Understanding Libertarian Morality: “Regulations Trigger a Sense of Resistance in Me”

Michael Giberson

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.

6 thoughts on “Understanding Libertarian Morality: “Regulations Trigger a Sense of Resistance in Me”

  1. I also read and enjoyed Ronald Bailey’s article. I have not read the research paper that inspired Bailey’s article so my reaction to the article may be off base.

    My main reaction to the findings is that the conclusions regarding the psychological and moral roots for libertarians is based on aggregate results. Just as in economics aggregates mask the underlying behavior of individual agents.

    I have an interest in temperament and personality, and find the behaviors categorized by the Keirsey Temperament Theory (KTT) to be the most compelling. http://www.keirsey.com/personalityzone/index.asp

    Briefly, KKT identifies 16 individual temperaments grouped into 4 major categories, Guardian, Artisan, Idealist, and Rational. There are significant differences in thought, action, values, etc. between the various temperament types. Based on my observations (unconfirmed by testing) libertarians are generally either Rationals or Artisans. I don’t believe I have ever met a Guardian or Idealist libertarian.

    I also believe many of the readers of this blog are Rationals (which make up only about 5% of the population, as compared to approximately 45% each for the Guardians and Artisans). If you read Bailey’s descriptions of the moral roots of libertarians and identified strongly with some of the characterizations, but not with others it is because of the aggregating effect.

    Several key aspects of the Rational temperament that you may identify with are a long term outlook, and a desire to understand, in a systematic way, natural laws. Economics is an obvious field of study for Rationals. Artisans on the other hand are short term oriented, advantage seeking, and sensation seeking. I beleive they account for the anarchist tendancies of the libertarian philosophy. Neither Rationals or Artisans hold authority in high regard. Rationals instead seek truth. Artisans seek advantage.

    Viewed through this lens, early America was probably over represented by Rationals and Artisans relative to Eurpope. The percentage of the founding fathers is extraordinarily weighted towards Rationals. Both Keirseys have written extensively on the temperaments of the U.S. Presidents and the founding fathers.

  2. I hate “studies’ like these. It is reductionist and fallacious to attribute ideas to personal characteristics.

    Even if some yet unknown science were able to establish that certain personality types were limited by some biochemical mechanism to understanding or holding certain classes of idea, it would not prove or disprove the validity of ideas.

    However there is no such science. There are a multitude of personality types and a multitude of ideas. There is no a priori reason to believe that any one personality type is limited, ipso facto, to any class or type of ideas. Furthermore, using ideas to type personalities is purely ad hoc and does not resemble science, although it does greatly resemble marketing.

    George Will said: “Professors have reasons for their beliefs. Other people, particularly conservatives, have social and psychological explanations for their beliefs.”

  3. Fat Man, I know the kind of studies you have in mind, the kind that George Will was writing about, and I don’t think this study suffers from that kind of problem.

    In prior work, it isn’t as it Haidt and colleagues observed that libertarians and conservatives revealed lower scores on fairness and harm, and then jumped to the conclusion that these groups were less moral. Rather, they realized that conservatives emphasized other kinds of moral principles. Similarly, as they gather data on libertarians, they discovered that libertarian values differed from both liberal and conservative ways.

    And from what else I’ve read by Haidt and Iyer, they both are happy to acknowledge that the same kind of ‘social and psychological explanations’ apply to their own political values. (I don’t recall reading anything by the other co-authors on this point.)

    Also, I don’t think that they attribute ideas to personal characteristics, but rather suggest the mechanism is the other way around: people with certain characteristics will be more attracted to some ideas rather than others.

    They don’t claim it is the full story, just that they find sufficient statistical evidence to support their conclusion that this is part of the explanation for differences in moral values across people.

  4. The masculine/feminine views of systematizing …Firefox spell-check didn’t even blink at that word?… look premature to me; I’m in love with new arts and letters curators, visual composers and systems programmers, though. Feminist Hulk may or may not smash the dichotomy between Pattern Affinities and Schema. The USA’s Federal Origin Story does not seem paternal, macho or apersonal and schematizing. (Is the DoubleFine Studios joke that revolutions are apersonal, but for insurance purposes awesome?) It focuses on profit and harm rather than favor or wrong; unless you consider Cabinet Federalism (…150ish years in, 50ish since.)

    Systematizing (Low, per Bailey, or not) does speak to idiot savant in us: I’m creating value; by requiring subsidy treatment of clinical malaise! by requiring subsidy treatment of private (cough) risk! by requiring subsidy treatment of compliance!

    > Economics is an obvious field of study for Rationals.
    Emo Rationals, sure!? I crave the tiny dog and tailored jacket of risk deprecation without moral hazard, and the twitter following of prolific municipal sector capabilities modelers! Chiropractic models of pricing have something to say about that, sensibly enough; let’s just discuss -right-handed- shovel price gouging from now on.

    The Rational and Artisan thing also holds water in the view (how is this cited these days?) of scarce refuge shipping; when externalizing dissociation with the (Rational, Artisan, Guardian, Idiot) populace, people ship out (or are shipped) in bulk for Ellis Island, Jamestown, Dubai, Chennai, Queensland or Shanghai, and through the flight and its interrogatives …spell-check is definitely on vacation here… need to keep mum or be fuc$edcompany.com …erm, gang-mediated. That is, polar opposites are strapped into their mutually ideal agitation, but with aggravated relation to family; so you could destroy your antithesis or presume to Guardian (crew conscript) only at immediate jeopardy. (Air travel rolls the dimensions too tightly to be seen at scales greater than intermodal (oh NOW spell-check calls me).)

    The psychotic case, of having scarce empathy and high impulsiveness, is a compliance and banking ideal (as long as you share your impulses per those schedules.) _Forbes_ has gone from sanguine about fitting in better schedules of oversight (every eight issues or so) to morose about evil company plans (no joke) that are slow to find their reverse auction markets compatible with their charter. Are they looking for enthusiastic tanking where buy, burp, hold does not meet a suitable flight or Guardian (Artisan, Idealist, Rational) wrapup?

  5. Marketing. Not Science. There is no linkage between personality traits and ideas.

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