The Broadening of the Libertarian Movement

Like my George Mason colleague Bryan Caplan, I gave two talks at the Students for Liberty International Conference this weekend. And I emphatically agree with Bryan’s observation that the SFL students I met had vastly better social skills and are generally much more socially “normal” than were the young libertarians of my own generation (I graduated college in 1995):

The Students for Liberty conference has to be seen to be believed: the attendance (about 500 students), the energy (off the charts), and most remarkably of all, the high social skills. Twenty years ago, a pack of libertarian students would have been roughly as awkward and freakish as attendees at Comic-Con… or, say, me. Now I see hundreds of students who aren’t just smart, but smooth. What happened?

The best explanation I’ve got so far: the Internet. Back in the old days, libertarian students spent a lot of time alone with their books. It was awfully hard to meet others with a shared interest in liberty. This social isolation had two effects…..: Libertarians got a lot less practice sharing their ideas in a civilized and constructive way [and]… Few “people people” became libertarians because it was too depressing. As the Internet – and social networking, its favorite child – blossomed over the last two decades, these effects of libertarian isolation largely faded away.

A closely related trend is the high proportion of women among today’s young libertarians. By my rough estimate, about 40-45% of the SFL attendees were female. That’s a sea change from twenty years ago, when young libertarians were an overwhelmingly male group. Considering that women are on average less interested in politics than men are in general, the percentage of women in SFL is roughly what one would expect in a student political group that isn’t specifically focused on “women’s issues.”

I think Bryan’s explanation for these changes may be right. But I would point to other factors as well. First, as libertarianism has become better known and more mainstream, it has attracted a wider range of personality types. Even before the rise of the internet, the work of people like Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand helped popularize libertarianism to a wider audience than would have known about it in the 1940s and 50s.

People with poor social skills are more likely than others to adopt an unpopular ideology. They tend to care less about adherence to social norms and conventional wisdom, and thus are less reluctant to embrace unpopular ideas. In addition, because they are already disliked by their peers, they generally don’t have much to lose from the social stigma attached to adherents of an ideology considered to be weird or extreme. When I was in high school, I was the only libertarian I knew, with the partial exception of my father. There weren’t any other libertarian student or teachers. At Amherst College in the early 1990s, I knew only two or three other libertarian students, and there wasn’t a single libertarian on the faculty. This isolation didn’t bother me very much in part because I wasn’t that popular to begin with. As an ideology becomes more common and seems less “weird,” more socially normal people join the bandwagon.

This point also helps explain the greater involvement of women in the libertarian movement. Social science research suggests that women are, on average, less willing to violate social norms and court unpopularity than men are. That’s not necessarily a bad quality; as a result, women are less likely than men to act like insensitive jerks. But it also makes them less willing to adopt unpopular or stigmatized political ideologies (for similar reasons, women are less likely than men to be atheists). The mainstreaming of libertarianism has increased its appeal to both genders, but may be especially important for women.

Second, the effect of the internet goes beyond facilitating networking by people who are already libertarian. It also enables more people to learn about the existence of libertarianism in the first place. At most academic institutions (including most academically strong high schools), left-liberalism is the overwhelmingly dominant political ideology. Some students, however, reject liberalism for any number of possible reasons. In my case, it was the experience of being an immigrant from the Soviet Union. For others, it may have to do with their personality type or other factors.

In an earlier era, many of these people would not be aware of any alternatives to liberalism other than conservatism or establishment centrism. As a result, they became conservatives or centrists themselves or simply lost interest in politics altogether. I myself might not have become aware of libertarianism when I was in high school were it not for my father’s introducing me to the work of Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell, and my own discovery of Robert Nozick as a result of involvement in high school debate.

With the proliferation of libertarian blogs and other websites, any high school or college student with a strong interest in politics is likely to become aware of libertarianism as a potential alternative to liberalism and conservatism. The fact that these people learn about libertarianism while they are still young is critical; most people become less receptive to new ideas as they get older, especially if they go against their preexisting views. If I had first learned about libertarianism when I was 35 rather than 15, it’s a lot less likely that I would be a libertarian today. This is not because libertarianism has some special appeal to the young, but because older people are less likely to adopt new political ideas of any kind, libertarian or otherwise. Because the internet enables more people to become aware of libertarianism at an early age, a much higher proportion of those who might find libertarianism appealing will learn about it and become converts.

Obviously, “rationally ignorant” people who pay little or no attention to politics are still largely unaware of libertarianism. But they are unlikely to become active participants in an ideological movement, though libertarians can and should do a lot more to channel this group’s skepticism about government in a more libertarian direction.