You May Call Me R.J., You May Call Me Ray, Just Don't Call Me Libertarian

|

The "libertarian vote" controversy—the data-driven one, not the Lindsey-driven one—spills over onto TCS Daily, where Davids Boaz and Kirby point this out:

One more bit from our post-election Zogby poll: We asked voters if they considered themselves "fiscally conservative and socially liberal." A whopping 59 percent said they did. When we added to the question "also known as libertarian," 44 percent still claimed that description.

The Reason Foundation's Adrian Moore speculates (over e-mail) A commenter named Bill speculates that the terrible public image of the LP is the reason for that gap. Anyone have a better theory?

UPDATE: I originally misattributed the source of this wisdom. Who actually suggested it? Or as Camper Van Beethoven would phrase it, "Where the hell is Bill?"

Advertisement

NEXT: Gun Rights in Ohio

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The Reason Foundation’s Adrian Moore speculates (over e-mail) that the terrible public image of the LP is the reason for that gap. Anyone have a better theory?

    Yes, that most people have no idea what the hell they believe and will say they are anything that initially sounds positive.

    Replace “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” with “for keeping jobs in America and socially conservative” and you’d probably get the same results.

    And I’m surprised even 44% of people even have heard of the libertarian party, to be honest with you. And people don’t want to appear uninformed on current events, so they wouldn’t admit if they didn’t.

    Polls are bullshit.

  2. To many, libertarian means pro-big business more than that other definition Zogby gave.

    The 15% are those who are fiscally conservative, socially liberal and eiether neutral or anti on big business related issues.

  3. I think I have a better theory.

    Uninformed Republicans see the word “libertarian” as being too close to the word “Liberal”… semi-informed Democrats know that it’s the basis of traditional Republicanism (smaller government), and also that it’s endorsed by some of their most hated pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh and John Stossel (though anyone’s definition of libertarian is flexible from the pundits… it’s better when it’s a philosophy, and not a party).

    And everyone else feels that third-parties are usually full of “weirdoes”… Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and dare I say Michael Badnarik.

  4. I had class once taught by a guy named Henry Bellman who had been the first Republican governor of Oklahoma. When he ran for governor there were about as many registered Republicans in Oklahoma as there are self proclaimed libertarians now. He said that when he went to a town on a campaign stop, he never told the local Republicans he was coming. The reason for this is that the town’s two or three Republicans were invariably the two most annoying and disliked people in town and to be associated with them was political suicide. Sure enough he won the election, so people really didn’t disagree with him substantively, he just had to disassociate himself from the local gadflies and rejects that were the Oklahoma Republican Party at that time.

    I bring this up because it illustrates the problems with starting and running a small minority party. People like to play on the winning team and like to fit in with large groups. It is just human nature. If you have a small group, you are going to attract the gadflies and freaks. There is no way around it. My guess is that most people associate the LP with political whack jobs one step above the LaRouchies and want nothing to do with the party even though they agree with a lot of what the party has to say.

  5. Socially liberal also refers to, say, supporting the Civil Rights Act, or thinking that McGassbagg’s secretary’s options for recourse should be limited to either blowing her boss or quitting her job.

    So I think the term “libertarian” loses quite a few socially liberal people right there.

  6. “Socially Liberal” is one of those vague terms that includes drugs and guns and fucking in the streets libertines as well as slavery reparations,State mandated comparable-worth wages,prohibition of guns SUVs drugs meat etc liberals.Define Socially Liberal.Fiscally Conservative can mean taxing the snot out of “the rich” to pay for socialist programs.Define fiscally conservative.

  7. There’s probably a fair number of people who are just being honest. Someone who wants to raise taxes to reduce the deficit might consider himself “fiscally conservative”; someone who supports affirmative action and mandatory recycling might consider himself “socially liberal.” But he probably knows better than to add that up to “libertarian.”

  8. Most people who say they are fiscally conservative (if you’re talking about smaller gov’t) are lying, whether they know it or not.

  9. I think to most people “fiscally conservative” means some combination of raising someone else’s taxes and cutting spending on programs someone else benifits from to make the government pay for itself, not necessarily shrink its size. “Socially liberal” just means they can get their 17 year old daughter an abortion if she gets knocked up.

  10. “Libertarian” probably loses a few more “socially liberal/economically conservative” folks on issues of foreign policy (especially among TCS readers) and the environment. Neither of those sets of issues are captured by the “social” or “economic” axes.

  11. Jonah,

    Ahem…. Rush Limbaugh is a libertarian??!? You’re going to have to cite some heavy-hitting sources on that one.

  12. It’s hard to imagine with Michael Badnarik, People Magazine’s Sexiest Man of the Last Millenium, being the 2004 candidate.

  13. Even in my college days, when many people on this board would have called me a socialist, I would have described myself as “fiscally conservative.” Meaning I believed government spending should be kept in line with government revenues. That doesn’t mean I wanted to reduce the size of government, just that I thought our level of deficit spending was nuts.

  14. Polls may be “bullshit” but they keep the blog monster fed. And I would guess that many people equate “libertarian” with dog-fucker and coke-head, if only because they have little or no educational experience with history, philosophy and economics.

  15. “Even in my college days, when many people on this board would have called me a socialist, I would have described myself as “fiscally conservative.” Meaning I believed government spending should be kept in line with government revenues.”

    You were probably in line with the majority of people in this country Brian, especially if not running a deficit meant raising someone else’s taxes and cutting spending that you didn’t benefit from. People do in some sense get the government they want and deserve. We didn’t get a multi trillion dollar federal government by accident or through some sinsiter conspiracy.

  16. I think Jesse is right. The terms liberal, conservative, fiscal, and social mean different things to different people. To boil libertarianism down to a certain combination of them misses the point entirely. Libertarianism, small ‘l’ of course, is about individual freedom, which in practice can come off as a different combinations of terms to different people.

    Unfortunately most people really don’t support real liberty and freedom, no matter how much they claim to be fiscally con. and socially lib. The idea of everyone being left alone scares most people.

  17. There are a lot of people still not knowing who the libertarian party is, or maybe HAVE heard of them but don’t know what they stand for.

    I still encounter people like this from time to time.

  18. Ahem…. Rush Limbaugh is a libertarian??!?

    Limbaugh has claimed the description for himself.

    As Jonah noted (and can be seen in this poll) some people’s definitions are somewhat flexible.

  19. “The idea of everyone being left alone scares most people.”

    No. It is the idea of leaving other people alone that scares people. Most people even self proclaimed libertarians only want freedom as long as people use that freedom to make choices that are acceptable to them. The idea that people are free to do stupid things is a pretty objectionable one to most people.

  20. jkp
    Rush was really tight with Thomas Hazlett.
    When he got busted lefties had a real hard time dredging up a pro-drug war quote, from years of 3 hour daily blather,to make him look like a hypocrite.Compared to Hannity and the other righty talkers(except boortz) Rush is a libertarian.

  21. Pol,

    Rush has never been a big drug war guy as you point out. Also, railing against PC speech codes and the like which he at least used to do on a daily basis is certainly libertarian as well.

  22. Most people who said they were “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” probably thought this meant, “I don’t think we should waste money or set gay people on fire.” Not a useful poll question, I am afraid.

  23. One theory…

    Libertarian is what dorky conservatives call themselves when they want to get laid 🙂

  24. “I don’t think we should waste money or set gay people on fire.”

    On the other hand, you could probably get 20% of the vote by saying that we should.

  25. Being libertarian gets you laid? I’m hanging out in the wrong bars.

  26. If you want to be taken seriously and you just have to have a label, call yourself “independent”. It forces your audience to listen to your words rather than dismissing you and your party affiliation out of prejudice and preconceived expectations.

  27. I’d imagine the discrepancy can be largely explained by simple unfamiliarity, of varying degrees, with the word “libertarian” and its meaning. People know (or think they know, which, for the purposes of this poll, is the same thing) what “fiscally conservative” and “socially liberal” means. People have a less tenuous grasp on “libertarian” and are thus less likely to ID themselves as one.

    It might not be a perfect analogy, but I bet if you asked the same questions to bunch of libertarians, but ended the second question with “also known as classic liberalism”, you’d see a similar discrepancy (though likely not as large).

  28. fiscally conservative and socially liberal

    To the extent that most people I hear who consider themselves socially liberal are also fans of government intrusion in the simplest of matters and huge proponents of the welfare state, I find that appellation to be oxymoronic and useless at capturing the libertarian perspective. As has been observed, there are plenty of fiscally conservative perspectives that are void of small government tropism as well.

    invariably the?most annoying and disliked people in town

    If my experiences are representative that is the libertarian reception in a nutshell. The entrenched see a libertarian as somebody who just shit in the punch bowl.

  29. I think the perception dilemma is on display in the questions I got in an email from a collegue yesterday who shared his “off the cuff” thoughts on the problems he has with libertarianism:

    “I’m concerned about at least 4 points concerning libertarianism at this stage:

    The fact that most proponents seem to be those who already enjoy the most privilege: white males.

    The struggle for equality: racial, gender, sexual, etc. It seems like libertarianism discounts the necessary contribution that government has played in encouraging this equality.

    The environment. So far the best strategy we’ve come up with to pressure polluters to curb their destructive ways is to tempt them with the possibility of paying less in taxes to government. How could this same effect be accomplished without the presence of a government?

    Countering the dangers posed by private holders of guns. So we don’t like our government holding guns to us (which technically isn’t much of a problem for most white males), but we certainly don’t want lesser savory entities to have a monopoly on gun usage either. How is this dilemma reconciled by libertarianism?”

    I’m not even sure where to start in putting together answers that might help this otherwise smart guy to “come to Jesus.”

  30. Rush has never been a big drug war guy as you point out.

    I don’t know, it’s been a while but I distinctly recall him addressing the issue of sentencing for crack vs. cocaine. He acknowledged that there was a problem, but his solution left quite a bit to be desired: Don’t lower the punishment for crack, raise the punishment for cocaine.

  31. Government didn’t do jack on gender equality. The private sector did that, and it supports a libertarian viewpoint.

    Race is more complicated, but I think the government stopped helping and started hurting on race issues. Like Jennifer, and IIRC some of SCOTUS, I would be more comfortable with affirmative action measures if they had sunset clauses. I remember having that thought as far back as 1984 or 85, when I first learned what a sunset clause was.

    In other words, one libertraian perspective on race relations is not to throw out the entire civil rights legacy, but rather to identify measures that are counterproductive and remove those. Libertarians can be extremely useful in doing this process rationally.

  32. All we learn from this poll is that 43% of the population doesn’t know what “libertarian” means.

  33. “Government didn’t do jack on gender equality. The private sector did that, and it supports a libertarian viewpoint.”

    Really? The inclusion of sex in the Civil Rights Act, and the impressive body of case law built around gender discrimination in general and sexual harassment in particular, didn’t influence how the private sector’s attitude towards employing women has changed over the last 50 years?

    Or the push to increase female employment during WW2? That didn’t change the culture?

    Or the 19th Amendment?

  34. Sam Franklin,

    Even I have to admit Joe has got you on this one. I am afraid the government did a lot, perhaps too much, on gender equality.

  35. How could this same effect be accomplished without the presence of a government?

    With regards to the environment, have your colleague brush up on the Coase Theorem. The government enforces property rights, the market allocates the solution.

    The inclusion of sex in the Civil Rights Act, and the impressive body of case law built around gender discrimination in general and sexual harassment in particular, didn’t influence how the private sector’s attitude towards employing women has changed over the last 50 years?

    That legislation only codified what was already in the Constitution from Day 1. Either that or grossly misinterpreted it.

  36. swillfredo,

    However you choose to describe it, the legislation brought about material changes in how the government treated women, and how private empolyers and places of public accommodation treated women.

  37. All we learn from this poll is that 43% of the population doesn’t know what “libertarian” means.

    Exactly right, I think.

  38. To Swillfredo (from your linked article):

    “The above examples show that the Coase theorem cannot be applied as an anti-pollution policy in many critical cases. To claim that we can solve the world’s environmental problems simply by assigning strong property rights alone is therefore na?ve. But to be fair, most Coasians make more sophisticated arguments attempting to show how the theorem might be applied.”

    response to joe:

    I don’t think those government actions were very much responsible for gender equality. I don’t think they hurt. I don’t think they helped much, either. This is based on the totality of my experience. I think the law was pro-active on race issues and reactive on gender issues. I think that women would be where they are in 2006, even if they had never, ever been allowed the vote, and had not been named in the Civil Rights Act.

    I don’t expect you to agree with me on this, but that is how I feel.

  39. Not only that, I am glad the law is rective on gender issues. I am glad the ERA Amendment did not pass. I like gender equality, but prefer it as private ordering when possible (as it often is, as everybody knows now).

  40. “Countering the dangers posed by private holders of guns. So we don’t like our government holding guns to us (which technically isn’t much of a problem for most white males), but we certainly don’t want lesser savory entities to have a monopoly on gun usage either. How is this dilemma reconciled by libertarianism?”

    i’m confused as to what, exactly, he’s saying cause if i read this straight the answer is concealed carry laws and relaxed restrictions on gun ownership for private, law-abiding citizens.

    which is uh, a pretty basic libertarian theme. so what does he actually mean by this?

  41. Rush Limbaugh has read whole paragraphs from Ayn Rand and praised her clarity of thought. He could very well be a small l libertarian.
    He does play a role on radio and I am positive that character is similar but not identical to his true persona.

  42. All we learn from this poll is that 43% of the population doesn’t know what “libertarian” means.

    The truth is more sinister than that. Many of those same people cannot tell the difference between the term “libertarian” and “LaRouchian” on account of their both starting with “L”

  43. “i’m confused as to what, exactly, he’s saying cause if i read this straight the answer is concealed carry laws and relaxed restrictions on gun ownership for private, law-abiding citizens.

    which is uh, a pretty basic libertarian theme. so what does he actually mean by this?”

    I’m pretty sure that he makes the all to common mistake of conflating “society” with “government” here.

    It there a simple source of data I can point him to on the effectiveness of “More Guns, Less Crime?”

  44. morgan: check yer email

  45. Any qualifier you’d add would cause assent to drop some. However, I’m afraid the Libertarian Party has in fact brought a bad cachet to the word. CATO ran away from it for many years. The Libertarian Book Club, founded in 1948 (or ’46, I keep forgetting) considered changing its name, but just included disclaimers re LP instead.

    Anyway, in 1987 I polled people here in the Bronx by phone, and only about 1/3 said they’d heard of the word “libertrarian”. However, on hearing it, the vast majority correctly deduced that it had to do with liberty. (That’s a lot better than you get with the word “conservative”.) By 1989-90 the proportion who’d heard of the word had increased to 2/3. Still, hardly anyone volunteered the Libertarian Party as the name of what was then considered the 3rd largest political party in the nation, or even named it on an open ended question of naming any political parties they could think of; of course in NY LP could never have been considered higher than 5th place or so among political parties, so that affected my results.

    Anyway, I think the avg. person’s understanding of the word “libertarian” is at least as good as the avg. person’s understanding of the words “liberal” and “conservative”. Many libertarian activists lamenting the supposed misunderstood nature of libertarianism are actually lamenting the fact that most people aren’t political philosophers. They think their perspective is that of the libertarian, but really their relevant perspective is that of the highly interested person (as thinker or activist) vs. that of most people — which goes for any subject!

  46. People are frightened and confused by long words. I sincerely think that that explains a large portion of the discrepancy.

  47. According to a 2001 poll of 1,513 adults, the percentage who agree with the following statement, “People should be allowed to take any drug they want so long as they don’t hurt someone else.” is 12. So that’s the upper limit.

  48. According to a 2001 poll of 1,513 adults, the percentage who agree with the following statement, “People should be allowed to take any drug they want so long as they don’t hurt someone else.” is 12. So that’s the upper limit.

    That’d be an upper bound only for radical or extreme libertarians. If we counted only the extremes of every ideology, there’d be very few people you could use any common poli-sci type adjective on rightly.

    If drug policy were the only issue, I’d count anyone who agrees that, “People should have greater freedom to use drugs legally than they have here and now” as at least a moderate libertarian.

  49. And can you imagine what the results would have been 10 to 15 years ago?

    No, the Libertarian Party deserves a great deal of hearty congratulations for popularizing the term.

    The only thing is, they’ll never reap the benefits in the long run. Popularizing “libertarian” means that regular Joe Republicans are more apt to describe themselves as such. In other words, it’s the libertarian Republicans who will benefit.

  50. Robert: That’d be an upper bound only for radical or extreme libertarians

    “Radical or extreme”? Isn’t the basic principle of ‘don’t meddle in my affairs if I don’t in yours’ a basic linchpin of libertarianism. Many liberals do share some limited common ground with conservatives and vice versa, but that doesn’t mean that one can be counted among the other. The demarcating criteria are the foundational principles, and as per that, only 12% qualified in 2001.

  51. “The demarcating criteria are the foundational principles,”

    Nope, sorry, they ain’t. If you had to go by that, most isms would devolve onto a tiny fraction of what we’d usually consider their adherents. Only radicals can be demarcated by principles, and the radicals of any ism are only a fraction of the whole.

    The only useful way to size up anything in the public policy realm is to norm everything. Compare it to a useful marker, and I think the most useful marker is the average. The average will differ from place to place & time to time, but what’s being called for are here-and-now measurements, after all.

    Outside of that realm, it’s how we usually judge people. What determines whether someone is “tall” or “short”? Comparison to the avg. Same for all the usual descriptors you’d have for someone — smart or dumb, rich or poor, etc. Why should it be any different for determining whether someone is libertarian or authoritarian?

  52. If you had to go by that, most isms would devolve onto a tiny fraction of what we’d usually consider their adherents.

    The principle of ‘golden rule’ is a basic principle, not some obscure 15th commandment. Akin to the maxim that one can’t be a Christian if one doesn’t believe in the basic theology. Of course, beyond that, there are 101 denominations, but there’s a set of basic principles you have to believe in, to be a Christian. Same here.

  53. Nope. You don’t have to believe anything to count as Catholic, for instance. People feel an attachment to the Catholic church that transcends belief. You could think the Pope was Satan and still be Catholic, just because that’s how you think of yourself. And if you’re Catholic you’re Christian even if you don’t believe in Christ, just because Catholics are automatically Christian.

    Same if you’re Unitarian Universalist. Hey, they must be Christian if they’ve got “unitarian” in your name, because that’s how they account for Christ, and you can’t have Christ without Christianity. Yet you can be an individual UU without believing in any of the Christ stuff.

    OTOH, if you’re a Jew for Jesus, you have all the beliefs, but you’re not Christian, because you have “Jews” in your religion’s name. But you’re not a Jew either, even though you think of yourself as one. So it’s not as if the criterion for isms is predictably either what you think you are or what you think; it varies case to case.

  54. Meanwhile, I thought it was Camphor van Beethoven.

    Anyway, sometimes you can’t formulate any rule at all to decide what someone is, yet you can do it based on an intuitive sense. Even hear Lenny Bruce on Jewish vs. goyish? I started a thread on alt.fan.cecil-adams and we independently had a very high degree of agreement as to whether certain persons or things were Jewish or goyish. We could pretty much classify any tangible thing or abstraction as either Jewish or goyish, but those of us who could do so could not teach anyone else the difference. Some posters, the ones who couldn’t grok it, got very upset about it.

  55. Nope. You don’t have to believe anything to count as Catholic, for instance.

    Two points:

    1)You’re confusing cultural accomodation/nomination with the definition of a Christian. The latter, indeed, has to believe in the theology.

    2)By that logic, anyone who calls him/herself a libertarian becomes one, even if the principles they believe in, belong to fascism.

  56. Words mean what people think they mean; that’s their purpose.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.