Libertarianism and psychological biases

So, thanks to Rand Paul, you’ve noticed I’ve had a good time picking on libertarians lately.  Big Stve had a comment on my last post on the matter that got me thinking.  The comment:

Amazed that a libertarian argument would be playing at all today after the past two years of market failure: the financial sector, the housing industry, the car industry, the oil industry with BP’s mess, etc.

The thing is, I realized that I’m not the least bit amazed, and I think that a strong strain of libertarianism is something we will always have with us, and I got to thinking why.  I think libertarian beliefs, though not particularly politically successful, will always have a prominent place because of psychological biases in how we see the world.  Most prominently, the “self-serving bias.”  This bias essentially holds that when we succeed, we attribute our success to our own personal ablitities (i.e., dispositional factors), but attribute our failures to external factors beyond our control.  Classic example: you got an A on the math test because you’re really smart, but a D on the physics test because the teacher was mean and you weren’t really feeling all that well that day.

So, how does this relate to libertarianism.  Well, libertarianism is largely predicated that individuals are (near) fully in control of their own destinies, and should just be rewarded and punished accordingly, with little to no interference from government.  Furthermore, we can throw in the fundamental attribution error, which holds that persons tend to over-value dispositional factors and under-value external context in explaining others actions.  E.g,. the newly-fired employee surely lost their job through personal failings, rather than larger macro-economic factors beyond their control.  Heck, we can even throw in the just world bias, in which we like to assume that bad things do not happen to good people, i.e., bad things happening must be deserved.  (Also, in comments, Dave Cavazos noted the libertarian lack of appreciation for the role of institutions, which would surely fit in with these biases).

Put these all together, and you are plenty inclined to end up with a libertarian political philosophy.  Thus libertarians are in all likelihood who see their successes in life as entirely self-determined and are loath to let the weakness of others drag them down.  If some smart political psychologists haven’t already been on top of this (and I suspect John Jost has) I imagine one can find some pretty substantial correlation between the degree to which an individual is susceptible to these biases and their political orientation.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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