Millennials–the Libertarian Future?

The Next Generation of American Adults Could Be The Most Pro-Liberty Yet


The latest Reason-Rupe poll on the attitudes of millennials offers comprehensive, eye-opening insights into the newest group of American adults. As a "politically unclaimed" generation, millennials have the ability to upset the US electoral status quo.      

The report's findings show that most millennials consider themselves strongly socially liberal and economically moderate. In practice, this has led to nearly twice as many identifying liberal as conservative. Similarly, they are twice as likely to identify as Democratic as Republican. While these results have led some groups to predict Millennials will be at the forefront of a "New Progressive America" in favor of European-style social democracy, the reality appears more nuanced and hopeful for libertarians.

Part of millennials' apparent support for big government is tied to the generation's larger disconnect with the political rhetoric that has shaped the national narrative since the end of World War II. This trend is probably a result of two things. First, that millennials simply don't fully understand what some of these terms mean, and second, that the prevailing discourse has started to lose relevance for this new generation after the end of the Cold War. Rather than flocking to one party or another, millennials are identifying as independents more than their predecessors did and tend to view their party choice as the lesser of two evils.

Twenty-five percent of millennials identify as liberal, compared to only 14% of Americans over 30. However, most millennials are basing their choices on social issues, which they prioritize over economics when making political judgments. When we investigate liberal millennials, the report shows that only about a third of respondents describe their own liberalism in both social and economic terms.

This pattern plays out in policy stances too. Millennials tend to favor a larger, more active government with more guarantees, and are more sympathetic to socialism than older generations. But this isn't absolute. When millennials are educated about the concrete trade-offs these policies entail, their support drops dramatically, even closing common racial gaps in the process.

Knowing millennials' strong social liberalism, you might not expect the dramatic flips toward economic conservatism that emerge when the costs are clear. But when we look at millennials' underlying values, it's easier to understand why they are more reluctant to embrace economic liberalism.

Based on their responses a series of questions, the report found that most millennials fundamentally favor the idea that they are in control of their lives, their successes, and their failures. [1] Consequently, they favor meritocracy over egalitarianism, because they see fairness as getting what you earn rather than what you need. [2] They firmly believe that hard work gets you ahead and view profit and competition positively. And a majority even hold entrepreneurial ambitions. [3]

There is little reason to believe millennials' liberal social attitudes will change anytime soon. However, we find evidence that suggests millennials trend more economically conservative as they earn more, buy houses, and get married—in other words, when they become bigger economic stakeholders themselves.

On top of all of this, millennials are deeply distrustful of our government. As the generation that came of age post-9/11, this makes a lot of sense. Significant majorities feel that government regulators abuse their power instead of acting in the public interest. A majority also says that the government as a rule, rather than an exception is wasteful and inefficient. So we may not be in for as dark a future politically as some claim–particularly since a majority of millennials say they would vote for a fiscally conservative, socially liberal candidate. [4]  

This has enormous implications for American politics. Millennials have the potential to become the most libertarian-friendly generation ever, adopting a mix of socially liberal and economically conservative values. And given their receptiveness to these kinds of candidates, millennial libertarians may enjoy some days in the sun.

[1] See report, page 63 https://reason.com/assets/db/2014-millennials-report.pdf 

[2] See report, page 75 https://reason.com/assets/db/2014-millennials-report.pdf 

[3] See report, page 52 https://reason.com/assets/db/2014-millennials-report.pdf

[4] See report, page 29 https://reason.com/assets/db/2014-millennials-report.pdf

To learn more about millennials, check out Reason-Rupe's new report.