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Why Do Libertarians Fail? Because They Don't Understand Human Nature

Libertarians Have Failed

Libertarians have been trying since the 1970s to carve out a separate political identity for themselves. They have failed. The Libertarian Party is as weak and ineffectual now as it was back in the 1980s when I worked ballot access, gathering petition signatures for Ron Paul, the first time he ran as the Libertarian presidential candidate.

Surveys regularly report some 15 to 20% of the population has strong libertarian leanings. But libertarians cannot coalesce as a political force. Why not? 20% is not much smaller than the number who identify as liberal, but Democrats have no problem getting out the vote for a lot more than their 25%. How do they rally so many more than their true believers, when libertarians can't even get theirs to vote?

Conservatives and liberals both have attractive philosophies, with broad appeal. In every major election, both have at least the potential to capture majorities of the vote. Their insights are understandable to just about everyone, even those who are bitterly opposed.

Libertarians don't. They claim reason and logic, and deploy plenty of forceful arguments, which attract few outside their core. Regardless of whether the libertarians are right or not, they are not convincing. Their arguments do not touch us emotionally. Or if they do, it is in a negative way.

This is rooted in the failure of libertarians to understand basic human nature. It is a failure of empathy.

Cats And Dogs Living Together In One Mind


Cats and Dogs Live In Our Minds

(The above funny was taken from this source. I included it mainly because it is cute and clever, and it leads into my next section, even if it isn't really relevant.)

All normal people have two relevant emotional forces that drive them in opposite directions. I use the cat and dog caricatures to illustrate this. Popularly, dogs are the loyal companions, obedient to their masters, friendly, loving and protective. Cats are independent, looking after themselves, living with humans only to satisfy their own needs and for their own purposes.

These are only stereotypes. Cat people know that cats can be generous, bringing gifts of freshly slain creatures to their owners. Dogs will cheerfully bolt for any open door and run wild given the slightest opportunity. Still, the stereotypes work, if more to describe humans than actual dogs and cats.

All of us, except maybe sociopaths, are some blend of these two personality types, working at cross purposes. Very few people are so superior, so perfect in intellect and physique that they can't admire other people. Most of us have some desire to follow and obey our superiors.

This is our dog mind, and is just as true for liberals as conservatives, even when we express it differently. Marxists called these superior beings the 'vanguard'. Sometimes these people are politicians (witness people fainting at Obama rallies), or great thinkers. For the proletariat it is any beautiful, talented or famous person, a Kim Kardashian or Michael Jordan.

This desire to follow and obey our leaders is rooted in our tribal past, when small groups of closely related people fought a hostile environment to survive. The strongest or wisest person was looked up to and obeyed. Too much independence of thought and action could easily have led to starvation and death for the tribe. Wild youngsters had to be restrained for the good of everyone.

Young men like to fight. Properly controlled and motivated, this was to the tribe's advantage. Taught and directed by experienced adults, they could defend against other tribes, drive off predators, or go to war and steal their neighbor's land and goods. The tribe would flourish. Uncontrolled, they would fight amongst themselves, weakening the tribe, or go out in small groups to fight their neighbors, bringing retribution down on the whole tribe.

A successful tribe was one that controlled and motivated its youth towards what was best for all. Proper respect for the tribe's leaders and adulation for its heroes were necessary elements.

This is the dog element in us, ground in by millions of years of evolution. It is the basic substrate of our social being.

But what about our cat nature? The cat is our independent streak. Our not caring what our 'betters' think, our 'do your own thing' ideal. It's what pushed humans out of Africa and across the entire world. Very few humans can match the charitable selflessness of a saint, living purely for the good of our fellows. We try dangerous things, break traditions, leave home for distant countries, marry outside our race, go against the wishes of our parents and the elite of society.

Without this individualist impulse, we would still be animals. Has any sheep ever had an original idea? If one has, so what? Sheep live now just as their ancestors did a million years ago. Smarter animals like chimps and monkeys can have original ideas, and pass them on to their children. They can invent new ways of finding food, and the whole tribe eventually benefits.

In human history this was the wild young man who disobeys his mother, goes out, and finds a new, fertile valley for his tribe to expand into. Or who goes and lives with the weird people across the river, and comes home with the girl who has figured out a better way to weave cloth. Having a few rule-breakers in society can lead to positive change. Society needs its cats.

Rule-bound dogs see only the damage and destruction this causes. Old industries die and people lose their jobs. Potentially dangerous strangers move into the neighborhood bringing weird-smelling food and unpleasant music.

The positive results are harder to see. The traditional American culture was essentially a lucky blend of British political thought and German culture, with enrichment from other European and eventually world-wide culture. Italian immigration was once terribly controversial. They were Mediterraneans! Catholics! Dark-complected foreigners with violent tendencies!

Funny how that all worked out. Italians now run our major industries, get elected to high office, and make great food.

Everyone, liberals, conservatives and libertarians, is mentally a blend of these two emotional forces. Conservatives claim to be in favor of a well-ordered society of people who follow traditional rules. This is basically true. Liberals claim to be for independence of thought, and freedom. Again, basically true, but not the whole story for either side.

In reality neither is really 'for' either of these, but both are for a clotted-up mishmash of following whom we like and being independent of whom we don't. Both support a weird form of state-capitalism, where favored industries are backed by the government.

President Jimmy Carter bailed out a big car company, and President Obama bailed out two of them. Are they conservatives? Democrats supporting old, traditional industries rather than letting free people choose which companies live or die by how well they serve us, is liberal? Republicans were willing in both cases to let them die, but are happy enough to use government power to support industries they favor.

This is not ideology, but raw tribal emotion, on both sides. Both use government power to support insiders and punish outsiders. This just feels right, to our tribal, primitive selves, and we justify it later with ideology-tainted reason. Anyone across the political spectrum can get on board and ride that train to a political victory.

Republicans, supposed defenders of tradition, had no problem understanding why Democrats wanted to save the car companies. It was for money, power, and control of society. Auto unions favor Democrats, so Democrats favor the unions. Tribes are always incestuous.

Republicans wanted the unions to die, and were willing to sacrifice a few big companies to get it done. Tribal politics. The few die to protect the pack. There is no ideological reason it could not have gone the opposite way, with Republicans fighting to save traditional jobs in the auto companies, and Democrats fighting to kill them.

Democrats and Republicans are both 'dog' parties. Both encourage rule-following in their members, and hero-adulation of their leaders. Bill Clinton is practically a living god, to read what Democrats write of him, and what they say of Barack Obama is even wilder. Remember all those hilarious posters of Obama riding a unicorn?. Ronald Reagan is the Republican foil.

Looking at their respective records as leaders, neither was a paragon of the virtues the parties claim to represent. Reagan ran up a huge deficit. Clinton sharply cut welfare programs for the poor. None of that matters, to their tribes of followers. They won, they kicked their enemies' butts. For the tribal partisan, it doesn't really matter how.

Why Libertarians Fail

Libertarians are cats. In libertarians, the drive for freedom, personal control of one's own life and destiny is paramount, and the tribe is secondary.

Most people feel this drive to some extent. We don't like to be told what to do, we want to spend our money for the things we like, and we don't like that money to be taken and spent by others with different values. Libertarians take this to its logical extreme. (But libertarians are not anarchists, who take it to its illogical extreme.)

Opponents of libertarianism like to cast stones, build up straw man and knock them down. Libertarians make this easy. For example, both conservatives and liberals like to claim that libertarians believe in atomistic individualism. This is a straw man because it is basically untrue for the great majority of libertarians. Libertarians are not sociopaths. They believe in mutual, voluntary association, not no association. Libertarians are for private charitable organizations, for example, but completely against public charity. This puts them against many conservatives and nearly all liberals.

Liberals tend to believe (liberals, please correct me if I am wrong or exaggerating here) that private charity may be nice, but it can never be great enough or reliable enough to take care of the huge needs of the less fortunate. Greedy rich, personal prejudice or shortsightedness would inevitably result in many people with real needs being left to starve.

Conservatives also generally believe there should be at least some sort of safety net supplied by the government to prevent acute poverty, if not the more extensive welfare endorsed by liberals. All three groups agree on the need. Liberals and conservatives mostly agree on the means, a government-supplied system bolstered by private action. Libertarians disagree only on the means, and advocate a purely private charity system.

This has little attraction for the average person. Private charity doesn't allow for the clash of rival gangs, the political parties. It has no heroes of the faith, like politics. There would be no Reagan or Clinton or Obama to give stirring speeches about the evils of their opponents.

Why not? Because, in a private system, there are no human opponents to poverty. (Hell, everyone hates poverty!) There are only poor people to be helped. It doesn't appeal to the human drive to idolize our heroes and demonize our enemies. Where would Obama be today without those wicked Republicans conspiring to starve poor blacks or push grandma off that cliff? What words could he use to rouse the masses to hysteria, if the fight were just against poor schools, or unemployment?

Without the Republicans, President Obama would still be a community organizer in Chicago, working out of a dirty office on the South Side. Without the Democrats, Mitt Romney would be nothing but another successful businessman. It is the fight that rouses our tribal instincts, not the cause of the fight. If poverty were conquered, we would find something else.

Libertarians will never appeal to a broad class of Americans, for the simple reason that libertarianism is too cat-like, too individualistic. Our bedrock human nature is the dog. The cat is a later, weaker graft. Packs of dogs can always kill any number of cats. Libertarianism can never succeed as a mass movement until it finds popular leaders and creates visible, human enemies to fight. We argue in favor of freedom, individualism, capitalism, and against fascism and socialism. All those 'isms'.

People need human enemies, and human heroes to make a political party. Sorry libertarians, Ron Paul doesn't quite fit the bill.

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Why Libertarians Fail Comments

Geoff Adams on May 30, 2020:

Some things to consider.

The word 'liberal' has become nearly useless because it is used so carelessly. When the United States was being populated mostly by immigrants, they referred to the USA as a 'liberal democracy' because most were coming from 'authoritarian' regimes where the government (often a religion) had veto power over almost any decision you made. 'Liberalism' was in contrast to 'Authoritarianism'.

In our 'Liberal Democracy' the government largely left you alone. Religion was largely kept out of the functioning of government. Our Constitution was, and is, entirely secular.

Libertarianism opposes Authoritarianism. Neither of the two 'big government' parties is remotely 'liberal'. Both are decidedly authoritarian. Neither seeks to defend us from demagogs. Both seek the authority to substitute their thinking for ours. In general, both seek to forcefully impose their particular moral codes on everyone else, one imposing supernaturalism, the other pushing 'altruism at gunpoint'.

Remember, every governmental action is an act of force. Libertarians, by definition, oppose the 'initiation' of force for any purpose. Use of force is only justified for self-defense against force (or threat of force) initiated by others.

Thus the actions of government must be restricted to such purposes (military, police, courts, for example).

tmbridgeland (author) from Small Town, Illinois on May 29, 2020:

Hi Garry. I look forward to reading it.

Garry Reed from Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas on May 29, 2020:

Hey this is getting interesting now. I recently ran across your article and left you a mostly negative comment about the title (see below) and you said that I should have read the article first.

Today I was scrolling thru my “Articles in work” folder and I discovered that I had begun writing but never finished or posted my own rebuttal article about your article. But my old article Properties said “created ‎November ‎12, ‎2016! I returned to your HubPages article and it says “Updated on May 17, 2014.”

Are we living in the past or what? Anyway I obviously did read your article several years ago and started my own. Now I think I’ll flesh it out and finish it and post it on my own HubPage in the near future. You cover a lot of ground in your article (I did read it again) but my article’s focus is still your article title about libertarians not understanding human nature. See ya later.

tmbridgeland (author) from Small Town, Illinois on May 28, 2020:

Hi Gary. Thanks for the comment, but you might want to read the article. As a libertarian myself I was addressing the political failures of Libertarians not the personal. The title, as titles often are, was meant to be provocative, to libertarians, and to possibly draw comment from non-libertarians.

Garry Reed from Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas on May 28, 2020:

I confess that I haven't read your article, just the title "Why Do Libertarians Fail? Because They Don't Understand Human Nature." As a libertarian who has been blogging since 2001 (I currently write as "The Libertarian Opinionizer on HubPages) I see the title of your article as incredibly ambiguous.

Libertarians, like everyone else, are individuals. Some libertarians, like all people of all categories, fail while some don't. Some libertarians, like everyone else, don't understand human nature while some do. Your article title is pure groupthink--assuming that all libertarians are alike--which turned me off from reading it.

If, on the other hand, your question is asking why do Libertarian Party Libertarians fail that's easy to answer. This is simply not the time for political success. Politics is merely the practical application of philosophy. It is the end result. The (lower case L) libertarian philosophy must be firmly embedded as the primary belief system of a society before there can be any hope of any meaningful Capital L Libertarian political success. To me the LP is only good right now as an educational outreach tool, one of many means of introducing people to the libertarian philosophy. In which case it may be failing politically while succeeding intellectually. At least that's my hope.

Donnie Harold Harris on May 27, 2020:

A nice and long piece of work. Simply put. Don't bite the hand that feeds you or spray the one that does not.

Betabaker on January 15, 2019:

Libertarians need to be less dogmatic. Nietzsche said, "no one ever convinced anyone with logic."

One example: Marriage contracts are important, so quit saying government should stay out of it. Libertarians scare more people than they convince

tmbridgeland (author) from Small Town, Illinois on November 09, 2016:

Hey Gary, sorry it took me so long to approve your comment. I must have missed the notification.

To reply, we are so far along the scale towards authoritarianism that just about any pushback against it is valid now, short of random violence!

I will take a look at your hubs.

Garry Reed from Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas on October 23, 2016:

As a longtime committed libertarian (seldom identifying myself with the capital L) when I saw your article’s headline “Why Do Libertarians Fail? Because They Don't Understand Human Nature” My first thought was “Oh crap, here we go again.”

But once I started reading it so I could write an article ridiculing and refuting it I realized this: You nailed it! I found little to nothing with which to disagree.

It’s why I long ago quit supporting the LP other than as just one additional educational platform available to us. I agree with Ayn Rand and others who have pointed out that politics is merely the practical application of philosophy; it’s the philosophy that matters. If the philosophy never overcomes the deeply embedded tribalism then no amount of politicking will ever change anything.

I long ago rejected both Conservative and Liberal, Republican and Democrat, Left and Right. All philosophies fall along a sliding scale of Most Authoritarian at one end and Most libertarian at the other. I’ll continue to push the needle as far as I’m capable of toward the libertarian end of the scale simply because, for me, no other philosophical position is worth fighting for.

As you say, any pack of wild dogs can kill as many cats as they want, and to me that translates to any compromise with any amount of authoritarianism means the authoritarian pack will always win simply because they believe in coercion, intimidation and fraud while NAP libertarians believe only in defensive force, and there just ain’t enough of us cats to fight off the dog packs until we grow significantly – philosophically – more powerful.

To use another canine aphorism, politics is the tail that attempts to wag the philosophical dog. Libertarians need to concentrate on converting the dog philosophically so it can wag its political tail. If we fail then we fail, but what the hell else is really worth working for?

Please check out my HubPages, especially my latest article:

tmbridgeland (author) from Small Town, Illinois on June 13, 2015:

Not sure which comment about regulations you mean. We certainly need law, but not all law is good.

SanXuary on June 13, 2015:

I missed your comment about ten pages back on regulations. I think the argument is one of our we civilized or uncivilized? Regulations serve to make us civilized. We can not be a civilization with out them. I would vote for Mrs. Warren in a heart beat. The real argument is what regulations do we need to protect people and to better our lives? Could you imagine if there were no regulations at all. In a lot of ways we already have that. That's why judges have no idea what to award the victims and Companies want a regulation that limits how much they have to pay them. If you have money you get to believe that you get to pick and choose.

tmbridgeland (author) from Small Town, Illinois on November 13, 2013:

Very true. Again, for me it is a matter of choosing the battle. If particular repubs are good on most issues I consider important, I'll vote for them even if a libertarian is in the race too, with no chance of winning. If I thought the libertarian had a chance, I'd vote for him. It also matters who their opponent is. Here in Illinois where I live, I have never encountered a dem politician I could vote for, but some of the repubs are not too bad. Other places may have different conditions.

Kimberly Schimmel from North Carolina, USA on November 13, 2013:

Why are libertarians to blame for "spoiling" things? Republicans could choose candidates that their voters (not the party elite) like, then they would solve their problem. I left the Rs because I gave them 30 years of my voting life and they failed to defend the constitution from Ds and from themselves.

tmbridgeland (author) from Small Town, Illinois on November 13, 2013:

It's case by case. I am not big on libertarians playing spoiler in close elections.

Kimberly Schimmel from North Carolina, USA on November 13, 2013:

If we were in a multi-party state like Israel, the small-government Rs and southern 2nd Amendment Ds (those few who haven't yet become Rs) could form a coalition with Ls, I think. I've made the case for pro-lifers going L, because Rs have been largely ineffective and Ls are at least not hostile toward babies/childbearing.

tmbridgeland (author) from Small Town, Illinois on November 12, 2013:

kschimmel, thanks. For me what this means is that I have to decide which libertarian stands I have to defend, and which are not worth offending possible allies. Libertarians need allies if we are to get anything at all done. Usually it is republicans, occasionally democrats. The democrats might make better allies, if they were still a liberal party, but they are far too corrupt now to stand for much of anything as regards to human liberty. The 'pubs are bad, but I think, not as entirely corrupt. A large wing of the republican party is still the old fashioned 'leave me and mine alone' types. I can work with them.

Kimberly Schimmel from North Carolina, USA on November 12, 2013:

This gives me much to think about. As a "cat" I just want the government pack of dogs to stay away from me and my kittens. But you make a point about the packs of dogs being able to take down cats, who don't run in packs.

MLSimon from Rockford, Illinois on October 24, 2013:

"The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane." - Marcus Aurelius

Social pressure has a very long history.

tmbridgeland (author) from Small Town, Illinois on October 23, 2013:

Certainly you have a valid point. Most people are not aggressive enough to stand up to social bullies if they feel outnumbered.

RAL2ooo on October 23, 2013:

A lot of good answer/theories on here from some pretty smart fellas. Getting back to the original question as to why the libertarians just cannot get traction. I believe a large factor is the effective use of a very old tool, the fear of being made a fool, embarrassment.

As an example of just how powerful a force it can be, there was a doctor who died at a medical convention. He choked on a piece of meat. Here he was in a room FULL of people who would have saved him yet he left and quietly asphyxiated in the privacy of the men's room. So rather than suffer the embarrassment of getting a very public rescue among his peers he died.

Politicians use this fear to good advantage. A friend whom I had worked with for many years is a perfect example. Larry is a very intelligent man. His personal beliefs actually line up strongly with the Libertarian viewpoint. Long story short back when Ron Paul was trying to get the nod for the GOP slot in 08 he asked who I favored. I said Paul and started explain why...............he cut me off with " I can't believe you would support the NUT". Now I did not line up lockstep 100% with Paul but that doesn't make him a nut. First they ignored , and marginalized him. Then when he actually was starting to get some traction they brought out the old sword. They smeared him and those that could possibly even listen to his points as nuts.

I believe that fear of ridicule is a tool that has been used to good effect to hobble any "outside" candidates. "Foilhead, Nutjob, Idiot, Rube ...........these words are the weapons. Weak words usually with no solid information accompanying them.......yet they have great power. For some it would appear its better to die than to be thought a fool.

tmbridgeland (author) from Small Town, Illinois on May 15, 2013:

Hello imrahi1. I am sorry it took me so long to respond. For some reason HubPages marked this as spam, and did not notify me it was here. I have written several libertarian-related Hubs. Just go to my Profile Page and scroll down. Also, some are linked towards the bottom of this Hub. You can contact me any time through HubPages.

imrahi1 from New Delhi, India on March 05, 2013:

Hello! I am a research associate at a libertarian think tank in India. I am currently researching on consumer psychology and marketing strategies to advance the ideas of libertarianism. I really liked your post and specially the point that we need 'human faces' as heroes and enemies. I would really appreciate if you can guide me to other articles you have written on the same or any other papers/articles by others which you have come across about the same. Thank you very much in advance. email me at:

MLSimon from Rockford, Illinois on January 30, 2013:


My preference is to wait for warmer weather. Above 32F. With the way this winter is going it may not be far off.

Flashlight - I have been sidetracked. I'll tell you about it when we meet.

tmbridgeland (author) from Small Town, Illinois on January 30, 2013:

Hey Simon, we should get together again some time. How is work going on the flashlight?

I shudder to think of the paper work to hire even one person, if you are really trying to follow the law. It is really just impossible to hire a kid for the weekend to do yard work. It is basically illegal. Or, try to sell some cookies you baked. Illegal.

MLSimon from Rockford, Illinois on January 30, 2013:

I would add that the minimum wage requires enforcement. And that requires paperwork. If you have 40 workers and want to go to 41 - no problem.

If it is just yourself and you want to add one - big problem.