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

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



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