Bryan Caplan  

How Liberty Runs in Families (I Think)

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Thanks to everyone who responded to my Zac Gochenour-inspired poll on parents, children, and libertarianism.  Most of the responses seem consistent with Zac's initial doubts:

I'm trying to determine if "strategic fertility" is nonsense or not. I find it one of Bryan's stranger claims. None of the libertarians I know personally have libertarian parents, but I don't know too many people well enough to know much about their parents' political views. Bryan bases his claim on behavioral genetics research, but I can't take that research seriously if it flies in the face of everything I've experienced and my intuition.'t take that research seriously if it flies in the face of everything I've experienced and my intuition.'t take that research seriously if it flies in the face of everything I've experienced and my intuition.'t take that research seriously if it flies in the face of everything I've experienced and my intuition.

Or to be more precise, most of the responses on parents seem consistent with Zac's initial doubts; for kids, there just wasn't much data in the comments.  This is pretty much what I expected from my first-hand experience.  Still, I don't think strategic fertility is even close to "nonsense," and now's a good time to explain why.  But first, three caveats:

Caveat #1: Zac seems to be questioning the largely uncontroversial view that politics runs in families.  I was making the more controversial claim that politics is hereditary.  Of course, if politics doesn't run in families, then it's not hereditary either, so Zac's challenge is still on point.

Caveat #2: As far as I know, no one has ever specifically studied the hereditability of libertarianism.  I was building on the literature on the hereditability of politics within the normal range.   Note, however, that twin studies do confirm the heritability of political positions relevant to libertarianism - including "socialism," "censorship," "open-door immigration," "voluntary euthanasia," "making racial discrimination illegal," and "capitalism." (See here and here).  So I'm not generalizing that far outside the normal range.

Caveat #3: For a trait like self-identified libertarianism held by maybe 1-2% of the population, even a 20% concordance rate between parent and child would indicate strong familiy resemblance.  After all, it's 900-1900% above the base rate.

Caveats aside, though, I have noticed a puzzling pattern: Older libertarians rarely have libertarian parents, but often have libertarian children.  Younger libertarians, in contrast, don't yet have children, but often have libertarian parents.  Here's my explanation:

As the great Mosca observed in chapter 7 of The Ruling Class, people usually acquire their political convictions in early adulthood, then ossify.  This certainly doesn't rule out genetic influences on politics.  But it does strongly suggest that early exposure to a viewpoint is an important catalyst to its acceptance. 

Now note: If you're genetically predisposed to a conventional political outlook, it probably doesn't matter what your parents think.  If they don't teach you about liberalism or conservatism, you'll pick it up on the street.  In contrast, if you're genetically predisposed to an obscure political outlook like libertarianism, parents could easily matter.  If you don't hear about libertarianism from your folks, you might never hear about it.  Or you might not hear about it until you're 30 - when you're no longer willing to rethink your views. 

Why then would libertarians be so much more likely to have libertarian kids than libertarian parents?  Simple: By the time you're able to talk politics with your parents, they're already ossified.  If only you'd talked to them when they were 17, you might have changed their minds.  In contrast, if your kids are genetically predisposed to libertarianism, simple exposure to you is probably all the catalyst they need.

Two predictions that come out of this analysis:

1. Now that the internet is ubiquitous, libertarianism is no longer obscure.  Almost everyone genetically predisposed to libertarianism probably hears about it before their political outlook ossifies.  So I predict that the next generation of libertarians will have much more libertarian parents than mine did.

2. The internet and thriving libertarian sub-culture have also probably increased libertarians' assortative mating.  (Come to think of it, that suggests another fun survey to run).  As a result, libertarians will be increasingly likely to have libertarian kids.

Bottom line: The assumptions underlying my strategic fertility argument are messier than I'd like.  Maybe I'm just going too far beyond the data.  But I don't think so.  As long as you read twin studies of politics with Mosca's insights in mind, you should expect obscure political views like libertarianism to mask family resemblance for one generation.  Then family resemblance re-emerges.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Matt Flipago writes:

A 20% concordance rate would significantly affect the benefits of an extra child. Having an extra child is like persuading some one who won't have any influence for 20 years, and only 1/5 as likely to be fruitful. So the correspondence rate is crucial. Both persuasion and having an extra child have cost, and still requires most people to provide self sacrifice. At least seasteading only requires a small population to sacrifice living standards, something many people in who live in the woods to get away from governments already do. Same goes with the free state project, only some of the population need to make that sacrifice.

Zdeno writes:

So, am I a rebel because I'm a Libertarian or am I a Libertarian because I'm a rebel?

On one hand, I am struck by the obvious truth of the arguments made by the radical right/libertarian fringe. My Progressive friends, however, appear similarly convinced. And I also must admit - I derive pleasure from the extremism of my extreme views. Had I been born into Victorian England, an era in which may of my views on matters economic would be tiredly mainstream, would I be content? Or would I have found some other fringe to attach myself too? Somehow, I manage to simultaneously think that 1) Yes I would, and 2) My views remain correct.

Meta-rationality fail.

Cheers,

Zdeno

Zdeno writes:

The internet and thriving libertarian sub-culture have also probably increased libertarians' assortative mating.

So, any libertarian babes out there want to grab an unfair-trade coffee and take a walk in a private park?

John writes:

I'm a libertarian and like to think of myself as a mash-up of a mother in favor of drug liberalization and a father in favor of fiscal conservativism. My brother's libertarian too (I had no substantive role in converting him). So I put some faith in this. Also, it's not so much the heriditary component, but also the behavioral. For instance, my uncle would probably disown any of his children if they weren't rabid republicans. If you're raised so that only one worldview makes sense, it's unlikely you'll change it. Not quite sure that's a good thing...

Lewis writes:

Perhaps instead trying to produce more libertarian children, being more involved with the youth would produce faster gains. Coach a little league team, and sprinkle in libertarian lessons. I coached a HS track program, and got Atlas Shrugged in a few of their hands, and now they are well on their way down the libertarian path.

mobile writes:

Now that the internet is ubiquitous, libertarianism is no longer obscure.

LOL. Read enough Ryan Avent or Paul Krugman and you'd think that libertarianism has been ruling the world for 30 years.

Troy Camplin writes:

I wonder if one's politics might be connected to some other elements as well -- which may be inherited. A rebellious nature, for one, as noted already. For some people, whatever is contrary to the mainstream is what they latch on to, and libertarianism is the most contrary to the mainstream right now. Also, what about people who like to control or like being controlled vs. those who like neither? The latter would be more likely to become libertarian. Those with more of a tendency to be tleological or to see agency everywhere would be far less likely to be libertarian than those with the opposite tendency. Socialism is economic creationism, after all. Interventionism is economic intelligent design. Belief in free markets requires belief in self-organizing complex adaptive evolving systems -- and understanding that is to really see the big picture and to rebel against our evolved natural tendencies in regards to how we understand the world.

Lori writes:

Since libertarianism was invented in service to the interests of the propertied, and property is inheritable, it stands to reason that libertarianism is inheritable. Just be sure to inoculate against rich liberal guilt (since class is the new race) whatever human beings you create as means to your political ends.

Lumper Mike writes:

[snark]
Having children read Atlas Shrugged reminds me of the Amish practice of rumspringa. Adolescents are free to do what they wish for a few years. The ones that find the outside world inviting and do not return probably wouldn't have made good Amish members anyway... good riddance.

Similarly if your child can accept Rand's straw-men as real, embrace the "us versus the world" viewpoint, and lack the healthy sense of criticism to realize that it's a poorly written diatribe he would probably be a model Libertarian. Otherwise good riddance.
[/snark]

In all honesty, ideas of seasteading and libertarian strategic fertility don't accomplish much but reinforce bad branding. Of course you haven't given up on the actual spreading your philosophy and turned to libertarian eugenics. But these posts certainly provide a man with enough comedic material to snark otherwise.

Troy Camplin writes:

People love to trash Rand's literary style -- but there's something compelling about her fiction that keeps her works high on the sales lists. Might have something to do with good story, etc. And that's what most people look for in a work of fiction, rather than the complex intricacies of, say, William Faulkner (who, just for the record, is in my top 5 favorite novelists). Her stories are, first and foremost, good stories -- and that's what most people look for in their fiction. As well they should. In her fiction, Rand is able to tap into our evolved psychological needs for good narrative, good conflict, heroes, etc.

That having been said, classical liberalism evolved precisely as a reaction to the landed gentry, which the Left would love to return to (becoming the landed gentry, themselves, of course). Indeed, the Left are pretty certain that they are the ones who ought to be the aristocracy (thinking they are the best, after all). More than that, classical liberalism is the only social thought that matches social reality. Socialists are economc/social creationists; interventionists/welfare statists are intelligent designers; classical liberals/libertarians are evolutionists. In the world of ideology, we're the grown-ups.

Lumper Mike writes:
People love to trash Rand's literary style -- but there's something compelling about her fiction that keeps her works high on the sales lists. Might have something to do with good story, etc. And that's what most people look for in a work of fiction, rather than the complex intricacies of, say, William Faulkner (who, just for the record, is in my top 5 favorite novelists). Her stories are, first and foremost, good stories -- and that's what most people look for in their fiction. As well they should. In her fiction, Rand is able to tap into our evolved psychological needs for good narrative, good conflict, heroes, etc.

I don't wish to turn this into a literary conversation. But I might point out that books sell for other reasons than literary merit. I hardly feel that the bible contains many stories that have translated well into English outside of Job and perhaps a few others. It still sells relatively well.

And as far as Rand tapping into our evolved psychological needs for good narrative... most modern readers have evolved past the point of characters, plot, and motives painted in absolutes.

I'm not one to fight libertarian thought as a philosophical basis. Occasionally I feel that the outcomes of reductionist views of personal liberty are socially untenable and will say so. However, as a person who thinks of himself as well read, I will beat my chest and declare from the highest mountain that Atlas Shrugged is a failed attempt at literature. More of a bad screenplay than a novel.

In a lot of ways, it can be seen as a work by an intellectual who wishes to convince her readers of a specific fact. But in crafting it she has painfully reduced the whole story into a narrative for the lowest common denominator. Once this realization strikes you, most readers above a 7th grade comprehension level are not only bored with the novel but left with the nasty taste of being condescended to for over 1000 pages.

This is why libertarians who read Atlas Shrugged at a formative age are the worst kind of libertarian. They view the world in the novel's ridiculous reductionist view, as if it's fiction were fact. They often identify with the christ like protagonists, and look on any dissenting "looter" argument with disdain and not reason. Moreover, the fact that they have fallen prey to an unabashedly presented piece of propaganda puts their reasoning into question.

Troy Camplin writes:

I don't deny that Atlas Shrugged isn't high literature. In a purely literary sense, it's not as good as the people she admired: Dostoevski, Victor Hugo, the Romantics. However, you fool yourself if you think "most modern readers have evolved past the point of characters, plot, and motives painted in absolutes." It's not Milan Kundera and Carole Maso (both of whose works I love) who are the best sellers, but romances. That's the reality of the reading public. And the fact of the matter is that the reason romances sell well and Maso doesn't is precisely because of that evolved psychological need for good storytelling.

The Bible (and the Koran and other religious texts) are not read for their literary style. They fulfill other needs.

Most readers of Atlas Shrugged are colelge age and over. I certainly read her at the end of my underrgad, beginning of my grad school years. I don't know anyone who read her before then. I don't disagree that anyone who read her in, say, high school would likely not be the best libertarians, having had their ideology formed even before critical thinking skills had really been developed (certainly not Rand's fault there). But I disagree that she is only of interest of people with 7th grade comprehension skills. The evidence almost completely contradicts you.

That having been said, my own brand of libertarianism is that of the Hayekian spontaneous order, with heavy doses of Mises and Walter Williams. Rand wasn't uninfluential, but I'm a bit more influenced by her influencers: Aristotle and Nietzsche.

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