November 13, 2012 columns

Why People Should Pay More Attention to Libertarians

Do libertarians possess psychological traits that make them particularly good at solving policy problems?

Your company, a large conglomerate, is in trouble. Its products and services aren’t satisfying their consumers, it’s bleeding money, and the management structure is totally dysfunctional.

In an effort to turn things around, the company establishes a committee to come up with new corporate strategies and policies. You’re a member of that committee. One of the first things you do, knowing how much it would help to get a third-party perspective, is to bring in three consultants. The committee asks each to draw up a plan for fixing the company’s problems.

The consultants—Adam, Barney, and Charles—carefully study your company, interview its employees, spend time with top-level management, watch the various production processes, and so on. Then, each writes his comprehensive recommendations and seals them in an envelope.

Your committee now has the three envelopes on the table in front of you, unopened.

At the moment, you’ve no details about the proposals. What you do have is a psychological profile of each consultant. Here’s what you know:

Adam cares deeply about loyalty, authority, preserving sanctity. He has high empathy—though not as high as Barney. He scores low on systematic thinking—but this time not as low as Barney.

Barney values fairness and caring, but doesn’t care as much about loyalty, authority, and sanctity as Adam. Barney has high empathy. He’s also the worst of the three at systematizing.

Charles scores low on fairness and caring, and particularly low on loyalty and respect for authority. He’s worse than Adam when it comes to empathy, but is by a wide margin the best at systematic thinking.

Now, just based on these character traits, which of the three consultants do you think is most likely to have come up with a good answer for why your company’s failing and what you can do about it?

Adam concerns you because, with high loyalty, he may not be willing to make the tough decisions that, while they might save the company, would also mean upsetting his peers. And with the value he places on authority, can you trust him to not just take whatever path those already in power might prefer?

Barney concerns you too, though for different reasons. He’ll likely be more independent in his thinking than Adam, but he’s particularly weak as a systematic thinker. This means he’s unlikely to deeply understand the company and its problems. And his preference for fairness and caring might mean that he’ll avoid the hard choices.

Compared to the other two, then, Charles looks pretty good. He won’t let authority or loyalty get in the way of turning the company around. Nor will he sacrifice the company’s future in order to prevent any sacrifice on the part of everyone involved.

So what’s all this got to do with libertarianism? At an event at the Cato Institute back in October, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt shared research he’s done on the psychological profiles of self-identified liberals, conservatives, and libertarians.

What he found is that Adam looks much like the typical conservative, Barney like the typical liberal, and Charles like the typical libertarian.

If Haidt’s findings are right—and that’s an enormous “if”1—then it appears libertarians possess just those personality traits we’d value most in looking for people to best solve policy problems. When it comes to addressing the budget deficit or deciding to go to war, we don’t want people making those decisions who are in the thrall of authority figures. We don’t want people who will place too much concern on hurt feelings or on doing things the way they’ve always been done. What we want are rational, independent thinkers, people inclined to approach problems systematically and thoroughly, learning the ins and outs before drawing non-biased conclusions.

In other words, we want libertarians.


  1. I have a number of concerns with Haidt’s methods. One, having to do with the way he gets at moral differences, I explored in an earlier blog post.. But there are other problems, particularly because Haidt’s data depends entirely on self-identification. The only libertarians he’s drawing conclusions from are those who consciously identify as libertarians. But as my colleague David Boaz has shown, quite a lot of people are in fact libertarians without knowing it.