A common theme of discussion around libertarian circles lately has been the organic growth of our ideas in society and especially among college students. Year after year, we see more students not only embracing these ideas but becoming actively involved in the student movement for liberty. The growth of our International Students For Liberty Conference from 100 students in 2008 to over 1000 in 2012 is one data point to support that claim, along with the growth of every other program we run. We have tried to figure out how powerful the trend is and where it is coming from, but those conversations have largely been based on idle speculation.
But over the past year, two academic studies have been published that examine these trends and confirm that libertarianism is indeed on the rise, especially among the youth.
“The American Freshman” is an annual study conducted by The Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Looking at data on college freshmen across the country, the study concludes that student attitudes are becoming more liberal. However, if you dig down into the data, you see that the areas that are moving more liberal are mainly social issues such as supporting same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana.
Another study was focused more narrowly on the topic of “Understanding Libertarian Morality,” conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California, UC Irvine, and the University of Virginia. It is a fascinating psychological study of what makes libertarians tick. Some of the findings are predictable (we value liberty above other values— how shocking!), but others reach deeper and try to determine where those moral preferences originate. I strongly suggest giving it a read. While the study itself is valuable, I am more impressed by the mere fact that it was conducted at all. The researchers looked at general social/phychological data over time and realized a trend was developing. As they state in the opening, “Libertarians are an increasingly prominent ideological group in U.S. politics, yet they have been largely unstudied.” They go on, too:
Political and social psychologists often study ideology on a unidimensional liberal conservative spectrum, but the real world is clearly more complex. As psychologists advance in studying the personality traits associated with liberalism and conservatism, our findings confirm the value of this approach and extend its reach by describing a heretofore neglected yet politically important group – libertarians.
I see these studies as positive indicators that our previously anecdotal observations are accurate. That liberty is indeed becoming more popular. Coming from two different directions, these researchers both note that libertarinism is growing. They looked at the numbers and saw strong social trends, changes in beliefs and demographics worthy of further study.
Of course, not everyone sees this as a positive development. Back in February Patrick J. Deneen commented on the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus blog regarding the UCLA Study. His fear: “This conclusion, I would submit, ought to be a source of deep concern for those who care about the future of the American polity.” Not to sound overly dismissive, but his concerns are not particularly new coming from conservatives. In his own words, “What kinds of citizens will these people grow up to be? What kinds of parents and what kinds of neighbors? They will likely be willing to leave other people alone—but will they care about others? Will they love? Will they serve? Will they sacrifice?” There is a lot to respond to there (such as serve and sacrifice to whom? The state? No thank you!), but I will leave that to others and simply enjoy watching our intellectual opponents sweat.
In summary, multiple academics are studying the libertarian phenomenon and finding that we are growing in number. I know of other similar studies that will be published soon as well. This growth is being fueled by a variety of factors and social trends, and this worries conservatives. Wonderful. It is further proof that we are watching the growth of the most libertarian generation yet, a trend that may well reshape the political landscape of the world.