libertarians

The Libertarian Experiment That Isn’t

According to Paul Krugman, the government shutdown amounts to a potentially big libertarian experiment.

With nine departments and multiple agencies closed, maybe for months, the New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate envisages a coming test of whether the country can live without the Food and Drug Administration, the Small Business Administration and farm subsidies.

So are those of us at Cato who believe in the abolition of these programs celebrating? Not quite.

How Many Libertarians Are There? The Answer Depends on the Method You Use

There has been debate this week about how many libertarians there are. The answer is: it depends on how you measure it and how you define libertarian. The overwhelming body of literature, however, using a variety of different methods and different definitions, suggests that libertarians comprise about 10-20% of the population, but may range from 7-22%.

Notes: This estimate comes from an analysis I ran on the 2012 American National Election Study Evaluations of Government and Society Survey (EGSS) 2.  Furthermore, if one imposes the same level of ideological consistency on liberals, conservatives, and communitarians/populists that many do on libertarians, these groups too comprise similar shares of the population.

In this post I provide a brief overview of different methods academics have used to identify libertarians and what they found. Most methods start from the premise that libertarians are economically conservative and socially liberal. Despite this, different studies find fairly different results. What accounts for the difference?

1) First, people use different definitions of libertarians

2) Second, they use different questions in their analysis to identify libertarians

3) Third, they use very different statistical methods.

Let’s start with a few questions: How do you define a libertarian? Is there one concrete libertarian position on every policy issue?

What is the “libertarian position” on abortion? Is there one? What is the “libertarian position” on Social Security? Must a libertarian support abolishing the program, or might a libertarian support private accounts, or means testing, or sending it to the states instead? A researcher will find fewer libertarians in the electorate if they demand that libertarians support abolishing Social Security rather than means testing or privatizing it. 

Further, why are libertarians expected to conform to an ideological litmus test but conservatives and liberals are not? For instance, what is the “conservative position” on Social Security? Is there one? When researchers use rigid ideological definitions of liberals and conservatives, they too make up similar shares of the population as libertarians. Thus, as political scientist Jason Weeden has noted, researchers have to make fairly arbitrary decisions about where the cut-off points should be for the “libertarian,” “liberal,” or “conservative” position. This pre-judgement strongly determines how many libertarians researchers will find.

Next, did researchers simply ask people if they identify as libertarian, or did they ask them public policy questions (a better method)? If the latter, how many issue questions did they ask? Then, what questions did they ask?

Gallup Finds More Libertarians in the Electorate

The Gallup Poll has a new estimate of the number of libertarians in the American electorate. In their 2015 Governance survey they find that 27 percent of respondents can be characterized as libertarians, the highest number it has ever found. The latest results also make libertarians the largest group in the electorate, as compared to 26 percent conservative, 23 percent liberal, and 15 percent populist.

For more than a dozen years now, the Gallup Poll has been using two questions to categorize respondents by ideology:

Results from the Libertarianism vs. Conservatism Post-Debate Survey

The Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation recently co-hosted a debate in which interns from both organizations debated whether conservatism or libertarianism is the better philosophy. At the conclusion of the debate, the Cato Institute conducted a survey of debate attendees finding important similarities and striking differences between millennial conservative and libertarian attendees.

Full LvCDebate Attendee Survey results found here

The survey finds that libertarian and conservative millennial attendees were similar in skepticism of government economic intervention and regulation but were dramatically different in their stances toward immigration, LGBT inclusion, national security, privacy, foreign policy and perceptions of racial bias in the criminal justice system.

While the survey is not a representative sample, this survey offers a snapshot of engaged conservative and libertarian millennial “elites” who have higher levels of education and political information, and who chose to come to this event. To date, little information exists on young conservative and libertarian elites. Since these attendees are politically engaged millennials, their responses may provide some indication of the direction they may take both movements in the future.

Eighty-percent of millennial respondents self-identified as either conservative (41%) or libertarian (39%): This post will focus on these conservative and libertarian millennial attendees.

The French Revolution and Modern Liberty

Today the French celebrate the 226th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the date usually recognized as the beginning of the French Revolution. What should libertarians (or classical liberals) think of the French Revolution?

The Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is famously (but apparently inaccurately) quoted as saying, “It is too soon to tell.” I like to draw on the wisdom of another mid-20th-century thinker, Henny Youngman, who when asked “How’s your wife?” answered, “Compared to what?” Compared to the American Revolution, the French Revolution is very disappointing to libertarians. Compared to the Russian Revolution, it looks pretty good. And it also looks good, at least in the long view, compared to the ancien regime that preceded it.

Conservatives typically follow Edmund Burke’s critical view in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. They may even quote John Adams: “Helvetius and Rousseau preached to the French nation liberty, till they made them the most mechanical slaves; equality, till they destroyed all equity; humanity, till they became weasels and African panthers; and fraternity, till they cut one another’s throats like Roman gladiators.”

Key to the Bastille at Mount Vernon

But there’s another view. And visitors to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, get a glimpse of it when they see a key hanging in a place of honor. It’s one of the keys to the Bastille, sent to Washington by Lafayette by way of Thomas Paine. They understood, as the great historian A.V. Dicey put it, that “The Bastille was the outward visible sign of lawless power.” And thus keys to the Bastille were symbols of liberation from tyranny.

Traditionalist conservatives sometimes long for “the world we have lost” before liberalism and capitalism upended the natural order of the world. The diplomat Talleyrand said, “Those who haven’t lived in the eighteenth century before the Revolution do not know the sweetness of living.” But not everyone found it so sweet. Lord Acton wrote that for decades before the revolution “the Church was oppressed, the Protestants persecuted or exiled, … the people exhausted by taxes and wars.” The rise of absolutism had centralized power and led to the growth of administrative bureaucracies on top of the feudal land monopolies and restrictive guilds.

The economic causes of the French Revolution are sometimes insufficiently appreciated. In his book The French Revolution: An Economic Interpretation, Florin Aftalion outlines some of those causes. The French state engaged in wars throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. To pay for the wars, it employed complex and burdensome taxation, tax farming, borrowing, debt repudiation and forced “disgorgement” from the financiers, and debasement of the currency. Lord Acton wrote that people had been anticipating revolution in France for a century. And revolution came.

Liberals and libertarians admired the fundamental values it represented. Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek both hailed “the ideas of 1789” and contrasted them with “the ideas of 1914” — that is, liberty versus state-directed organization.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man, issued a month after the fall of the Bastille, enunciated libertarian principles similar to those of the Declaration of Independence:

1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights… .

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression… .

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights… .

17. [P]roperty is an inviolable and sacred right.

Libertarians and the Long Road to Gay Rights

Justice Anthony Kennedy has been called the most libertarian member of the Supreme Court (though Ilya Shapiro finds his libertarianism “faint-hearted”). So maybe it’s no surprise that in the Lawrence (2003), Windsor (2013), and Obergefell (today!) cases, Kennedy wrote a majority decision finding that gay people had rights to liberty and equal protection of the law.

As I note in The Libertarian Mind and in an article just posted at the venerable gay magazine The Advocate, libertarians and their classical liberal forebears have been ahead of the curve on gay rights for more than two centuries: 

As the Supreme Court prepares for a possibly historic ruling, most of the country now supports gay marriage. Libertarians were there first. Indeed John Podesta, a top adviser to Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton and founder of the Center for American Progress, noted in 2011 that you probably had to have been a libertarian to have supported gay marriage 15 years earlier.

Just seven years ago, in the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton all opposed gay marriage. The Libertarian Party endorsed gay rights with its first platform in 1972 — the same year the Democratic nominee for vice president referred to “queers” in a Chicago speech. In 1976 the Libertarian Party issued a pamphlet calling for an end to antigay laws and endorsing full marriage rights.

That’s no surprise, of course. Libertarians believe in individual rights for all people and equality before the law. Of course they recognized the rights of gay people before socialists, conservatives, or big-government liberals.

Which States Have the Most Libertarians?

In 2010 I blogged about which states have the strongest libertarian constituencies, using some data from political scientist Jason Sorens, founder of the Free State Project, and also 1980 Libertarian Party results from Bill Westmiller. That column can be found here, complete with graphics.

Paul Krugman Can’t Find Any Libertarians

Paul Krugman has a blog post at the New York Times that seems to be based on no research at all. But it has a snappy four-cell matrix so you’ll know it’s like real economics.

Krugman’s argument is that “there basically aren’t any libertarians.” And here’s the graph that proves it:

Krugman libertarians box

See how small the letters are in two of the boxes? That shows you that there aren’t any people in those boxes. “There ought in principle, you might think, be people who are pro-gay-marriage and civil rights in general, but opposed to government retirement and health care programs — that is, libertarians — but there are actually very few.” And there are also very few people who are “socially illiberal” and supportive of government social programs, he says.

But you know, there’s research on this. David Kirby and I have done some of it, in studies on “the libertarian vote.” But two political scientists examined a similar matrix back in 1984 and found roughly even numbers of people in each box.

Part of the trick here is that Krugman has used a vague term, “socially liberal,” for one of the dimensions of the matrix, and a radical policy position, “no social insurance,” for the other dimension. The logical way would be to use either common vague terms for both dimensions – say “socially liberal/conservative” and “fiscally liberal/conservative” – or specific and similarly radical terms for both dimensions, something like “no social insurance” and “repeal all drug laws.” Wonder how many people would be in the boxes then? 

“No social insurance” is a very radical position. Even many libertarians wouldn’t support it. Like Hayek. So to find the divisions in our society, we might choose a specific issue of personal freedom – gay marriage, say – along with an equally controversial economic policy such as school choice or a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - libertarians