Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen libertarianism appear in some pretty unusual places. Normally confined to a few relatively obscure corners of the web, libertarianism has made recent guest appearances almost everywhere in mainstream media, from the cranky commentary of a blogger at Wonkette to its own carve-out in a New York Times column advocating the return of forced government service for youth. Expecting to post more on libertarianism, even Gawker now has a dedicated blog category to store its authors’ fun-hating screeds.
Libertarianism is being seen today by millions who have only ever had a vague idea about the political philosophy that takes the best of conservatism and liberalism without any of the baggage.
There are many reasons for libertarianism’s rise. One is that the public is fed up with institutionalized cronyism. Another is that decades of deficit spending has accrued into a nice, fat national debt that is stifling the economy. A third reason is the culture has become more accepting toward gays and less accepting of wars of choice.
Another reason is the popularity of libertarian-leaning politicians such as Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) and his son, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). Given the elder Paul’s latest–and last–bid for the presidency, many now argue he never intended to win, but sought instead to inspire a new generation of citizens to be as skeptical of government as they are about big corporations. By that measure, he succeeded wildly. Due in part to his high-profile libertarian advocacy, young people today are becoming more engaged with classic free market texts, such as The Law by Frederic Bastiat. And over the last four years, youth organizations such as Students for Liberty have formed hundreds of chapters on college campuses nationwide.
Ron Paul’s quixotic presidential bids have energized a large, young libertarian movement. The end of his political career marks a rebirth of the movement that shares his ideas.
But perhaps the biggest reason libertarianism is on the ascent is that millennials have a basic predisposition to it. They share its skepticism of concentrated power, its philosophical consistency, and its embrace of individualism. Crucially, because millennials identify neither with their grandparents’ outdated social views nor the unaffordable fiscal beliefs held by their parents, libertarianism also indulges their need to distinguish themselves in the world.
Prompted by the times, many millennials have formed a worldview that appreciates the need to limit the power of the few over the many. They have witnessed how even the most ethical people break down under pressure. They have become more aware of how their own choices impact the environment and lives of people across the world, often with unintended consequences. And they’re discovering how the bad decisions of the past return to haunt the present.
Combined with a healthy dose of humility, the millennial worldview is essentially libertarian.
In April, a poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics confirmed the ongoing millennial-libertarian convergence. The 18-29 year old demographic expressed skepticism toward the government’s ability to stimulate the economy. They also tended to be against mixing religion with legislation. Blogger Vinnie Rotondaro remarked, “What remained, political scientists and pollsters noted, looked an awful lot like the silhouette of libertarianism, a political philosophy that champions small government and tolerant social attitudes (think Soundgarden’s “My Wave”) and – that especially for youngsters – is fueled by a deep distrust of mainstream politics.”
That’s a very good thing, especially as the political mainstream continues vain debates over raising taxes on the wealthy and whether gay couples ought to be allowed the same legal protections as their straight peers.
Libertarianism has serious solutions to the problems that relate to actual governing, demanding implicitly that government recuse itself from those things that are property determined by individuals in society.
Libertarianism is only a political creed–neither a moral nor spiritual school–but it does provide some millennial-compatible guidance on personal character too. Although caricatures often portray libertarians as cold Dagny Taggart-types, libertarians are not only autonomous, but also cooperative, social, and desire to act in ways that are mutually beneficial. For example, were a libertarian to rewrite the text of the Gadsden Flag today, instead of reading “Don’t tread on me,” it might read, “Don’t tread on others.” This emphasizes the basic libertarian precept that no one has a moral right to interfere in the peaceful words and deeds of anyone else.
Libertarianism enables people to act ethically both in their private lives and voting lives. This is attractive to many, particularly millennials.
The libertarian movement is stronger today than ever before. It will survive the departure of its current leading figures and promote new ones who will offer new insights on what it means to live in a free society.
Libertarianism is here, it’s not going away, and it will be millennials who bring its noble ideas into a new political mainstream.