Is Public Opinion Becoming More Libertarian?

New York Times polling expert Nate Silver (who is no libertarian himself) summarizes some recent data suggesting that the public is becoming more libertarian:

Libertarianism has been touted as the wave of America’s political future for many years, generally with more enthusiasm than evidence. But there are some tangible signs that Americans’ attitudes are in fact moving in that direction.

Since 1993, CNN has regularly asked a pair of questions that touch on libertarian views of the economy and society:

Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?

Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?

A libertarian, someone who believes that the government is best when it governs least, would typically choose the first view in the first question and the second view in the second.

In the polls, the responses to both questions had been fairly steady for many years…..

But in CNN’s latest version of the poll, conducted earlier this month, the libertarian response to both questions reached all-time highs. Some 63 percent of respondents said government was doing too much — up from 61 percent in 2010 and 52 percent in 2008 — while 50 percent said government should not favor any particular set of values, up from 44 percent in 2010 and 41 percent in 2008. (It was the first time that answer won a plurality in CNN’s poll.)

Whether people are as libertarian-minded in practice as they might believe themselves to be when they answer survey questions is another matter. Still, there have been visible shifts in public opinion on a number of issues, ranging from increasing tolerance for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization on the one hand, to the skepticism over stimulus packages and the health-care overhaul on the other hand, that can be interpreted as a move toward more libertarian views.

Obviously, the vast majority of the public is not nearly as libertarian as most libertarian activists and intellectuals are. But it does seem to be more libertarian than the median voter of the recent past. Silver also cites the rise of the Tea Party movement as some indication of increasing libertarianism. While the movement undoubtedly includes numerous social conservatives, it has mostly focused on economic issues where libertarians and conservatives agree. Moreover, some survey data suggests that the libertarian contingent in the Tea Party is larger than usually supposed. I discuss some of the evidence in this article:

Although the majority of Tea Party supporters are self-described conservatives, the focus of the movement has so far been primarily on what may be seen as libertarian concerns. An April 2010 New York Times/CBS News poll found that seventy-eight percent of self-described Tea Party supporters believed that “economic issues” are the more important issues facing the country, compared to only fourteen percent who said “social issues” are more important.

Moreover, survey data suggests that many Tea Party supporters are more socially tolerant than expected. An exit poll conducted by Politico at a major April 2010 Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C. found that fifty-one percent of those surveyed believe that “Government should not promote any particular set of values,” while forty-six percent endorsed the more socially
conservative view that “Government should promote traditional family values in our society….”

The New York Times/CBS News survey of Tea Party supporters found that forty percent believe that Supreme Court’s decision protecting abortion rights in Roe v. Wade was a “good thing” and fifty-seven percent support either marriage rights (sixteen percent) or civil unions (forty-one percent) for gay couples.

I would be the last to claim that the public’s increasing libertarianism somehow “proves” that libertarianism is right. After all, I’ve often argued that widespread political ignorance is a serious problem (though increasing political knowledge does seem to make people relatively more libertarian on most issues than they would be otherwise). Public opinion polls are, at best, very weak evidence on the truth or falsehood of any ideology. They are, however, relevant to assessing its political prospects.