Officially, the libertarian world view is equally distant from standard liberal and conservative political views. See for example, the World's Smallest Political Quiz, where liberals like social but not economic freedom, and conservatives like economic but not social freedom. In practice, however, libertarians hang out more with conservatives than liberals. At least they do in the academic and think tank worlds I know.
I've been attending some "liberaltarian" dinners arranged by CATO's Brink Lindsey, where we discuss commonalities and differences of liberals and libertarians. So I've been pondering why libertarians seem to connect more with conservatives than liberals. Some say it is just a natural alliance of outsiders, but it seems more to me than that. Some say it is because conservatives are more willing to adopt libertarian rhetoric in national politics, but that is just more data to explain.
Tyler Cowen's insight that ideology is mainly about who gets respect suggests an answer to me: libertarian heroes are more like conservative than liberal heroes.
- In the conservative view, we should most respect the pillars of local communities: dependable connected leaders who respect authority, do their job, help their neighbors, raise their kids, go to church, and go to war when needed.
- In the liberal view, we should most respect passionate cosmopolitan subgroup activists: folks who identify strongly with an oft-disliked non-geographically-defined subgroup and who via sheer impressiveness of art or word gain their group a wider respect.
- In the libertarian view, we should most respect "self-made" men or women, able to achieve glory with minimal help from government, family, or community, if only such meddling outsiders would get out of the way.
Libertarians support low taxes because individuals should be free to choose how their money is spent, rather than being forced to accept collective choices. Conservatives support low taxes so that those who have worked hard for their money can show off the fruits of their labor and earn full respect for it.
Libertarians support gay marriage because individuals should be free to have whatever consenting relations they want. Liberals support gay marriage because they want us all to officially respect gays as much as straights; gay activists have earned their group more respect.
It seems to me that libertarian self-made heroes are more similar to conservative community pillars than to liberal subgroup activists. Self-made men are mostly not made in the bedroom; their glory shows more in their income than in their subgroup identity.
Perhaps some future Ayn Rand Two will describe new compelling libertarian hero characters, who are more like liberal activist heroes. But until then I predict conservatives and libertarians will remain closer than official libertarian doctrine can explain.
Added 25May: Andrew Gelman comments here, and Tyler says not to forget the villans, a great suggestion. I should say this was an attempt to identify the signaling persona behind common ideologies, not the conscious rationalizations people give. And that I'm not at all confident in this. Also, it would have been better to say that libertarians support low taxes and gay marrriage because such policies allow self-made heroes to make more of themselves.