Bryan Caplan  

Why Have Libertarian Students' Social Skills Increased So Much?

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The Students for Liberty conference has to be seen to be believed: the attendance (about 500 students), the energy (off the charts), and most remarkably of all, the high social skills.  Twenty years ago, a pack of libertarian students would have been roughly as awkward and freakish as attendees at Comic-Con... or, say, me.  Now I see hundreds of students who aren't just smart, but smooth.  What happened?

The best explanation I've got so far: the Internet.  Back in the old days, libertarian students spent a lot of time alone with their books.  It was awfully hard to meet others with a shared interest in liberty.  This social isolation had two effects.  The first was a treatment effect: Libertarians got a lot less practice sharing their ideas in a civilized and constructive way.  The second was a selection effect: Few "people people" became libertarians because it was too depressing.  As the Internet - and social networking, its favorite child - blossomed over the last two decades, these effects of libertarian isolation largely faded away.  Nowadays, almost no libertarian is isolated unless he wants to be.  As it turns out, few do. 
But that's just my starting story.  Got a better one?

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COMMENTS (20 to date)
david writes:

Society moved rightward, so the libertarian minority is no longer limited to the extreme tail of the normal distribution of personal charisma.

Scott Wentland writes:

The internet could have a selection effect, but in a different way. Socially awkward libertarians stay home and are involved primarily (only?) through social media and the internet. The more socially adept libertarians go to face-to-face social functions (and communicate through the internet too...everyone does I guess). Hence the selection bias.

The socially awkward libertarians twenty years ago didn't really have a developed internet to share ideas, so despite the high subjective cost of going to social functions, they went because there wasn't much else. Now with the internet, they can vent online and share ideas without going out in public...leaving only the more confident ones at the face-to-face functions.

Pandaemnoni writes:

So these new libertarians are products of their environment, and not just their genetics?

Doc Merlin writes:

There are a lot more libertarian women nowadays... that completely changes the dynamic, it also makes the movement far more effective.

PeterI writes:

Well, mine certainly hasn't increased.:) I think it has to do with the fact that I live in Hungary where there is virtually no classical liberal movement, and not even a decent conservative movement. So I think david made a good point, although in my case mild asperger's syndrome also "helps".:)

jc writes:

Maybe Ron Paul attracted people that were more socially 'typical' (versus awkward)? I know several youngish libertarians who became libertarians this way...

Along similar lines, has Glenn Beck or any of the tea party crowd spilled over? Maybe groups like this act a gateway drug for some that ultimately leads to anarcho-capitalist fever - or in it's more moderate form, attendance at Bryan Caplan talks. :)

Sean OBrien writes:

It is the expansion of the pool of libertarians, not an expansion of social skills. The Internet has expanded the reach of the message, which has attracted a broader audience.

Ian writes:

libertarianism is fashionable with the younger folks (see Gavin McInnes of A lot of the same people who would have been into the adbusters scene 10 years ago (i.e. cool kids) are finding themselves to be in tune with libertarian ideas. It may not last though.

Various writes:

No, I don't have a better one. I think the internet is part of a bigger trend towards the decentralization of communication and media. Participants get more information, get it faster and are able to effectively communicate with others with shared interests. As a result, these folks tend to "mature" much faster, both in terms of the content in their head, and how they are able to communicate it. Effective social skills and maturity in general are all about speed....the ability to respond quickly and effectively when someone says something to you. Because of the decentralized communication infrastructure (internet, texting, cell phones, blogs, cable TV, etc etc) I think the average 20 year old has the same social skills as a 30 something from the 1970s.

agnostic writes:

The opportunity cost for attending a conference based on shared political / economic ideology has plummeted.

Since the crime rate peaked in 1992, society has become steadily wussified. Thus today young people have nothing better to do. 20 years ago they would have been more interested in the twilight of the sex, drugs, and rock n roll way of living. Now they camp out three weeks in advance just to get the latest ipod or iphone, not for rock concert tickets.

Even if the sex and rock n roll parts died off during the early '90s, hard drug use still rose until the mid-late '90s. During the 2000s, there really wasn't anything mischievous left to do for adolescents.

It's not social networking sites, since those only caught on big-time during 2005 at the earliest, more like 2006. It sounds like you're describing a trend that began before that.

agnostic writes:

There's also the matter of whether young people believe that their actions in the political sphere will amount to anything, independent of what their beliefs are. If action produces little effect, why bother going to a conference for a pep rally and networking?

A conviction that big change at the top level is possible seems to be strongest during a falling-crime period, especially the second half of it, and the first half of a rising-crime period -- before the soaring crime rate and attendant perception of social chaos leads people to believe that nothing they do will have an effect.

Thus the low-point of "hope and change" is during the second half of a rising-crime period. During the last crime wave, this was roughly the mid-1970s through the early '90s. The Woodstock and Great Society view was dead and buried then (it began when crime started rising from roughly 1960 through the early '70s).

During the previous crime wave of the early 20th C, this phase was from roughly the mid-1910s through the early '30s. The Progressive Era was dead and buried then (it began when crime started rising in the mid-1890s or early 1900s, and lasted through the early-mid 1910s.)

We've been in a falling-crime period for nearly 20 years now, and the last period of crime decline lasted about 25 years, so we're probably past the halfway point and sometime during the 2000s entered the "hope and change" stage once more. During the previous crime wave, this would have corresponded to roughly the mid-1940s through the late '50s.

20 years ago, the only libertarians who would meet up would have been convinced that some kind of apocalypse was coming, so that the fiercest action must be taken to prevent it. Everyone else would have believed that action at the top level would've been futile. Now young people believe in "hope and change," so they don't think it's pointless to attend political / economic conferences.

And the population which libertarianism appeals to is much broader.

Kevin writes:

Not sure if this explains the current crop of young libertarians, but I suspect that the trend will continue. Young people tend to be socially liberal, and the ability of the state to plausibly tell college students that they will have no problem paying its debts is dwindling. The result is a group of people who identify with libertarianism, at least more than the popular alternatives.

Ray writes:

I wonder if the first few to believe in any new idea, or join any new movement, tend to be socially awkward, and those who follow less socially awkward. If so, the simple fact that there are more young libertarians now explains their better social skills.

Steve Horwitz writes:

I have noticed the same trend Bryan and I think your analysis is largely right.

You also may have noticed the much larger number of women involved, which is a phenomenon that demands an explanation.

For the record, I think the growth and success of SFL is absolutely, without question, the most promising set of events in the libertarian movement in the last few years. Whatever my qualms with Ron Paul, I think his 2008 campaign is the major thing responsible for bringing so many young people to libertarianism and the leadership of SFL has harnessed that energy in an amazing way. In the long run, this is the future of libertarianism and it's a very bright one.

Ed Bosanquet writes:

HT: Jonathan M. F. Catalán


I think the libertarian base has grown. It's not that the socially awkward are not involved but the belief system is beginning to tap the more of main stream. The internet has improved the ability of libertarian ideas to spread in the "marketplace" of ideas but that doesn't explain the differences in the personality types of it's followers. The spread toward the populace will cause more people to join and it's "average" member to be less "abnormal".

This somewhat mimics the spread of the internet only 20 years later. The internet was dominated by nerds in 1991 but today you're "abnormal" if your not on the internet. It's not that awkward people left the internet, it's that everyone else jumped in.

Thank you,

Mark Brady writes:

A more important, and not unrelated point, is that what counts as libertarian has changed somewhat since the 1960s and 1970s.

LiberalCast writes:

There still i the social awkwardness; the encyclopedic recitation in mid-conversation; the raw emotion of absolutism; the utter insistence that everything relates back to philosophy, economics, and politics.

I call it "libertarian asperger's" because almost everyone I know that is a libertarian has experienced it and most of them continue to experience it.

a psychologist would do well to try to figure out what about these ideas turn normal, popular, outgoing, sociable guys like i used to be into a great example of what "libertarian asperger's" truly is.

David C writes:

The last time you (Bryan Caplan) posed a similar question you had no idea, and in the comments, I believe I was the only one who argued for the internet. Do you think drug legalization and libertarianism are sufficiently distinct that they need separate explanations or did you change your mind?

Brad Hobbs writes:

The melding of the two political parties means that each has come off of their ideological game and each has moved toward the median voter. Looking beyond republican/democrat puffery and rhetoric it seems clear to me that their "principled differences" have disappeared. I think that there is a subset of young people who are drawn toward the idea of sticking with consistent principles and that they have few social/cultural outlets for that and no political outlets for it. I was there with nine of my students and I agree with Horowitz. SFL is the defining vanguard for classical liberalism among college and university students.

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