This post comes from an email exchange with a friend asking my response to a University of Southern California psychological study on libertarians. It’s fascinating and for readers more academically inclined, I suggest you check it out.
From the abstract:
Compared to self-identified liberals and conservatives, libertarians showed 1) stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle, and weaker endorsement of all other moral principles; 2) a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional cognitive style; and 3) lower interdependence and social relatedness.
You can read the full study here.
Overall, I would say this study was well done. I thought it complimentary when the paper described libertarians to be more “cerebral” than self-described liberals and conservatives. The researchers found plenty of evidence to back their hypothesis that “Libertarians will rely upon emotion less – and reason more – than will either liberals or conservatives.” One of their charts documented that “Libertarians exhibit a reason-based cognitive style according to a variety of measures.” In addition, they found a “pattern [that] is consistent with the libertarian valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion” and it was interpreted “Libertarians may enjoy thinking about complex and abstract systems more than other groups, particularly more than conservatives.” Based on personal experience talking to other libertarians, I can definitely account for the fact that they provided some of the most enriching, thought-provoking conversations I’ve ever had.
To me, all of this is a good thing. It just means we libertarians more likely to apply reason and evidence-based thinking. We could definitely use more rational people in our government. It’s unconstitutional, atrocious legislation like the PATRIOT Act (Oh no, the terrorists will kill us all without warrant-less surveillance! No time to read it! We must pass it at once!) or the completely unnecessary $700 billion Wall Street bailout/ripoff the taxpayer in 2008 (Oh no, the economy will collapse if we don’t pass it!) that come as a result of knee-jerk reactions and the politics of fear.
The biggest criticism I have of this study is the part on the “intuitive” theory of morality. I believe researchers have their premises backwards. They presume that moral principles are derived from emotional reactions. This may be true for some people, but I maintain exactly the opposite condition and I would suspect that’s true for many other libertarians and probably people of other political persuasions as well. My emotional reactions are distinctly secondary to a moral judgment that I have already made. Most of the time, this process feels automatic and simultaneous but that’s because I already conditioned my brain to operate within a specific moral guidance over a long-term thinking about ethics. The emotions I experience now are very different from the ones that I felt when I was in high school. They changed as I learned more about the world and as I began making conscious decisions about my life philosophy. Whatever role my initial psychological make-up may have had in guiding me towards a particular philosophy, my psychology was ultimately molded by my chosen philosophy, and the two now work together symbiotically. At least, most of the time…
Lastly, I do think it’s slanted to conclude libertarians as unconcerned about others. You could tell that the researchers who performed this study are progressive liberals because it reinforced the false narrative that altruism and charity can only be state-sanctioned. Just because libertarians don’t support using government force to achieve those ends doesn’t mean we don’t care about others or wouldn’t help less fortunate people. Libertarian skeptic magician Penn Jillette said it best: