IDEALog Comparison, or Libertarianism != Extremism

I guest posted this at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Much debate ensued, a very little of it even managing to be about the topic of the post.

Thanks to all who took the time to take the IDEALog survey and report their results to me, and my apologies for taking so long to present the results.  I’ll present the findings in a moment, but first some background and development (just to make this an excruciatingly long post).

Background: Liberalism v. Libertarianism
There has been an on-going discussion in comment threads between Stillwater and me about libertarianism, in which he has been pushing me on where I define the boundaries of libertarianism and I have been pushing him on what I see as “lumping” all libertarians into a group defined by a particular set of policy positions. Recently a comment of Stillwater’s made clear one way in which I had managed to confuse him about my argument, which is that I have claimed both that there is a fundamental difference between liberals and libertarians and that the two groups can come down in the same place on particular policies. As Stillwater wrote:

[Y]ou keep insisting there is this significant difference between our theories, our policies, our preferred values, our analytical methods. If there isn’t a category difference captured by all those distinctions, then we’re talking about subtle shading on the edges of things. But if there is a category difference captured by all that, then the lumping [together of all libertarians] seems entirely appropriate since there are clear-cut divisions distinguishing two schools of thought on these matters.

So which is it, a distinct category difference between the groups, or just shadings at the edges? Without doubt I have failed to be clear about that issue, so the confusion Stillwater expresses about my claims is on me. But the answer is, it’s both, depending on what level we’re looking at. I argue that there is a category difference in the way we view government and markets. Libertarians, as a whole, are deeply skeptical about government and inclined to believe markets (not businesses, markets) generally work out for mutual benefit. Liberals, on the whole, are much less skeptical about government (at least in certain domains) but much more skeptical about markets. That doesn’t mean libertarians oppose all government or that liberals oppose all markets–it just means that when a problem is perceived, liberals are more likely to be open to claims that government can provide a solution, while libertarians are more likely to be open to claims that government is actually one of the underlying causes of the problem. I think that counts as a category distinction, and if anyone wants to lump libertarians together as “market advocates, government skeptics,” they’ll get no pushback from me.

Based on that we can expect liberals and libertarians to differ on lots of policies, but “lots” doesn’t mean “all,” so there are areas where liberals and libertarians can agree (or more precisely, some liberals and some libertarians). And that’s where we get the “subtle shading on the edges of things.” As I wrote in that thread,

If the use of “libertarians think X” is related to the general skeptical approach to government, and the general favoritism toward markets, then it is all good. But nearly always when it is used…to refer to the more extreme libertarian approach to that policy; then it is not good.

In other words, even if there is a category distinction between liberalism and libertarianism, it does not follow that liberals and libertarians will inevitably disagree on each policy issue where their “isms” lean in opposing directions. Consider the following analogy:

Stillwater and I are traveling together, but we have a dispute about hitchhikers. He loves to give them rides, seeing it as a good deed and finding them entertaining on long dull trips with me. I despise hitchhikers, seeing them as potentially dangerous and finding them irritating company (in contrast to Stillwater’s sparkling conversation). So when we see a cleancut young man in neatly pressed clothes hitchhiking, whether we stop depends on who’s in the driver’s seat at that moment. Stillwater would step on the brake, while I would stomp on the gas. One time, while Stillwater’s driving, we see a guy who looks like Charles Manson on steroids, with a pistol sticking out of his waistband and a big knife strapped to his belt. As I turn to Still to plead with him not to stop, I see him looking at me with a “WTF?!” expression on his face, and am pressed back in my seat as he accelerates past the scary monster. Yet another time, I’m driving when we see a 6 year old girl in torn clothing standing by the side of the road, one thumb out, the other in mouth. Stillwater turns to me to plead that we stop, but I’m already off the gas and on the brakes. Does this show that I really am pro-hitchhiker? Does the former case show that Stillwater really is anti-hitchhiker? I don’t think so–our fundamental difference remains, but there are cases where we agree.

This is why I think Stillwater was on the wrong track when he wrote:

from my pov, any argument which says government intervention is justified to prevent X where X is above the normal courts and cops threshhold (externalities, say) is a liberal position.

This is what I mean by defining all libertarians only by the most extreme version of libertarianism–any support of any economic regulation moves a person out of the libertarian category into the liberal category, so the only true libertarians are those that reject all hitchhikers regulations.

Consider the inverse read of that statement: “any argument which says government intervention is not justified to prevent X…is a libertarian position.” Then I can define all the liberals here as libertarians, because all of you sometimes reject some government intervention, and I can claim that “true liberals are those who support all government intervention.” But somehow I don’t think that would go over well. So in keeping with my number one rule for politics, let’s pretend we’re engaged in sports, and we all have to play by the same rules, with an impartial referee. If you don’t want me to say liberals must support all government interventions, please don’t say that libertarians must oppose all government interventions. Neither is true, and that means there will be cases where a particular liberal and a particular libertarian agree on whether or not a particular intervention is justified.

That means there is going to be fuzziness at the boundaries, but having category differences with fuzzy boundaries seems to be the natural order of things. Consider the distinctions between species–nobody would confuse my Jack Russel Terrier with a wolf, and nearly everyone would agree there’s a category difference, but dogs and wolves can interbreed, and on the margins between the two it’s difficult to distinguish. Many discrete categories have fuzzy boundaries–cars are not trucks, and vice versa, but then there’s the Chevy El Camino. It’s true for religion, too. Christianity has a category difference with polytheistic religions, but then there’s Santeria and Mormonism, blurring those boundaries and creating “subtle shading on the edges of things.” So given the natural variation among individuals, why would we expect particularly sharp boundaries when we’re talking about ideological categories?

Survey Says…!
So I asked people to self-identify and give me their survey results, so I could plot them in relation to their self-identification. My prediction was that there would be a discernible gap between liberals-as-a-group and libertarians-as-a-group, but with significant overlap between the groups. That prediction was largely borne out.

Quick methodological statement:
My N=64 (I would tell my students that’s very impressive for their introductory methods course, in the range of what I would like to see for their senior project, and not nearly enough for a master’s thesis). I had about 70 total respondents, but some had to be excluded because they did not self-identify. Most respondents were Leaguers, with about 8 coming from my blog. As is inevitable when open-ended questions are turned into operational variables, I had to do some violence to people’s self-categorizations. To do so I focused on what seemed to be the central element of a person’s claim, so that a liberal-leaning libertarian is classified as a libertarian and a libertarian-leaning liberal is classified as a liberal for purposes of the quantitative analysis (a simple comparison of means). I could have excluded all those folks, but they’re actually a large part of the story I’m trying to tell. And to the extent this categorization represents an imperfection in the data, what it actually does is move the means of the two sides closer together, by including libertarian-leaners among the liberals and liberal-leaners among the libertarians, so that if there is a significant difference between means, it’s an even more powerful finding than if I just excluded those folks. I wasn’t quite sure where to put the 2 self-described liberaltarians, so I put them in both groups, which, again, has the effect of drawing the means closer together. I have also classified everyone in the broadly left-leaning camp (including the “left of center moderate”) as liberal. Some object to the term, but when we’re talking about broad categories it’s clearly the most appropriate. I recommend that you think of it in taxonomical terms–I may not have identified your species, but I have identified your genus (or at least family). For the quantitative part, some respondents were excluded because I couldn’t place them with any confidence, like the “cautiously pragmatically humanitarian leaning heavily towards civil libertarian” (I like that particular person a whole heckuva lot, but he’s just not a social scientist’s ideal respondent), or where it wasn’t at all clear which adjective modified the other (like libertarian/conservative). However, in reporting where each respondent lands on the spectrum, I have allowed more categories, trying to work with your definitions as much as possible, so that you can see where the liberal libertarian and the libertarian liberal are in relation to each other (as well as their relation to the cautiously pragmatic humanitarian).

In Figure 1 you can see the mean placement of liberals (including libertarian-leaning liberals and liberaltarians), libertarians (including liberal-leaning libertarians and liberaltarians), and conservatives. On the “Order” axis, the liberal mean is 1.66 and the libertarian mean is 1.00, a difference that is statistically significant (p=.0257). On the “Equality” axis the liberal mean is 7.44 and the libertarian mean is 2.54, which is very statistically significant (p=<.0001). One the one hand, I’m somewhat surprised that there is a statistically significant difference between libertarians and liberals on the Order spectrum (since that’s where liberals and libertarians tend to agree most frequently), but on the other hand the much larger difference on the Equality axis is precisely what we would expect to see. This supports (although it does not “prove”) my claim that there is a category distinction between liberalism and libertarianism.

Just for funsies I compared libertarians to conservatives, since so many people think libertarians really are just a variety of conservative. As seen in Figure 1, League conservatives (all 5 of them, including the person self-describing as “center-right”) aren’t, collectively, very darned conservative. In fact they appear, on average, to be pretty libertarian, with a mean on Order of 3.6 and a mean on Equality of 3.6. And just to make my expectation of a significant difference more difficult to demonstrate I excluded all the “liberal libertarians” from the analysis, including only the “pure” libertarians (those who described themselves solely as libertarians, with no qualifiers) plus the one “right-libertarian,” again to pull the means closer together. This group had a mean on Order of .93 and on Equality of 1.10. The difference between “pure” libertarians and these “soft” conservatives on both of these means was still statistically significant (p=.004 on “Order” and p=.107 on “Equality”). So next time you hear someone lump libertarians and conservatives together, be sure to pedantically point out that there’s statistical evidence demonstrating their error.

While Figure 1 suggests there is in fact a core difference between libertarians and liberals, Figure 2 shows the “subtle shading on the edges,” or as I prefer, the fuzzy boundaries. For this Figure I’ve included all respondents who self-identified, using, as much as possible, their own self-identification. As can be seen, most libertarians are solidly in the libertarian quadrant and most liberals are solidly in the liberal quadrant. But a couple of liberals are hanging out in or on the edge of libertarian territory, and the libertarian/liberal hybrids of various names are well distributed throughout both quadrants. (Note: The placements are approximate, so that multiple respondents sharing identical scores could both be made visible–any symbols that overlap actually have identical scores.)

Of course the only respondents are readers of the League and my own blog, so this is not necessarily broadly representative. Yet I think that the League’s libertarians are, as a group, somewhat more sympathetic to liberalism than libertarians as a whole. If so, then the actual category difference between liberals and libertarians–as represented by mean positions along the Order and Equality axes, would be even greater. (And if not, it’s doubtful that libertarians as a whole are more similar to liberals than the League libertarians, so the statistically significant difference still remains.)

I hope the graphical presentation, as well as giving us an intriguing view into the distribution of LoOGers (and demonstrating that some people’s self-identification seems a bit off), demonstrates how the variation among individuals in each group can place them close enough to individuals in other groups that they could agree on some specific policy issues while belonging to definably discrete groups.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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4 Responses to IDEALog Comparison, or Libertarianism != Extremism

  1. AMW says:

    What type of tests did you use for statistical comparison?

  2. James Hanley says:

    I only did a t-test. I have, to my shame, let my statistical skills degrade abysmally. I’d really like to find time to re-educate myself in stats.

  3. Lance says:

    It took me a minute to realize what “LoOGers” were.

    I don’t think the idea that people that fit in the general category of “libertarian” might have a range of policy preferences that overlap with people that fit in the general category of “liberal” is that hard to understand and agree with.

    While not wanting to impugn the motives of Stillwater, often the people that insist that all libertarians must hold extreme positions are attempting to set up straw man arguments for the purpose of discrediting and/or marginalizing libertarians.

  4. Peregrin says:

    I’d recommend a non-parametric test, like a Mann-Whitney Rank-Sum, b/c the data probably doesn’t follow a normal distribution. Any stats package will support a test like that.

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