Before the research is examined comes the problem of translation. The terms “liberal” and “conservative” mean different things to different people, and the labels carry different meanings in different countries. In the U.S., for example, “liberal” infers someone with left-of-center views (what might be called social democratic in Europe). In Australia, liberal is attached to the Liberal Party, which is a right-of-center party of the type that would be considered conservative in the U.S. The left-of-center party in Australia is termed “Labor”, although like its U.K. counterpart (The Labour Party) it was once socialist, it now esposes a policy platform that would be more towards the U.S. liberal perspective. To complicate matters, Margaret Thatcher, idol of the U.K. Conservative Party and ally of Ronald Regan (U.S. Republican Party) proposed a free-market agenda that economists term liberalism. Confused? This is simply meant to illustrate the fallacy of political labels (for the best outline of political philosophy, take the political compass test. If nothing else it will move you away from thinking that political views can be neatly placed on a spectrum.)
Now, considering the study. These types of studies have been reported on plenty of times before. Essentially they take factors like “happiness” (something very hard ever to define) and “contentment” and correlate them, via questionnaires of how people perceive themselves and world, to data relating to health and sometimes life expectancy. Political leanings, in the case of the current survey, have been thrown into the mix.
The new study has been undertaken by Roman Pabayo, a community health researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno. The findings have been published in an academic journal – Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. Unfortunately, having previously been made available, the research is now, oddly, embargoed. A short summary, although sparse on analysis, is provided by U.S.A. Today.
The study was conducted of U.S. citizens only. The participants were 32,000 adults. Each participant was required to identify as Democrat, Republican, or independent (this being the U.S., socialist was conspicuously left off the list.) Each of the participants was then tracked over a fifteen year period, filling in health questionnaires at required time points. The researchers also took note if any person died in the interim.
The result was that self-proclaimed conservatives were 6 percent more likely to die over the fifteen years compared with those who were self-proclaimed liberals. A big difference? Not really. Even when the data is normalized for age, gender, income, and locale, there remain various other factors (not least genetics) that could influence the results.
This is not to say that political philosophy doesn’t connect with a happiness quotient and that this, in turn, affects health and life expectancy. It might also be the liberalism (whatever it is supposed to be) creates greater feelings of well-being than social conservatism. It’s just that the study doesn’t really prove this in any direction.
And in the end, does it matter? On the basis of a 6 percent chance of living longer (which isn’t far outside the 5 percent margin of error applied to most social science analyses) would you change your core beliefs?