American Culture

Libertarians, engineers, and climate disruption denial: part 1 – libertarians

National Park Service/Will Elder

National Park Service/Will Elder

Part One of a series

Industrial climate disruption, aka climate change or global warming, is perhaps the most important issue that humanity has ever faced. Scientists have concluded based on an overwhelming amount of data and over a century of well established and verified science that humanity has probably never faced the kind of disruptions to our world that are coming as a result of our emissions of greenhouse gases. But there is small and vocal minority of people who reject the science and data underlying this conclusion, and in the United States those deniers have successfully convinced the bulk of the Republican party to act as if that science is wrong and doesn’t matter.

Ever since I encountered my first example of a climate disruption denier I’ve wondered what kind of person could deny the reality that is industrial climate disruption. Over the years of writing on climate, however, it became clear that there were two groups of people who made up the majority of the serious deniers – libertarians and engineers of various stripes. As an electrical engineer myself, however, I didn’t understand how individuals trained in mathematics, science, and logic could fail to see glaring scientific, mathematical, physical, or logical flaws in their own arguments. Eventually, though, something clicked: most of the engineers I work with today and have worked with since earning my MSEE are either libertarians themselves or have some libertarian leanings.

This is the first part of a series of posts exploring the personality traits and moral values of libertarians, engineers, and the relationship of those traits and values to the denial of industrial climate disruption.

Libertarians: a distinct personality profile and moral ideal

If you think about the stereotypical traits we tend to attribute to libertarians – pro-small government, pro-property rights, anti-regulation, and anti-taxes, to name a few – it makes some logical sense that they’d be more inclined to reject the science supporting climate disruption. After all, if climate disruption requires government intervention, higher taxes, and restricts what a libertarian can do with his property, then he’d naturally oppose those types of solutions. But that resistance doesn’t explain why libertarians oppose the science itself instead of simply opposing policies that might be implemented as a result of the science.

In August, 2012, several researchers studying the psychology of political ideology released the results of three psychological studies they had performed into the values and personality traits of self-identified libertarians. The researchers compared the self-identified libertarians to self-identified liberals and conservatives and then compared and contrasted their values and personality traits. This paper (hereafter Iyer et al) concluded that libertarians were not merely a point on the traditional liberal/conservative values scale, but rather that libertarianism represented a third, unique approach that is distinct from both liberal and conservative values.

This paper served as the starting point for my investigation into why so many libertarians deny the reality of industrial climate disruption. But before we can understand their denial, we must first understand exactly what personality traits libertarians have and what they value.

Liberty as the only moral good

According to Iyer et al, libertarians really have only a single moral good – freedom from restrictions on their actions, or what Iyer et al call “negative” liberty. This differs from the more common “positive” liberty in that positive liberty means having the opportunity to pursue one’s own interests. In terms that many Americans are familiar with, the right to petition the government for redress of grievances described in the First Amendment of the US Constitution is a form of positive liberty, while having the freedom to do anything you want so long as it doesn’t interfere with the right of others to do the same is a form of negative liberty.

But Iyer et al indicate that this moral good is not well measured by traditional studies of morality, writing that “standard morality scales… do a poor job of measuring libertarian values” and that “if liberty is included as a moral value, libertarians are not amoral.” The flip side of this statement, however, means that libertarians do not share a common moral framework with either liberals or conservatives.

The data in Iyer et al demonstrate that libertarians have a similar profile (the relative order of importance of various values) to liberals on one test of moral values, the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ). Specifically, libertarians rate fairness highest, followed by harm, and both groups value authority and purity the least. But Iyer et al indicates that libertarians don’t think about fairness and harm in the same ways that liberals do – harm to a liberal often means injury to someone else, while harm to a libertarian means injury to the libertarian by others. Conservatives valued authority and being associated with the “in” group the most, above both harm and fairness.

This pattern of valuing the welfare of others less than one’s own welfare was again seen in the data from the Schwartz Values Scale. Given there are ten different values in this scale (instead of the five in the MFQ), there were more differences between libertarians, liberals, and conservatives. While all three groups valued self-direction the highest, libertarians valued it more than liberals and far more than conservatives. Libertarians valued achievement just after self-direction and over all the other values (benevolence, conformity, hedonism, power, security, stimulation, tradition, or universalism). According to Iyer et al, the libertarian profile looks “somewhat like liberals,” but with lower value placed on benevolence and universalism, the two Schwartz values that relate to caring about the welfare of others.

When Iyer et al looked at ethical positions, they found that libertarians were more likely to consider ethics “situational” instead of universal. This means that libertarians are more likely to feel that what is ethically acceptable varies from one situation to another. Iyer et al suggest that this is because libertarians “live in a world where traditional moral concerns (e.g. altruism, respect for authority) are not assigned much importance.” This is supported by the original research upon which Iyer et al’s survey was based, which found that people with ethical profiles like those of libertarians

‘reject moral rules’ and ‘base moral judgements on personal feelings about the action and the setting.’

Iyer et al further investigated the low valuation libertarians of traditional authority with a questionnaire that directly measures “the extent to which people are emotionally resistant to restrictions on their behavioral freedom and to the advice and influence of others.” Conservatives were the least resistant, followed by liberals. Libertarians were the most resistant to accepting restrictions on their behavior and even to listening to the expert opinions of others.

When asked specifically about their interest in economic and lifestyle liberty, libertarians valued both types of liberty the highest, well over either liberals (who valued lifestyle over economic liberty) or conservatives (who valued economic over lifestyle liberty). In this case, Iyer et al defined “economic liberty” as the right of successful people to “enjoy their wealth as they see fit” and “lifestyle liberty” as the right of everyone to “be as free as they choose” within the limitation that their freedom not infringe upon others.

The Iyer et al studies conclusively demonstrated that the single libertarian moral good of liberty, specifically “negative” liberty, is quite different from the morals of either liberals or conservatives. This single moral good is the driving factor from which all other libertarian values are derived.

The rational ethos of libertarianism

Beyond the moral good of liberty that libertarians espouse, Iyer et al found that they also feel a greater need to be rational than, and to perceive themselves as more rational than, either liberals or conservatives.

When Iyer et al looked at the Big 5 personality traits (an alternative method of determining personality to Myers-Briggs personality types) of libertarians, they found that libertarians were largely open to new experiences, felt a strong need to think about things, and were more introverted than either liberals or conservatives. In more common Myers-Briggs terms, libertarians have an INTx profile, where the “x” could be either judging or perceiving (J/P).

When it came to difficult moral choices, libertarians’ need to be rational about their choices produced utilitarian results. For example, libertarians were more willing to sacrifice one person to save many than either liberals or conservatives, with conservatives being the least willing to logically reason out the need for one to die so many could live.

When faced with questions that had two different answers, one of which was correct and another that was intuitive, Iyer et al found that libertarians were more likely than either liberals or conservatives to choose the correct answer. Iyer et al was careful to point out that this result does not necessarily mean that libertarians are smarter than liberals or conservatives, only that libertarians are mentally better at suppressing the intuitive reflex.

Finally, Iyer et al also found that libertarians needed to formulate their opinions based on arguments and data instead of on “peripheral cues, such as how attractive or credible a speaker is.” Again, libertarians had a slightly greater need to think about things than liberals and a moderately greater need than conservatives.

In every case that Iyer et al looked at, libertarians needed to think more about things before forming judgements, usually somewhat more than liberals and much more than conservatives. One possibility for why this is could be that libertarians are psychologically more comfortable with systems that have black and white rules than they are with people who only come in shades of gray.

Systemizing over empathizing

Iyer et al looked specifically at the preference of libertarians for systemizing or empathizing. According to Iyer et al, the creators of this particular personality scale define systemizing as “the drive to analyze the variables in a system, and to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of the system.” Empathizing, on the other hand, is defined as “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion.” Given that libertarians tend to be introverts who value being left alone to do as they please, it’s reasonable to expect that libertarians would also prefer systemizing more and empathizing less than liberals or conservatives.

What surprised Iyer et al was just how strongly libertarians are systemizers. While liberals valued empathizing more than systemizing, and conservatives valued both about the same (with a slight emphasis on empathizing), libertarians valued systemizing more than empathizing, and nearly as much as liberals valued empathizing.

This result describes what Iyer et al and others call a fundamentally “male” mental process, as opposed to the “female” liberal mental process of empathizing. But there’s a problem with this characterization, namely that libertarians are overwhelmingly male – 79.6% in Iyer et al and 67% in polls of the United States as a whole. Since correlation is not causation, it’s not possible to know with the data from the Iyer et al study whether this dominant systemizing mental process is because so many libertarians are men, or whether men are more likely to be attracted to libertarianism because it’s dominant mental process is systemization.

Independent and solitary

Iyer et al found that libertarians are weak empathizers, have a strong need for rationality over emotion, and value their independence. These traits come together in a number of ways to describe how libertarians relate, or perhaps fail to relate, to other people.

One of the Big 5 personality traits that Iyer et al looked at is extraversion, and a low score means that you’re more introverted than extraverted. Libertarians were more introverted than either liberals or conservatives, who were roughly equal with each other. When asked about how they empathized with others, libertarians were the only group to use the “put yourself in their shoes” type of empathizing more than any other type. Not only that, but libertarians empathized with others’ personal distress the least of all.

Iyer et al also compared libertarians’ relative level of individualism and collectivism to both liberals and conservatives. As expected, libertarians valued both competitive, hierarchical individualism and peer-to-peer, horizontal individualism more than either liberals or conservatives and more than either form of collectivism. Libertarians valued peer-to-peer collectivism, described in Iyer et al as characteristic of an egalitarian attitude, the least and moderately lower than either liberals or conservatives.

Libertarians and conservatives had similar profiles in the Iyer et al data for how much each group identified with the rest of humanity (as broken down into community, country, and the world). Both groups identified the most with their country, followed by their community, and lastly with the rest of the world. Liberals, on the other hand, identified with the world first, then community, and lastly their country. But libertarians identified the least with community and country, and only barely more with the rest of the world than conservatives did. Iyer et al wrote that this finding was “consistent with the libertarians’ desire for personal liberty.”

Finally, when Iyer et al looked at the data for how libertarians felt love toward their partners, family, friends, or “generic others,” Iyer et al found that libertarians feelings of love toward all four groups of people were the weakest of all when compared to liberals and conservatives. Libertarians’ feelings were the strongest toward their partners, but even those feelings were slightly weaker than the feelings that liberals and conservatives felt toward their partners. Feelings of love toward “generic others” were the lowest of all for libertarians. Iyer et al considered these results to be “noteworthy” because

differences between liberals and conservatives were generally small (except toward generic others). Libertarians were the outliers. [emphasis added]

Iyer et al are not able to turn the correlations in values and personality traits they observed among libertarians into causative relationships. The data from Iyer et al cannot say, for example, that libertarians’ focus on negative liberty as their single moral good is because libertarians tend to be introverted and unable to empathize with others.

Furthermore, while Iyer et al is based on a large sample of data, it is not necessarily representative of the entire population of libertarians. For example, the demographics of Iyer et al are somewhat different from a nationally representative poll conducted by the Pew Research Center on the People and the Press that also included a breakdown of libertarian demographics. For example, Iyer et al had a significantly greater percentage of men, a slightly greater number of whites, and about the same number of college educated respondents as the Pew poll did. The greater number of whites and males almost certainly skews the data some, but it’s not possible with the Iyer et al data to say how much.

But when you look at Iyer et al‘s conclusions, they match well to the profile that Pew used to differentiate between libertarians and other ideological groups in their poll. Pew’s data shows that most libertarians reject strict environmental laws, something that is expected given Iyer et al’s finding that libertarians are resistant to external factors that would impinge upon their personal liberty. Pew found that libertarians were accepting of homosexuality, which is also expected given Iyer et al’s findings that libertarians are relatively unmotivated by emotional “disgust” reactions and highly value horizontal, peer-to-peer individualism. So while a similar study to Iyer et al would almost certainly generate somewhat different results using a nationally representative poll of libertarians, it’s unlikely that the results would significantly change Iyer et al’s overall conclusions.

Finally, Iyer et al points out that entirely possible that the moral good of negative liberty that libertarians value more than any other may be a moralization of their personal preference for living free of too many entanglements. In a culture where morality is generally defined along lines that libertarians disagree with and don’t feel, it’s easy to see why libertarians would have an emotional need to redefine morality in a way that reduces their cognitive dissonance. But whether this is the case or not will require more studies than just Iyer et al.

As an engineer with some libertarian leanings myself, I found Iyer et al to be fascinating. It explained much about so many of my fellow engineers, so many of whom are also libertarians. In Part Two I’ll discuss how being an engineer and working for a corporation affects the perspectives and values of engineers.

20 replies »

  1. Concerning the passage, “Beyond the moral good of liberty that libertarians espouse, Iyer et al found that they also feel a greater need to be rational than, and to perceive themselves as more rational than, either liberals or conservatives.”

    I am not sure having a “greater need to be rational” and a “greater need to perceive themselves as more rational” is quite the same thing. I would distinguish between being rational and thinking oneself rational. For example, among young earth creationists, there are individuals who create or at least adopt very elaborate views that are quite at odds with the universe, reminiscent of Ptolemaic epicycles, where the earth is at the center of the universe and stationary, and all evidence is interpreted in that sort of framework.

    Such individuals spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince themselves that they are rational whereas the rest of the world is not. But I would suggest that this isn’t an actual acknowledgement or pursuit of being rational so much as of the need to perceive oneself as being rational, because at the core one experiences anxiety over the realization that one is not being rational. But this is more a matter of rationalization, or motivated reasoning, than of rationality.

    Now I believe that young earth creationists are more likely to be libertarians, at least of a particular streak. But of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are at all representative of libertarians. Nevertheless, among libertarians, perhaps as an expression of their “individualism” and “rationality” (conceived along individualist lines) there is a certain willingness to reject the consensus view in different branches of science. These would include evolutionary biology, special and general relativity and quantum mechanics, or for that matter, climatology.

    Furthermore, there is oftentimes a certain rigidity or unwillingness to genuinely consider alternate views, where to consider alternate views would be to admit the possibility that one is wrong and that others may in fact have equally rational reasons for adopting views that are at odds with one’s own. And further, libertarians are often inclined towards the adoption of conspiracy theories, and when they are willing they adopt conspiracy theories in one area they are more inclined to adopt conspiracy theories in other areas.

    I should also point out that this isn’t a matter of the irrationality of religion, either. For quite a while, I belonged to a movement centering around an atheistic, libertarian philosophy called “Objectivism”. Among Objectivists, there existed a quasi-conspiratorial view of intellectual history, where mainstream views that they reject are viewed as being at root an expression of a “primacy of consciousness” philosophy that more or less grew out of Kantian Transcendental Idealism. And interestingly enough, they adopted a theory of evasion that isn’t that different from the theory of motivated reasoning.

    Regardless, the Objectivist view of intellectual history largely made it possible for them to reject the consensus scientific views of special relativity, general relativity, quantum mechanics and climate science. And given their need to think of themselves as rational, where according to their system, rationality is the fundamental virtue, they were already convinced of their rationality and of the correctness of their positions.

    Which meant that in their view, they didn’t really need to consider other views. And given this, while in some ways it might be possible to describe them as being “largely open to new experiences” (polyamoury was common in some circles, at least once one broke away from the more dogmatic of the two main branches — the movement had various “schisms”), at the same, it might be equally valid to refer to them as being “dogmatic” where by “dogmatic” one would generally mean not being open to new ideas.

    Now I suppose it might help at this point to ask, “What does it mean to be rational?” To me, it means placing nothing above one’s adherence to reality, not even one’s self-concept. It means being genuinely willing to authentically consider other views and to consider the possibility that one is wrong. It means being willing to learn from the insights of others, even those that one might not consider to be one’s intellectual equal. And socially, it means a willingness to engage in dialog, like the Peripatetics.

    While I do not consider myself religious, I nevertheless do not see this as being at all at odds with being religious. As I stated in an open letter to Evangelicals within the context of evolution and creationism:

    “In the existential realm, religion properly provides the individual with the moral courage to act despite the possibility of failure, where failure can sometimes mean the possibility of actual death, and the fear of failure itself can often be experienced as such. Likewise, the fear of being mistaken — where being mistaken may threaten our beliefs about who we are — is at times experienced as a threat much like death itself. Here, too, there is need for moral courage, although of a somewhat different kind. Properly, religion encourages in its own way the view that while recognizing one’s mistakes may be experienced prospectively as a form of death, the act itself brings a form of rebirth and self-transcendence, giving one the courage to revise one’s beliefs when confronted with new evidence.”

    Whether one is religious or not, I believe this is the proper intellectual stance. And if one adopts this stance, then at root I would consider one rational.

    • I won’t be able to respond to this right now, Tim. I’m too affected by today’s news out of Newtown, Connecticut, to respond in a way that is fair to the time you put into writing this. It will have to suffice for the moment that I agree with your observation that actually being rational and needing to feel rational are not the same thing. I’ll be covering that in greater detail in part 3 of the series.

  2. Two observations, more about science and engineering than about libertarians

    First scientists are bound by reality, aka conservation laws and theoretical arguments based on such things.

    Engineers believe that they can make anything work and many have no belief in theory. That certainly extends to our modern breed of financial engineers.

    Eli has known a whole bunch of engineers who spend their time tinkering with what they think will be a perpetual motion machine of the first or second kind. Scientists who “disbelieve” spend their time filling notebooks with theory of the algebraic kind.

    Second, and this speaks a bit against your thesis, engineers are trained to work in teams from their first class. Scientists tend to be much less team oriented although with the growth of “big” science, this is no longer quite so strong a limit.

    • Your experience with engineers being trained to work together runs 180 degrees counter to my experience, Eli. I wasn’t trained that way in either my undergraduate or graduate studies, and that certainly hasn’t been my experience with respect to my professional career since.

      There’s more to being part of a team than being a member of the team. Most engineers I know are “head down, don’t bug me, let me get my work done” types. I go much more into this tomorrow in Part 2.

    • A second point I forgot to make in my first reply – good engineers understand the limits of reality. Bad ones try to work beyond them.

      As an example, at my first job out of school, the CEO founder of the company and former electrical engineer wanted us to solve a problem with a telecommunications product. He wanted it to be passively cooled at room temperature, need commercial temperature range components, and yet be able to dissipate a massive amount of heat. When the product manager (another EE) and the mechanical/thermal guy ran the math, it was obvious that the circuit boards would overheat and shut down due to overtemperature conditions regularly without either a baffle or a fan. The CEO refused to believe us and essentially told us to figure out a way around the laws of physics. Needless to say, we ended up using a baffle – a fan would have made more sense, but “fan” was a four-letter word.

      And the CEO ran the company into the ground because he couldn’t let go of the idea that the laws of physics were maleable.

      I work in aerospace these days, and I’m surrounded by very competent engineers. And one of the reasons they’re all so good at their jobs is that they know when they can push right up to the edge of what’s physically possible, and when they can’t. The kind of engineer who didn’t understand fundamental physical limitations of electronics, temperature, materials properties, and the like wouldn’t even get through the interview process.

  3. As another self-identifying liberal MSEE, I appreciate your thoughtful exploration of this question. My intuition is that the puzzle makes the most sense to me when viewed in terms of tribalism. To put it broadly (but I don’t think too wildly), the key difference comes down to who is perceived as the “other”– as the “us” when it’s “us vs. them”.
    – For liberals, the tribe onto which we project our altruistic motivations is the human race, and to some extent other Earth creatures.
    – For conservatives, in contrast, it tends to be people they consider to be “like them”, i.e. who share their race, religion, national (or sometimes even state) citizenship, financial class, or a close genetic relationship.
    – For libertarians, it’s only those with a close genetic relationship. Everyone else is positioned in opposition to their interests.

    • Yes.

      I am also coming to the conclusion that we live in a world entirely distorted by marketing, which runs everything these days, and most people have no idea how brainwashed they are.

  4. “. . . In more common Myers-Briggs terms, libertarians have an INTx profile, where the “x” could be either judging or perceiving (J/P) . . ”

    Engineers as a group tend to be INTP which is consistent with the libertarian profile. I’m not sure this means much as I’m a retired engineer (with a similar MB profile) and a life-long committed liberal. I once met an engineer who believed in the healing power of crystals – I don’t know his political orientation and I wasn’t really interested in finding out.

    • When I did some personality profile research on engineers, the papers were all over the map on I vs. E, N vs. S, and P vs. J. It was highly variable on gender and type of engineer. Because there are so many more men than women in engineering, however, there were more INTx types than any other, and the T was pretty constant throughout, but there was a lot more variation than I thought there would be.