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3 Reasons It’s Not Libertarians Making Americans Unhappy


It’s official: the people of Switzerland and Scandinavia are still happier than everyone else, according to the “World Happiness Report 2015,” a 172-page analysis by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Other countries toasting in the top 10 are Canada (No. 5), the Netherlands (No. 7), New Zealand (No. 9), and Australia (No. 10). Also happier than Americans are conflict-embroiled Israel, Austria, Cost Rica, and Mexico. (Yes, Mexico; immigrants, take note.)

That pegs the United States as the fifteenth-happiest nation, up from seventeenth in 2013. Americans frowning at such modest progress may console themselves that they fared better these last two years than countries they elbowed out. (The United Arab Emirates dropped six places, Panama ten.) But why exactly is the grass greener in these predominantly Euro-centric utopias? Why is nothing rotten in the state of Denmark (No. 3)?

Blame Libertarians

The report scores national happiness according to six factors. In order of influence, these are gross domestic product per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life decisions, generosity, and absence of corruption (p. 6).

Because (according to the 2013 report, p. 92) America’s happiness has plateaued despite tripling her per-capita income in the last decade, co-editor Jeffrey Sachs ties American esprit de corps to her fading “social capital,” a “broad concept” that includes a society’s “trust, social support networks, and pro-sociality.”

While few can disagree (although many have tried) that “hyper-commercialism has failed as an ethic of happiness,” a truth resounding through the ancient sages, Sachs’s analysis in Chapter 8 of the new report, “Investing in Social Capital,” loses luster when positing that free-markets in general and libertarians in particular are siphoning off America’s social capital:

[T]he US has experienced a sharp decline in measures of social capital since 1980, even as other societies have held their own in social capital and trust. Why has the US deteriorated? The answers seem to be related to a rapidly widening inequality of income, a shift of politics towards free-market libertarian approaches…. (p. 160)

Of libertarians themselves, referencing a study he implicitly endorses, Sachs writes:

The argument, at the core, is that libertarians (who generally oppose government redistribution of income and public investments) have distinctive personality traits including low levels of empathetic concern; low extraversion and agreeableness; low emotional reactance to others; and weaker feelings of love towards family, friends, and generic others. The result is a high degree of individualism that is then ‘moralized’ into a moral code that puts personal liberty ahead of other moral standards such as compassion for others. (p. 158-159)

Or, crudely: compared to liberals and even conservatives, libertarians are emotional cavemen and disagreeable introverts who lack empathy, love their parents a little less, fancy themselves lone wolves, and will readily trade the pack for a sheep.

It is indeed hard to imagine constructing a flourishing society from such ogres. These fiends seem more deluded ubermensch than man—like Raskolnikov stepping over society’s rules, or Meursault failing to register them. In fact, with such a view of libertarians, it would be hard not to hang the albatross around their necks for social deficits of any ilk.

Which suggests that this is what happened: premising that libertarians are anti-social, thus provoking the conclusion that libertarians are anti-social. But are they anti-social? Eschewing the public trust, social networks, and so forth? If libertarians are at the helm of America’s malaise, the “World Happiness Report” makes more than one logical leap to tell us why.

Leap 1: Libertarian Morality Is More Exclusive Than Liberal Morality

One study Sachs leans on identifies libertarian morality as focusing on liberty “to the exclusion of other moral concerns.” Certainly, they care more about lifestyle liberty and economic liberty than either liberals or conservatives. Take out their top two, and you won’t find anything libertarians care about more. (Did you catch the truism?)

Figure 1. Libertarians have weaker intuitions about most moral concerns, but stronger intuitions about liberty.


Iyer R, Koleva S, Graham J, Ditto P, Haidt J (2012) “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians.”

This is hardly stable ground. The Iyer graph shows that liberal morality weights lifestyle liberty, fairness, and harm/care more heavily than other values—to the exclusion, if you will, of economic liberty, ingroup/loyalty, fairness/reciprocity, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Take out their top three, and you won’t find anything liberals care about more. (True. Ism.)

So Sachs makes too much of the exclusivity claim—who cares?

Well, Sachs should, and so might the Huffington Post, which in 2012 published an article of his called “Libertarian Illusions,” whose argument against three libertarian splinters rests on this assertion: “the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values.”

Maybe. But at the going rate, probably no more so than liberal ideology devalues free markets—which, by the way, boost per-capita gross domestic product, the “World Happiness Report’s” leading determinant.

Leap 2: Personality Drives Values, Not Vice Versa

Granting that libertarians do register less concern for non-liberty-oriented moral values: the report and study favor causal relationships among (in sequence) personality, morality, and ideology. For example, my lack of empathy causes me to value liberty over fairness, so (naturally) I voted for Ron Paul.

But the study Sachs leans on surveys current libertarians—so it is doubtful whether or how the study differentiates between libertarians who value liberty because of birth, or at least breeding, as opposed to those who value liberty because doing so logically follows from a rational paradigm they once were persuaded to adopt.

Whatever reason libertarians are so gung ho about their liberty, and so prickly toward those who threaten it, is due to a rational process rather than mere disposition.

This is problematic because libertarians, the study agrees, are more prone than liberals or conservatives to base their values on systematic reasoning. But the system being reasoned with is an ideology, not set of personality traits, suggesting that whatever reason libertarians are so gung ho about their liberty, and so prickly toward those who threaten it, is due to a rational process rather than mere disposition.

So libertarians are prickly, as Sachs initially assumes. Does it really matter why?

Again, it should to Sachs. It is much easier to trivialize or dismiss the arguments of someone whose views you believe stem more from biology and sociology than from political science and moral philosophy. The better one argues against you, the louder you can retort, “You are naturally predisposed to believe that,” rather than performing the uncomfortable and often threatening feat of judging opposing arguments on their merits. But of course only the latter can build social trust (a determinant of happiness).

Besides, it seems unlikely that politically minded people are personalities meandering, via morals, towards an ideology to call home. It seems more likely that worldviews (shaped through countless direct and indirect persuasive opportunities—breeding, coaching, training, observation, study, and argument) determine values, which in turn shape (and often transform) personalities.

Leap 3: A High Emphasis on Liberty Excludes Other Values

But isn’t the bottom line here that libertarians are probably dragging down America’s happiness quotient by valuing liberty at the expense of other values—even if liberals do it too, and even if ideology, not personality, makes them do it?

One would think. But the report circumvents the possibility that a libertarian emphasis on liberty contains, rather than exists separate from, other moral concerns. This is a curious omission by Sachs, considering that the Iyer study readily concedes this point (before, more curiously, moving on without exploration):

Respecting the autonomy of others may be seen as a way to promote the welfare of individuals, consistent with liberal ideas about positive liberty, rather than as an independent moral construct. … Libertarians may fear that the moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives … are claims that can be used to trample upon individual rights — libertarians’ sacred value….

In other words, perhaps libertarians view their morals and ideology as the surest path not only to their own happiness, but to the happiness of others—even those who disagree with them. In this respect they are no different from liberals or conservatives.

In disparaging libertarians for “hold[ing] that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes” so that “compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect … all are to take a back seat,” Sachs implies that he would agree with a statement such as this: “I should give up some of my liberty in order to take on more compassion or justice.” This statement’s problems, though, are (i) its categorical fallacy—that compassion and justice are somehow opposed to liberty, and (ii) its misunderstanding of compassion and justice as being possible apart from liberty. (We mean justice as just actions; justice as a virtue is a priori and thus immaterial to liberty.)

The truth is that liberty actually preserves the possibility of all the other values Sachs would have us prefer. If we keep them in the backseat, it is only because they cannot drive. There are terrific arguments for (say) giving up one’s things so others may have them. But doing so is hardly the same as giving up the right to those things. Without the right to keep what is given, the gift becomes a tax. If you must redistribute wealth with taxes, so be it (I would fight harder, but I am not a libertarian)—just do not brand those taxes as altruism.

Where Libertarians Are Just Sad

Unfortunately for those seeking happiness by reading Ayn Rand, Sachs does well to criticize the particular strand of libertarianism extolled by the record-breaking seller that is as masterful a work of propaganda as it is an artistic failure. It is hard to gauge how vicariously Rand was living through some of her darker passages, like the one in which she sends a smoking train filled with non-libertarians into a tunnel to suffocate. Here is where Jason Lee Steorts wrote in National Review, “But that isn’t why I stopped reading. I stopped because Rand thinks they deserve it.” Sachs’s epitaph suffices: “This view is the opposite of Christian charity and Buddhist compassion, according to which moral worth is achieved by helping others.”

For any libertarians out there truly eager to bury liberals in the heart of the Rockies, I can make no defense. But I hope Sachs will be consoled, as I am, that having taught this tome twice, I have yet to meet a libertarian (including one director of the Objectivist Center) who defended its every page. Libertarians tend to extol older documents.

In fact, while the Iyer study explains that libertarianism is yoked to the ideologies of America’s founding fathers, an earlier chapter of the “World Happiness Report” describes (p. 135) social capital as the “public trust,” faith in one’s government in society. In forming our republic, the founding fathers displayed immense public trust, buttressed by their limitation of governmental power, lest the people should come to value this institution of the general welfare and social support to the exclusion of valuing liberty.