August 21, 2018 1:23PM

Results from the 2018 Libertarianism vs. Conservatism Post‐​Debate Survey

As part of a yearly summer tradition, the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute co-host a debate in which interns at both think tanks debate whether conservatism or libertarianism is a better ideology. Following this year’s debate, the Cato Institute conducted a post-debate survey of attendees to ask who they thought won the debate and what they believe about a variety of public policy and philosophical issues. The post-debate survey offers a unique opportunity to examine how young leaders in the conservative and libertarian movements approach deep philosophical questions that may be inaccessible to a general audience.

Despite agreement on domestic economic issues and free trade, the survey finds striking differences between conservative and libertarian  attitudes about Donald Trump, immigration, transgender pronouns, government’s response to opioid addiction, police, defense spending and national security, domestic surveillance, and religion. The survey also went further than just asking about policy and used Jordan Peterson’s 12 principles for a 21st century conservatism to examine the underlying philosophical differences between libertarian and conservative millennials. 

Full LvCDebate Attendee Survey results found here

Trump and Partisan Loyalties 

Libertarian and Conservative attendees have starkly different views of President Donald Trump. While 91% of conservative attendees approve of Trump’s job performance, 69% of libertarian attendees disapprove of Trump. 

Eighty-four percent (84%) of young conservative attendees identify as Republicans and that number increases to 99% once independent-leaning Republicans are included. Libertarian millennial attendees are far less partisan: only 19% initially identify as Republicans while 76% don’t believe either the Republican or Democratic parties represent them. However, if libertarian independents had to pick, 60% would lean Republican. Thus, both groups are more aligned with the Republican rather than Democratic Party, but libertarians are far less committed partisans. 

Young Libertarians and Conservatives Have Different Policy Priorities 

When asked to select the top three issues most important to them personally, libertarians and conservatives have different issue priorities. Conservatives are about 30 points more likely than libertarians to place greater weight on abortion (41% vs. 11%) and family values (31% vs. 4%) and are about 20 points more likely to emphasize national security (35% vs. 18%) and civil society (23% vs. 5%). 

Libertarian attendees on the other hand are about 20 points more likely than conservatives to prioritize criminal justice issues (24% vs. 2%), regulation (28% vs. 8%), government spending (37% vs. 22%), and free speech (47% vs. 34%). 

Both libertarians and conservatives agree that taxes (25% vs. 24%), welfare state issues (14% vs. 16%), and immigration (24% vs. 20%) are top priorities. Similarly, both groups say policy related to housing, transportation, the environment, unions, and paid leave are not their top priorities (<5%).

Conservatives Say Political Life Should be Based on Judeo-Christian Principles 

Nearly 9 in 10 conservative attendees (87%) believe that “political life in this country should be based on Judeo-Christian principles,” while 13% believe it should not. Conversely, 70% of libertarian attendees believe that these religious principles should not be the basis of American political life, 30% believe it should be. 

Part of the reason for this may be that conservatives are far more likely to attend church regularly (59% vs. 16%) and to believe people need to be raised with religion to learn good values (84% vs. 41%). Furthermore, conservatives also believe government has a role to play in promoting traditional values (83% vs. 9%). While libertarians are more likely to see value in religious teaching for children they do not extend such a role to government.  

Libertarians Want More Immigration, Conservatives Want to Keep It the Same or Decrease It 

Young libertarian attendees have a more open and permissive view of immigration while conservatives take a more restrictive approach—from the border wall, citizenship for illegal immigrants, sanctuary cities, legal immigration procedures, and the Muslims travel ban.   

Strong majorities of conservatives favor building a large wall along the U.S.-Mexican border (74%), oppose sanctuary cities (94%), and support deportation of illegal immigrants (55%). 

In the opposite direction, strong majorities of libertarians oppose a border wall (86%), support sanctuary cities (58%), and favor citizenship for unauthorized immigrants (59%).

Even when it comes to legal immigration processes, 74% of libertarians want to increase the number of immigrants legally allowed to enter the US, compared to 28% of conservatives. Instead a plurality of conservatives (43%) would rather keep legal immigration flows the same and nearly a third (29%) would decrease it. 

Both libertarian and conservative attendees oppose a temporary travel ban on Muslims entering the United States; however, libertarians are nearly 40 points more opposed (89% vs. 51%). 

Given the divide between young libertarians' and conservatives' views of immigration, it's perhaps unsurprising that conservatives are nearly twice as likely (80% vs. 44%) as libertarians to agree that “Western civilization is at risk of losing its identity.”  

Libertarians Say U.S. Foreign Policy Causes Instability and Chaos 

Young libertarians and conservatives have dramatically different evaluations of the impact of U.S. foreign policy. Nearly 9 in 10 (86%) libertarians believe American foreign policy “does more to promote instability and chaos.” In stark contrast, 82% of conservatives believe American foreign policy “does more to promote peace and stability” in the world. Few questions polarize libertarians and conservatives more than the impact of U.S. foreign policy.  

This might explain why 60% of libertarians think the U.S. should leave Afghanistan “now,” and 93% say at least within the next five years. In contrast, a plurality (40%) of conservatives say the U.S. should stay in Afghanistan for “as long as it takes,” while 31% say the U.S. should leave in the next five years, and only 25% think we ought to withdraw troops immediately. 

What Pronouns Do You Prefer? 

Libertarians and conservatives are also diametrically opposed on the use of transgender pronouns. While three-fourths (75%) of libertarians use a transgender person’s preferred gender pronouns, three-fourths (73%) of conservatives say they use the pronouns corresponding with the transgender person’s biological sex. 

These results are consistent with the fact that a majority (52%) of conservatives do not think society should “do more ensure LGBT people feel fully accepted in society,” 20% have no opinion, and 27% think society does have this obligation. Instead, a majority (55%) of libertarians think society does need to do more to ensure LGBT people feel accepted, while 24% have no opinion, and 22% disagree. 

Conservatives Want Government To Do Something about Opioids 

Nearly three fourths (71%) of conservatives agree that government needs to "do more" to combat prescription painkiller addiction, while 14% think it should not. However, nearly 6 in 10 (59%) of libertarians think government should not do more to address opioid addiction, while 25% think it should. 

Conservatives and Libertarians Disagree About Police Misconduct 

Conservatives and libertarians are divided in their perceptions of police misconduct with conservatives more apt to defend and libertarians more skeptical of police. Eight in ten (80%) young conservative attendees believe that that police only use lethal force when necessary. Conversely, 77% of libertarians instead think that the police are too quick to use lethal force.

Conservatives Support Domestic Surveillance, Libertarians Overwhelmingly Opposed 

A slim majority (54%) of conservative millennials approve of the government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts while 46% oppose. However, libertarian attendees are overwhelmingly opposed with 93% who disapprove including 75% who strongly disapprove. Only 7% support such a program. 

Young Conservatives and Libertarians Agree About Economics and Free Trade 

Despite the many aforementioned differences, the young conservative and libertarian attendees agree that smaller government is better, that we shouldn’t tax the wealthy more than we already are to raise revenue for more social programs, and that the costs of free trade to some domestic industries is outweighed by the benefits to consumers.  

Furthermore, nearly 100% of both groups say they prefer a smaller government providing fewer services with low taxes over a larger government with more services and high taxes (96% vs. 97%). Similarly, overwhelming majorities of young libertarians (91%) and conservatives (88%) oppose raising taxes on households earning more than $250,000 a year. 

Despite President Trump’s persistent criticism of free trade deals, strong majorities of conservatives (75%) and libertarians (94%) agree “free trade must be allowed, even if domestic industries are hurt by foreign competition.” A quarter (25%) of conservatives and 6% of libertarian attendees think “trade restrictions should be used to protect domestic industries.” 

Young Libertarians and Conservatives Tolerant of Free Speech and Political Expression 

Another area in which young libertarians and conservatives largely agree is that people should be allowed to express their political opinions publicly. Majorities of both libertarian (91%) and conservative attendees (58%) also believe that NFL players who refuse to stand for the national anthem should not be fired. Even still, libertarians are more than 30 points more likely to say the athletes shouldn’t be fired. Similarly, majorities of both libertarians (95%) and conservatives (58%) oppose a law banning flag burning, even still, libertarians are nearly 40 points more opposed.

Understanding the Differences between Conservatives and Libertarians 

Why do libertarians and conservatives agree on economics but disagree so vehemently on matters of immigration, national security, police, drugs, and LGBT issues? To explore the underlying philosophical differences between conservatives and libertarians, we asked attendees to evaluate a series of statements about tradition, order, change, social conformity, responsibility, and loyalty. Several of these statements come from University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson’s 12 proposed principles for a 21st century conservatism, several others were written by the survey author.[i] 

Libertarians and conservatives think about change and the importance of social order differently. Fully 88% of conservatives agree that “radical change should be viewed with suspicion, particularly in a time of radical change.” About half that—43%—of libertarian attendees agree with that statement while nearly as many (42%) disagree. Instead, nearly two-thirds (65%) of libertarians agree that “social change and disruption, even if they’re chaotic, are necessary to improve human happiness.” Only a quarter (24%) of conservative attendees agree that sometimes disruption and chaos are necessary for human flourishing.

Libertarians are more likely than conservatives to reject the “wisdom of the ages” idea that longstanding social norms are more likely to be correct. Conservatives are more likely to believe that social institutions and norms that have withstood the test of time have revealed truth given their longevity. A strong majority of conservative attendees (69%) agree that “we should judge our political system in comparison to other actual political systems and not to a hypothetical ideal.” Instead a plurality (45%) of libertarians disagree with this statement while 38% agree with it. 

Those who judge our system relative to a hypothetical ideal would be more comfortable with changing our political institutions to conform with a hypothetical—and thus untested—idea of a better future. However, those more cautious of change would be skeptical of transforming deeply rooted longstanding political institutions, that they view have withstood the test of time, into something untested.

In a similar vein, 67% of libertarian attendees disagree that “it is better to do what everyone has always done unless you have an extraordinarily valid reason not to,” while only 13% agree. Instead, a plurality (42%) of conservatives agree with this statement, 32% neither agree nor disagree and 25% disagree.  

In a consistent pattern, nearly 9 in 10 (89%) of conservatives agree that “intact heterosexual two-parent families constitute the necessary bedrock for a stable polity,” including 73% who strongly agree with this statement. Libertarian attendees are split on this idea with 47% who agree and 40% who disagree. 

Conservatives are more likely to emphasize social conformity as a useful and necessary tool for a properly functioning society. Libertarians tend to be skeptical. Nearly 9 in 10 (86%) of conservative attendees agree that it is “just and right to demand some sacrifice of individual impulse and idiosyncrasy so that society can function properly.” Libertarians are about 50 points less likely to agree (37%). Instead half (49%) disagree that people ought to curtail their own idiosyncrasies to get along in society and 14% have mixed feelings.

One reason why conservatives may expect greater social conformity from others is that they are far more likely to believe there is a “right way” to do things. If one believes there is a hierarchy of proper and effective behaviors it’s clear why one would expect others to get with the program.  Nearly 8 in 10 conservative attendees (78%) agree “there is always a right way to do things.” In contrast, a slim majority (51%) of libertarian attendees disagree that there is always a right way to do things. Ostensibly, libertarians tend to believe there could be several or even many equally effective ways of doing things.

Libertarians may de-prioritize social conformity because they tend to believe that flexible social norms are necessary to allow people to discover better ways of doing things. Even if they believe there is one right way, perhaps society hasn’t yet figured out what that right way is. Thus, 86% of libertarian millennial attendees agree that “we should keep social norms and laws flexible to allow people to discover better ways of doing things.” Only 33% of conservative attendees agree; instead a plurality disagree (44%) with that sentiment. 

Conservative attendees largely agree that “it is more noble to teach young people about responsibilities than about rights.” This is a hard statement to evaluate because many would say both are equally important. Nevertheless, when asked to choose, two-thirds (66%) of conservatives emphasize teaching young people about their responsibilities over informing people of their rights. Libertarians are divided with a plurality (45%) who disagree that teaching responsibilities should come before teaching about rights and 38% who agree.

Do young people love America? If they do, do they love it because it’s home, because of its history, because of the ideals it aspires to embody? What if America ceased living up to those ideals, would they still want to live here? Nearly two-thirds (61%) of young libertarians say no, “if another country better embodied the ideals of America” they would “want to move to that country” instead. Conversely, a majority (55%) of conservatives disagree, they would stay in America anyway. 

Instead, conservatives place greater emphasis on community, which may be one reason they wouldn’t want to leave the country if another country better embodied American ideals. Even though both conservatives (100%) and libertarians (89%) agree that “it’s important for people to have community,” 82% of conservatives “strongly agree” with this statement compared to 51% of libertarians—a 31-point difference. 

Despite these divisions, young libertarians supported several principles Peterson articulated for conservatives—on matters of liberty and just deserts. In fact, libertarians were far more likely to agree that “the government, local and distant, should leave people to their own devices as much as possible.” Although overwhelming majorities of young conservatives (83%) and libertarians (98%) agree, libertarians are 53 points more likely to “strongly agree” (83% vs. 30%) than conservatives. 

Both libertarian and conservative attendees also overwhelmingly endorse the idea of proportional justice that people should reap the benefits of their hard work. Over 9 in 10 libertarians and conservatives agree that “citizens have the inalienable right to benefit from the result of their own honest labor.” 

Who Won the Intern Debate? 

Who won the intern debate depends on whom you ask. Among conservative attendees: 94% said the conservative team won and 6% said the libertarian team won. Among libertarian millennial attendees, 54% said the libertarians won while 46% said the conservatives won. Among the moderates, liberals, and progressives in the audience, 58% felt the conservative team won and 42% thought the libertarians won. 


Many observers have assumed that libertarians and conservatives come from essentially the same branch of the political tree, or that one is simply a more stringent version of the other. However, the survey finds striking differences between the two groups in policy beliefs undergirded by different assumptions and philosophical worldviews. This survey of politically engaged young conservatives and libertarians highlights the commonalities as well as conflicts between the two groups and portends the political conflicts of the future.

Full LvCDebate Attendee Survey results found here

[i] Several of Peterson’s principles were re-worded for use in the survey. Although Peterson has said he doesn’t personally identify as conservative, when asked to speak to a conservative group he offered up twelve principles he thought conservatives could be for rather than against.