Do Young Conservatives Still Care About the Free Market?

"It's not about money or jobs or fiscal conservatism," one CPAC attendee told Reason.


In recent years, the Republican Party has taken an undeniable turn away from its commitment to small government and free market economics. While the left and right are growing ever further apart on social issues, the two sides have inched closer on economics, with both parties supporting increased government spending and protectionist policies.

But what about young conservative voters? Do they share the same suspicion of the free, unencumbered markets?

Of the dozen young conservative voters Reason interviewed at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a significant majority voiced waning support for free market values, instead favoring regulation, protectionism, and cultural war zeal to battle abortion, "wokeness" in schools, "cancel culture," and globalism. 

"There has been a rethinking throughout the movement of the laissez faire–style economics. And that rethinking is to use more regulation toward things that Republicans feel are targeting them," said Zachary Wanuga, a senior at Salisbury University. "So, for instance, Republicans are for free markets, they're against breaking up businesses and regulating them. However, they're taking a different approach now to the issue of Big Tech censorship, and they would like to see more censorship, they would like to see regulation."

Jacob Ashley, a 19-year-old student at Ohio Northern University, repeated the sentiment. "I tend more nationalistic and 'America First' than opening up the free market completely," said Ashley. "Globalization has done some damage, particularly to our culture and national identity."

Support for protectionist policies often collided with a broader alignment with conservative cultural values. "Having policies that are going to limit [artificial intelligence] taking over blue-collar jobs I think is important. And ideally returning to a place where we can have families be supported on one income," said Conor Coutts, a 26-year-old communications manager at The College Fix, a conservative student publication. "I'm certainly a capitalist, but I think some reasonable reform and restrictions are needed."

For most of the young CPAC attendees interviewed by Reason, economics takes a backseat to social issues. Not only did they consistently cite social issues like abortion and "cancel culture" as the issues they cared about most, but some even voiced a complete lack of interest in economic policy.

One community college student told Reason, "It's not about money or jobs or fiscal conservatism" but instead about "upholding normal values, Christian values."

"Even compared to my generation, [Gen Z is], in my experience, more traditionally value-oriented, more traditionally conservative than even many conservatives or right-wing libertarians in my generation" Aaron Miller, the 33-year-old county commissioner for Maury County, Texas, told Reason. Miller works with Run Gen Z, a group that mentors young conservative candidates for political office. "Whereas free market policy has generally been at the forefront of the conservative movement, it's taken more of a backseat among Gen Z," Miller added.

For young conservatives who lean libertarian, this dynamic can often be frustrating.

"I think we really need to turn back toward lassiez faire and free market economics," said Jacob Tourville, the director of campus at Young Americans for Liberty. "I think the rise in Trumpism is a major contributor to that."

Most Republicans "only expand the size of government, they never reduce it," Sammi Neves, a 22-year-old at Emerson College who identified his politics as "in the middle" of conservative and libertarian.

Shunning the free market in favor of protectionist policies and government regulation is increasingly popular on the left and the right. "At a time of polarization, you might expect the right to react by doubling down on support for free markets and private property," wrote Stephanie Slade in Reason's October 2022 issue. "Instead, concurrent with democratic socialism's ascendance, many prominent conservatives have taken a leftward turn of their own."

With the current culture war continuing to heat up, a commitment to free market economic policy seems to be losing its allure for many young conservatives. When protectionism can be levied to achieve culture war ends, it seems all the more attractive.

As Noah Kitzman—a 23-year-old from Kalamazoo, Michigan—told Reason, "Capitalism with morality is desperately needed."