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August 25, 2014 5:53 PM Libertarians Not Really “Libertarians”

By Ed Kilgore

Wow, the “libertarian moment” is shrinking mighty fast. First, half the national commentariat challenged one of the two ideas channeled by Robert Draper: that Republicans are open to “libertarianism” via Rand Paul, and that this is what the young folks who despise the GOP are pining for as well. I added my very particular argument the real ideology people keep mistaking for GOP “libertarianism” is actually a “constitutional conservatism” born of the Christian Right.

But now comes the Pew Research Center with a more fundamentally devastating finding: self-identified libertarians aren’t much “libertarian,” either.

No, seriously:

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…..
In some cases, the political views of self-described libertarians differ modestly from those of the general public; in others there are no differences at all.
When it comes to attitudes about the size and scope of government, people who say the term libertarian describes them well (and who are able to correctly define the term) are somewhat more likely than the public overall to say government regulation of business does more harm than good (56% vs. 47%). However, about four-in-ten libertarians say that government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest (41%).
The attitudes of libertarians similarly differ from the public on government aid to the poor; they are more likely than the public to say “government aid to the poor does more harm than good by making people too dependent on government assistance” (57% vs. 48%), yet about four-in-ten (38%) say it “does more good than harm because people can’t get out of poverty until their basic needs are met.”
Libertarianism is associated with limited government involvement in the social sphere. In this regard, self-described libertarians are somewhat more supportive of legalizing marijuana than the public overall (65% vs. 54%).
But there are only slight differences between libertarians and the public in views of the acceptability of homosexuality. And they are about as likely as others to favor allowing the police “to stop and search anyone who fits the general description of a crime suspect” (42% of libertarians, 41% of the public).
Similarly, self-described libertarians do not differ a great deal from the public in opinions about foreign policy. Libertarianism is generally associated with a less activist foreign policy, yet a greater share of self-described libertarians (43%) than the public (35%) think “it is best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs.”

These findings of the non-particularity of “libertarian” views, mind you, is after Pew has melted the category down from 17% of the public to 11%, since a lot of “libertarians” could not accurately distinguish “libertarian” from “communist” or—get this—“Unitarian.”

In a retroactive defense of their recent decisions to publish a political typology without a “libertarian” category, Pew says it could find no larger than a 5% cluster that sorta kinda adheres to what we’re told “libertarianism” is a about. But even that group’s coherence is shaky.

There are obviously a lot of ways to ask questions and crunch numbers, but I’d say Pew has at the very least cast some massive doubt on all that “libertarian moment” polling from Reason.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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