The Public Religion Research Institute recently released a report on the 2013 edition of its American Values Survey, in which they attempt to define and analyze libertarians as a distinct constituency in American politics. But what the report reveals is that when we talk about libertarianism, we’re talking about two distinct phenomena. There’s an ideology with a handful of wealthy backers and a canon rooted in Hayek and Mises; call this one “libertarianism from above”. There’s also an identity claimed by an increasing number of people, call that one “libertarianism from below”. And it turns out that they are very different things.
The survey is about libertarianism as seen from above. That is, it is not primarily a survey of people who identify themselves as libertarians. The researchers begin by defining a “libertarian orientation scale” composed of nine questions about various aspects of government policy: domestic spying, international aid, military force, economic growth and taxes, jobs and econmic welfare, paternalism, gun control, marijuana and pornography. They then identify libertarians on the basis of this scale.
According to the PRRI, a libertarian is someone who tends to agree with the following propositions:
Government has gone too far monitoring private telephone and email conversations of American citizens, and the program should be eliminated.
The U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.
The United States should only use military force if its immediate security is threatened.
The best way to promote economic growth in the U.S. is to lower taxes on individuals and businesses and pay for those tax cuts by cutting spending on some government services and programs
The government should just let each person get ahead on their own
It’s not the government’s business to try to protect people from themselves.
The federal government has already placed too many restrictions on the sale of guns in the U.S.
We should make the use of marijuana legal.
We should NOT make it more difficult to access pornography on the Internet.
The intent here, it would seem, is to construct a set of issues that are relevant to current political debates and which cut across traditional political cleavages. For my part, I’m strongly on the “libertarian” side on some questions (military intervention, spying, pot, porn), though perhaps not for the same reasons as many libertarians. Meanwhile, I lean away from the the libertarians on other issues, but with a bit of ambivalence, sometimes just due to the question wording. I question the logic of guaranteeing everyone a job, as well as the notion that education is important because it promotes economic growth. I’m skeptical about state paternalism, although I’m not an absolutist about it. The result is that if I take this survey myself, I end up with a score that, by the scoring criteria given in the report, would make me someone with “libertarian leanings”.
In one sense, I’m typical of PRRI-defined libertarians, who are disproportionately white men under 50. In other ways, however, I’m clearly an outlier, given these libertarians’ penchant for describing themselves as conservatives, opposing gay marriage, and being uncomfortable with muslims. Those findings make it tempting for some of my comrades on the left to use this survey as an opportunity to score points against libertarians. You see, we get to say, libertarianism was just a re-branded right-wing Republican politics all along!
But the more interesting thing is the disjunction between libertarianism as an ideology and as an identity. The PRRI survey begins by setting out a definition of libertarian ideology, and then looking for people who meet it. Their definition is drawn from a study published by the Cato Institute. In that sense we can take it to reflect the priorities of elite instutional libertarianism, which does indeed seem pretty close to the familiar leftist stereotype of a libertarian: a Republican who likes weed and porn. But the fact that constructing the definition of libertarianism in a reactionary way produces a group of reactionary people is not so surprising. Of more interest is just how out of touch this definition is with the people who consider themselves libertarian.
In an appendix, self-identified libertarians are compared with those tagged as libertarians by the survey’s scale. The self-identified libertarians make up about 13% of the population, compared to the 22% libertarian or libertarian-leaning according to the scale. Yet the two groups are very different. Those who think of themselves as libertarians turn out to be more Democrat than Republican, in favor of gay marriage, and even overwhelmingly in favor of raising the minimum wage.
Moreover, anyone hoping to clown the “libertarians” in the PRRI report should think about how well they’d enjoy placing themselves in the “communalist” group that the survey authors construct as the opposite of libertarianism. This means not just embracing government intervention in the economy, but also the war on drugs and porn. Not to mention the kind of humanitarian interventionism promoted by people like Samantha Power, the conviction that “the United States should be ready and willing to use military force around the world to promote American interests and enforce international law”.
Whatever function the libertarian identity has for many of the people who hold it, it’s clearly not quite what the Cato Institute would like it to be. So rather than scoring cheap points, leftists should be asking ourselves what it is that leads people to identify with an ideology that, according to the priorities of its most powerful promoters, has such a tenuous connection with what they actually believe. Some of it, no doubt, is just a marker of disaffection and disgust with the mainstream political spectrum, and the disappearance of socialism as an oppositional identity. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the libertarian critique of liberalism’s paternalist and bureaucratic tendencies. That critique may be disingenuous in the hands of a Cato flack, but it only has any appeal because it speaks to some real mass sentiment.
After all, I consider myself a “libertarian” in the same sense as self-proclaimed libertarian socialist Noam Chomsky. That is, I think that facilitating individual freedom is a central part of the left’s project, and one which has sometimes gotten short shrift from liberals and socialists alike. Libertarian ideology, as Cato and PRRI would like to define it, isn’t really consistent with that project, since it obsesses over government while ignoring the private life of power. But the popularity of libertarianism as an identity is something else, and we would do well to be a bit more careful in our assessment of it.