Why Do Libertarians Tend to Be Republican?

Libertarian Party: Just Kidding, We're Republicans!You may remember last year, there was quite a bit of coverage of Jonathan Haidt and his theory of political differences, Moral Foundations Theory. What he did was look at five moral foundations that correlated strongly with liberals and conservatives in different ways. They are: harm, fairness, ingroup, authority, and purity. Liberals score very high on harm and fairness. Conservatives score high on everything. But conservatives score substantially lower than liberals on harm and fairness, substantially higher on ingroup and authority, overwhelmingly higher on purity.

I just came upon an article I’m pretty sure I read last year, The Science of Tea Party Wrath. I’m not really interested in getting into that subject today. I think we all understand that liberals and conservatives are fundamentally different kinds of people. I think it mostly comes down to empathy. That’s not to say that conservatives can’t care about the weak and unfortunate, but when they do so, I think they do so in a more paternal way. Of course, mostly they don’t care about the weak and unfortunate — at least that’s true of the extremist Tea Party Republicans.

What struck me in the article was the following graph because it included libertarians as well as liberals and conservatives:

Moral Foundations

Forget about the last two bars: “economic liberty” and “lifestyle liberty.” The whole “liberty” idea was just a “good candidate” for a moral foundation. Personally, I think it is a term that is too vague and ideologically charged.

The most obvious thing to notice here is that libertarians do score about as you would expect. They agree with liberals about ingroup, authority, and purity; they agree with conservatives about harm and fairness. But there is something that I think is more interesting: the general pattern for libertarians is the same as for liberals. Conservatives have more or less the same scores on all of the foundations. But libertarians have the same pattern as liberals: high for harm and fairness; medium for ingroup and authority; and low for purity. That’s very odd!

Based upon this, you would think that libertarians would tend more toward the Democratic Party than the the Republican Party. Indeed, I have argued this. Other than the issue of taxes, the Democratic Party is far more libertarian than the Republican Party. Yet libertarians tend toward the authoritarian party. I don’t just say this because Rand and Ron Paul are Republicans. They aren’t what drives this; they are a symptom of it.

My long history with the libertarian movement — and one of the main reasons I left it — was that it was easily made up of 90% disaffected Republicans. In fact, the Libertarian Party was founded by Republicans who were unhappy with Nixon. But they weren’t unhappy with Nixon because of Watergate. They were like everyone on the far right of the Republican Party: they just didn’t like Nixon, although they all had their different reasons for it. But let’s face it: on domestic issues, he was pretty liberal.

Jonathan HaidtWhat I find notable in the graph is that libertarians are even less concerned about “harm” than conservatives are. Based upon what I know about libertarians, I can’t really explain this other than to note that they tend to not care about practical outcomes. But I would be concerned if I were a libertarian. The foundation is defined thusly, “This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.” It is the foundation that is most associated with empathy.

I think this may have something to do with the great impact of Ayn Rand on libertarians. Her big message, above all others, was the virtue of selfishness. She argued not that altruism was bad but that it didn’t even exist. And so I think that libertarians tend to end up with a philosophy that says, “It is virtuous to only look out for myself.” And that goes along with their lower score on fairness.

But overall, I think this graph should make libertarians take a serious look at themselves. In a general sense, they believe the same way that liberals believe. But they vote the way that conservatives vote. You would either have to conclude that libertarians don’t understand what their actual interests are or that they don’t understand what the parties actually stand for. This goes along with my often noted observation that immigrants often become Republicans because of the rhetoric of the party, rather than its actual policies. So are libertarians just clueless? If not, you have to conclude that libertarians value lowering taxes on the rich more than anything else. And given that overall taxes in the United States are fairly flat already, the focus of the Republican Party’s tax “reform” ideas is to make the system less fair. If they ever got what they actually wanted — a flat income tax — overall taxes in America would be regressive. Is that what libertarians want?

My guess is that libertarians actually are completely clueless. That would also explain why they are libertarians at all.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

9 thoughts on “Why Do Libertarians Tend to Be Republican?

  1. So I checked out the guy featured in these articles. It is all very interesting and necessary stuff. And as usual for America, fatally self-tied by bothsidesdoitism. I agree with Haidt that left-wingers often don’t understand conservatives, and he is smart enough to insist that the conservatives are overwhelmingly the greater haters, he still insists on some unevidenced equivalences.

    His comparison of the Tea Party and Occupy is inane. Tea Party protesters routinely carried signs with messages whose very premises require massively false or incoherent propositions, like the ‘Death Panels’ and ‘Keep government off my Medicare’. Whatever criticism there is to be made of Occupy people, there simply is no equivalent, and the difference is important.

    Also dude is America-centric and therefore limited in moral-imaginative horizons. Sad, seeing as the entire project is to open up the discussion of those horizons, a very admirable intellectual aim. As far as the Western democracies go (the relevant unit of comparison) here is nowhere but America in which conservative politicians and supporters routinely and without irony say that healthcare should be denied to those who can’t afford it. Nowhere.

    So as usual, a professor with a very interesting project going on, but hamstrung by middle-class American ideology.

    • I find Haidt’s work interesting, but you are right about his interpretations. He is blinded by middle class intellectual liberalism. He is, in other words, the ultimate TED Talk guy. He has scientific results that are actually troubling but, damn it, he’s going to show that it is all good lament, “Can’t we all just get along?” The problem from my perspective is the authoritarianism of conservatives. This is what causes my greatest frustration in talking to conservatives. If I talk to them alone, I find we agree on a great many things — perhaps more than we disagree. But the moment that the Republican Party or Fox News tells them that their own conservative healthcare reform policy is “Socialism! Socialism, I tell you!” they follow and there is no more discussion and, more important, no more thinking.

      There is a broader question for liberal democracies: how do you deal with people who do not accept the idea of liberal democracy. Are we supposed to be tolerant of intolerance? Are we supposed to accept politicians who want to destroy liberal democracy? That’s what the Nazis did: they used the liberal democracy until they had power and then they destroyed liberal democracy. If Haidt had been working in Germany in the early 30s, he would have argued that the Nazis just see things differently and that all we need to do is talk and find common ground. “You want to kill all the Jews; I don’t want to kill any of them; how about we just kill all the Jews over the age of 30? You know, like in Logan’s Run!”

  2. Comparison of Tea Party and Occupy also inane because of the massive organizational difference between them. Within weeks at most, the Tea Party became a puppet of powerful right-wing interests. It is frankly sad to see people, not all of them stupid, deny this and claim independence for the Teas (‘useful idiots’). As you know, Occupy was viciously opposed by both parties, and had no rich uncle in the background.

    • I think it is even worse than this. The only reason there were Tea Party rallies to start with is that Fox News pushed them. I believe the Koch brothers were in from the ground floor. I don’t even think it took weeks.

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