Religion & Liberty Online

When is a Self-Described Libertarian Not a Libertarian?

confused_customerA new report by the Pew Research Center finds that about one-in-ten Americans describe themselves as libertarian — and yet hold views that do not differ much from those of the overall public. As Pew’s Jocelyn Kiley says, “Self-described libertarians tend to be modestly more supportive of some libertarian positions, but few of them hold consistent libertarian opinions on the role of government, foreign policy and social issues.”

Overall, 11 percent of Americans describe themselves as libertarian and have a general idea about what the term means. Another 3 percent who described themselves as libertarians were unable to choose the correct term that applied to “someone whose political views emphasize individual freedom by limiting the role of government” (choices were: libertarian, progressive, authoritarian, Unitarian, or communist). Unfortunately, they weren’t the only ones confused: only 57 percent of those polled were able to choose the correct term; 1 in 5 thought the term applied to “progressive” and 6 percent thought the answer was “communist”(!).

Almost twice as many men as women self-identify as libertarian (15 percent of men and 7 percent of women). The percentage of Whites and Hispanics who self-describe as libertarian is almost identical (12 and 11 percent, respectively), while only 3 percent black Americans refer to themselves using that term. Libertarians are also more likely to consider themselves political Independents (14 percent) than either Republican (12 percent) or Democrat (6 percent).

The beliefs held by these self-described libertarians were somewhat surprising.

More than half of libertarians say government regulation of business does more harm than good (56 percent vs. 47 percent). However, four-in-ten libertarians say that government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest (41 percent).

More than half say “government aid to the poor does more harm than good by making people too dependent on government assistance” (57 percent vs. 48 percent), while almost four-in-ten (38 percent) say government aid “does more good than harm because people can’t get out of poverty until their basic needs are met.”

Libertarians are more supportive of legalizing marijuana than the public overall (65 percent vs. 54 percent). But they are also more likely than the general public to favor allowing the police “to stop and search anyone who fits the general description of a crime suspect” (42 percent of libertarians, 41 percent of the public) and to think “it is best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs” (43 percent of libertarians, 35 percent of the public).

Large majorities of both the public (74 percent) and self-described libertarians (82 percent) say “Americans shouldn’t have to give up privacy and freedom in order to be safe from terrorism.”

The results seem to support my long-held opinion that Americans use political labels without knowing what they mean. There are a lot of self-identified conservatives who don’t understand conservatism and self-identified progressives who (obviously) don’t understand conservatism (see above). It wouldn’t be surprising, then, to find the same is true for self-identified libertarians.

But I could be wrong. Perhaps it does represent a shift in the meaning of the term.

Do those who self-identify as libertarian think the results reflect their political views? I’d be particularly interested to hear if those who add a modifier to the term (Christian libertarians, bleeding-heart libertarians, etc.) think it portends a shift away from the “classical” or standard view of American libertarianism. Also, would any of the positions above “disqualify” a person from legitimately using the term? In other words, when is a self-described libertarian not really a libertarian?

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).