Monday, September 03, 2007

Answering the question and more: "why are so many nerds libertarians"

Someone asked Slashdot why geeks are more often libertarian than liberal.
Slashdot | Why Are So Many Nerds Libertarians?

...Why do so many nerds seem to lean toward the Libertarian end of the spectrum?

As a leftist, I know there are many people who share my ideological views, but have very little in common with me in terms of profession and non-work interests...
I scanned the responses, but as expected for this type of Slashdot question I didn't see anything interesting. One part of the answer is the questioner's friends are young and think themselves strong. Many are fair weather Libertarian in other words. If they feel the same way when they are weak (for if they live, they will be weak sometimes), or when those they love are weak, then they will be true Libertarians.

A more serious response to the question begins by clarifying the distinction between a Liberal and a Libertarian. The meanings of these terms changes from year to year, but I propose, since this is my blog post, to use two questions to make the distinction:

(sorry for the rendering, tables really don't work on Blogger.)

Should society require the strong to aid the weak?





Should Reason overrule Belief and Tradition?









* A mixed bag, includes populists, many Greens, many religious persons, some 1970s style liberals, Luddites, Naderites, communists, the average voter, and the rare genuine "compassionate conservative".

** A libertarian might personally choose to aid the weak, but they would never support a social requirement to do so. That would be a constraint of liberty.

In terms of political party Liberals almost always vote Democrat, Conservatives almost always vote GOP, and the rest are less predictable.

If one accepts this division, then a Rationalist may be Liberal or Libertarian, but never Conservative. Since Libertarians may vote GOP, not all Rationalists need vote Democrat. Since geeks are almost entirely Rationalists, the Slashdot question may be rephrased: "Why should the strong aid the weak"?

The answer turns into a discussion of Ethics and Mores, about which much has been written, but I think there are three ways to justify aid to the weak:
  1. Self-preservation: If the weak are many, then they become strong by virtue of numbers. It may be most unwise to deny them aid when that can be provided. This is also known as "keep the rabble from storming the castle"; it is used (by Sachs and others) as a justification for aid to more miserable parts of Africa. (Incidentally, in ratings of optimism the average African is quite optimistic about his/her future -- more so than the average American.)

  2. Self-interest: One may be strong now, but weak tomorrow. Those one loves may be weak or become weak. Aid to the weak may be a form of insurance.

  3. Aesthetics, guilt, compassion, a reason for existence, noblesse oblige, anger at the universe, socialization: One may choose, for a mixture of all these reasons, to help the weak.
If by one or more of these justifications one feels it is wise or right to aid the weak, then the next question is whether one should make this a social obligation as well. That is a longer discussion, but in practice free-rider problems mean that these obligations most often become social rather than remain personal.

I think most Rationalists who think about these questions end up more often Liberal than Libertarian (though perhaps not until their late 30s), but I can respect the Rationalist Libertarian -- particularly if the Libertarian is in practice compassionate, of if they retain their principals of ignoring the weak when they themselves become weak.

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