Libertarians vs conservatives – an update

A year ago I reported on a debate hosted by the Cato Institute between young conservatives and libertarians, and more particularly on the fascinating survey that it conducted of the audience. It revealed a depth of philosophical hostility between the two groups, coupled with a curious failure to distinguish themselves politically.

Well, they’ve done it again. You can watch this year’s debate here, read Cato’s summary of the survey here, and see the full survey results here.

The survey respondents are a slightly larger group than last year (203, up from 179), but they’re obviously pretty similar. And they’re in no way representative of the general population, even the general conservative or libertarian population: they’re heavily white, male, rich and well educated, and the libertarians skew more in all those directions than the conservatives do.

But that doesn’t stop the results being interesting. The philosophical differences are still very clear, although perhaps a little less stark than last year. The proportion of self-styled libertarians who support cutting defence spending, for example, is down from 96% to 88%. While 84% of libertarians think the government “should not favor any particular set of values,” that’s down from 94%; an unchanged majority (68%) of conservatives want the government to “promote traditional values.”

And conservatives have had a modest revelation about race and crime. Last year, 68% of them claimed that “blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment as whites in the criminal justice system,” but this year that figure was down to 45%. (And 15% of libertarians, up slightly from 13%.) Just 21% of conservatives – compared to 64% of libertarians – support the goals of #BlackLivesMatter, but last year (on a slightly differently worded question) those numbers were 2% and 58%.

Unfortunately not all of the questions were repeated. Last year we discovered that a shocking 41% of the libertarians were anti-choice; one likes to think that Cato was sufficiently embarrassed by that to delete the question. And of course there was again no mention of climate change.

We can still tell, however, that quite a few libertarians have some odd ideas about liberty. Thirteen per cent of them think that gender transitioning is “morally wrong” (as do 64% of conservatives); 20% (up from 9% last year) oppose the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences; 10% agree that “Internet pornography is a public health crisis” (truly!); and 11% support building a Trumpian wall along the border with Mexico.

But the clearest shift in the course of a year is in political behavior. Of last year’s libertarians, 43% had voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, against 19% for the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and only 6% for Barack Obama. This year, 84% say they will vote for Johnson, 7% for Donald Trump and 3% for Hillary Clinton. (For the conservatives, it’s Trump 47%, Johnson 21% and Clinton 3%.)

That shift in voting intention, however, has completely failed to disturb their partisan identification. The number of libertarians identifying as Republicans has actually risen, from 7% to 11%, and when the options of “Libertarian” or “Independent” are removed, 64% (down from 70%) say they are Republicans or leaning that way, compared to 9% (up from 6%) leaning Democrat.

Less surprisingly, the conservatives – who have almost as little in common with Trump in policy or philosophical terms – remain overwhelmingly Republican. Eighty per cent give that as their primary identification, rising to 95% when the options are narrowed down.

So hostility to Trump, on the part of both libertarians and the more sensible portion of the conservatives, is fatally compromised in two ways. Firstly, by a failure to embrace the only really effective means of stopping him, namely voting for Clinton; and secondly, by a refusal to admit that Trump is not an alien presence in the Republican Party but is rather a faithful expression of what it has become.

While I take no pleasure in the spectacle, this year’s survey reinforces my view that “official” libertarianism, represented pre-eminently by Cato, is in a dance of death with the conservatives. It may not share their philosophical foundations, but it’s nonetheless allowing them to drag it down to the same dark place.

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