Libertarians vs conservatives, again

I’ll be writing something shortly on the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, which is currently dominating the news from the United States. But as a sort of background to that, it’s interesting to have a look at a recent attempt to demarcate between American conservatives and libertarians.

Last month, the Cato institute in Washington held a debate for young people between conservatism and libertarianism, featuring interns from Cato and the rival Heritage foundation. I haven’t watched the debate itself, so I don’t want to comment on the outcome (although there seems to be a consensus that the libertarians won), but the post-debate survey that Cato conducted of the spectators is absolutely fascinating.

You can read the full results here (and here’s Cato’s summary), but basically it found that young people who identified as libertarians agreed with those who identified as conservatives when it came to economic policy, but disagreed about everything else.

And some of the disagreements are really stark. For example, 72% of the conservatives agreed that “religious values should play a more important role in government”; 96% of the libertarians disagreed. 96% of libertarians also supported cutting defence spending; 63% of conservatives opposed. 68% of conservatives claimed to believe that “blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment as whites in the criminal justice system”, while 85% of libertarians said they didn’t. And 83% of conservatives said that Edward Snowden is a traitor, while 89% of libertarians called him a patriot.

Of course there are a number of problems with treating this survey as representative of more general attitudes, some of which Cato points out itself: as it says, “it is not intended to be representative of all millennial conservatives and millennial libertarians.” Not only is the sample very small and self-selected, but the fact that it was taken in relation to an adversarial contest may well have led each group to define itself in opposition to the other more than would normally be the case.

Nonetheless, it’s a remarkable commentary on the distinctiveness of those of the emerging generation who think of themselves as libertarians – for remember, this survey was based on self-identification, unlike, for example, the Public Religion Research Institute survey of a couple of years ago, which relied on a set of test questions to decide who counted as libertarians. (I wrote about this at the time.)

But perhaps the most striking thing is that Cato’s libertarians, for all their very un-conservative attitudes, have not abandoned the Republican Party. Although 76% give “Libertarian” as their partisan identification, and another 17% say “Independent”, when pressed as to which way they lean between the major parties, 70% come out as Republican to only 6% Democrat (24% stubbornly stick with neither). Confirming that, 43% say they voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, against only 6% for Barack Obama.

That’s comparable to the 2013 PRRI survey, where 45% of its libertarians identified as Republican to only 5% Democrat. But it’s completely contrary to what the PRRI found when it just asked people whether or not they were libertarians (this figure is tucked away on page 35 of the full report): among those self-identified libertarians, Democrats had the partisan advantage, 31% to 24%.

So among the general public, self-identification leads to a libertarian sample that has no particular allegiance to the Republican Party. Not so at the Cato Institute.

That in turn is indicative of what Cato has become: still philosophically libertarian, but increasingly defined by issues on which it agrees with conservatives, notably its pathological opposition to Obama’s health care legislation and its embrace of climate change denialism (frustratingly but not surprisingly, there was no question in Cato’s survey about climate change).

The problem that Cato-style libertarians face is that the agreement with conservatives on economic issues is to some extent illusory. As this survey suggests, for conservatives the economic issues are primarily not “economic” at all; they’re part of a package deal that is fundamentally cultural, based on hostility to the “other” – to blacks, gays, immigrants, women, Muslims, and that wonderfully amorphous category of “the left”.

By and large, Cato’s libertarians have not bought that cultural hostility. But they have committed themselves to a political strategy that is inexorably leading them down that track, and away from what the rest of us understand by “libertarian”.



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