The Political Establishment Doesn't Get Millennials' Libertarian Leanings

Young Americans will defend the free market when needed.


: Dice.com / Foter / Creative Commons

In this time of political polarization, it's rare to find a moment of comity. But that's exactly what we've found in the wake of Robert Draper's recent New York Times Magazine feature suggesting that the "libertarian moment" might have finally arrived in America.

Not only did both liberals and conservatives dismiss the claim, they did so for similar reasons: Young Americans care more about their personal freedom than their elders but less about economic freedom—scoring no net advance for libertarianism. As David Harsanyi, a conservative writer with libertarian leanings quipped, Millennials are just "socialists who want to buy legal pot."

Arguing with a good joke is bad karma, but there is an obvious explanation for this disconnect: Millennials care more about their personal freedoms because they've experienced more direct assaults on them as children of the twin wars on drugs and terrorism. At the same time, the rise of the internet economy has shielded them from the worst excesses of government economic interventionism, making similar resistance unnecessary for now.

The libertarian moment argument goes something like this: An increasing number of Americans, and a majority of Millennials, favor decriminalizing marijuana, sentencing reform, cracking down on police abuse, cuts in defense spending, less overseas interventionism, and slashing the long tentacles of the surveillance state.

Critics claim that all this does not add up to a "libertarian moment" because Millennials seem fairly accepting of government intervention in the economy. Their main evidence—confirmed in a Reason-Rupe poll conducted by my colleague, Emily Ekins, that Draper prominently cites—is that Millennials want government to offer, among other things, guaranteed health care (69 percent) and college education (54 percent), a higher federal minimum wage (71 percent), and higher taxes on the wealthy (66 percent).

Worse, Ekins found that 54 percent of Millennials support a "larger government providing more services," far more than older Americans.

All of this prompted David Frum, a recovering neocon who has long derided libertarians, to declare that young voters are not libertarian, "nor even trending libertarian." Likewise, Paul Krugman, the pugnaciously liberal Nobel laureate, averred that talk of a libertarian moment represented "libertarian fantasies"—not reality.

But such conclusions stem from some serious cherry-picking.

First, the strong support that Millennials express for "large government and more services" drops 19 percentage points—back to the natural average of Americans as a whole—when the phrase "with higher taxes" is added to the question. The greater support for Big Government is really based on a naiveté (hardly unusual for young people) regarding taxes, a condition that might be soon cured by sharp tax increases that America's debts and deficits will inevitably trigger.

The Reason-Rupe poll found that Millennials might want a strong safety net, but they want it to stay out of their soda size and trans fatty foods. They also want to be able to access such blasphemous items as incandescent light bulbs and plastic bags at grocery checkouts without nagging from the Nanny State.

But the real news is that 64 percent of them believe that profits are not a dirty word; they are a good thing. Relatedly, a good 70 percent believe that economic competition is desirable and 55 percent want to start a business.

All of this shows that Millennials are not 1960s-style hippies who want to move to a commune, toke up, and read Das Kapital. Indeed, they are aspiring entrepreneurs who want worldly success—along with legal pot.

Still, why has government surveillance of Americans' emails generated enough outrage to power the political careers of politicians such as Rand Paul and Justin Amash (Republicans from the tough-on-security party no less), yet, say, government's widespread abuse of its eminent domain powers to confiscate private property for "development purposes" has generated nothing comparable? Or why even as Californians defy the federal ban on marijuana by legalizing pot for medical purposes, they are quietly accepting state efforts to impose an expensive ban on carbon emissions?

One reason why Millennials are less bothered by such economic interventionism than their elders is that they are less affected by it. The rise of the internet economy has offered them an escape from stultifying regulations and onerous taxes that govern traditional brick-and-mortar industries. Kids who can earn their living sitting in their home offices writing code or developing apps have to worry less about the soaring prices of cars due to tougher CAFÉ standards. They don't need to take on OSHA's maddening workplace regulations because they can telecommute.

But this happy arrangement where they stay out of government's way and the government stays out of theirs can't last forever. The crushing debt of the massive entitlement state will inevitably cause Uncle Sam and states to try to tax the internet, especially as the revenues from Main Street businesses decline. Likewise, city governments won't simply sit by and let internet services render their meticulously created regulatory structures obsolete.

But attempts to impose internet sales taxes have already met with stiff resistance, as have efforts to extend the regulations that govern standard cab services to companies like Uber and Lyft, forcing authorities often to back off. (Uber riders are fiercely protective of this service.)

An important paradox of political life is that it is not the experience of freedom that causes individuals to fight for it; it's the experience of having it taken away. But the greater the freedom that people enjoy, the more even the smallest intrusions rankle—and more fiercely they resist.

Millennial quiescence on economic interventionism is therefore deceptive. When they feel the government's heavy hand closing in, they'll slap it away, just as they are doing now with their pot plants and doobies. Pot legalization might just be a harbinger of things to come on the economic front.

This column originally appeared in The Week. You can access Dalmia's full Week archive here.