Maybe We’re in a ‘Libertarian Moment’ After All

A rare glimpse into the politics of very wealthy, politically influential people speaks volumes about the direction of national, state, and local policy—even if Americans as a whole don’t agree with it.

Senator Rand Paul visits Josephinum Academy in Chicago on Tuesday, April 22, 2014 to host a school-choice discussion.   Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Last week the New York Times Magazine published an article asking “Has the Libertarian Moment Finally Arrived?”  The basis of the argument, aside from libertarians, were the results of advocacy polls, opaque results from non-advocacy polls, and a kind of journalistic spidey sense that something’s happening here.

Longtime political observers, left and right, answered pretty definitively: No. The conservative National Review: no. Democrat Ed Kilgore, in both Talking Points Memo and the Washington Monthly: no and no. Republican David Frum: no. Jonathan Chait: no, the NYTM was “snookered.”

And the takedowns were pretty convincing. Frum noted that “every serious study of the political attitudes of voters under 30 has discovered them to be the most pro-government age group since the cohort that directly experienced the Great Depression.” Chait cited a Pew pollster, who said they “found little evidence of a surge of libertarian views in the US.” Henry Olsen, in the National Review, looked at how the putatively libertarian-leaning left in Silicon Valley voted overwhelmingly in favor of tax hikes.

They did a number on the hard evidence. But perhaps the author—Robert Draper, whose most recent book is an insider’s account from the House of Representatives—was on to something. A libertarian shift doesn’t have to show up in Pew polling to change the political scene… if it occurs among a very influential, very small demographic.

It reminded me of the work of Northwestern’s Benjamin Page, who, with Princeton’s Martin Gilens, is studying the political beliefs of the very wealthy, and the influence of those beliefs in American politics. Earlier this year Page and Gilens appeared on The Daily Show, which is admirably in the habit of inviting atypical talk-show guests, but not usually for papers published in academic journals.

But the paper’s pretty shocking. Shocking in the way that the boat going down in Titanic is shocking, but still:

The analysts found that when controlling for the power of economic elites and organized interest groups, the influence of ordinary Americans registers at a “non-significant, near-zero level.” The analysts further discovered that rich individuals and business-dominated interest groups dominate the policymaking process. The mass-based interest groups had minimal influence compared to the business-based interest groups.

It’s shocking not so much for the surprise but for how cold the water is.

That large-scale data-mining is just one part of Page’s work, though. A couple years ago he published the results of a pilot study about the specific political beliefs of wealthy individuals: “Wealthy Americans, Philanthrophy, and the Common Good.” If the interests of economic elites is driving public policy, what are those interests? Is it mere self-interest? If not, what’s their conception of the common good?

Page learned that the elite—in the case of his subjects, an average wealth of $14 million and a median of $7.5 million, “the wealthiest group yet studied systematically—volunteer quite a bit. They give a lot of money to charity, if a more modest sum when factored as a percentage of their wealth, but not a penurious proportion: eight percent of their income on average. They care about things that aren’t, for them, necessities, like public education. (The respondents were more likely both to volunteer for and donate to educational causes than any other.) Page and his co-authors conclude:

Our wealthy respondents express a great deal of concern about the common good. They consider many potential problems facing the country to be very important. They have serious ideas about how to address those problems. They tend to initiate many high-level political contacts (particularly with senators and representatives, their own and others’); and, as best we can tell, a majority of those contacts appear to concern issues of collective or common interest rather than narrow economic interests.

So they do have a sense of the common good, even if it sometimes diverges from what the commoners think is good. And, well, it looks pretty libertarian—and goes a long way towards explaining why certain policies are at the frontburner of government at all levels, and others aren’t.

In a separate, more recent paper, Page and two co-authors got into the specifics of their wealthy respondents’ political beliefs. And they’re pretty libertarian. Not drastically so—in terms of the rather extreme libertarian position that the government should do “nothing except provide national defense and police protection,” there were fewer than in the public at large, 19 percent versus 27 percent.

But otherwise, they’re considerably more libertarian:

They’re interested in spending more on domestic policies with more or less direct links to economic production and for cutting everything else, with defense spending way up on the list.

And while they’re in favor of increasing aid to education, they’re ambivalent about early-childhood education, and much more in favor of “market-based” education reforms:

The largest gaps between the public at large and the wealthy fell within the government’s role in the general individual welfare.

Their sample skewed Republican, but the authors found that self-identified Democrats in the sample were more economically conservative than their brethren overall, speculating that “it may be that these Democrats’ partisan attachments were grounded in social backgrounds and family histories, or in views about moral and social issues, rather than in economic policy preferences.”

And overall: “wealthy Americans are much less willing than others to provide broad educational opportunities… less willing to pay more taxes in order to provide health coverage for everyone… they express concern about economic inequality and favor somewhat more egalitarian wages than they perceive as presently existing, but—to a much greater extent than the general public—the wealthy oppose government action to redistribute income or wealth.”

The authors are working with a small sample size, as the wealthy are difficult, from a social-science perspective, to identify, locate, and convince to participate. It’s a provisional conclusion from an ongoing project. But it’s the best we have—and it aligns, across many political priorities, with the “libertarian moment” Draper identifies.




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