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Libertarian Values & a Divide in the Republican Party

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney waves to the crowd after addressing the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York, September 1, 2004 (REUTERS/Rick Wilking).

The latest survey by the Public Religion Research Institute paints a revealing portrait of contemporary libertarians in the United States.  They are 95 percent white, 64 percent male, and 61 percent under the age of 50.  Their educational attainment is above average: 36 percent have a BA or more, compared to 29 percent for the general population and 31 percent for whites. They tilt to the right politically: 55 percent regard themselves as conservative, and 45 percent identify as Republicans.  By contrast, only 3 percent are liberals, while 5 percent are Democrats.  Seventy-three percent regard the Democratic Party as “very liberal,” a term they do not intend as high praise.

But libertarians are conservative and Republican with a difference: compared to other key parts of the conservative coalition, such as white evangelicals and the Tea Party, they are far less attached to organized religion.  Twenty-seven percent of libertarians are religiously unaffiliated, well above the level for the population as a whole.  They are far less likely to attend religious services, to regard the Bible as the word of God, or to regard religion as important in their lives.  Only 23 percent say they are part of the Religious Right; only 36 believe that it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values, well below conservatives (64 percent), the Tea Party (53 percent), or even the general population (48 percent).

Commitment to individual liberty, responsibility, and self-determination is the hallmark of the libertarian creed.  They overwhelmingly believe that people should get ahead on their own without government assistance and that individuals should take responsibility for getting health insurance.  Far more than any other group, they strongly oppose increasing the minimum wage. 

Libertarians do not believe that it is government’s business to protect people from themselves.  Nor, conversely, do they believe that government should erect needless impediments to the free choices of individuals.  For example, by a margin of 72 to 25 percent, they favor laws that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to help terminally ill patients end their own lives.  By taking this stand, they are breaking ranks with other parts of the Republican coalition.   For example, fully 70 percent of white evangelicals oppose physician-assisted suicide.  There is an unbridgeable divide between believing that individuals are the rightful masters of their own bodies and souls and believing that because our existence and humanity are the gift of God, the authority to end human life rests with God alone.

Some observers have speculated that if libertarians become sufficiently discontented with the Republican Party’s social conservatism, they might switch sides.  There is little in the data just released to support this thesis.  While libertarians and liberals join forces on issues such as physician-assisted suicide, they part company on a principle at the heart of libertarianism.  Ninety-four percent of libertarians believe that it is not the government’s business to protect people from themselves.  Only 22 percent of liberals (and the identical share of Democrats overall) agree.  Coupled with acute divisions between libertarians and liberals on basic questions of economic policy, the deep disagreement over state paternalism will keep these two groups apart for the foreseeable future.


The audio of a recent Brookings event releasing the Public Religion Research Institute survey results is available here.

The full report from the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2013 American Values Survey is available here.

  • William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow. A former policy advisor to President Clinton and presidential candidates, Galston is an expert on domestic policy, political campaigns, and elections. His current research focuses on designing a new social contract and the implications of political polarization.

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