What is it about libertarians?

April 20, 2011 | By | 8 Replies More

Ronald Baily of Reason has gathered recent psychological research examining the personality characteristics of libertarians. He notes that Jonathan Haidt has had to revamp his left/right political ideology analysis to accommodate libertarians. They are different from the left and the right.

What did Haidt find?

“Libertarians share with liberals a distaste for the morality of Ingroup, Authority, and Purity characteristic of social conservatives, particularly those on the religious right.” . . . Libertarians put higher value on hedonism, self-direction, and stimulation than either liberals or conservatives, and they put less value than either on benevolence, conformity, security, and tradition. Like liberals, libertarians put less value on power, but like conservatives they have less esteem for universalism. Taking these results into account, Haidt concludes that “libertarians appear to live in a world where traditional moral concerns (e.g., respect for authority, personal sanctity) are not assigned much importance.”

Haidt and his colleagues eventually recognized that their Moral Foundations Questionnaire was blinkered by liberal academic bias, failing to include a sixth moral foundation, liberty. They developed a liberty scale to probe this moral dimension. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that libertarians dramatically outscored liberals and conservatives when it came to putting a high value on both economic and lifestyle liberty. . .

[L]ibertarians scored lower than conservatives and liberals on agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion. Low scores on agreeableness indicate a lack of compassion and a proud, competitive, and skeptical nature. Like conservatives, libertarians are not generally neurotic, tending to be emotionally hardy. And like liberals, libertarians scored high on openness to new experiences, indicating that they have broad interests. Libertarians scored lower than both liberals and (especially) conservatives on sensitivity to disgust. The authors suggest this tendency “could help explain why they disagree with conservatives on so many social issues, particularly those related to sexuality.


Category: Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (8)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I'm finding this to be quite a thought provoking piece. Especially the wrap up:

    "[Libertarians] changed history by enabling at least a portion of humanity to escape our natural state of abject poverty. Libertarian morality, by rising above and rejecting primitive moralities embodied in the universalist collectivism of left-liberals and the tribalist collectivism of conservatives, made the rule of law, freedom of speech, religious tolerance, and modern prosperity possible."


  2. dave says:

    Good to see you starting your journey, Erich. I'll convert you yet… 😀

    (and before everyone asks, I think Ayn Rand was a wacko.)

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Dave: I've long had a private joke with myself, that my highly introverted, crowd-adverse personality protects me from getting swept up in any political movement. My semi-aloof perch allows me to aim my skepticism in most any direction. As you can see, I've been highly critical of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. When people urge that we need to go to war, I demand the evidence. When people demand that we must defend "labor unions," my reaction is "What KIND of union? A union that protects workers from employer abuses or a corrupt union that encourages sloth?" I rarely get caught up in the rah rah rah of the crowd. I am repulsed and suspicious when the crowd chants that a complex phenomenon is all good, and that we don't need to analyze potential downsides.

      That's why I added that one extra quote after writing the post. I think that Haidt is onto something big when he suggests that libertarians were critical to the birth of what we cherish most about our country's form of government. Being a bit aloof and staying above the fray (ignoring the criticism that we are not warm enough or fuzzy enough) might have been the critical ingredient allowing people with libertarian impulses to formulate wise principles of government, such as the five critically important protections contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

      Dave, I've known all along that you and I have much in common. Then again, to the extent that I'm a libertarian, I'm not likely to join any Libertarian organizations. That's because I'm not a joiner. That is the fascinating dynamic of what Haidt describes. Libertarians aren't inclined to get into group think or to boisterously rampage through the street. Yet they do seem to plant important political seeds that help keep everyone else in line.

      Or at least these are my initial reactions. I'll need to give this more thought . . .

  3. Dave Jenkins says:

    Erich– yes, I think I am in the same spot. In college, my friend had a card he kept in his wallet, to prove his membership in the Libertarian party. We always joked that the card was an oxymoron in physical form. Like you, I inherently challenge assumptions and have a strong distaste for groupthink. I love the "think for yourself" and "let me do/sleep with/smoke what I want" elements of the Libertarian movement, but they lose me when they start to go off the rails about reverting to the gold standard or devolving all public roads into toll roads.

    Freedom of choice is paramount. Wherever/whenever it can be introduced, I am for it. Liberty is my ability to decide for myself.

  4. I've tended toward Libertarianism all my life. My problems with it are structural. We don't live in that kind of a world and never have. Some individuals are perfectly capable of living independently in the way most libertarians define themselves and even more could if they were given a chance. But a good many people can't, either by virtue of skill and disposition or by circumstance. To claim you aren't responsible for Those People Over There—and you well may not be directly—is beside the point when the society in which you move determines their condition and plays on them for political and economic gain. John Donne was right, we are not islands. Just now Libertarianism is being used by the Right as justification for screwing the weak and voiceless. To claim one does not support such abuse and then do nothing to counter it is…

  5. Jim Razinha says:

    Concur, Mark. I find myself tending more toward Libertarian. I am actually more conservative then liberal (traditional definitions), but the Right offends me more. And around here, my center left/right position is hands down liberal…when you see something in the distance, no matter how far away it really is, the lack of perspective could mean farther than closer and the default is farther.

    I've taken a few of those internet "which candidate should you vote for?" surveys near several of the presidential elections – the first one (1992? – I think, on Compuserve) said I should vote communist (big chuckle there)…whoever "they" are must have fixed the algorithms, because both of the others after that indicated Libertarian. I haven't checked since 2000, as the fun was gone.

    My problem is that the rhetoric I see from Libertarians is as extreme as the Right (grates to use that term). I don't ever think the Left as organized enough to have an extreme position, but they seem to self-police a bit more and entertain their extremists less than their spectrum opposite. Maybe I just don't worry about them as much.

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