3.1 Authoritarians versus libertarians

“You laugh at me because I am different.
I laugh at you because you are all the same”

— Anonymous libertarian

The differences between authoritarians and libertarians are analyzed in great detail in “The Authoritarian Dynamic” by Princeton political psychologist Karen Stenner [2005] that addresses a phenomenon called Authoritarianism. Stenner had no particular interest in education, nevertheless she developed a simple instrument that can be used to measure degrees of human autonomy to separate the narrowly educated from the liberally educated (in a psychological senses) that we from now on will refer to as authoritarians and libertarians. Stenner defines Authoritarianism as follows (p 13)

… authoritarianism is an individual predisposition concerned with the appropriate balance between group authority and uniformity, on the one hand, and individual authority and diversity, on the other.

In this definition the ‘group authority’ is an external authority and uniformity allows [cognition without understanding] through the rigorous application of procedures and commands. However, more telling than the definition is Stenner’s way to measure authoritarianism: she asked her participants which of two child rearing qualities were most favorable according to the table with child rearing qualities.

Child rearing qualities
Authoritarians Libertarians
Children should: Children should:
obey parents be responsible for own actions
have good manners have good sense and sound judgment
have respect for elders think for themselves
follow the rules follow their own conscience
be neat and clean be interested in how and why things happen

Participants who consistently choose qualities from the left column were treated as highly authoritarian and those who choose consistently from the right column were treated as highly libertarian. Note that all questions match the two key-aspects of human autonomy as outlined in the previous section. The first question addresses who is supposed to be responsible: parents or the children themselves? The authoritarian children are treated as subservient agents while the libertarian children are treated as self-deciding agents. The second question addresses who decides on the outcome and conduction of behavior: the rules or their own conscience. The third how to limit behavior: according to proper social expectations or by good sense and sound judgment. The fourth what to trust (i.e., use as basis of behavior): elders (or other authorities) or the own thought processes. And finally what to value more: orderliness and hygiene versus learning to understand all aspects of the world.

In the libertarian case the child itself is taught responsibility and should learn the qualities that allow it to act responsibly. In the authoritarian case the ideal child is raised to be predictable and subject to established social rules. In the libertarian case the child may be as unpredictable and as different as it wants to be, as long as it has the good sense to act responsibly. So the difference between authoritarianism and libertarianism is very much a difference between the primacy of the norms and authorities in the (social) environment and the primacy of individual judgement.

For the ideal authoritarian child, all behavior will be severely constrained by the (norms of the social) environment while the ideal libertarian child is only limited by its own sound judgment and a well-developed conscience. Likewise, an authoritarian child will not be exposed to a broad diversity of behavioral options from which it has to choose independently and for which it needs a broad range of skills. Quite on de contrary, the authoritarian child will be explicitly limited to “good and proper” behavior and will be corrected (lovingly and with the best of intentions) when it steps over social norms or explores beyond what is considered good and proper. The libertarian child in contrast will be allowed to self-generate an ever-increasing range of behavioral options from which it will be coached to choose the sound ones. Indeed: the authoritarian child is trained, the libertarian child is educated [link]. As a consequence a driving emotion of authoritarians is the fear of doing things in a wrong way or to apply the rules inadvertently. In contrast the libertarian is driven by interest in novelty and diversity since that will deepen and broaden understanding and the discovery of ways to improve the world.

Note that Stenner’s list addresses the whole of the education of children, not only the official schooling part. Children with a vocational education can still turn out as libertarians if their parents, their character and intelligence, and the rest of the social environment helps to teach them how to cope with the holes between the pockets of competence learned at school. The probability for that is of course lower.

The key to authoritarianism is whether the mind is trained or educated: whether one is trained to behave appropriately or whether one has learned the tools to become gradually more and more competent in coping with the full diversity of life: anywhere and at any time. In many less extreme situations overt behavior of authoritarians and libertarians may be indistinguishable: like the authoritarian, the libertarian may obey its parents, have good manners, be neat and clean, respect elders, and follow the rules. However, the authoritarian did not develop a good sense and sound judgment, is not particularly interested in, or knowledgeable about, how and why things happen, and does not ‘think for himself’ as much as the libertarian. The authoritarian never learned to understand “why and how things happen” and will prefer rules and regulations over improvisation and exploration in all aspects of life and work.

The difference between authoritarians and libertarians is essentially one of self-empowerment. Both can be empowered, but the authoritarian derives its empowerment essentially from some sort of external authority (typically a hierarchy). Any attack, challenge, act of ridicule, and even simply ignoring this authority is profound attack on the everything that gives certainty to the authoritarian. So compared to the libertarian, the authoritarian exhibits minimal self-empowerment. Setting-up the conditions in which everyone ends up as authoritarian is the ultimate form of disempowerment.


  • Stenner, Karen. 2005. The Authoritarian Dynamic. First Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press.