My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal finds that just as liberals and conservatives have
predictable personalities, so do libertarians:
An individual's personality shapes his or her political ideology
at least as much as circumstances, background and influences. That
is the gist of a recent strand of psychological research identified
especially with the work of Jonathan Haidt. The baffling (to
liberals) fact that a large minority of working-class white people
vote for conservative candidates is explained by psychological
dispositions that override their narrow economic interests.
In his recent book "The Righteous Mind," Dr. Haidt confronted
liberal bafflement and made the case that conservatives are
motivated by morality just as liberals are, but also by a larger
set of moral "tastes"-loyalty, authority and sanctity, in addition
to the liberal tastes for compassion and fairness. Studies show
that conservatives are more conscientious and sensitive to disgust
but less tolerant of change; liberals are more empathic and open to
But ideology does not have to be bipolar. It need not fall on a
line from conservative to liberal. In recently published paper, Ravi Iyer from the
University of Southern California, together with Dr. Haidt and
other researchers at the data-collection platform YourMorals.org, dissect the personalities of
those who describe themselves as libertarian.
These are people who often call themselves economically
conservative but socially liberal. They like free societies as well
as free markets, and they want the government to get out of the
bedroom as well as the boardroom. They don't see why, in order to
get a small-government president, they have to vote for somebody
who is keen on military spending and religion; or to get a tolerant
and compassionate society they have to vote for a large and
The study collated the results of 16 personality surveys and
experiments completed by nearly 12,000 self-identified libertarians
who visited YourMorals.org. The researchers compared the
libertarians to tens of thousands of self-identified liberals and
conservatives. It was hardly surprising that the team found that
libertarians strongly value liberty, especially the "negative
liberty" of freedom from interference by others. Given the
philosophy of their heroes, from John Locke and John Stuart Mill to
Ayn Rand and Ron Paul, it also comes as no surprise that
libertarians are also individualistic, stressing the right and the
need for people to stand on their own two feet, rather than the
duty of others, or government, to care for people.
Perhaps more intriguingly, when libertarians reacted to moral
dilemmas and in other tests, they displayed less emotion, less
empathy and less disgust than either conservatives or liberals.
They appeared to use "cold" calculation to reach utilitarian
conclusions about whether (for instance) to save lives by
sacrificing fewer lives. They reached correct, rather than
intuitive, answers to math and logic problems, and they enjoyed
"effortful and thoughtful cognitive tasks" more than others do.
The researchers found that libertarians had the most "masculine"
psychological profile, while liberals had the most feminine, and
these results held up even when they examined each gender
separately, which "may explain why libertarianism appeals to men
more than women."
All Americans value liberty, but libertarians seem to value it
more. For social conservatives, liberty is often a means to the end
of rolling back the welfare state, with its lax morals and
redistributive taxation, so liberty can be infringed in the
bedroom. For liberals, liberty is a way to extend rights to groups
perceived to be oppressed, so liberty can be infringed in the
boardroom. But for libertarians, liberty is an end in itself,
trumping all other moral values.
Dr. Iyer's conclusion is that libertarians are a distinct
species-psychologically as well as politically.
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