Here’s how it normally happens:

I’ll be enraged and upset about the latest violation of liberty, whether it be Uber drivers being arrested or revelations that the NSA targeted American citizens for being politically active. I’ll try to share my angst with a friend. You know, for solidarity and also for catharsis. I’ll explain the situation in great (perhaps too much) detail. My friend will listen patiently. By the end of the story, I’m nearly exploding with anger. I’ll finish by saying something like “I guess so much for our liberties, right? Just being trampled on right and left!” (I get very agitated with these things. Lots of hand gestures).

And my friend’s response is an overwhelming “meh.”

What happened? Why doesn’t she care? Doesn’t she know that liberty is at stake!



Fortunately for the future of liberty, there is an answer. My friend is neither selectively deaf, nor stupid. The problem is that, for a lot of people, liberty is just a word. It does not have the emotional and intellectual resonance that it does for many hard-core libertarians. It doesn’t have intrinsic meaning.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who specializes in ethics, talks about precisely this problem: how can one piece of morality be fundamental to some and completely incidental to others?

By creating and asking users to fill out questionnaires about what they valued (sample scenarios: accepting a TV you know to be stolen; slapping your father in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit), he was able to analyze people’s commitment to one of the six moral foundations: caring, fairness,loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty.

What he found is that libertarians are unique. They alone subscribe a high value to liberty, surpassing all other moral concerns. Most respondents, anywhere in the world, tend to have a blend of moral concerns; libertarians have only one.  For most people, liberty is associated with other concerns. For liberals, liberty is about protecting the underdog from oppression. For conservatives, liberty is more about loyalty to a local community, as opposed to the federal government. Only libertarians care about liberty for its own sake.

This doesn’t mean that liberty is doomed, although it does mean that  using liberty as the ultimate justification is like whistling to a stone, or trying to explain daffodils to a blind watersnake: pointless.

Instead, justifications for libertarians policies need to include other moral reasoning. For example, business regulations place an unfair burden on small business owners. Or, limiting economic freedom harms people by decreasing both their economic opportunities and their ability to self-realize as individuals. The first explanation appeals to ‘Fairness’ and the second appeals to ‘Caring.’

Throughout his book, Jonathan uses the metaphor of taste. Just as some people prefer salt, some people prefer equality. While this metaphor has some obvious problems (I don’t think ethics are merely personal preference), the metaphor is good in one sense: one’s palate can be educated. People can learn to value liberty. That takes time, though, and in the meantime, we need to be able to explain liberty in terms of the tastes non-libertarians have now: caring, equality, fairness, sanctity and authority.

If you want to hang out with only people who feel exactly as you do, then ignore Haidt’s research. But if you want to educate people, start from where they are. Prove that liberty is more than just a word: it’s a moral foundation that includes all the others.


  • Paul Tripp

    I fully agree. I like freedom, but everyone has a different idea of what it means and why it’s important. As a firm believer in evolution, I believe freedom is important to maintaining diversity (which keeps us adaptable and is good for our survival) while the capitalist free market is important to selectively benefit people who contribute more to society’s wellbeing than others (and selection is extremely important to keeping a species/population/society healthy and capable of surviving). Freedom in and of itself is nice and all, but survival is much more fundamentally important (hard to be free when you’re dead), so realizing the connection between protecting personal/social and economic freedom and our ability to survive was what really convinced me that libertarianism worked.

  • Rodney

    “The fact is that the average man’s love of liberty is nine-tenths imaginary, exactly like his love of sense, justice and truth. He is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. Liberty is not a thing for the great masses of men. It is the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority, like knowledge, courage and honor. It takes a special sort of man to understand and enjoy liberty — and he is usually an outlaw in democratic societies.” H.L. Mencken Baltimore Evening Sun February 12, 1923