Libertarians on the Shrink’s Couch

November 16, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared in The DC Examiner on November 16, 2010.

We libertarians tend to think of ourselves as a tiny, embattled sect, ignored when we’re not reviled. Lately, though — with Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” shooting up the Amazon charts and Tea Partiers with “Don’t Tread on Me” flags storming Capitol Hill — there’s increasing interest in figuring out how this strange tribe thinks.

A team of social psychologists, including the University of Virginia’s Jonathan Haidt, provides some of the most detailed answers yet, putting libertarians on the couch in a new study, “Understanding Libertarian Morality.”

“Libertarian morality?” you say. “Isn’t that an oxymoron, like ‘military intelligence’ or ‘law school talent show’?” No, smartass, it isn’t. “Libertarians are not amoral,” Haidt and his colleagues report. (Whew!) We simply have “a unique moral‐​psychological profile.” That profile helps explain both why we can be hard to get along with and why we’re needed, now more than ever.

Haidt et al. aren’t engaged in the sort of judgmental head‐​shrinking‐​from‐​afar that often mars political debate. For several years now, at Your​Morals​.org, they’ve let self‐​described liberals, conservatives, and libertarians speak for themselves, by voluntarily taking a battery of psychological tests measuring personality characteristics, cognitive style, and moral values. Along the way, they’ve compiled the “largest dataset of psychological measures ever compiled on libertarians” — with more than 10,000 respondents.

What they learned may sound familiar, if you’ve ever been cornered at a college kegger by a twitchy Randian who called you “anti‐​life” when you dutifully threw your cup in the recycling bin.

Liberals and conservatives beat us handily on “agreeableness” and “extraversion.” Libertarians tend to be dispassionate and cerebral, less likely to moralize based on gut reactions like disgust (one source, the authors suggest, of our disagreement with conservatives on social issues).

“We found strong support,” they write, for the proposition that libertarians “will rely upon reason more — and emotion less — than will either liberals or conservatives.” Blubbery Clintonian empathy isn’t our bag, baby; we don’t “feel your pain.” Where “liberals have the most ‘feminine’ cognitive style … libertarians have the most ‘masculine.’ ” And where others often “rely on peripheral cues, such as how attractive or credible a speaker is,” when formulating opinions, libertarians are more likely to pay “close attention to relevant arguments.”

Conservatives routinely outscore liberals on measures of self‐​reported happiness (getting to rub that in makes conservative pundits even happier). Alas, per Haidt, et al., “Libertarians appear to be less satisfied with their lives when compared to liberals and conservatives.”

The authors speculate that this may be due to relatively lower social connectedness: libertarians “score high on individualism, low on collectivism, and low on all other traits that involved bonding with, loving, or feeling a sense of common identity with others.”

But I prefer the explanation offered by my friend John Hasnas in his essay, “What It Feels Like to Be a Libertarian.” (First line? “I’ll tell you: It feels bad.”)

We’re doomed, Cassandra‐​like, to predict the disastrous effects of government policy. It’s “human nature,” John writes, “to want to shoot the messenger,” so we suffer “scorn and derision despite being inevitably proven correct by events.” (We’re not so modest, either).

Personally, I’ve found that a dark sense of humor makes for an effective coping mechanism. As Elvis Costello put it, “I used to be disgusted/​Now I try to be amused.”

Our looming fiscal crisis is no joke, however. As the bill for the party comes due, more and more Americans are looking to libertarians for answers. Sure, we’re cantankerous and sarcastic — anything but huggable — and we can occasionally come off as cold. But we’re firmly “reality based,” and good at facing the hard truths.

Join the tribe!

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