Scary Survey

by Don Boudreaux on October 27, 2006

in Politics

During this season when ghouls and monsters are out a-haunting, trying to trick some of us into treating others of us, my wife, Karol, earlier this week received a telephone call from someone conducting a survey.

This person asked Karol if she is more "conservative" or "liberal."

"Are those my only two choices?" Karol asked.


After confirming that by "conservative" the questioner meant ‘people who want government out of your pocketbook but in your bedroom’, and that by "liberal" the questioner meant ‘people who want government in your pocketbook but not in your bedroom’ — the summaries of these positions are in Karol’s words — my wife informed the questioner that she is neither conservative nor liberal.

I don’t know how closely this survey represents political surveys in general.  But if it’s generally the practice to classify survey respondents only as conservatives or liberals — and if politicians frequently take their cues from the results of such surveys — then there’s a bias against office seekers being anything other than "conservative" or "liberal."  Those persons who distrust government meddling in their pocketbooks and in their bedrooms aren’t heard — they seem to be further out on the fringes than they really are.

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cpurick October 27, 2006 at 5:39 pm

On a related note, it bothers me when people describe themselves as "fiscally conservative" or "socially liberal." Those terms are backwards.

A person is either authoritarian or libertarian with respect to a given policy. Libertarians are not "fiscally conservative" and "socially liberal," they are fiscally and socially libertarian. Conservatives are fiscal libertarians and social authoritarians, while liberals are fiscally authoritarian and socially libertarian.

This applies when someone comments on my values as well, calling me conservative: Sure, I share their moral preferences and their desire to impose them on others, except that I don't believe the government is an effective, constructive, or legitimate tool for imposing them. That's the province of a voluntary society.

Michael Sullivan October 27, 2006 at 5:41 pm

It's been that way (or something similar) since I've been politically aware. We've split into two sides, one that advocates civil and personal liberty, and another that advocates economic liberty.

Although in practice, neither side that we can actually vote for actually seems to advocate economic liberty except in a spotty way.

Those who want liberty in all forms, even those who are somewhat more moderate about it than the libertarian, are completely disenfranchised by the current system. It was that way in the 70s, 80s and 90s as well.

The worst part is that both sides appeals to the center have almost always involved compromising with the other side's desire for more government control, rather than less. I.e., democrats get all happy about the drug war and the military to appeal to "conservatives" but heaven forfend reducing spending on a massive scale. Similarly, we get prescription drug programs and other socialist nonsense from Republicans appealing to liberals, but never is there any widespread pushback for those who would legislate morality.

It's enough to make a liberty loving fool cry.

lowcountryjoe October 27, 2006 at 5:59 pm

Of course, there are those "Conservatives" that prefer to be in your pocket AND in your bedroom. And these are the people whom have the most sway at the polls; the so-called "down-the-middle" types whom the conservatives cling to in order to maintain the majority. If today's "progressives" could ever embrace the market — something that would actually be progressive AND liberal — then I wonder what would that do to/for the current political climate in America.

Brad October 27, 2006 at 6:41 pm

Libertarians lose it at the requirements analysis phase. For example, the challenge is not to end Social Security tomorrow. That is a non-starter. The challenge is make the situation a whole lot better for the future. A simple, "we are not going to change it for people XX and older" at the beginning of a libertarian proposal would shut up all but the die-hard socialists and the terminally ignorant. How about for 10 years, we libertarians decide to be happy with making things better, not insisting on them being perfect?

Another thing, we should just call ourselves moderates. Point out how we're not liberal and not conservative, so we must be moderate, middle of the road. Divide and conquer and all that…

Kevin Nowell October 27, 2006 at 9:42 pm

I love those surveys. I had one call me the other day.

Do you support Harold Ford Jr. or Bob Corker in the race for U.S. Senate?

Do you support John Greene or John Duncan in the race for the U.S. House of Representatives?

Do you support Phil Bredesen or Jim Bryson in the race for Governor of Tennessee?

Do you consider yourself a Republican or a Democrat?

tarran October 28, 2006 at 9:09 am

One thing I want to add.

The Republicans are not economically liberal. They are mercantilists, who in essence, want to force people to support certain favoured industries and businesses. They do this throguh violence at home (subsidies, tarrifs and taxes), and violence abroad (bombarding Tokyo Harbor to force Japan to open up her markets for imports, Annexing Hawaii etc). Their philosophy was the one Adam Smith was attacking when he wrote Wealth of Nations.

At one time the Democrats were the true believers in economic freedom. then they went socialist, making the Republicans look positively liberal in comparison. But the Republicans are not fans of economic freedom in any meaningful sense.

cpurick October 28, 2006 at 9:52 am

tarran — Considering how many explanations there could be for Republican policy, that one smells a little like a conspiracy theory. Simple nationalism would explain all that with a lot less cynicism.

tarran October 28, 2006 at 11:20 am


It's not some silly revisionist theory. The participants did not conspire secretly but trumpeted their philosophy in letters, books and editorials. It's a well established, historical fact.

After the U.S. seceded from English rule, several of the secessionist leaders who openly advocated for mercantilism pushed for the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and formed the Federalist Party.

When the Federalist party self-destructed a few decades later, its adherents became the driving force behind the Whig Party. If you read Henry Clay (the foremost Whig theorist) you will find that his ideas are absolutely mercantilist.

The Whigs eventually self destructed, but many influential Whig politicians ended up allying with other minor parties to form the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln himself campaigned purely and openly on a platform adopting Henry Clay's ideas.

The Republicans have been pretty consistent only modifying their positions in small ways to make themselves more electable, but fundamentally sticking to mercantilist principles.

Incidentally, Mercantilism is a form of nationalism. Back when money was gold, the mercantilist sought to have gold flowing into a country, and goods flowing out. They wanted local industries protected from foreign competition, and subsidies to build ports, canals and roads. They view the nation as the major economic unit.

It's no accident that Adam Smith chose to title his book, "the Wealth of Nations". He was trying to convince those who advocated mercantilism out of nationalism that they were hooking their wagon to the wrong horse.

liberty October 28, 2006 at 12:25 pm

Yes, this is annoying. When things are framed this way it reenforces this misunderstanding of classical liberalism and forces a false distinction similar to the European idea of fascism vs. socialism. In truth America was neither and was classically liberal — and we can bring it back there if we force the debate onto the right track, because many Americans are libertarian at heart – with a frontier independence & freedom driven philosophy.

Ken Willis October 28, 2006 at 12:42 pm

I'm a proud conservative and I don't have the slightest interest in going into anyone's bedroom, and neither does any elected conservative that I can think of. Simply because one may think it wrong that Planned Parenthood can give your 13-year daughter an abortion without telling you about it is not trying to get into your bedroom.

Merely wanting to allow the gazillions of couples who desperately seek a child to adopt to try to persuade a pregnant teenager to allow them to give her baby a loving home, is not trying to get into anyone's bedroom.

The simple belief that unrestricted abortion on demand up to one second before birth presents a moral question, is not trying to get into anyone's bedroom.

Credible research shows that a majority of Americans believe that some restrictions on abortion, especially parental notification, are warranted. The original Roe v. Wade held that restrictions could be imposed after the first trimester.

The mantra that conservatives want to get into people's bedrooms is a load of crap, and I for one am damn sick of hearing it.

liberty October 28, 2006 at 1:24 pm

well, laws against homosexual acts would be getting into someone's bedroom; laws against abortion – depending on the constitutional justification – may be just protecting the rights of the unborn human.

Kent Gatewood October 28, 2006 at 1:47 pm

terran–given the size of the American trade deficit, what's not getting in? Is there $50 billion or $2 trillion in trade that isn't coming to America because of barriers?

As to encouraging exports and restricting imports isn't China more mercantilist than America?

lowcountryjoe October 28, 2006 at 2:24 pm

Whatcha talkin’ ‘bout, Willis? Because it really does seem that many Conservatives disdain private choices made by individuals on so-called morality grounds. Aside from the issue of terminating the life of a fetus – assuming one’s beliefs lead them to conclude that there really is a life present – there are other issues where Conservatives have a seemingly dubious track record at preferring government regulation. Here are some Conservative causes that I can think of off the top of my head that only deal with so-called morality and in which Conservatives prefer regulation by the state:

- Denial of non-prescription drug usage by adults
- Denial of an individual’s decision(s) to terminate one’s life…even when the life is terminally ill or in a state of irreparable brain damage.
- Disdain for consensual homosexual activity…enough to advocate for laws against the behavior or support for such laws staying on the books [homosexual marriage being a different matter entirely do to the Social Security survivor benefits at stake and what other slippery-sloped marriages that may become fashionable simply to have access to the survivor benefits].
- The reluctance to legalize gambling and prostitution even though these activities flourish and generally produce no direct disutility for those who do not engage in such activities.
- Advocacy to outright replace evolutionary theory in public schools with creationism – a school of thought that is really best taught inside the home and at places of worship and not on the public’s dime…unless, of course, you want the public to start taxing churches on the revenue that the receive from their parishioner’s tithes.
- Advocacy for many of the “blue laws” that are seen throughout many of the counties – typically in the southern states – through the [more,] United [through reckless spending and power-grabbing, than they should be] States of America. But, at least the stupidity in these instances are developed at the most appropriate level of government possible…even though you wouldn’t catch me wanting to be a resident in such a county.

And, of course, as I wrote earlier, there are those Conservatives that really don’t much care for markets and capitalism either. What are they offering in terms of a limited-government philosophy [think populist like Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage, Pat Buchanan, Sean Hannity, and a host of others]? Now, granted, there are so-called Conservatives who embrace a limited government in most all of its scopes but they are quite the exception rather than the rule.

Please feel free to correct me where I have erred!

cpurick October 28, 2006 at 2:49 pm

"certain favoured industries and businesses"

Doesn't nationalist when you put it that way, though I otherwise agree.

I'm not trying to defend Republicans, but I don't think they're inherently "corrupt" as much as misguided.

I also agree with Ken that Republicans are not as interested in getting the government into people's bedrooms as liberals portray them to be.

Kevin B October 28, 2006 at 4:09 pm

Ken Willis,

My computer is in my bedroom. Understand?

Ray G. October 29, 2006 at 10:56 am

The typical non-party man conservative wants govt out of their pocket books and bedrooms.

The typical liberal wants the government to pretty much be into everything.

Thus we have, in the abstract, authoritarian versus libertarian. Conservatives tend to agree more with the ideals of classical liberalism, and liberals tend towards authoritarian ideals.

I think that much is beyond debate.

The average conservative does not hate gays, but they quickly balk at the idea of granting homosexuals minority status on a par with blacks or hispanics.

This kind of resistance gives fuel to the liberals' claims that conservatives want to regulate the bedroom.

The typical liberal will gladly give the govt whatever power is necessary to achieve a goal it deems worthy.

And of course most of the population is vulnerable to hype, and buying into whatever the populist notion of the day might be.

Adrasteia October 29, 2006 at 11:18 am

Thus we have, in the abstract, authoritarian versus libertarian. Conservatives tend to agree more with the ideals of classical liberalism, and liberals tend towards authoritarian ideals.

I think that much is beyond debate.

Yeah, there's a good reason for that. After you've repeated the exact same mantra for the 1000th time we've given up trying to convince you that it isn't that simple and just started ignoring you.

hamilton October 29, 2006 at 8:19 pm

As somebody who did survey research for a living, I can tell you why we don't bother asking about libertarians.

There aren't enough of you. You're simply not that interesting of a voting bloc. And you're probably not going to vote anyway, so those who pay for surveys are not particularly concerned with your opinions.

cpurick October 29, 2006 at 9:42 pm

Funny, I've always found that Republican constituents tend agree most closely with libertarian ideals. Perhaps that's why Republican politicians talk like libertarians when they campaign.

colson October 30, 2006 at 12:08 am

hamilton – maybe it isn't a lack of interest but questions that tend to pigeonhole a response out of those who are bieng polled. But considering any poll where there is no empirical dependency on the data, you will get only one type of response: either shock and awe or ho-hum. Because polling and reporting on reality versus a questionable subset of reality (as most media does) doesn't make for great news – (but it does seem to make for great legislation!), media and pollsters often only offers what will and can sell.

Then again, the largest set of swing voters are those who tend to be libertarian-minded. So who cares about them until the swing vote counts. Then the Republicans and (less-so) Democrats come a-callin'.

On another note, it is interesting to see in this thread how each person's viewpoint of conservativism is slightly varied from the other. I think this is the great schism within the Republican party going on right now – no one is sure of what the party really stands for anymore. Sadly, they are looking more and more like the Democrats every day. I think the libertarian caucus will hold out for a bit longer but if they get fed up, there's going to be some interesting things going on.

minarchy November 1, 2006 at 2:48 pm

Hamilton, there aren't enough of us? How can you know with surveys like that? The Cato instutute consistantly finds that when you ask opinions on issues instead of asking their ideology you find significantly more libertarians (and populists, for that matter) and fewer conservatives and liberals.
Not going to vote? I'm not really sure where this comes from at all. We are certainly not as likely to vote for candidtates which appeal to the middle, if that's what you mean. The problem is the perpetuation in the media and even in classrooms (I have to take a survey every year for my Poli Sci classes, there are no options for libertarian, so I have to say "Don't Know"!) keeps it so that most libertarians think they are conservatives or liberals.

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