Searching for libertarians

If you’re in the mood for some social science data, don’t go past a report released yesterday in the United States by the Public Religion Research Institute. (Summary here; full report here. There’s also a good write-up in the Atlantic.)

The institute went, according to the title of the study, “In search of libertarians in America.” On its own account it didn’t find very many: just 7% of Americans it describes as “consistent libertarians”, while a further 15% lean libertarian. But it found a lot of rather interesting things about them.

It’s worth looking through the whole thing, but to my mind two points stand out. The first could easily be dismissed as old news, were it not for the fact that the media stubbornly ignore it: namely that there is little overlap between libertarians and the conservative Republicans known as the “tea party”.

Only 39% of libertarians identify with the tea party, while just 26% of tea partiers are libertarian. And on a host of social/cultural issues (religion being the most obvious), tea partiers fall on one side of the average American point of view while libertarians fall on the other.

As I say, this shouldn’t be at all surprising. Despite the media constantly telling us that the tea partiers are motivated by a love of small government and a hatred of debts and deficits, all the evidence is that what they care about most is losing control of “their” country to the gay/black/Muslim/feminist hordes. Not a very libertarian position. (I’ve discussed this issue a few times before, such as here.)

As Amanda Marcotte puts it, in typically provocative fashion, “Republican voters have made it clear that they’d burn this country to the ground rather than share it with Those People, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that their representatives are finally taking them at their word.”

Indeed, it’s rather surprising that the differences between libertarians and tea partiers are not more pronounced than the report makes out. It tells us, for example, that only 57% of libertarians oppose tougher abortion laws – a lot more, to be sure, than the proportion of tea partiers who do (39%), but no more than the proportion of Americans as a whole.

And that brings us to the second noteworthy point. Most of the findings about libertarians, including the 7% headline number, are based on the people that the institute judges to be libertarians based on their answers to nine policy questions (listed on page 7 of the report): on domestic spying, international aid, military force, economic growth/taxes, jobs/economic welfare, paternalism, gun control, marijuana and pornography.

They’re not bad questions, but it’s not clear that they’re doing a good job at picking out genuinely libertarian attitudes. In particular, the results they get are rather different from just asking people whether or not they identify as libertarians, although the latter are tucked away in appendix three on page 35.

For a start, self-identified libertarians are much less committed to the Republican Party: 31% call themselves Democrats and only 24% Republicans, whereas for those who are scored as libertarians by the survey it’s 5% to 45%. And they have what one might generally call more progressive positions. 61% support same-sex marriage (whereas only 40% of “scored” libertarians do), and 63% support an increase in the minimum wage (compared to 71% of the general population but only 35% of “scored” libertarians).

So it looks as if the institute’s survey has picked out a particular subgroup of the libertarian-leaning population – one that sits mostly within the broader conservative movement. Indeed the report’s language consistently suggests that point of view, such as the casual remark on page 15 that “Libertarians are unique among conservative groups …”

That’s certainly not my picture of libertarianism. What’s more interesting is that people who actually call themselves libertarians don’t seem to agree either.


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