Newsflash (or not)! Liberals are as morally righteous as their conservative counterparts. The liberal position on climate change and gay marriage is as morally-fueled as the conservative opposition to flag desecration and abortion rights. With that in mind, I think that libertarians should not be so quick to dismiss the seemingly incoherent stances of our opponents. The simple elegance of the NAP is not enough to sway the bleeding-hearted humanitarian or the gun-toting, family-values patriot. It fails to acknowledge the pull of some of the most widely-held moral intuitions that people have.
I’m not necessarily saying that we ditch the NAP. I am suggesting that we become more attuned to where our friends on the right and left are coming from. Discounting the “hindbrain” roots of politics is a serious impediment to making the libertarian philosophy more resonant with a broader audience. This is especially important for libertarians, since many of us tend be highly rationalistic. We need to cultivate a little more empathy. That way, we may gain more critical mass—success not guaranteed. I am talking about employing some political psychology.
The first step is to understand our own psychological proclivities and how they differ from those of conservatives and liberals. Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory is a useful framework for this. Moral intuitions, cross-culturally, seem to cluster around the following, five pillars:
Care/harm entails sensitivity to such issues as the plight of oppressed groups and animal welfare. The War on Poverty, the push for an increase in the minimum wage, and concerns about free-riding are examples of the Fairness foundation. Loyalty speaks to our tribalistic tendencies (e.g. patriotism or American Exceptionalism) and Authority explains why social conservatives promote religion as one of bedrocks of a functioning, orderly society. Purity/sanctity spans the gamut of “ickyness”- objects, behaviors or practices that may arouse our revulsion violate the Purity factor.
Americans who are self-described “conservatives” value all five pillars more or less equally. In contrast and predictably, self-described “liberals” place a premium on care/harm and fairness, but value a modicum of loyalty, authority, or sanctity.
What about libertarians? How do our moral intuitions align? Add liberty/oppression to the ensemble and, unsurprisingly, libertarians endorse liberty above the others. According to this study, libertarians privilege liberty as a “foremost guiding principle,” while endorsing the other five to a much lesser degree.
What we have is a disconnect between our strong, almost exclusive commitment to liberty and the more encompassing concerns of conservative and liberal audiences. This is our chief barrier in bringing people into the movement. We do not need to tweak or water down our message. But we should become better acquainted with the moral convictions of the left and right and not expect pure, rational argumentation to do all of the work. That is, at least, if we expect to do more than talk to empty rooms.