There has been a lot of talk lately about whether we are going through “a libertarian moment.” But how many libertarians are there in the United States? The best answer comes from “In Search of Libertarians,” published last summer by the Pew Research Center.

Pew surveyed 3,243 adults and found that only 11 percent could define “libertarian” and identified themselves as such. But this “libertarian 11” wasn’t really all that much more libertarian than the general public:

  • 47 percent of the them disagreed with the proposition that “government regulation of business does more harm than good”;
  • 48 percent disagreed with the contention that “government aid to the poor does more harm than good by making people too dependent on government assistance”;
  • 42 percent said the government should be permitted “to stop and search anyone who fits the general description of a crime suspect”; and
  • 43 percent said that ““it is best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs.”

One might reasonably argue that there are plenty of people out there who can’t define what a libertarian is but are libertarian nonetheless. And there are plenty of people who identify themselves as conservatives or liberals but who are really libertarians without knowing it. None of those people are captured in the libertarian 11.

To get around the problems associated with self-identification, Pew asked 10,013 adults 23 questions about a variety of social and political issues. Pew then used cluster analysis to sort respondents into homogenous groups and discovered seven such groupings (you can read about the methodology used in both surveys here). Alas:

None of the seven groups identified by the 2014 political typology closely resembled libertarians, and, in fact, self-described libertarians can be found in all seven. Their largest representation is among the group we call Business Conservatives; 27% of this group says the term libertarian describes them well. Business Conservatives generally support limited government, have positive views of business and the U.S. economic system, and are more moderate than other conservative groups on the issue of homosexuality. However, they are also supportive of an activist foreign policy and do not have a libertarian profile on issues of civil liberties.


… In the process of running several different models in creating the typology, we came up with one early version of the typology that had 12 groups, including a group that resembled libertarians. But the model was impractical, in part because it produced groups that were too small to analyze, and this set of groups did not persist across other models.


Under this one model, the group with a libertarian profile constituted about 5% of the public. They hold generally conservative views on the social safety net, regulation and business; liberal attitudes on homosexuality and immigration; and are less supportive of the use of military force when compared with the more conservative-leaning typology groups. They also are younger, on average, than most of the other groups (though a majority are 30 or older). But many members of this group diverge from libertarian thinking on key issues, including about half who say affirmative action is a good thing and that stricter environmental laws are worth the cost.

So there you have it. At best, only about 5 percent of the public can be fairly called libertarian and even that is likely a stretch. I wish I could report otherwise, but libertarians do not make their political jobs any easier by pretending the political terrain is something that it’s not.