It’s cool to be a libertarian — whatever that means

(Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
Former Texas congressman Ron Paul is a favorite among libertarians, even though technically he was a Republican. But his stances on personal liberty set him apart from many fellow Republicans, and he ran as the Libertarian Party nominee in 1988.  (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

Libertarianism might be all the rage, but its adherents might not be as "libertarian" as you think.

That's the premise of a very interesting new Pew Research Center piece, which notes that there are relatively few big differences between how those who call themselves libertarians and everybody else view the role of government regulation, foreign policy and personal liberty.

Here are the most striking figures (while encouraging you to read the whole piece):

PewLib3

PewLib2

PewLib1

PewLib4

No. 2 shows an approximation of New York's "stop and frisk" policy is the biggest red flag here. The idea that 4 in 10 real, genuine libertarians support such a policy in basically equal numbers as the general populace just doesn't really pass muster.

Neither does the idea that libertarians would push for a more active U.S. role in foreign affairs than the rest of Americans, as No. 1 shows.

Yes, there are certainly libertarians of all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of belief in the role of government. But on the whole, being libertarian means erring on the side of individual liberty over government regulation and expansion. On all of these measures, libertarians as a whole are pretty much tucked nicely inside the political mainstream -- so much so that they almost look like political moderates.

So is that because people don't know what being a libertarian is, or is it because being a libertarian doesn't mean what it used to?

Pew tried to control for the former, asking people to correctly identify the over-arching libertarian philosophy. While 14 percent of people claimed to be libertarians, included in the numbers above are only the 11 percent who knew what that actually meant.

We would argue, though, that many within that 11 percent still don't really know what it means.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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