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Brink Lindsey on Libertarians in America

Brink Lindsey headshot


Following the release of PRRI’s 2013 American Values Survey: In Search of Libertarians in America, editor MacKenzie Babb sat down with Brink Lindsey, Cato Institute’s vice president for research, to get his take on the results.

What was the survey’s most important finding?

Well, I’d say the most newsworthy headline out of the report was finding the rather limited overlap between libertarians and Tea Party members. This didn’t really surprise me, but it may surprise a lot of other people. Back in 2010, I wrote an article for Reason Magazine warning libertarians that the Tea Party was fundamentally a social conservative movement that overlapped only marginally with libertarian concerns. That was back in the earlier days of the Tea Party movement, and now we have a much better understanding of who they are, what their composition is and what their main concerns are. Once you combine that with this new data on libertarians, it’s clear that there is some overlap but not very much. In the past couple years, it’s been pretty common to conflate libertarians and the Tea Party, but it’s now clear that they’re quite distinctive groups of people.

Did anything in the report surprise you?

In the survey, libertarians were found to be less supportive of same-sex marriage than the American public generally. This surprised me because it doesn’t comport with my own anecdotal sense of things from rubbing shoulders with professional libertarians, so that was the result that took me back a bit. I think there’s a general tendency of the libertarian group to steer toward the right of the political spectrum because libertarian rhetoric is used regularly and increasingly now by the political right, and not so much by the left. Even though libertarians on the political spectrum are really equidistant from both right and left, the right pays a lot more attention than the left does in the real world and so it doesn’t surprise me that the libertarian sensibility may have more of a right-of-center spin on certain issues, same-sex marriage being one. So, that’s a possible explanation. Secondly, there are libertarians who take a more radical position on marriage and believe it shouldn’t be a state concern at all because there shouldn’t be state definitions on marriage, and would rather it just be a private contract between people. Those people may believe the battle over same-sex marriage isn’t the right battle to be having, and would therefore not be inclined to show support. That said, public opinion is generally trending rapidly in the direction of greater acceptance of same-sex marriage, and I don’t see the libertarian bloc as being any sort of brake on that longer trend.

You talk about libertarian involvement in the Republican Party; can you delve a bit deeper into that alliance?

There is a long history of cooperation and engagement between libertarians and conservatives that I think really grew out of the Cold War, in which the huge issue of the day was the future of socialism versus capitalism. The libertarians clearly felt socialism was the antithesis of their worldview, and so they were understandably disposed to ally with other anti-socialists, which threw them in with the right. I will be interested to see if over time that right-leaning trend continues, as the more liberal-leaning libertarian positions on civil liberties, social issues and foreign policy continue to receive increased attention and to make it more widely apparent that libertarians aren’t just about free markets, they’re also about protecting us from government power in the social arena.

Final question: Why are men more likely to be libertarian than women?

I think studies of the differences between men and women’s political views often emphasize that men tend to think more analytically, more systematically and less empathetically than women. So first, the kind of analytical rigor and consistency of libertarianism is something that stereotypically seems more masculine. The perceived lack of empathy of libertarians—that they don’t support lavish government programs to help the less fortunate, for example—translates to people thinking that they don’t care about the less fortunate. I don’t think that’s the case. I think we libertarians believe these government programs can actually hurt the people they’re trying to help; nonetheless, there’s this superficial appearance that libertarians are somewhat less big-hearted. And since stereotypically, women are more focused on communities, relationships and caring than men, that could be a turn-off as well. I think it’s a question we libertarians really, really, really need to focus on and understand better because I think it’s a terrible shame that not only does the appeal of libertarianism skew male, it also skews white. This means two groups of people, African-Americans and women, who have both experienced huge breakthroughs in freedom and liberation from oppression during my lifetime, don’t feel that the movement which values freedom above all speaks to them. That’s a terribly unfortunate state of affairs and one that we ought to be working to remedy.