Problems with the libertarian psychology literature?

There is no surer way to excite a bunch of libertarians than to try to catalogue and label them, except perhaps by trying to tell them who they are. Aiden’s talk last Thursday involved both, as well as a great deal of audience participation, so I was not surprised by the level of intervention that can be heard on the video, and the tense discussion online afterwards.

With all that emotion on display, I want to take my time to make sure the video is reflective Aiden’s narrative and of the mood in the room. Two things are getting sorted. First, the strange way a zoom mic captures audio made one member of the audience sound excessively emotional toward the speaker, in fact he was making a joke about Michael Freeman’s excessively annoying ring tone! This won’t feature in the final version.  Also, it was obvious that the listeners needed a visual representation of the data along the six moral criteria Aiden was talking about. Unfortunately, the graphs in the source paper features seven criteria, and I need to hear back from Aiden about whether my artistic re-interpretations of it is fair.

While we wait…

Let us soak in this graph from the Iyer et al paper which was the source of much of Aiden’s narrative:

Iyer paper figure 1

I’ve been contemplating this graph and reading through some of the Iyer paper and while Aiden gets back to me about psychometry I want to pick up a conversation with you guys about some issues with the logic of it that struck me as potentially unfair.

Before I start, take a look at the liberty scores for liberals and libertarians. Note how insensitive “liberals” are to violations of moral norms associated with economic and political freedom (the penultimate scale).

First problem:

Lumping in of Objectivists with Libertarians

I, for one, do lump objectivist in with Libertarians. I identify myself with the larger vaguely defined collective of thinkers labelled “libertarian” and with the more precisely defined and smaller group labelled “Objectivist”. Individual objectivists are “existents” (to borrow a word from Rand’s epistemology) which are the referent of both of the concepts “people believing in the nonaggression principle” and “people believing in the bulk of ideas promoted by Ayn Rand”.

However, I’m nervous about the way the Iyer et al paper seems to define libertarians who are a large and diverse group with reference to Ayn Rand who is the figurehead for a smaller sub-group. This invites the reader (and Iyer!) to imagine relationships between the measured psychology of a large group and the controversial concepts important to the smaller group. The consequences of these muddled premises could range from a muddled conclusion, to a smear of the smaller group using the vices of the larger one, or perhaps vice versa.

For example, I’m sure many libertarians would be uncomfortable with this:

According to Davis [56], low levels of empathic concern indicate lower levels of sympathy and concern for unfortunate others, which may underlie libertarians’ lower scores on the harm foundation of the MFQ, and their general rejection of altruism as a moral duty.

Ayn Rand explicitly rejected sacrificial altruism as a moral duty, but most libertarians do not follow her in this regard, maintaining only that compulsory altruism is not a morally proper political policy.

Artificially splitting “economic liberty” and “care/harm”

Conversely, Iyer et al dresses up “economic liberty” as if it were unrelated to “care/harm”. Isn’t economic suppression a form of harm? This is quite important.

Reportedly, libertarians are taking a lot of stick (none directed at me) for having lower regard to “care/harm” – implying we’re bastards. Another way of looking at it is that we identify “harm” more broadly and more systemically than most. Anecdotally, a measure showing that we are attunded to harm, in particular, would be consistent with reports that we can be a bit negative. A better measure, my opinion, would combine some of our regard to economic liberty with the care/harm measure. We might also want to distinguish between personal and highly empathic examples (e.g. in a family setting) and examples of care or harm that are remote or abstract, such as welfare or monetary policy.

This is the list of points from the addendum that are behind the economic liberty measure (one half of the overall “liberty” measure). Have a read of the points and reflect for yourself about how much harm is associated with an anti-liberty reaction to any of these points:

  • Whether or not private property was respected (relevance rating)
  • People who are successful in business have a right to enjoy their wealth as they see fit
  • Society works best when it lets individuals take responsibility for their own lives without telling them what to do.
  • The government interferes far too much in our everyday lives.
  • The government should do more to advance the common good, even if that means limiting the freedom and choices of individuals. (Reverse scored)
  • Property owners should be allowed to develop their land or build their homes in any way they choose, as long as they don’t endanger their neighbors.

There is a lot hiding in there, so let’s unpack that last one at little. If we rephrase it slightly to expose the harms, we might form an equivalent statement like this:

It is proper that property owners can be prevented from developing their land or building their homes in the way most convenient or pleasurable to them, even if they don’t endanger their neighbors.

Rephrased in this way, it is obvious that the question seeks an endorsement/rejection of inconvenience and sadness that might be felt by the property owners in such a case. I may be missing some technical distinction, but to me, inconvenience and sadness are clearly forms of harm and deserve to be measured alongside anything else with that label.

Intuitively, similar reformulation is both possible and justifiable (from a non-technical perspective, anyway) for the other points in this category. Remember, this is a category of issues that liberals are unusually cold-hearted towards.

The creation of the new scales in Iyer are justified by reference to libertarians’ expression of disappointment that their focus of concern – liberty – was not represented. Adding a separate scale / foundation was Iyer et al‘s answer to that concern. This may be a case of “be careful what you wish for, you might get it good and hard”, let’s hope not.


  1. Interesting to see the results if they distinguished concern for care between kinds that the actual carer performs and those that the “carer” abdicates at the expense of another.



  2. I am absolutely convinced that libertarianism is rooted in the individual psychological make up of libertarians. Wouldn’t it be odd if it were any other way?

    We ARE more cerebral and less empathetic than most of the population. We ARE less accepting of authority and more sceptical of phony consensus. We ARE more self reliant and less fearful than most.

    It is an indictment of the world we live in that we have to worry that these characteristics are not perceived as positives.



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