Powell debunks the notion that libertarians are uncaring.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor

Aaron Ross Powell is Director and Editor of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, a project of the Cato Institute. Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org presents introductory material as well as new scholarship related to libertarian philosophy, theory, and history. He is also co‐​host of Libertarianism.org’s popular podcast, Free Thoughts. His writing has appeared in Liberty and The Cato Journal. He earned a JD from the University of Denver.

We value liberty at the expense of caring. That’s the takeaway about libertarians from Jonathan Haidt’s compelling new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. The basic idea in The Righteous Mind is that humans have six “moral foundations.” We vary in how much importance we place on each–and that variety explains our political views. Libertarians give the “care/​harm” foundation very little weight at all. I think Haidt is wrong about libertarians–or at least not completely right. Of course libertarians value liberty. But a great many of us, myself included, value caring very highly too. In fact, the reason I shifted from being a progressive to a libertarian was not because my moral foundations changed but because I came to realize that genuine caring means making an effort to actually help people–and that government programs intended to help have a rather poor track record. I am a libertarian because I want a better–more caring, more fair–society and I believe enhancing the private sphere at the expense of government power is the best way to achieve that. I also strongly believe that liberty, which is after all entirely about how we treat other people, is central to both caring and fairness. Expansive government not only makes things worse from the standpoint of economic consequences, but also creates a world that is less caring and less fair.

Of libertarians, Haidt writes,

We found that libertarians look more like liberals than like conservatives on most measures of personality (for example, both groups score higher than conservatives on openness to experience, and lower than conservatives on disgust sensitivity and conscientiousness). On the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, libertarians join liberals in scoring very low on the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations. Where they diverge from liberals most sharply is on two measures: the Care foundation, where they score very low (even lower than conservatives), and on some new questions we added about economic liberty, where they score extremely high (a little higher than conservatives, a lot higher than liberals).

You can take Haidt’s tests online and see how you compare to his findings. (I encourage you to do so, as the tests are quite interesting and revealing.) Here’s his explanation of how libertarians diverge from liberals on specific questions:

For example, do you agree that “the government should do more to advance the common good, even if that means limiting the freedom and choices of individuals”?

If so, then you are probably a liberal. If not, then you could be either a libertarian or a conservative. The split between liberals (progressives) and libertarians (classical liberals) occurred over exactly this question more than a hundred years ago, and it shows up clearly in our data today. People with libertarian ideals have generally supported the Republican Party since the 1930s because libertarians and Republicans have a common enemy: the liberal welfare society that they believe is destroying America’s liberty (for libertarians) and moral fiber (for social conservatives).

Yes, libertarians believe the welfare state impinges liberty. But we also believe it harms those it’s intended to help. Thus, we want to reform welfare and entitlement programs in large part because we care about their recipients. Social Security doesn’t just mean the government deciding what to do with your money. It also means making you poorer in your twilight years than you would’ve been had you invested that money in a private account.

Of course, libertarians might be wrong about what helps and what hurts. Maybe we’re mistaken in our policy prescriptions. But those mistakes, if they exist, aren’t because we “care” less than liberals, just as mistakes by liberals (should their policies in fact not work) aren’t the result of them caring less than libertarians. Haidt writes,

This helps explain why libertarians have sided with the Republican Party in recent decades. Libertarians care about liberty almost to the exclusion of all other concerns, and their conception of liberty is the same as that of the Republicans: it is the right to be left alone, free from government interference.

Again, no. Liberty does not come at the exclusion of all other concerns. Rather, liberty is the best way to maximize all other concerns. Yes there are libertarians who want nothing more than “to be left alone.” But that feeling doesn’t carry with it Haidt’s implied “and screw all the rest of you.” Instead, “left alone” means freed from officious government so we can better go about making the world a happier, healthier, richer, and more caring place. I also find the wording of Haidt’s question troubling. What’s the “common good?” Who decides? What sorts of limits on “freedom and choices” are we talking about? The answers to those questions are awfully important before any of us can respond with a simple yes or no.