The political psychologist Jonathan Haidt and several collaborators have published a new study of libertarians. Using data collected from 11,994 volunteer respondents, the study finds that self-identified libertarians have a distinct moral code based on the priority of freedom, are inclined toward abstract reasoning rather than emotional response, and value individuality over community.
These conclusions won’t be news to anyone who is a libertarian, knows libertarians, or follows their discussions–which I assume to include most of TAC‘s readers. What’s interesting is the way that they complicate some common assumptions about how we relate to each other as political animals:
First, as Haidt argues at length in The Righteous Mind, these data suggest that people don’t simply choose their political beliefs (see Daniel Flynn’s review from the print magazine here). Rather, their political commitments choose them–or, more accurately, appeal to preexisting intuitions and dispositions.
That’s consistent with experience. As many of us have learned in long and fruitless conversations, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians don’t just disagree about “the issues”. They have very different views of the world, which can lead them to draw different conclusions even from uncontroversial facts.
Second, then, the study implies that consensus is far more elusive than many political theorists hope. It doesn’t matter whether we all talk to each other calmly and respectfully, without the influence of pundits, attack adds, and other alleged distractions. We’re unlikely to agree because we’re just not the same kinds of people.
That doesn’t mean discussion is pointless. But it does suggest that we shouldn’t expect to convince each other, even though we may be able to agree on particular positions for different reasons.
Finally, Haidt’s analysis challenges the assumption that political positions can be placed on a flat left-to-right axis. Libertarians, as they appear here, aren’t somewhere “between” liberals and conservatives. They have an distinctive outlook defined by an independent cluster of intuitions and dispositions.
The reason that libertarianism isn’t better represented in electoral politics is that this psychological profile seems to be relatively rare. In Haidt’s study, only 7.6 percent of respondents identified as libertarians. Because it was based on a web questionnaire, the sample may not be representative. But it seems as likely to overestimate the proportion of libertarians as to underestimate it. My unscientific impression is that libertarians have a considerably larger presence online than in the general population.
Libertarians sometimes argue that they’d attract more support if they were only given the chance to explain themselves properly. And Haidt’s research supports their conviction that they’ve been neglected or misunderstood. But it also suggests that libertarians shouldn’t hope to make many converts. The libertarian mind may be too uncommon to have much influence in a democracy.