Sunday, November 11, 2012

Libertarians in D.C.

They are automatically on the ballot in D.C. now, thanks to a good performance in this election.

For all the trash talk about D.C., I think people would be surprised at how many libertarian or libertarianish people thrive in this area. It makes sense, of course. Where else are you going to pitch a blueprint for radical social engineering of public institutions that you just know will work wonders for the lives of the American people? D.C. is pretty much where you can make a living pushing social engineering schemes.

The other thing that's interesting about a lot of libertarians I meet (and that may be because I meet them around here) is that they're fascinated by politics, despite a lot of pretensions to the contrary. I think many get in the movement by getting hyped up about politics the same way a conservative or liberal would, and then deciding that conservatism or liberalism per se isn't quite for them.

It would be interesting to see a map showing the distribution of self-identified libertarians. Of course New Hampshire would be a hot spot, but I expect D.C. would loom pretty large as well.


  1. I think that most libertarians are far more interested in political philosophy, not necessarily politics. I know that I personally am not at all interested in politics, which is why I rarely discuss the topic. However, I'll talk about political philosophy all day.

    1. Why do you think most? I've met a lot that are quite interested in politics (and policy), and it certainly saturates the libertarian blogosphere. I can't imagine why libertarians would be any different from anyone else in this regard either. I bet libertarians around here are more interested in politics than libertarians elsewhere, but that's true of anyone of any view.

  2. Daniel, of the libertarians you meet in D.C., would you be able to provide any sort of estimate as to the number of types of libertarians you're meeting? I.e. Paulish vs. Friedmanite think tankers, or perhaps other strands, etc.?

    "Where else are you going to pitch a blueprint for radical social engineering of public institutions that you just know will work wonders for the lives of the American people?"

    The "just know" italicized sarcasm had me laughing because of the incredible irony with regards to our current circumstances.

    1. Jason

      All the libertarians who Daniel is meeting are at Klan rallies. It is hard to tell a Paulish from a Friedmanite when everyone is wearing hoods.

      Courtesy of Brad Delong at

      That the political behavior of whites depends on the size of the surrounding population of blacks has been well-known in political science for more than 60 years—at least since 1949, when political scientist V.O. Key wrote his magisterial Southern Politics in State and Nation.

      Key found that the behavior of Southern whites in the so-called “black belt” was distinctive: in these areas where blacks made up a larger fraction of the population, whites were particularly focused on maintaining their own political power. This notion became known as “racial threat.” Eric Oliver summarizes the theory as it developed after Key:

      …superordinate groups become more racially hostile as the size of a proximate subordinate group increases, which putatively threatens the former’s economic and social privilege.

  3. Libertarians need big government to implement their utopian ideals. Sounds right to me.

  4. Daniel, I think you might be able to answer this question better than many others. Why are non-libertarians so fascinated by the psychological makeup of "the libertarian"? I dont see such curiosity regarding other political ideologies/philosophies. I dont think the interest lies simply in libertarianism's status as an outlier. Socialism and radical communitarianism are outliers as well, but I dont see the same infatuation for underling motivations. And both socialism and radical communitarianism are influential ideologies/philosophies, especially in Europe but also in the U.S. (both can be seen, if only implicitly, in OWS movement). Also, I dont think it's a theory where one's initial reaction to it is "whoa! what da hell?!" Although you might not agree, libertarianism can plausibly be seen as a natural alternative to American Liberalism and American Conservatism. Even if it does not in the end hold true or entirely consistent, it is not some crazy Frankenstein of views, a completely random mix of seemingly incompatible values that somehow a small group inexplicably converged upon.

    1. I don't really agree with the premise of the question. I don't think it's all that different from interest in other ideologies. Think of all the interest in Haidt lately - that's an interest in the psychology of the traditional right and left. Kling made all kinds of off the wall claims about the psychology of liberals when he blogged at Econlib. And I think it's fairly common to see libertarians similarly speculating about the psychology of various non-libertarian groups (or just the psychology of "statists" - i.e., all non-libertarians lumped together). They often make assumptions about secret desires for power and controlling other people. This is done for OWS as much as it's done for the Tea Party. I guess I just don't see a special interest in libertarians. Certainly in the heyday of socialism you had a lot of that sort of talk about socialists, and fascism had a veritable cottage industry of psychologically profiling Hitler.

      Now, there is a special interest in libertarians on this particular blog. That's because my interest in Keynes and history of thought lead me into discussions with Austrians which kind of opened the whole libertarian pandora's box. I've always had sort of American style classical liberal sympathies myself, so part of my interest in talking about them so much is in a sense "taking back" that tradition from what I see as a lot of abuses. I think a lot of economists are interested because in the same way libertarians are seen as assuming that economic science itself validates their political philosophy. And you know I'm not all that far from a lot of libertarians anyway. I think I've said before that on Nolan tests I typically land at the intersection of liberal, centrist, and libertarian. So sometimes when you share a lot of the views the arguments over details are more extensive.

      I've just answered your question without assuming anything about your motive. But I also want to be clear I had no such grand intentions in this post. I thought it was interesting that the libertarian candidate got a spot on the ballot in DC, and I thought that would surprise a lot of people - when it really shouldn't. There's a lot of libertarianism simmering in this area, and I think a lot of people don't realize that. They don't realize that - I think - because they have a romantic rather than a realistic view of the movement (see Jason Fetz's comment above). I think it's hard to see a movement realistically from the inside (that's one argument for not identifying with a movement!).

    2. in the same way libertarians are seen as assuming that economic science itself validates their political philosophy

      well if it didn't that would put them in a hell of a fix intellectually and since it doesn't why do you pay any attention whatsover?

      Anyone who let's a test determine how they view either the World or themselves is wacky. Correlation does not equal causation. As Charlie Munger shows, being against synthetic CDOs doesn't make one a liberal or an anti-capitalist.

      for any idiot libertarians out there. markets are neither rational nor self-correcting, so gov't is required. Further, lots of markets are created by gov't as well as all of modern finance (sans gov't their would be no money in the terms we think of such, for bad money always drives good money out of circulation, and no finance)

  5. Great, thanks for the response. I think I was motivated to ask the question because of a recent post on the BHL Blog + your post (and your interest in the topic in general). On a personal level, I dont self-identify with the libertarian movement at all, although I am interested in many libertarian ideas from the standpoint of ideal political philosophy. But there are too many tensions in my views to feel comfortable with engaging in serious political activity, and certainly would not feel right about engaging with a libertarian movement. This might sound chicken sh*t (kind of like the Tree Herders in LOTR), but it's where I'm at. Non-political communal engagement/volunteer work is all that I can commit myself to.

  6. Not sure if these are people you're meeting at American, but as an alumnus (of the econ dept!), I can say that I met a strangely large proportion of people there. My sense I got is that it comes from people who are incredibly into politics, who think that other people are too ill-informed or irrational to be allowed to make decisions that politically affect the better-informed.

    By the way, with respect to Hume's question: I think that the reason for the 'fascination' is because there's such a singular type that can be identified as libertarian, and this type is so loud relative to their actual proportion in the population. (Or, perhaps, most of the very loud libertarians are all of this type?)


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.