Acton Institute Powerblog

When is a Self-Described Libertarian Not a Libertarian?

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confused_customerA new report by the Pew Research Center finds that about one-in-ten Americans describe themselves as libertarian — and yet hold views that do not differ much from those of the overall public. As Pew’s Jocelyn Kiley says, “Self-described libertarians tend to be modestly more supportive of some libertarian positions, but few of them hold consistent libertarian opinions on the role of government, foreign policy and social issues.”

Overall, 11 percent of Americans describe themselves as libertarian and have a general idea about what the term means. Another 3 percent who described themselves as libertarians were unable to choose the correct term that applied to “someone whose political views emphasize individual freedom by limiting the role of government” (choices were: libertarian, progressive, authoritarian, Unitarian, or communist). Unfortunately, they weren’t the only ones confused: only 57 percent of those polled were able to choose the correct term; 1 in 5 thought the term applied to “progressive” and 6 percent thought the answer was “communist”(!).

Almost twice as many men as women self-identify as libertarian (15 percent of men and 7 percent of women). The percentage of Whites and Hispanics who self-describe as libertarian is almost identical (12 and 11 percent, respectively), while only 3 percent black Americans refer to themselves using that term. Libertarians are also more likely to consider themselves political Independents (14 percent) than either Republican (12 percent) or Democrat (6 percent).

The beliefs held by these self-described libertarians were somewhat surprising.

More than half of libertarians say government regulation of business does more harm than good (56 percent vs. 47 percent). However, four-in-ten libertarians say that government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest (41 percent).

More than half say “government aid to the poor does more harm than good by making people too dependent on government assistance” (57 percent vs. 48 percent), while almost four-in-ten (38 percent) say government aid “does more good than harm because people can’t get out of poverty until their basic needs are met.”

Libertarians are more supportive of legalizing marijuana than the public overall (65 percent vs. 54 percent). But they are also more likely than the general public to favor allowing the police “to stop and search anyone who fits the general description of a crime suspect” (42 percent of libertarians, 41 percent of the public) and to think “it is best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs” (43 percent of libertarians, 35 percent of the public).

Large majorities of both the public (74 percent) and self-described libertarians (82 percent) say “Americans shouldn’t have to give up privacy and freedom in order to be safe from terrorism.”

The results seem to support my long-held opinion that Americans use political labels without knowing what they mean. There are a lot of self-identified conservatives who don’t understand conservatism and self-identified progressives who (obviously) don’t understand conservatism (see above). It wouldn’t be surprising, then, to find the same is true for self-identified libertarians.

But I could be wrong. Perhaps it does represent a shift in the meaning of the term.

Do those who self-identify as libertarian think the results reflect their political views? I’d be particularly interested to hear if those who add a modifier to the term (Christian libertarians, bleeding-heart libertarians, etc.) think it portends a shift away from the “classical” or standard view of American libertarianism. Also, would any of the positions above “disqualify” a person from legitimately using the term? In other words, when is a self-described libertarian not really a libertarian?

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Douglas Morton

    I’m a strict libertarian, I’d say classical, and I think that this Pew study has many problems in the phrasing of
    questions. I don’t dispute its finding of how many libertarians there are, but many
    of the other conclusions in this study should be viewed with suspicion. First, they
    ask if “govt regulation of business is necessary”. But, one must realize that,
    technically, “regulation” generally means “rule” or “law”. Laws against
    stealing and murder are technically regulations for all of us, and libertarians
    are in favor of businesses also being under these same laws. The real issue is
    the nature of the regulations. Libertarians are against laws that are beyond
    the legitimate scope, that scope being the protection and enforcement of
    natural rights, such rights being the freedom to do whatever you want as long
    as you are not initiating aggression against others or violating their property
    rights. So, because I don’t think that businesses should legally be able to
    steal from others, I also think that “govt regulation of business is
    necessary”, depending on what you mean.

    Second, the poll talks about whether
    “corporations make too much profit”. But, even a strict libertarian like myself
    would say that many corporations make unfair (“too much”) profits, because we
    believe that many businesses actually use govt to enrich themselves through
    “corporate welfare” and they actually use many regulations to protect
    themselves from upstart competitors by erecting “barriers to entry” in the
    marketplace, enabling themselves to make higher profits than they would in a
    truly free market where they would have to face stronger competition. In this
    case, we believe govt is the source of the unfair profits, not free markets.

    Third, their question on
    homosexuality is ridiculous and demonstrates how little Pew understands basic political
    concepts. The poll talks about whether “homosexuality should be accepted”, but
    that is completely irrelevant. The real issue is not “accepting” versus
    “discouraging” in culture, but “legalize” versus “outlaw” in govt. I personally
    think homosexual activity is a sin, but that’s irrelevant, and I believe in a
    strict separation of church and state and I don’t ever want to force my views
    on others through govt law. Libertarianism is about letting other people live
    their lives the way they want to, regardless of whether or not I think it’s a
    good way to live. I think govt should be completely out of such affairs, and
    should deregulate marriage. So, even though I don’t “accept homosexuality”
    personally, I believe that gay marriage (and other homosexual activities)
    should be legal and that gays should be able to legally live their lives freely
    the way they want to.

    Fourth, I think their police search
    question is confusing. The question needs to be more specific and nuanced.
    Also, it only catches a small unrepresentative slice of the issues of police force.
    I don’t see anything in this Pew study about the major issues of warrantless
    searches, police abuse, or civil forfeiture.

    Fifth, the questions on foreign
    policy, where the poll talks about whether the US should be “active in world
    affairs” and “involved” in the world, are misleading. Does Pew even know what
    libertarianism means? The real issue is not about “involvement” or being
    “active in world affairs”, it’s about using military force. I’m in favor of the
    U.S. being active in world affairs, but not in forceful ways. Libertarians
    believe in voluntary interaction, not coercion. Free trade between nations is
    one way that libertarians favor interaction with the world. Also, we favor free
    speech where people around the world share ideas, we favor freedom of movement
    and travel and immigration between countries, and we are generally happy to see
    US citizens trying to solve world problems of disease and poverty, but through
    voluntary means, not govt aid that is backed by stealing through taxes. I don’t
    know how many times we have to explain this, but we are not “isolationists”, we
    are “noninterventionists” when it comes to the use of govt force.

    Next time Pew does a poll on
    libertarianism, I hope they understand what libertarianism is first. Go to

  • lonewolf777

    You wont post my comment ……pews title should have been …can Hillary beat Paul.. does the libertarian college organization that started in 2008 with 60 campuses…and now has 525 college chapters and 135,000 dues paying members scare should..projected 750 schools by 2016…Rand Paul is the real fear..

  • I believe Douglas Morton is correct. For example, “More than half of libertarians say government regulation of business
    does more harm than good… However,
    four-in-ten libertarians say that government regulation of business is
    necessary to protect the public interest…”

    The point of business regulation is to impede business. Otherwise, regulation would be superfluous. In general, that is bad. The Uber/Lyft conflict is a perfect example, as was the Freedom Cab kerfuffle in Denver. However, even the most ardent libertarian would agree, I think, that regulations and laws to impede fraud must exist because criminals exist and are a threat to the public interest.

  • I have noticed a lot of libertarian leaders be inconsistent,too. Many of them cheered the legalization of homosexual “marriage.” But the consistent libertarian is that the state has no right to define marriage or decide who is married. Marriage is a moral and religious issue.

    Maybe many of the self described libertarians are single issue libertarians. They want less state interference in a single issue only.

    • john lind

      Roger, I agree. The state should not be involved in defining marriage or deciding who is married. However, the question for libertarians is sometimes “Since the State is involved in marriage, shouldn’t gay people have the same right?” My belief is that increasing the role of government is the less desirable choice.

      Regarding marriage, I also question my conservative Christian brethren who work so tirelessly to pass one man/ one woman type laws. It seems to me, they are rendering to Caesar what belongs to God. In other words, as Christians, we know that marriage is defined in the first book of the Bible. I’m not sure why we have to ask the State to give final approval to God’s definition.

      • “Since the State is involved in marriage, shouldn’t gay people have the same right?”

        Marriage is not a right. See this article by De Jassay that clarifies the confusion over what is a right: I think it’s more correct to say people should be free to marry.

        When the state controls who gets married, then people are not free to marry unless they follow the state’s laws. If the state defines marriage in such a way that it excludes homosexuals then that’s the state’s right. As an example, the state won’t let people drive without a license. When people give the state power, the state has the right to exercise it however it sees fit.

        Christians gave the state so much power over the decades because they thought the majority of Americans would retain Christian values. And they thought they could make people act like Christians whether they believed or not. You’re right. It was pretty foolish, but they’re still at it. They think the state can do what the Holy Spirit cannot.