The various explanations that have been offered mostly boil down to the contention that people are jerks — consumed by envy, by needs to control others, or whatever. There is obviously some truth in these claims. The difficult point about such explanations is the implication that libertarians are not afflicted with similar character flaws — that we are more saintly or mentally healthy than the rest of the population. Anyone who has experience with libertarians in person, however, will have (or should have) trouble swallowing that conclusion. There must be more to the story. [my bold!]Some of his psychological speculation has occurred to me. For example, I mention in The Structure of Liberty how belief in an interventionist government to ensure that things come out right is a secular and more scientific substitute for belief in an interventionist God, and both may stem from the childhood belief in (or need for) parents who make things come out right. And he is not the first to notice that many people found their beliefs about why government must compel people to be good (conservatives) or generous to others (liberals) on introspection: they know that without some compulsion they themselves would not be as good or generous as they think they ought to be, and do not want to see others get away with behavior that they deny themselves. Still, I thought the way he framed the point was thought-provoking:
Start with the most famously transparent case of psychological motivation for political beliefs: the obsessive campaign of conservatives against pornography, which elicits a knowing smile from everyone else. Susie Bright, noted author of erotica, says that the Report of the Meese Commission on Pornography was the best jill-off book she had ever read, the Commission having gone out of its way to procure the kinkiest stuff. Look today at the amount of coverage given by WorldNetDaily, to pick on just one popular publication, to sex scandals, child prostitution, and other titillating topics. Without their diligent reporting, many pedophiles might never have considered the opportunities in contemporary Afghanistan. Leftist intellectuals smugly infer suppressed desires from this righteous crusade, but their own positions may be vulnerable to a similar analysis.Given his objective of being as critical of libertarians as those on the left and right, however, I found his analysis generally weakest when discussing the psychology of libertarians--or perhaps on a different and less fundamental level. Here is just a taste:
Consider the odd resistance of left-liberals to lowering even their own taxes. The very idea is as offensive to them as relaxing laws against prostitution is to conservatives. That doesn't mean they are indifferent to money, but it is important to them to appear indifferent to money. Most of my liberal friends are wealthier than my conservative friends, but they would sooner die than be thought of as wealthy. They refer to themselves as "comfortable" — where "comfortable" means having a home in the Berkeley hills, an SUV and a sports car, and enough money for either private school tuition or a condo in Aspen. But the insistent denial of concern for wealth, we may suspect, betrays an underlying obsession.
What liberals and conservatives have in common, I suggest, is having publicly subscribed to an ascetic code in which they are not wholeheartedly committed. They have simply focused on different aspects of Christian asceticism (an asceticism shared by most other religions) — money or sex. . . .
Self-acceptance, or its lack, is key in both cases. Conservatives who live comfortably within the bounds of their narrow code are generally less agitated and zealous in their disapproval of transgressions. Not feeling especially deprived by their moral choices — feeling, perhaps, that their moral choices are their own, rather than imposed from without — they have no reason to envy others their greater freedom of action. Similarly with those left-liberals who are comfortable with a very modest standard of living. I think, in fact, that the range of peaceful behaviors we are comfortable with in others is a pretty good index of our own self-acceptance.
For left-liberals and conservatives alike, political beliefs derive much of their obduracy from being rooted in morality and self-concept. Conservatives can tell they are good people by the strictness of the standards they espouse, and by the zealousness of their advocacy — which generally means efforts at imposing those standards universally. Challenging conservatives' political beliefs will generally not get very far, because those beliefs are linked to conservatives' sense of what is good, and of themselves as good people. Anyone who has entered into political discussions with left-liberals has tasted the similar righteousness of their position. They believe their commitment to redistributionist policies shows them to be good people; challenges to those policies will likely be experienced as challenges to left-liberals' sense of the good, and of themselves as good people.
A major factor in understanding libertarianism as a movement is the simple fact that, in our cultural context, self-identifying as libertarian entails a willingness to be perceived as deviant. There are undoubtedly many people who would join the Libertarian Party if most of the people they knew belonged. The importance to most people of not being perceived as deviant is apparent in the obsession of very many LP members — especially those coming from the Right — with "mainstream acceptability" (where "mainstream" refers to the conservative heartland), and with downplaying or even eliminating planks on issues like gay marriage or the War on Drugs.Apart from the end of this passage seeming to be internally in conflict with its beginning, it fails to explain why libertarians are more willing to be perceived as deviant, and why we should think that they are more or less so than political activists of the right or the left. More importantly, this and the other characteristics he associates with libertarians--such as their approach to knowledge--are not grounded in the same basic psychological processes as his analyses of liberals and conservatives. To me, at least, something was missing here, though to be fair to Acree his topic was why libertarianism was not more appealing to liberals or conservatives so assessing their psychology was more germaine.
Still, I would be much more interesting in hearing the candid thoughts of libertarians about their own psychology and that of other libertarians in ways that are not self-congratulatory, than I am in hearing reactions to Acree's claims about the psychology of those on the left or right. For example, if Acree is right that the attractiveness of liberal and conservative ideologies depends their resemblance to differing parental models (mother-state or father-state respectively), then what comparable psychology accounts for libertarians rejection of either parental model? To facilitate measured and civil discourse on this topic, I am enabling comments.
I should make it clear that I am not necessarily agreeing with Acree's analysis of the psychology of liberals or conservatives either, though I find at least some of it intuitively plausible. Nor do I think it fair or accurate to reduce all political belief to psychological terms, though clearly psychology plays a role in everyone's political beliefs and, when described, these psychologies typically sound unflattering. I should also emphasize there is much more to his analysis than the teasers I posted here that makes it more subtle than these quotes suggest--some parts of which I had some trouble following.
So before posting your thoughts about his claims, it would be good to read the whole article, which is available here, not just these brief excerpts.
Update: On the comment board, Ex-Conspirator (is any Conspirator ever truly "ex" or just in deep cover?) links to an old post of his that relates the "secret sin" theory of politics related to him by an anonymous libertarian. This simplistic, yet viscerally appealing, over-generalization has the virtue of including a secret psychological motivation for libertarians (though it does not personally resonate with me, but perhaps I am in denial):
He went on to generalize this to a "secret sin" theory of politics-- that people form their political views on the basis of a generalization of their own deepest darkests. (This, by the way, is something like the method Hobbes defends, though that fact didn't come up in conversation.) So: if you think it's only the law that keeps you from plunging into a life of full-time sexual depravity and debauchery, you become a moralistic conservative. If you think it's only the law that keeps you from becoming Ebeneezer Scrooge and screwing the poor just for the sheer sadistic joy of it, you become a lefty. And if you look inward and detect a craving for power, you generalize that to everyone else and become a libertarian. The moral was that people should listen to libertarians, believe them, follow their policy recommendations-- and not elect them.