I sometimes wonder why libertarians aren’t more persuasive given that there’s so much evidence for our economic and social views.
The answer may have something to do with matters such as psychology. Let’s take a closer look at this issue, starting with a video from Johan Norberg. Johan’s point is that the real gap is between classical liberals (i.e., libertarians) and statists. Though most of the research and analysis is based on potential differences between conservatives and liberals, as conventionally defined. For instance, in a column for the U.K.-based Guardian, Arlie Hochschild writes about differences in awareness on the right and left.
…what’s startling is the further finding that higher education does not improve a person’s perceptions – and sometimes even hurts it. In their survey answers, highly educated Republicans were no more accurate in their ideas about Democratic opinion than poorly educated Republicans. For Democrats, the education effect was even worse: the more educated a Democrat is, according to the study, the less he or she understands the Republican worldview. “This effect,” the report says, “is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree.” …Even more than their Republican counterparts, highly educated Democrats tend to live in exclusively Democratic enclaves. The more they report “almost all my friends hold the same political views”, the worse their guesses on what Republicans think. …Although in principle more tolerant of political diversity, highly educated – and mostly urban – Democrats live, ironically, with less of it.And here’s a tweet about educated folks on the left being more likely to live in a bubble.
Regarding the issue of how different ideologies respond to external threats (supposedly a major driver of philosophical differences), Ross Douthat analyzed how conservatives responded to coronavirus in a column for the New York Times.
He then applies this analysis to the coronavirus.…an influential body of literature has attempted to psychologize the partisan divide — to identify conservative and liberal personality types, right-wing or left-wing minds or brains… In its crudest form this literature just amounts to liberal self-congratulation, with survey questions and regression analyses deployed to “prove” with “science” that liberals are broad-minded freethinkers and conservatives are cramped authoritarians. But…Haidt argues that conservatives actually have more diverse moral intuitions than liberals, encompassing categories like purity and loyalty as well as care and fairness, and that the right-wing mind therefore sometimes understands the left-wing mind better than vice versa. …the political responses to the pandemic have put these psychological theories to a very interesting test.
By the way, a new study by four social scientists, published in Nature, casts doubt on the earlier research regarding ideological differences in threat perceptionIf there was ever a crisis tailored to the conservative mind-set, surely it would be this one, with the main peril being that conservatives would wildly overreact to such a trigger. …As the disease spread and the debate went mainstream, liberal opinion mostly abandoned its anti-quarantine posture and swung toward a reasonable panic, while conservative opinion divided, with a large portion of the right following the lead of Trump himself, who spent crucial weeks trying to wish the crisis away. …figures like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity manifested a conservatism of tribal denial, owning the libs by minimizing the coronavirus threat. …one might say that the pandemic illustrates the power of partisan mood affiliation over any kind of deeper ideological mind-set. Or relatedly, it illustrates the ways in which under the right circumstances, people can easily swing between different moral intuitions. (This holds for liberals as well as conservatives: A good liberal will be as deferential to authority as any conservative when the authority has the right academic degrees…) …what we call “American conservatism” is probably more ideologically and psychologically heterogeneous than the conservative mind-set that social scientists aspire to measure and pin down. In particular, it includes an incredibly powerful streak of what you might call folk libertarianism… This mentality, with its reflexive Ayn Randism and its Panglossian hyper-individualism, is definitely essential to understanding part of the American right. But…I’m doubtful that it corresponds to any universal set of psychological tendencies that we could reasonably call conservative.
About a decade ago, a study documented that conservatives have stronger physiological responses to threatening stimuli than liberals. This work launched an approach aimed at uncovering the biological roots of ideology. Despite wide-ranging scientific and popular impact, independent laboratories have not replicated the study. We conducted a pre-registered direct replication (n = 202) and conceptual replications in the United States (n = 352) and the Netherlands (n = 81). Our analyses do not support the conclusions of the original study, nor do we find evidence for broader claims regarding the effect of disgust and the existence of a physiological trait.And another study by three social scientists in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin also casts doubt on the earlier research.
One consistent finding is that conservatives show higher disgust sensitivity than liberals. This finding, however, is predominantly based on assessments of disgust to specific elicitors, which confound individuals’ sensitivity and propensity to the experience of disgust with the extent to which they find specific elicitors disgusting. Across five studies, we vary specific elicitors of disgust, showing that the relations between political orientation and disgust sensitivity depend on the specific set of elicitors used. We also show that disgust sensitivity is not associated with political orientation when measured with an elicitor-unspecific scale. Taken together, our findings suggest that the differences between conservatives and liberals in disgust sensitivity are context dependent rather than a stable personality difference.So maybe there’s not a meaningful difference between right and left with regards to matters such as disgust and threats. But there seems to be plenty of evidence that there are differences in other areas. Depending on political affiliation, Americans shop differently, as reported by Suzanne Kapner and in the Wall Street Journal.
Consumer research data show Democrats have become more likely to wear Levi’s than their Republican counterparts. The opposite is true with Wrangler, which is now far more popular with Republicans. There is no simple explanation behind those consumer moves. Some of it is due to social and political stances companies are taking, such as Levi’s embrace of gun control. …the country is becoming more polarized along political lines, which is having an effect on brands that choose to stay out of the political fray. …Nearly 60% of 1,000 Americans surveyed by Edelman last year said they would choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues. That is up from 47% in 2017.Some of this makes sense to me. I have dramatically reduced my purchases at Dick’s, for example, because of the company’s opposition to the 2nd Amendment. Here’s a graphic from the story. The self-selection of Fox and CNN viewers is especially noteworthy.
Folks on the right and left may even sleep differently, according to research published in the Journal of Politics by Aleksander Ksiazkiewicz at the University of Illinois.
This article proposes that chronotype (a person’s time-of-sleep preference) is a previously unidentified psychological correlate of political ideology. Chronotype may lead to political ideology through a motivated social cognitive process, ideology may shape sleep patterns through a desire to align with social norms, or ideology and chronotype may arise from common antecedents, such as genetics, socialization, or community influences. Analyses demonstrate a link between a morningness and conservatism in seven American samples and one British sample. This relationship is robust to controls for openness, conscientiousness, and demographics, including age, sex, income, and education.Last but not least, Justin Lehmiller of the Kinsey Institute, in a column for Politico, says Republicans and Democrats have different fantasies.
I surveyed 4,175 adult Americans from all 50 states about what turns them on…one of the more intriguing things I uncovered was the political divide in our fantasy worlds. While self-identified Republicans and self-identified Democrats reported fantasizing with the same average frequency—several times per week—I found that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to fantasize about a range of activities that involve sex outside of marriage. Think things like infidelity, orgies and partner swapping… By contrast, self-identified Democrats were more likely than Republicans to fantasize about almost the entire spectrum of BDSM activities, from bondage to spanking to dominance-submission play. The largest Democrat-Republican divide on the BDSM spectrum was in masochism, which involves deriving pleasure from the experience of pain. …What connects Republicans and Democrats, I believe, is that their fantasies are at least partly driven by what they can’t have. …Interestingly, the single most commonly fantasized-about politician among both parties was the same: Sarah Palin (though Republicans were much more likely to have Palin fantasies than Democrats). Following Palin, the next most frequently mentioned politicians in Republicans’ fantasies were John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Nikki Haley. While, after Palin, Democrats fantasized about Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.Maybe I’m strange, but I’ve never met or seen an American politician that piqued my interest.
Though I will confess to occasionally having quirky libertarian fantasies, one of which does involve sex. Speaking of quirky, folks on the left appear to have more issues with mental health. Since I’ve asserted that folks on the left are “neurotic” and “guilt-ridden,” part of me agrees with these findings. Though, to be fair, maybe they’re just more likely to visit healthcare providers. I’ll conclude with what I will conveniently characterize as the most insightful research. Three scholars, in an article for Current Psychology, find that libertarians are the smartest.
Previous studies consistently showed that analytic cognitive style (ACS) is negatively correlated with social conservatism, but there are mixed findings concerning its relation with economic conservatism. Most tests have relied on a unidimensional (liberal-conservative) operationalization of political orientation. Libertarians tend not only to identify themselves as conservative on this scale but also to score higher on ACS than liberals and conservatives.
Here’s the relevant chart from the study, courtesy of Rolf Degen.
Liberals can take some solace in that they score above conservatives, though there’s not much that can be said for self-identified moderates.
P.S. I started this column by noting that I want to understand how to be a more persuasive advocate for liberty. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but at least I can take comfort in that I will never be as deluded as this columnist who thinks he has discovered a way of becoming a more persuasive advocate for statism.
P.P.S. If you like this type of research, my previous columns on supposedly innate differences across ideologies can be found here, here, and here.
P.P.P.S. And here’s the research on the differences between libertarians and conservatives.
P.P.P.P.S. Here’s a humorous look at the difference between conservatives, liberals, and Texans.