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%.
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?