Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Libertarian personality?

Recently I ran across this piece:  Climate Disruption Denial:  A Natural By-Product of Libertarian Values.

The post struck me as utter crap.  Essentially, the author argues, because Libertarians are focused exclusively on the value of personal liberty, they are incapable of recognizing the scientific consensus about industrial climate change, and employ all sorts of (conscious and unconscious) mental gymnastics to get around accept it.

Here are are few relevant snippets (very few, because this piece is not actually the focus of my post):
The problem for libertarians is that accepting human responsibility for climate disruption creates a threat to their values. The Iyer et al paper detailed in Part One of this series found that libertarians are fundamentally driven by a single moral good, specifically the liberty to be left alone to do as they pleased. Industrial climate disruption challenges both the primacy of personal liberty and, as a result, libertarians are highly motivated to reject the reality of industrial climate disruption.--snip--According to Iyer et al, libertarians essentially have a single moral good – liberty. Specifically, they value the idea of “negative” liberty, which is defined as the right to do with your life and possessions whatever you please so long as you don’t infringe upon the right of others to do the same. Iyer et al also found that libertarians very strongly valued self-direction (the right of individuals to make their own choices in life) and achievement, more so than either conservatives or liberals.--snip--From a libertarian’s perspective, if industrial climate disruption is real, then his property rights are likely to be limited “for the greater good.” But there is no such thing as a “greater good” to a libertarian than individual rights, so right away this entire approach would be unacceptable to a libertarians [sic]. 
There's more, but you get the idea.  Libertarians are so hung up on their ideology and their lack of any morals except liberty that they are completely incapable of dealing with scientific data that might conflict with their world view.

I've heard this argument before, and even seen references to the same paper, so I decided to track down this recently published paper:
Iyer R, Koleva S, Graham J, Ditto P, Haidt J (2012) Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42366. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042366
The rest of this admittedly long post is my best attempt to grapple with this research, a topic that will probably only interest diehard Libertarians, Dana Garrett, and (perhaps) pandora, so I will put the break here....
If you want to follow along, I urge you to read the entire paper, not just the abstract.

I need to make an important point at the outset:  Iyer et al have not set out to do a "hit piece" on Libertarians.  They are doing serious social science, examining how our personality pre-dispositions affect our political ideologies.  Essentially they have been working on the thesis that for most people their personality pre-disposes them to select one ideology over another.

They (and others) have previously done work comparing conservatives and liberals, and finding very close correlations.  But, being unhappy with a straight-line political continuum, the authors decided to examine another political ideology that was something other than a straight offshoot of liberal or conservative, and see if their thesis held true there as well.

This led them to libertarians as a large "third party" type group, who appeared to them to have a distinctive ideology.  (They do not say, but I presume that they probably rejected ideologies like socialism or Marxism because those ideologies would fit too easily on the straight-line continuum as effectively extensions of liberalism, and would not help develop or disprove their theory.)

Having done that, they begin with a reasonably good historical appreciation of what Libertarian political philosophy is, where it came from, and how it differs from those philosophies held by conservatives and liberals.  To call this summary "reasonably good" is not intended as a slight.  In the scope of the paper they had about 4-5 paragraphs to do the job, and they were both fair-minded and demonstrated familiarity with major political thinkers and trends in Libertarian philosophy.  I could nitpick here and there, but I don't think it is called for.  I'm not going to present a summary of their summary because I don't think it would do their work justice; read for yourself and I don't think you will find any surprises.

Having decided what Libertarian political philosophy (or ideology) entails, they make three predictions about the "Libertarian personality":
(1) Libertarians will value liberty more strongly and consistently than liberals or conservatives, at the expense of other moral concerns.This expectation is based on the explicit writings of libertarian authors (e.g. the Libertarian party website at, with the title “The Party of Principle: Minimum Government, Maximum Freedom”).(2) Libertarians will rely upon emotion less – and reason more – than will either liberals or conservatives. This expectation is based upon previous research on the affective origins of moral judgment [8], as well as libertarians' own self-characterizations. For example, one of the main libertarian magazines is called, simply, Reason.(3) Libertarians will be more individualistic and less collectivist compared to both liberals and conservatives. This expectation is based upon previous research concerning the social function of moral judgment [17][29][33]. Libertarians often refer to the “right to be left alone” [38], and show strong reactance toward social or legal pressures to join groups or assume obligations toward others that are not freely chosen [39].
Nothing here surprised or disturbed me with the exception of number one, suggesting that Libertarians will value liberty "at the expense of other moral concerns."

The reason I was uncomfortable with this sentence is not that it might say something unlovely about me or other Libertarians (Dana, I've got you for that :)), but because it seemed to posit that the human "moral universe" is a zero-sum-game; that you have only so many "morals points" to go around, and that if you put too many of them into the "individual liberty" pocket then you won't have enough left to go around for "altruism" or "caring about others" or even "disgust" (yes, that's listed as a moral trait).

On the other hand, I can see how an unbalanced focus on a single moral axis could functionally if not structurally create a major imbalance, so I decided to see how the authors would proceed.

They used literally thousands of interviews and personality inventories with libertarians, conservatives, liberals, moderates, and apoliticals.  They did not create the categories:  all libertarians were self-identified.  (Later they would go back and see if their conclusions could pick out and label libertarians blindly from their responses, but that is a fairly standard social scientific confirmation method.)

Here lies my first caveat about this study and the work that precedes it:  the overwhelming set of responses that they received were from self-identified Liberals; to wit in one representative subscale test:
The MFQ was completed by 97,036 participants (54,068 men; 64,109 liberals, 13,537 conservatives, and 8,539 libertarians). 
My issue here was at first purely statistical:  the participants seemed not reflective of what we know about breakdowns in the American political landscape--it is way too skewed toward liberals versus conservatives, and it also appears skewed towards libertarians at the expense of conservatives. It is, of course, a given that you have to work with the sample you have (read the paper to discover how they got it; the methodology is pretty good), and the authors are scrupulously honest about reporting the numbers.  Moreover, a sample size of 8,500+ libertarians is quite large enough to reach significant conclusions.

[I was disappointed, however, to see absolutely no breakdown of variability in responses among Libertarians anywhere in the paper, by age, gender, education, etc.  I suspect in all honesty that they may have some of this data, but unless you have ever written a paper like this you don't know how much of an effort it is to shoe-horn in the critical material and still be inside publishable length.]

They used a study design with three parts:  (1) What is Libertarian Morality? (2) How do Libertarians Think and Feel? and (3) How do Libertarians Relate to Others?

I cannot even summarize their summaries (yeah, I know how that sounds) without virtually reprinting most of the paper here, and I would prefer that you read it yourself.  I will give their general conclusions in a moment, and reflect upon them, but I do want to highlight a couple things.

As I read the work and the emotive-cognitive tests and inventories they used, I was personally struck by the fact that many of them are (unconsciously, I suspect) somewhat disposed to place a higher inherent value on "liberal" values than on "conservative" values.  This shows in some of the category designations and some of the language of the inventories.  It is a weak bias, but an understandable one, as most of the Moral Foundations Theory that they are using emanates from fields dominated by people who themselves hold liberal rather than conservative (or even libertarian) values.

What surprised me, and here I give all credit to the authors, is that they apparently recognized this as well.  Instead of merely satisfying themselves with saying that Libertarians had fewer moral concerns because they did not rate highly on this or that scale, they observed the following [bear with me, I am going to quote the whole paragraph and just bold what I think is significant]:
This is not to say, however, that libertarians are devoid of moral concerns. Contemporary moral psychology has paid little attention to the valuation of negative liberty as a specifically moral concern. Independence may be seen as a pragmatic value [47]. Respecting the autonomy of others may be seen as a way to promote the welfare of individuals [43], consistent with liberal ideas about positive liberty, rather than as an independent moral construct. It is predictable, then, that on such measures libertarians appear amoral (i.e. lacking in the activation of common moral systems). However, our results show that libertarians score substantially higher than liberals and conservatives on measures of both economic and lifestyle liberty, the Schwartz value of Self-Direction, and the centrality of independence to one's core self (measured using the Modified Good Self scale). Libertarians may fear that the moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives (as measured by the MFQ) are claims that can be used to trample upon individual rights — libertarians' sacred value (e.g.[48]). If liberty is included as a moral value, libertarians are not amoral. Rather, standard morality scales, including the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, do a poor job of measuring libertarian values.
It is rare (if you do not work in academia you do not know how rare) to find the sort of intellectual honest that says, in essence, "You know, this is what we found, but we have to acknowledge a significant limitation of the tool we are using to describe the values of those we are examining."

This paragraph gives the authors tremendous credibility with me, and was instrumental in making me take a much more serious look at their conclusions.

[An aside:  one of the weaknesses of the brief summary of Libertarian philosophy in the paper and any actual follow-up interviews with Libertarians is possibly a failure to perceive the extent to which Libertarian philosophy uses different definitions for the moral values as designated by inventories like the Moral Foundations Questionnaire.  Libertarians generally do see economic and lifestyle liberty as the guarantors of all other moral values, which both makes the authors' point while simultaneously somewhat undermining the value of some of their scale scores.  It is sort of like using a test designed to check for the acidity in citrus fruits on an apple.  But again, I am not sure they had any other choices here, given what they were looking for and working with.]

So what were their general conclusions from all this?  First, there's this:
The current research not only describes an important ideological group, but also tells a coherent story about how and why some people become libertarians while others become liberals or conservatives. While we cannot establish causality with our correlational data, we can see several cross-level links...
[I emphasize this segment because it is one of those statements that too often comes out in the wash when other people are using the original research as a reference to back up their own agendas.  Go back to the first post I cited, in which the author thoroughly distorts what Iyer et al said about Libertarians:
The Iyer et al paper detailed in Part One of this series found that libertarians are fundamentally driven by a single moral good, specifically the liberty to be left alone to do as they pleased.--snip--According to Iyer et al, libertarians essentially have a single moral good – liberty.
That's not even close (even allowing for the attempt to boil down this paper into a single sentence) to being an accurate summation of what Iyer et al conclude, and it completely ignores their many nuances regarding both the validity of their survey tools and their caution that they only found correlation and not causation.  But if you cite a long, complex paper that has subtle conclusions, and you are fairly certain most people will not go back and read the original, you can often get away with this kind of distortion.]

What Iyer et al DO say at the end (among a lot of other things; again, go read the WHOLE THING yourself) is:
Although causal conclusions remain beyond our current reach, our findings indicate a robust relationship between libertarian morality, a dispositional lack of emotionality, and a preference for weaker, less-binding social relationships.
This is the most succinct statement of their findings, but I do want to highlight another one, that is really important to understanding their conclusions [I have broken it into three paragraphs for better clarity but have not changed or deleted a word]:
[1]The current research not only describes an important ideological group, but also tells a coherent story about how and why some people become libertarians while others become liberals or conservatives. While we cannot establish causality with our correlational data, we can see several cross-level links of the sort described by McAdams and Pals [35] and modeled by Lewis and Bates [9]. 
[2]People who are dispositionally more (at level 1) open to new experiences and reactant are more likely to find themselves drawn to some classically liberal philosophers (such as John Stuart Mill) and classically liberal values and ideals (such as the superordinate value of individual liberty, at level 2). But if these same people are also highly individualistic and low on empathic concern — if they simply feel the suffering of other people less — then they might feel little emotional attraction to modern liberalism's emphasis on altruism and positive liberty, and turned off by its willingness to compel some citizens to help other citizens (through redistributive tax policies). 
[3]When they first encounter libertarian philosophy (or read an Ayn Rand novel or hear a Ron Paul speech), they find an ideological narrative (level 3) that resonates with their values and their emerging political likes and dislikes (level 2). They begin identifying themselves as libertarians, which reinforces their moral beliefs. They find it easier to reject statements endorsing altruism (or group loyalty or respect for authority) than they would have before having discovered libertarianism and its rationalist, individualist ethos.
First note that this describes a process consistent with the authors' prior conclusions about liberals and conservatives.  You could write the same three paragraphs about them:  (a) they have certain dispositional traits in their personalities; (b) they encounter literature or ideas that resonate with these traits; (c) they then self-identify as a libertarian or conservative or liberal; and (d) this identification actually reinforces the original dispositional traits.

I have no argument with that process at all.  I have seen people encounter Robert Heinlein (I often think anybody who claims to have actually finished Atlas Shrugged as a teenager is in need of serious help; at least Heinlein's work usually has a plot, characters, and a setting as well as an ideological perspective) and automatically become Libertarians, just as I have seen people encounter, say, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and automatically become Liberals.  I do not believe either author has that much power over the minds of men--there must be pre-dispositional traits at work to make them resonate so effectively with different sub-sets of the population.

So what about their findings?  Are Libertarians in general (and me in specific) so focused on economic and lifestyle liberty that our other moral goods are somewhat, well, ... atrophied?  Are we both less emotional and less empathic toward others?

Let's discuss extent, first, before I answer.  I think it is important to examine at least one chart from the authors' work relevant to how much an emphasis on liberty comes at the expense of emphasis on other aspects of morality:
Chart title:  Libertarians have weaker intuitions
about most moral concerns, but stronger intuitions
about liberty.
I am not so sure this chart shows what the title claims it shows.  Yes, Libertarians go significantly higher on economic and lifestyle liberty, but look at the others.  The two values here associated primarily with liberalism are "harm" and "fairness.  It is important to note that with regard to "fairness" Libertarians rate higher than conservatives.  On the values associated with conservatism--"ingroup," "authority," and "purity," Libertarians rank almost exactly equal with Liberals.  Thus, of the five moral concerns that EXCLUDE liberty, Libertarians have almost exactly the same intuitions as liberals on three, the same intuitions as conservatives on one, and a significantly lower intuition than either liberals or conservatives on only the "harm" scale.

But leaving that aside, let's go back to the conclusions of the study:

Am I personally less emotional (and therefore more inclined to value rational rather than empathic reasoning) that most other people I encounter?  I'd have to say "yes" to that, with a couple caveats.  

I am an analytic thinker, always have been.  I categorize, summarize, compare--I am much more comfortable with quantitative than qualitative reasoning.  I don't reject qualitative reasoning, I just know that I do not do it as well as I do quantitative.  Do I value what I consider reasoned conclusions over intuitive, emotional conclusions?  Absolutely I have that tendency, and I often have to fight with it.

What about being less emotional or less empathic?  Less emotional--yes, if this means what I think it means (wow, was that sentence Freudian enough for you?).  I don't do spontaneous emotional interchanges with people that I don't know very well.  I often miss cues and feel somewhat awkward in those social situations wherein I seem to see everybody navigating much more easily.  If picking up on those emotive cues rapidly or easily is an indication of less direct empathy, then I think there is some validity here.

And my personal empathy is less easily extended to those who find themselves in bad situations because I perceive that they put themselves in by making poor choices.  I do struggle with that:  the reasoning part of me often kicks in with a sort of scale score that tells me that my personal empathy should be measured at least in part by how much responsibility I think that person has for the screw-up.  This is significantly mitigated if the person is capable of admitting they screwed up, but if not I have a very low empathy rating.

(In case the two of you who are still reading are wondering, this is a pretty difficult section to write.  Try examining yourself at this level.)

I think, for me, that this means that I have a much higher quotient for in-person empathy than abstract empathy for groups of people.  On the other hand, I have a very, VERY strong moral repugnance for what I consider unjustifiable violence or force used against individuals, no matter who or where they are.  When I make the moral comparison between the killings of CT school children by a whacko and the killings of Yemeni civilians by the US armed forces (or CIA) I am not making a facile comparison. I look at the pictures of those dead Yemenis and I feel anger that other people do not feel as much anger about their deaths as I do.

I see my personal responsibility much more clearly for having allowed those Yemeni deaths to have occurred than I do my personal responsibility for having allowed those CT school children to be killed.  This is a dangerous statement to make, and I am sure somebody will use it against me some day, but I am trying to be as honest as possible about my own moral calculus.  I see the guy in CT as a nutcase who it was the responsibility of the people around him, who knew him, to have detected what was going on there and taken actions to prevent it.  I don't find it easy to accept that it is society's fault for allowing him access to "assault weapons," because he and the folks in his community all made individual choices.  On the other hand, I feel like I don't work hard enough to affect our entire government when it decides to kill civilians and then cover it up.  I feel much more personal guilt over Yemen in this example than CT, and so if guilt is a reasonable stand-in here for empathy, I think the authors have a point.

[If I am far more forthcoming than I intend to be right here, I could even tell you where in my upbringing [nurture vs nature] some of these traits came from.  But I'm not gonna be THAT forthcoming right now.]

What about other libertarians?  Dangerous ground here, given that many of the people I know as libertarians also read this blog, and just might have kept at it this far (although I doubt it; Dana, are you at least still with me?).  But here's what I will say:

I think most libertarians VALUE reason over emotion, but I dare say that most Libertarians are also secretly reluctant to let other Libertarians know that they don't value reason over emotion to quite the extent than an Ayn Rand or Robert Heinlein might prefer.

I think most libertarians are just as empathic toward the people with whom they have moderate to close ties, but do have difficulties with empathy toward abstract groups or collections of people.  I think for Libertarians it is often the individualization of other people that makes them subjects of empathy.

But here's where I think that the authors DO miss the boat.  I personally value economic and lifestyle liberty so highly because I think that they are the best guarantors of other basic human rights and dignity.  While I could be wrong about that (as you could be wrong about any of your political beliefs) it is important to note that for me those liberty moral goods facilitate the others, not exclude the others.  I think the authors are too wedded (again, as unconsciously as I am) to their own liberal values to accept the idea that those liberal values cannot be used as universal determinants of all morality.

Where is this all going?  When will you make an end of this, Michelangelo?

OK here's this:  I agree wholeheartedly psychological pre-dispositions play a driving role in what ideologies are attractive to us, and that identification with those ideologies then reinforces the original dispositions.  I also agree (for me!) that I tend to be more analytical than empathic.

[Aside:  this is why, when I worked in the medical corps for the US Army I was the perfect triage officer in mass casualty situations.  I could analyze the wounded soldiers brought to me and make quick, dispassionate decisions about the categories into which each would go.  In part I could steel myself to see them as collections of wounds rather than wounded people (yes, I know how that sounds), which the doctors and nurses I worked with had great difficulty doing.]

I do not support the conclusion that Libertarians have poor moral intuitions about other things.  I think it would be appropriate to say "different moral intuitions about other things."

You might consider that nitpicking, but I don't.


kavips said...

Hmm.. i think you analyzed this from the perspective of "gee, I'm libertarian and see I'm human..." which you are of course.

n other words, being one and being put on the defensive probably puts you in a smaller universe when you do your introspective evaluation, than the authors intended.

The question is, if we widened the field, and put you and let's say, an ex-hippie that still posts peace signs and those odd colored flowers that show up in the backgrounds of 60's television music videos, on their facebook page, both in that kind of universe of objects we will compare, the descriptions he gives, may appears a little truer...

In other words, if you inserted into the author's phrase, "compared to this ex-hippy" Libertarians have these traits.....etc,etc,etc,...

then I think it would make more sense. However, when seen within yourself, every person has breadth and depth of personalities that cover the entire realm of human existence... every human when being put into a box, says: hey, that is not entirely true. It is just how we compare to others, which is how we get ourselves defined...

I hope that makes a little sense...

pandora said...

Yep, I read the whole thing.

You've given me a lot to think about. I think you might have been a bit hard on yourself. I may start out with personal empathy, but, depending on the person, it isn't unlimited empathy. Very few of us are without judgment. And there have been many times I've walked away from a person saying, "You know... On some level this must work for you. Because if it didn't you'd change it."

And I guess that's my distinction. If I judge (ouch!) that a person has the wherewithal to change their situation, but chooses not to, then my empathy is limited. If I judge (ouch, again!) that they lack the wherewithal to change their course then my empathy can be endless.

In my view, the phrase "Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps" doesn't apply to everyone. Some people don't have boots.

And given our discussions over the years, Steve, I think you have empathy. I think you are good at recognizing that not everyone has the same advantages and opportunities. What I don't think you're good at is suffering fools.

Libertarians are an interesting group - actually, they really aren't a group. I have met many self proclaimed Libertarians and always end up shaking my head - the ideology can be all over the place. The only consistent is the fact that they tell me that my other Libertarian friend isn't really a Libertarian.

Steven H. Newton said...


I'm not attempting to be hard on myself, just realistic. I do have empathy, but . . . my empathy generally comes second to rational thought. Which is where they are right, I think.

Where they are on questionable grounds (this comes to me on more reflection) is that they have set up a paradigm in which the particular set of moral values that is defined as "liberal" is normative, and those which deviate from "liberal" values are not different, but are somehow deficient. Within that paradigm I believe they are exceptionally honest social scientists, but Godel's Incompleteness Theorem suggests (me being rational again) that they are effectively incapable of seeing their own bias in this regard.

NCSDad said...

I read it and agree with your conclusions. Three of us read it at least. Thank you P and K for taking the time to try to understand.

NCSDad said...

I too, would bet L's have a different view of what fairness and harm AR.

Dana Garrett said...

I read your entire post. It's a good one. I agree with you that there is no conceptual dilemma for Libertarians to admit climate change. Since Libertarians are inclined to process facts, data, etc rationally, there is no reason why they should reject climate change if the evidence tends to indicate its reality. I do think that conservatives are inclined to reject climate change because they are emotionally attached to the ideology that humans pursuing their own economic self interest in standard ways can do no (or very little) harm.

However, I do think that Libertarians give liberty such a dominating role in their scheme of values that it has a veritable veto power in situations when other competing and balancing values clamor for instantiation.

I could accept your hypothesis (and that of the authors of the study) that for Libertarians liberty is the vehicle to other values if liberty wasn't so narrowly defined by them as negative liberty. I don't see, for example, how you get to any substantial instantiation of equality through negative liberty. I won't say that equality for Libertarians is a token value, but in all honesty it's not far from that status in my view. I consider that problematical.

As for my favorite libertarian (you, Steve), I agree with Pandora. I don't see you as having any issue with empathy personally. But in my albeit limited experience with Libertarians, I do consider you to be something of an outlier. But, then, a large chunk of that experience is with Randians and ancaps.