Paul Krugman claims "there basically aren't any libertarians"

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

In a recent post , famed economist Paul Krugman claims that "there basically aren't any libertarians" out there because public opinion breaks down neatly along a liberal-conservative spectrum where almost everyone who favors government intervention in the economy is a social liberal and almost everyone who is skeptical of it is a social conservative. But Krugman cites no data to support his conclusion. And, in fact, extensive survey data contradicts it.

The relevant evidence has been catalogued by David Boaz, polling guru Nate Silver (who is far from being a libertarian himself), and economist Bryan Caplan. Depending on what measures you use, anywhere from about 10% to as many as 44 percent of Americans hold generally libertarian views in the sense that they favor strict limits on government power in both the economic and social spheres. I believe the lower estimates are more credible than the higher ones. But even the former are still a substantial fraction of the population.

Most of these people aren't as consistent and thoroughgoing in their views as libertarian intellectuals are. But the same can be said of most conservatives and liberals in the general public relative to intellectual advocates of those viewpoints. At least within the Republican Party (which is a major focus of Krugman's post), the percentage of libertarians is rapidly increasing; younger Republicans are much more libertarian on social issues than their elders, while still being skeptical of government intervention in the economy.

Krugman also claims that almost no one holds views that are the opposite of libertarianism: combining social conservatism with support for extensive government intervention in the economy (he calls such people "hardhats," though public opinion researchers more commonly call them "populists"). This too is clearly false. As Boaz and Caplan note, surveys show a substantial number of people who fall into that category. In recent years, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum both ran campaigns for the GOP presidential nomination on such a platform, and both attracted substantial support. Perhaps even more telling, George W. Bush's policies as president included a combination of social conservatism and the biggest new welfare state program in some forty years, as well as a major expansion of federal government involvement in education. Bush and his advisers clearly believed there were enough "hardhats" out there to make this program politically viable. In Europe, the combination of social conservatism and economic interventionism is even more common than in the US, as witness the recent resurgence of parties such as France's National Front, which combine right-wing nationalism with support for a large welfare state. As a libertarian myself, I'm no fan of hardhat/populist ideologies. But I can't deny that there are large numbers of people who support them.

Admittedly, Krugman's claim might be right if we interpret his framework literally. He defines libertarians as people who combine "social liberalism" with the view that there should be "no social insurance." As David Boaz notes in his critique, the latter is an extreme definition that would exclude such prominent libertarian thinkers as Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek (both of whom were willing to accept a strictly limited welfare state); it would also rule out the vast majority of those people who hold roughly libertarian views in the general population. But if Krugman means that definition literally, it would also prove there are no conservatives either (he defines the latter as those who combine "no social insurance" with conservatism on social issues). After all, very few people who consider themselves to be conservatives favor the complete abolition of the welfare state, as opposed to its restriction to levels smaller than that favored by the left. In the 2012 election, the GOP even ran on a platform attacking Obama for supposedly cutting Medicare too much.

It's also possible to try to justify Krugman's claim by arguing that most of those people who hold seemingly libertarian views haven't thought carefully about their implications and are not completely consistent in their beliefs. This is likely true. But it is also true of most conservatives and liberals. Political ignorance and irrationality are very common across the political spectrum and only a small minority of voters think carefully about their views and make a systematic attempt at consistency. Libertarian-leaning voters are not an exception to this trend. But it is worth noting that, controlling for other variables, increasing political knowledge tends to make people more libertarian in their views than they would be otherwise.

Finally, Krugman is wrong to suggest that the difference between supporters and opponents of more extensive government intervention in the economy is solely or even primarily about "social insurance" that breaks down "traditional structures of authority." In many places, early expansions of government intervention in the economy were in part intended to reinforce rather than break down "traditional structures of authority," which is one reason why they were often pioneered by right-wingers like Otto von Bismarck. More recently, there are have been many forms of government intervention that tend to benefit the relatively affluent and and well-connected interest groups at the expense of the poor. If you don't want to take my word for it, read Krugman's own recent columns on zoning and farm subsidies.

In his critique of Krugman's post, Bryan Caplan suggests that Krugman's neglect of readily available evidence in this case gives us reason to doubt his reliability more generally. I don't go quite that far. As I see it, this is yet another case where a pundit gets into trouble by pontificating on issues outside their expertise.

Even if you are a brilliant Nobel Prize-winning economist like Krugman, it's easy to go wrong in commenting on a subject you may not have much knowledge about. Moreover, in dealing with such issues, we are more likely to act like "political fans" and default to simplistic frameworks that make it easy to feel good about our own views, while dismissing those of the opposition.

In this case, postulating a simplistic one-dimensional distribution of political opinion enables Krugman to claim that virtually all of the people who oppose his views on government intervention in the economy "do not, in reality, love liberty," and also to ignore the fact that many people who endorse a large welfare state also have illiberal social views. These assumptions make it easy to divide the world into good guys who want to break down "traditional forms of authority" and bad guys who want to maintain them. But, however comforting it might be, this approach fails to capture the true distribution of political opinion.

NOTE: I have also been critical of libertarian efforts to classify public opinion on a single one-dimensional scale that is emotionally gratifying to libertarians, but has little connection with the actual distribution of political views. In recent years, however, most libertarian commentators who focus on the distribution public opinion do recognize that it is multidimensional and therefore that it would be a mistake to pigeonhole all our opponents as being in the same box.

UPDATE: Krugman does cite a previous article by Nate Cohn. But that article falls far short of showing that there "basically aren't any libertarians." To the contrary, it cites survey data indicating that about 11 percent of Americans consider themselves libertarian and understand what the term means. Many of these self-identified libertarians aren't completely consistent in their views on various issues. But the same, of course, is true of many self-identified liberals and conservatives.

Cohn makes much of the fact that only a small percentage of self-identified Republicans agree with Rand Paul on all four of a set off issues he identifies as crucial to libertarianism. But some 30 to 40 percent agree on at least three of the four, and the two where they are most likely to diverge from him (an active US role in world affairs and military intervention abroad) has long been a major point of internal contention among libertarian intellectuals. It's not surprising that these issues also tend to divide libertarian-leaning members of the general public. On the other hand, as David Boaz and others note in their critiques of Krugman, there are clearly large numbers of people who both support strict limits on government intervention in the economy and take socially liberal positions on such issues as drug legalization and same-sex marriage. For example, as Nate Silver notes, about 22% of Americans both support same-sex marriage and oppose redistribution for the purpose of narrowing income differences.

UPDATE #2: I should emphasize that I am not claiming that libertarians are about to sweep the political world, or even that Rand Paul (who is not always consistently libertarian) should be favored to win the GOP nomination. Many libertarian positions, including many of my own views, are clearly unpopular and unlikely to achieve majority support in the near future, if ever. But Krugman did not merely assert that libertarians are a minority who hold various unpopular views. He made the much stronger claim that there are virtually no libertarians out there at all.