In the February 2011 issue of Reason Ronald Bailey explains some interesting work in political and moral psychology on libertarian morality. The research – by Jon Haidt at the University of Virginia, Ravi Iyer and Jesse Graham at the University of Southern California and Spassena Koleva and Peter Ditto at the University of California at Irvine – is summed up in a paper, “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology.” Bailey does a good job of summarizing the paper, so I won’t go into details here. An insightful article both for libertarians and the people who care about them.
Co-author Iyer blogs on political psychology, and he has discussed the moral psychology of libertarianism a number of times. In a post discussing the paper mentioned, Iyer says core libertarian beliefs (“Libertarians believe in the importance of individual liberty”) may result from “lower levels of agreeableness and higher scores on a measure of psychological reactance.”
I self-identify as libertarian in outlook. I’m not sure about the agreeableness issue, but absolutely accept the attribution of higher scores on “a measure of psychological reactance.” I’ll proudly wear that banner. Iyer explains this last term with an example: “regulations trigger a sense of resistance in me.” You bet. Put that on a T-shirt and I’ll wear it to the next NARUC convention.
More on “psychological reactance” from Psychlopedia: “Psychological reactance is an aversive affective reaction in response to regulations or impositions that impinge on freedom and autonomy (Brehm, 1966, 1972, Brehm & Brehm, 1981; Wicklund, 1974). This reaction is especially common when individuals feel obliged to adopt a particular opinion or engage in a specific behavior.” I can kind of see that libertarian-minded folks would be exemplary in this respect.
Bailey ends his article with some somewhat gratuitous rah-rah-ing for libertarianism: “I find Haidt’s account of the birth of libertarian morality fairly convincing. But as a social psychologist, Haidt fails to discuss what is probably the most important and intriguing fact about libertarian morality: It changed history by enabling at least a portion of humanity to escape our natural state of abject poverty.”
Bailey’s comments inspire some speculative history. No doubt most human populations have a mix of people, some favoring the set of moral values that we associate with political liberals, others favoring the values associated with conservatives, and some favoring libertarian values. In perhaps most populations the liberals and conservatives dominate. Perhaps, however, early European settlers in America were in effect self-selected for a somewhat libertarian value set. These settlers were folks with minority religious views in their home countries – so they apparently were not terribly concerned about fitting in with the majority – and they finally took extreme measures in reaction to efforts to regulate their religious beliefs. The population that emerges in the European-based American settlements, then, turns out to be disproportionately high in libertarian values. Fast forward into the 1700s, observe the reactance to efforts by the English king to control American settlers, and soon you have a revolution.
Historians will probably find many holes in this self-celebratory story, but it seems plausible to me.