Friday, July 23, 2010


That is the answer that Reason's Brian Doherty comes up to the question of where libertarians belong. Via George Mason economist Bryan Caplan, Doherty gives some raw numbers which point in the disappointing direction we've been dancing around for awhile now. While Americans may lean libertarian on a very general level, they are actually less libertarian the more specific you require them to be:

As Bryan Caplan, the George Mason University economist (who wrote in Reason back in 2007 about the many prevalent biases about economics that lead voters to prefer anti-free-market policies), has found in his studies of public opinion research vis à vis libertarian policy conclusions, “the sad truth is that the status quo is quite popular, and even moderate libertarian reforms like abolishing the minimum wage are persistently abhorrent to the overwhelming majority of the population.”

At Caplan’s advice, I spent some time trolling through the highly respected “General Social Survey” (GSS) to check out what Americans thought about more stringent applications of libertarian principles regarding when and where it is appropriate to bring state power to bear. While the more abstractly phrased questions tended to produce some modestly libertarian results—for example, 75 percent of Americans favor or strongly favor government spending cuts in the abstract—when asked about any specific spending area, the public tended to want more spending.

Still, some encouraging signs do appear amongst the GSS data, especially in changes that have occurred over the past 10 years. For example, from 1996 to 2006, the number of those who believed in definitely allowing public meetings advocating revolution went up nearly 20 percentage points, while those who believed in definitely not allowing them went down 9 percentage points.

But around 50 percent of Americans apparently have no objection to government control of wages; only 28 percent believe racists should definitely be allowed to publish books; only 27 percent think it should definitely not be the government’s role to provide jobs for all; and over 60 percent think government should prevent imports to protect the domestic economy.

These sort of findings don't tell us people's relative level of knowledge, but they do tell us that there's a disconnect between the rhetoric people believe and the specific policy proposals they would support. Or in other words, people like low taxes and "small government" that provides lots of services.

I'd argue that this disconnect between people's perceptions and reality cuts across the aisle. It's precisely why we saw so much overheated rhetoric about George Bush and why we're now seeing just as much if not more about Barack Obama. For far too many people, politics is sport, with the other side a perpetual enemy. And if you think those who cover politics from an unbiased, unidealogical standpoint are improving on the discourse, think again. The traditional unbiased media can be the worst of the bunch, focusing on the horse races and the idealogical squabbles more than actual policy. Policy matters, it matters a great deal and policy always flows from some sort of idealogical position about the role of government. The problem is that the vast majority of the American people (including the majority who would claim an interest in politics) aren't all that interested in policy and they're certainly not interested where it comes from.

I believe I said it before (if not in the blog than in the comments) that libertarians are smarter and I mean it - I don't mean self-styled, reactionary libertarians of the Glenn Beck vein, but libertarians of the John Stossel variety who use libertarian principles as a tool for reaching their own conclusions. That's not to say there aren't smart conservatives and smart liberals out there, but to come back to Julian Sanchez's epistemic closure argument, liberals and conservatives, even the smart ones, don't spend all their time defending the policies that stem from their principled idealogical positions the way that libertarians are often forced too. It's why the best debates tend to involve libertarians debating conservatives and libertarians debating liberals, even though some conservatives would rather sweep more radical libertarian ideas like drug legalization and open borders under the table and some liberals are shocked to believe that there are people who have a principled and not a reactionary belief in limited government.

Brian Doherty says libertarians don't belong anywhere and maybe that's true, but that doesn't mean we don't have an important role to play and perhaps that role is to provide an alternative to the racial flame throwing that's become increasingly common on the right and left. Agree with us or disagree, maybe our job is to make people smarter or at least, work harder to defend their positions.


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