Politics & Policy

Elusive Libertarians

Do "libertarian leanings" constitute a significant political movement?

A number of commentators have recently taken up the notion that libertarianism has become a significant force in contemporary American politics. This conviction is partly based on the assumption that, by being different from both liberals and conservatives, libertarians can enter coalitions with both, thus boosting their political power beyond their numbers. For example, David Kirby and David Boaz of the Cato Institute recently argued that, although unaware of the appropriate label for their beliefs, a significant number of Americans have “libertarian leanings” and that they are not only swing but bellwether voters; their support for Republicans, for example, ominously dropped 13 points during George W. Bush’s years in the White House. Several libertarians have argued that progressivism is, at the very least, as much a natural ally of libertarianism as is conservatism, and have advocated a fusion between the two, dubbed liberaltarianism.

On the face of it, this is not an unreasonable argument. However, our polling data at Zogby International indicate that libertarianism does not play as significant a role as the media hype would suggest. Very few people claim adherence to libertarian philosophy. Among those who do, a majority identifies with the political Right because of the large role economic freedom plays in libertarian ideology. For the most part, libertarians are a fraction within the conservative coalition — not a stand-alone movement.

Here are some of our data that show this. As a rule, we at Zogby ask two questions about ideology: a qualitative one, where people can choose a political label — progressive, liberal, moderate, conservative, very conservative, or libertarian — and a quantitative one, in which we ask them to position themselves on a 1–9 ideological scale, where 1 is extremely liberal and 9 is extremely conservative.

In all our surveys, almost all our respondents answer both questions. Our December 2009 survey results are typical. First, we found 2 percent of likely voters describing their ideology as “libertarian.” Second, over 90 percent of these self-described libertarians were willing to position themselves on a continuum between Left and Right — although they were free to say they were “something else” or “not sure.” Of those who answered the question, 89 percent chose 5 or higher, with most choosing 6, 7, or 8. Here are the average scores for various ideological groups on our 1–9 scale in our December survey:

  Average ideological score on a 1-9 scale

Progressive

1.7

Liberal

2.8

Moderate

4.8

Conservative

7.1

Very conservative

8.3

Libertarian

6.4

Total

5.2

 

To be sure, libertarians and conservatives have quite different views on a number of issues. For example, when we ask questions about foreign policy, we find that voters who describe themselves as libertarians often hold views that are a combination of those held by progressive and very conservative voters. Here is just one example:

However, different as conservative and libertarian positions can be on some issues, this appears not to matter very much. The reason is that economic issues are central to the libertarian worldview, and on these issues, libertarians have far more in common with the Right than with the Left. According to our July 2009 survey, 69 percent of conservative and 68 percent of very conservative adults share the view of 64 percent of libertarians that “Economic freedom is the foundation for all other freedoms.” In that survey, we asked: Which of the following issue categories is most important to your current ideology: social/cultural issues (abortion, gay rights, gun control); economic issues (free markets, free trade, union rights); foreign-policy issues (intervention in other countries, national defense); or environmental/energy issues (government subsidies, global warming)?

 

Which of the following issue categories is most important to your current ideology:
  Social/

Cultural

Economics Foreign Policy Energy/

Environment

Other/

Not Sure

Progressive

35% 23% 8% 25% 10%

Liberal

34% 24% 7% 25% 11%

Moderate

19% 40% 12% 16% 12%

Conservative

24% 47% 15% 5% 9%

Very conservative

38% 37% 13% 4% 8%

Libertarian

17% 60% 8% 4% 11%

Total

25% 38% 12% 14% 11%

 

In the past, we at Zogby were often pestered by libertarians. “We are unfairly forced in your surveys,” they complained, “to choose between two crude views neither of which captures our philosophy.” It was in reaction to their insistence that they are fundamentally different from both liberals and conservatives that we added the “libertarian” category on our ideology question.

In this, we were not alone. Theories have been developed to accommodate ideological patterns that do not fit the somewhat limited Left–Right continuum. For example, The Political Compass has attempted to map attitudes toward economic and social freedom more accurately by creating four possible ideological types (authoritarian Left, authoritarian Right, libertarian Left, and libertarian Right). More elaborately, Brian Mitchell’s Eight Ways to Run the Country uses attitudes toward hierarchy and use of force to establish eight political types, two of which serve merely to disentangle the Hayek from the von Mises variety of libertarianism.

Let us for a moment follow these writers’ assumption that a person’s ideology is solely determined by his policy views. And let us also assume that social and economic liberties can largely be disentangled and that libertarians are as close to liberals on social issues as they are to conservatives on economic ones — a view implicit in the argument for liberaltarianism. Still, our data show that different aspects of ideology are not equally important for a person’s ideological identity, and, somewhat ironically, that this is especially true of libertarians. For all their insistence that liberty has multiple facets, libertarians appear to cherish one of them much more than others. This means that liberaltarians should not hold their breath waiting for self-described libertarians to join them.

Of course, as Kirby and Boaz point out, few people use the libertarian label to describe themselves. Part of the elusive promise of libertarianism as a political force is the assumption that there are plenty of unconscious libertarians, who have a broad, vague preference for both economic and social liberties. However, one has to wonder how much these people care about either of them. If they have not bothered to learn the name of their presumed philosophy, the chances that they are applying it with vigor and consistency to multiple domains must be rather slim. Libertarians proper might indeed derive their issue positions from general principles. But a vast majority of voters do not. Realistically speaking, libertarian philosophy is too abstract for a significant number of voters to have bothered to study it, let alone embrace it.

Political philosophy is cognitively complex and, in principle, allows for endless distinctions to be drawn and combinations of beliefs and convictions to be made. Yet when we look at people — as opposed to ideas — we see that a vast majority of voters have no problem with a binary choice. The Political Compass’s ratings of American politicians typically leave two and sometimes three of their four quadrants empty. Mitchell admitted that, of his eight ideological types, only three play a significant role in American politics.

One reason for this is that ideology is not only a theoretical but also a social category, and someone’s ideological identification depends not only on what he believes about policy but also on what sort of person he wants to be seen as being. Among libertarians, some see themselves as liberal intellectuals made better by their knowledge of economics and hence eager tutors to the partly benighted liberal elite. Others resent liberal intellectuals and feel a psychological kinship with modest men relying on common sense.

As a result, political coalitions depend not merely on compatibility of ideas among various factions but also on psychological affinities that particular people have for one another. Ed Kilgore points to secularism as a possible bridge between libertarians and liberal intellectuals. But he also points out the unacceptable eagerness — from the liberal point of view — with which libertarians have embraced the tea partiers. Our own data suggest that most libertarians find the company of conservatives to be more congenial than that of liberals. As Kirby and Boaz point out, libertarians sometimes part company with Republicans. Yet it is less clear how often, psychologically speaking, they part company with conservatives.

Politics is a social endeavor where practice trumps theory and results trump reasons and justifications. A robust political force should not need so much theoretical refinement and so much data collection for its power to be recognized. The libertarian movement is decades old, has its own party and tens of thousands of pages written on its behalf, and still struggles to be recognized and appreciated. Yet the political significance of the tea-party movement was recognized within months of its coming into existence, without anyone having predicted its arrival and with many still struggling to understand what the tea-partiers stand for. In the end, we find it unlikely that a significant group of voters committed to their philosophy — whatever that philosophy might be — would fail, decade after decade, to put into high office anyone seriously supportive of it.

John Zogby is president and CEO of Zogby International, a global polling and market-research company. He is the author of The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (Random House, 2008). Zeljka Buturovic is a research associate at Zogby International and co-author of the forthcoming book Trišno Rešenje (Market Solution).

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