Political freedom means the absence of coercion of a man by his fellow men. The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce, be it in the hands of a monarch, a dictator, an oligarchy, or a momentary majority.
Milton Friedman Capitalism and Freedom
Among atheists there seems to be an overwhelming trend towards liberalism. There are libertarian atheists out there but they seem to be a small minority which, for an already small minority, makes libertarian atheists an incredibly tiny group. There is no apparent reason why libertarians should be marginalized in the atheist community and yet there is still quite a large amount of hostility towards libertarians on many prominent atheist websites. Perhaps the clearest example of this comes from the liberal atheist blogger PZ Myers. On Myers blog Pharyngula, he has labeled libertarians as right-wing, simple-minded, sociopaths, anti-social and self-centered. He has also stated his desire to jettison the entire libertarian/conservative wing of the atheist movement and has implied that libertarian presidential nominee Ron Paul* is a nutbag.
As a side note, it’s important to understand what is meant by libertarian. I do not accept the mainstream one dimensional definition for political belief (i.e. left vs. right). The website www.politcalcompass.com has a much better representation which includes left/right along the x-axis and libertarian/authoritarian along the y-axis.
What I, and many other libertarians, see as the real battle in American politics is not left vs. right but rather authoritarian vs. libertarian. In other words, between those who wish to impose an ideology onto others (authoritarians) against those who wish to free others, and be free themselves, of the ideologies of others (libertarians).
So is Myers correct about libertarians? Are we self-centered, simple-minded, sociopathic nutbags? What does the evidence say? Terms like nutbag are too vague to analyze but being self-centered, and sociopathic do leave specific indicators.
The most extensive study on libertarian ideology that I know of is the 2010 study by Ravi Iyer, Spassena P. Koleva, Jesse Graham, Peter H. Ditto, and Jonathan Haidt entitled Understanding Libertarian Morality: The psychological roots of an individualist ideology. The study examined the views of 10,566 self-identified libertarians on issues of morality, personality and ideology. The researchers came to the same conclusion that I mentioned above that,
libertarians cannot be readily classified on the standard left-right dimension.
Libertarianism is clearly not just a point on the liberal-conservative continuum; libertarians have a unique pattern of moral concerns, with relatively low reliance on all five foundations (Harm, Fairness, Ingroup, Authority and Purity).
This refutes the notion that libertarians are right-wing that Myers and others have adopted. In their research they also found that Libertarians are over all less empathetic than liberals and conservatives. They were also more likely to use reason over emotion. In fact libertarians were the only group that relied upon reason more and emotion less.
Libertarians were shown to be very individualistic and placed more value on self-identity than liberals or conservative. Their personality traits are consistent with those who possess a more critical and skeptical nature. However, they do value their associations with family and friends less than the other two and are also less satisfied with their lives.
The authors cite many references from Ayn Rand and while I am not an advocate for Rand, I do recognize her importance in the libertarian ideology. They also include references to Reason magazine and Ron Paul (without calling him a nutbag). While they fail to mention names like Hayek, Mises, Rothbard or Friedman, they do mention that,
Modern libertarians are quite diverse, but all types of libertarianism trace their origins back to the enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th century who argued that states, laws, and governments exist for the benefit of the people. The individual is the unit of value, and the liberty of the individual is the essential precondition for human flourishing.
But what do they have to say about the labels mentioned above? Are libertarians selfish? The authors note that,
Libertarians are not unconcerned about all aspects of morality…Rather, consistent with their self-descriptions, they care about liberty, and not just their own liberty. Like conservatives, they endorse a world in which people are left alone to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, and in which nations are not tied down by obligations to other nations. They also exceed both liberals and conservatives (but are closer to liberals) in endorsing personal or lifestyle liberty.
It hardly seems selfish to wish that everyone were free to live their own lives and make their own decisions. This is a common argument I have had with people. I always ask them, ‘what is more selfish, wanting to make your own decisions or forcing others to abide by your decisions?’ I’ve never heard a rebuttal.
What about being sociopaths? While being a sociopath (Antisocial Personality Disorder) has a specific medical meaning, I suspect people like Myers just think that libertarians do not care about people. The authors however came nowhere near this conclusion. They explain,
This is not to say, however, that libertarians are devoid of moral concerns. Contemporary moral psychology, perhaps due to a focus on values held by political liberals, has paid little attention to the valuation of negative liberty as a specifically moral concern. Independence may be seen as a pragmatic value. Respecting the autonomy of others may be seen as a way to promote the welfare of individuals, consistent with liberal ideas about positive liberty, rather than as an independent moral construct. It is predictable then, that by such measures, libertarians appear amoral, (i.e. lacking in the activation of common moral systems). However, our results show that libertarians score substantially higher than liberals and conservatives on measures of both economic and lifestyle liberty, the Schwartz value of Self-Direction, and the importance of independence. Libertarians may fear that the moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives are claims that can be used to trample upon individual rights — libertarians’ sacred value. Clearly, libertarians are not amoral. Rather, standard morality scales do a poor job of measuring their one central and overriding moral commitment.
Simple-mindedness was not really covered in the study but if we allow the term to include close-mindedness, then libertarians fail to fit the descriptions once again. The authors state that,
Libertarians are high in Openness to Experience and seem to enjoy effortful and thoughtful cognitive tasks.
The research done by Haidt et al also implies that libertarians are skeptical, independent, open-minded, complex and abstract thinkers who are more inclined to use reason rather than emotional reactivity in their ideologies. So which part of that does not conform to the atheist/skeptical movement? If liberal atheists wish to jettison us I don’t plan on fighting them. After all, it sounds we will be taking all the best parts of atheism with us.
* Ron Paul is a member of the Republican party but many of his policies are similar to that of libertarians. He did run for president in 1988 for the Libertarian party but has since only ran as Republican.