      Citation needed.
      This is not remotely suggested by the study in your link.

      search “liberal conservative emotion study” and read the top 10 headlines. I think you have the opposite of the truth here.

      You article is about a specific emotion, not emotion generally.

    • oldoddjobs

      Conservatives are more “fearful” and therefore choose scary jobs? Right…

      • jhertzli

        Maybe the jobs cause the alleged fearfulness.

      • oldoddjobs

        Oh any story will do, I guess.

      • Musicmaing

        That’s not what I think the study was indicating but rather that conservatives are motivated more by fear and more alert to threats in their environment. That doesn’t mean the study was saying they’re wimps, which you seem to be thinking.

    • jhertzli

      Isn’t this shown by studies with pathetically-small sample sizes and political-orientation tests that could prove Ronald Reagan was a liberal airhead?

  • jhertzli

    On the other hand, liberals tend to focus on preventing downsides in people’s economic lives and conservatives tend to focus on allowing upsides.

    • IMASBA

      Yes, in Western countries, but is that universally true? Conservative forces in China and India are against economic liberalization, as I imagine conservative Soviets were during the 1980s. Even in the United States it took decades of Cold War propaganda and politics to get the religious right to embrace everything capitalist instead of material modesty.

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  • Oak

    The liberal professions seem to deal with abstract thought (journalist, professor, software developer) while conservative professions seem more routed in the tangible (farmer, police, miner).

    I am surprised you did not mention near and far mode.

  • oldoddjobs

    If your livelihood depends on redistribution or a relatively large public sector, you’ll probably believe in that. Do we call this “liberal” now?

    No one seems to have mentioned this crude cui bono story yet so I just thought I’d throw it in.

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  • Handle

    No, it’s all about missionary evangelism.

    Jobs in which one can leverage presumptive trust or an ability to influence to change the opinions of many people at once – to educate, enlighten, and uplift them and thereby improve and reform society at large to achieve a novel vision, and to build the political power base that enabled that broader effort – attract liberal types.

    It doesn’t hurt that some of those jobs have paths to a rarely achieved but still very prominent celebrity status, and also get glorified in celebrated cultural narratives that make these jobs seem as if they were dramatic and heroic, which they aren’t.

    Bureaucrats are a semi-exception in that they are faceless and their efforts obscure to most everyone. Still, they often feel close to insider / inner-circle power (or on the path that leads there), and they effectively create the law, which helps them feel part of the greater societal-ameliorative project.

    The question is are you trying to make people better off, or are you trying to make better people (i.e. more enlightened ones, like you). You can repair the world through Tikkun olam by helping the congregation with their problems, or by believing that the congregation is the problem.

    You mention “religious worker”, but if you spent more time with American Protestants you’d probably notice a big political split between very liberal mainline clergy and conservative evangelic clergy. The former is fading much faster than the latter.

    You would thus predict that at the conservative extreme are religious groups that don’t ‘preach’ to their adherents at all – trying to get them to behave better and believe different, better things – and instead concentrate almost entirely on ritual performance (prayer and study-group leadership) and other personal services. Ahem: Ultra-Orthodox Jews.

    You would also predict that conservative jobs would concentrate more on competence at practical and physical skills than social communication, or otherwise have no real possibility for fame or social influence, and which cannot inspire pipe-dream fantasies and so which by definition are ‘boring’ and really all about classic compensation.

    Some of those jobs have their own appeal in terms of drama, glorified narratives, and opportunity to gain high-status through personal sacrifice and pro-social savoir-heroism, like: Doctors, Firemen, Soldiers.

    But again, usually, these professions seek to serve the people within their communities as they are and have no real opportunity or motivation to alter the ideological preferences and beliefs of the people being served, except perhaps for things relevant to the service they are providing (they have to ‘show they care’).

    So a fireman wants to convince you to check the batteries in your smoke alarm, and a doctor wants to convince you to take your pills on time and exercise more. But they aren’t going to harangue you about your duty to eradicate other social ills.

    And a Soldier (at least in the modern sense) is different from a generic warrior or mafiosi or armed criminal or secret policeman or a dictator’s personal thug or a bandit in that he conceives of himself fighting for the interests of his community, and against a dangerous or oppressive enemy, instead of looking at the other members of their own communities who happen to think the wrong things as the enemy.

    A Soldier doesn’t gain status or fame by being the earliest and loudest at denouncing the beliefs of the enemy and reminding everyone how bad they are, but by winning battles and defeating them in combat. Indeed, there is often a great degree of mutual understanding and respect across battle lines. The man said, “All patriots belong to one family.”

    That’s pretty much the opposite of a Social Justice ‘Warrior’, who is all about gaining status by signalling in costless denunciations, and also about as liberal as it gets.

    • g

      So your position is that liberals work to enhance their status and build a power base and change people in their image and pursue pipe-dream fantasies, whereas conservatives work to make the world a better place?

      It seems to me that when you find yourself adopting a position that says “liberals are good, conservatives are evil” or “conservatives are good, liberals are evil”, you might want to consider whether political bias may be colouring your opinions.

      I mean, sure, it could be true. (Just as, to pick a roughly equally plausible account on the other side of the political fence, it could be true that liberals tend to take jobs that require more creative thought because liberals are smarter than conservatives.) But in the absence of really compelling evidence that one group really is Good and the other Bad, or one group really is Smart and the other Stupid, it seems more likely that there are reasons that don’t match up quite so conveniently with anyone’s political prejudices.

      • Handle

        “So your position is that liberals work to enhance their status and build a power base and change people in their image and pursue pipe-dream
        fantasies, whereas conservatives work to make the world a better place?”

        No, that’s not my position and almost the opposite of what I wrote. Read it again more carefully.

        In fact, it’s liberals who are more likely to be motivated by the notion of “trying to make the world a better place”, “achieving social justice”, and so forth. Conservatives usually aren’t trying to make ‘the world’ a better place at all. They are usually motivated by making things better for a few people close to them, with concern for strangers diminishing quickly with distance.

        The reality is that almost everyone is trying to raise their status and practically everyone is tempted to pursue fantastic dreams that are often unrealistic, improbable, and delusional and often heavily influenced by fictional narratives.

        However, liberals are disproportionately attracted to certain career fields in which the vision of success is affecting major change through the influencing a target audience to believe in different ideas than those they currently hold.

        That is, “power through preaching”. What they want to use the power for and whether that’s good or bad is a matter of fashion and preference.

        And by the way, that doesn’t imply any judgment on my part on whether that vision is good or evil, justified, or otherwise. Obviously that depends on what you think about the specific content of the audience’s current belief that is at issue.

        It also doesn’t claim that the missionary evangelist is spouting propaganda or using manipulative rhetoric or abusing the trust that the audience tends to grant them. The message and its presentation may all be completely noble and above-board.

        Though, I think you must admit, if someone believes that the messages they communicate are merely the means to greater ends, then the temptation to engage in manipulative propaganda if one thinks they can get away with it is awfully hard for less scrupulous types to resist.

        But that is an orthogonal matter to whether the impulse itself tends to more frequently characterize the motivations of liberals than conservatives.

        And the pattern is pretty clear. The most important common thread between all the most heavily disproportionately liberal professions are those with verbal influence over public opinion.

        And while people aren’t always honest or self-aware enough to give accurate answers, if you know liberals who are in those fields and ask them what motivated them to go into those careers, the modal answer will be some version of precisely what I’ve explained: improving society and serving what they regard as the great and noble cause through their ability to influence people with their words.

      • Marina Doshkevich

        I would say things have changed. Liberals work actively to prohibit any conservative rhetoric from being given a platform. Why do you think they are so rude and punishing to anyone that disagrees with them. Looking at these comments, how can you doubt that a liberal would do what they could to further another liberal over a conservative in any way they could?

      • guy

        You don’t believe in right or wrong do you?

  • Ronfar

    Engineers tend to be more politically conservative than scientists…

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  • Com3755

    Professors, lawyers: Can be very conservative.
    Psychiatrist: They are doctors. Very conservative.
    Scientists can be very liberal especially the geeky scientists (computer science, etc)

    • Marina Doshkevich

      NO. Professors can not be very Conservative. They have done studies in the most expensive, and well as moderate colleges. There is literally ZERO registered Republicans in most all of them in every department. Even in Catholic colleges, you do not find any conservatives among the tenured professors. There are however, independents in some of the Engineering and Sciences departments. Intellectual Diversity is very definitely gone from institutions of higher learning.

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  • Kenneth Slayor

    Conservatives tend to deal with facts. Liberals tend to deal with feelings. Liberals will be found in fields that don’t bother to rely on facts: art, literature, journalism, drama, etc. Conservatives will be people who rely on facts and factual performance: baseball player, accountant, etc.

    • So, our conservative president (and the movement supporting him) deals in facts?

      But perhaps there’s some merit to your suggestion. When conservatives want to mislead people, they invent their facts; whereas liberals ignore or overrule the facts.

      • Kenneth Slayor

        I have never considered Trump to be a conservative. He is an opportunist who will do whatever works at the moment. He has little to no allegiance to Lockean values.

      • It’s also clear that Kim isn’t a “real” commie.

        I’d say Trump is an extremely toughminded rightist. The extremely toughminded don’t think much in terms of principles. But you do agree, don’t you, that Trump represents the farmer pole?

      • Kenneth Slayor

        I have yet to see any communist government anywhere on the planet. Every communist regime to go in place has been tribal in orientation. Even the USSR was merely a Russian nationalists regime using communism as a state religion while building an empire of buffer states centered on Moscow. China was never so much communists as they were nationalists reinventing the wheel. And I really don’t consider Trump to be that far to the right. He is a moderate who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants personally.

        As to Trump representing some kind of cultural reference, I don’t see it. There isn’t a single group outside of the Nouveau Riche with whom he could be identified. He is crass, gaudy, inelegant, self-aggrandizing, and tactless. The one thing he has been elected to represent is the the level of ‘fed-up’-edness held by those whom the Left has castigated, berated, and persecuted for the last five decades. Those tired of being assaulted for things they have never done and the insecurity issues of the feminist elite would rather elect Trump than anyone who panders to the Left.

        And in case your wondering, I voted for Stein – because she was the only candidate with a brain left after the primaries.

      • 1. Well, you succeeded in surprising me by supporting Stein, in light of your position on the sjw left.

        2. The Soviet regime was internationalist in its first years. The turn came in 1924 with “socialism in one country.” (But, arguably, the Rapallo Treaty in 1922 already augured a nationalist course.)

        3. Far-right populism has always been opportunist, never hesitating to demagogically borrow slogans from the left. That Trump’s themes are rightist is proven, it seems to me, by the fact that they have inspired the neo-Nazis and grown their ranks.

      • Kenneth Slayor

        My response to this was marked as SPAM by someone or something that is apparently incapable of identifying what is and is not SPAM.

      • Anna Hale

        Trump is MY PRESIDENT!!!

    • Peter David Jones

      So there are no conservative engineers or scientists?

      • Kenneth Slayor

        There is a legal principle called Ejusdem Generis (sp?) which means that things which would be found in the same list are naturally considered to be in the same list. However, the “etc.” indicates that the listing I gave was not exhaustive.