Appreciating American Libertarians – Insight from Ted Conover’s Book, Rolling Nowhere

July 4th, 2010 by Ravi Iyer

I just finished Ted Conover‘s book, Rolling Nowhere, which I definitely recommend to anyone interested in understanding the human condition.  In fact, I’d recommend any/all of Conover’s books, where he assumes roles as diverse as a prison guard, illegal immigrant, and in this book, a train jumping hobo. Personally, psychology is always more convincing when placed in a larger context, with conclusions reached from different angles (consilience) and I think there is as much to learn about the human condition from one of Conover’s books as in an issue of a psychological journal. In Rolling Nowhere, Conover hops trains  for a few months and joins a subculture of ‘tramps’ that live a wandering, lonely lifestyle on the margins of society.

This may be an odd thing to say, but as a liberal, Rolling Nowhere helped me to appreciate American libertarians better. There are surely lots of differences between liberals and libertarians, but there are similarities as well.  The book helped me contextualize the relationships we’ve found between being libertarian, which implies a sacredness placed on the value of freedom, psychological reactance, and the desire for stimulation.  These are traits where liberals tend to score higher than conservatives as well.

The below graphs, taken from our data, show these characteristics, using the Schwartz Values Scale, comparing liberals, libertarians, and conservatives. Notice that while self-direction is valued highly in all groups, it is highest in libertarians, and the difference between self-direction and the next highest value, is greatest for libertarians. Liberals score higher in self-direction than conservatives.

In the above graph, libertarians also show a relatively high desire for stimulation (equal to liberals, higher than conservatives) and a relatively low value placed on tradition and conformity.  This is consistent with the idea that libertarians are experience seekers, an idea further confirmed by the below graph of libertarian big five personality dimensions, where libertarians score relatively high (similar to liberals) on openness to experience.

Conover writes a fair amount about the motivation that made him (who seems to lean liberal) seek to experience life as a tramp:

I hit the rails to learn and because, as Lonny said, when you become afraid to die, you become afraid to live. Confronted by the prospect of entering a laid-out and set-up life largely devoid of the need to be resourceful, I had desired an activity with an unpredictable outcome. Risk-taking, in a way, seemed its own reward.

Notice how in the above graph, libertarians score relatively low in agreeableness (e.g. “likes to cooperate with others”).  That converges with the below measure of psychological reactance (e.g. “I become angry when my freedom of choice is restricted”).

As Conover writes –

To understand tramps…you have to understand the idea that people cannot always do what they are told. Maybe you are told to get a job, but there aren’t any; maybe you return from a crazy war and are told to carry on as though nothing ever happened…Many tramps’ careers on the road began when the tramp told society, “You can’t fire me– I quit!”

There may indeed be a lot of overlap between the tea party movement and traditional republicans.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something that liberals can’t identify with in the American libertarian. Both groups share a desire to escape established structure (liberals score higher than conservatives on reactance) and seek new experiences (high openness to experience scores), and I bet Rolling Nowhere, with it’s portrait of individuals who have escaped life’s routines, living by their own resourcefulness, is the kind of book that would appeal to many members of both groups.

– Ravi Iyer

Posted in book reviews, consilience, differences between republicans and democrats, libertarians, openness to experience, political psychology, psychological reactance, ted conover, tramps, yourmorals.org5 Comments »

5 Responses to “Appreciating American Libertarians – Insight from Ted Conover’s Book, Rolling Nowhere”

  1. Jon Haidt says:

    Ravi, this is fantastic. I think you are developing your own academic mashup style: taking journalism or literature and showing what psychological processes are in play, to augment one of the goals of the journalist or novelist, which is to help people get inside other people’s heads. Bravo! More, please!

  2. zeljka buturovic says:

    these effects look pretty small to me. but that wouldn’t be very surprising because you appear to be following a tradition of explaining ideology without referencing people’s beliefs.

    nevertheless, i believe that your main conclusion “that there is something that liberals can identify with in the american libertarian” is correct. liberal-tarians have argued for a fusion between liberals and libertarians for some time now.

    based on the data that i have seen, some libertarians are indeed attracted to liberals but, in my opinion, that is a minority and is likely to remain such.

    one of the main differences between liberals and libertarians is their attitude towards elitism – an assumption (wide spread among liberals and progressives) that some people have much more knowledge than others and can therefore be trusted to preempt those other people’s decisions by, for example, (re)designing social institutions from the top down. but most libertarians believe in spontaneous order, which assumes that human ignorance is rampant and that, in most cases, decisions based on the “the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place” are superior to those based on technocratic visions.

  3. Ravi says:

    @Jon Thanks

    @Zeljka – Some effects are actually reasonable as a function of the standard deviation (e.g. Libertarians are half a standard deviation higher than conservatives on openness to experience and reactance). The fact that we showed the full scale in the bar graph may make the effects seem smaller. Still your point is important as in the context of the scale labels, the effects may indeed be considered small. You’re absolutely right about the difference in attitudes toward how to construct society, though liberals might frame it differently.

  4. Ross says:

    Very interesting graphs in this post. Could you point us to the source of the data for graph #2 (Big Five personality traits / Political orientation)? Does this come from just one study, or from an aggregation of studies…? Thanks for your time.

  5. Ravi Iyer says:

    It’s from data from, specifically from the studies that feature those particular scales (Big 5, Schwartz Values). Political orientation is collected on registration. For more info this article has more detail on our methods:

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