A neat visual two-bird for libertarianism and the generation gap.

On The Libertarian Summer

“One of the most fascinating things about the 1960s,” an historian I know once told me, “is how very seriously people took teenagers. Forgetting, of course, that they were teenagers.” Maybe the 60s were when the American press first acknowledged the existence of people under thirty (and begun to consider, with some apprehension, that these people might one day control the destiny of the Republic), but the phenomenon hardly stopped then. Some of the fascination is gone, but over the last half-century, there’ve been few more reliable tropes in American journalism than the periodic attempt to decode the political intentions of young people.

The most recent cycle of breathlessness got started back on July 10th, when Reason Magazine’s polling outfit released a survey suggesting, under a particularly selective reading of the numbers, that today’s inscrutable young cohort — the Millennials — are shaping up to be the most libertarian generation yet. A few weeks of medium-sized murmuring followed: Reason ran with the story, a few other fringe outfits followed suit. TIME got excited. Vox’s Dylan Matthews suggested that the survey results made a better case for calling youth politics “incoherent,” and several other think-pieces agreed. The matter seemed settled.

But then, on August 7th, The New York Times Magazine released “Has The ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?”, an instant classic of the generation gap genre, wherein the Paper of Boomers eases into its analysis of Millennial politics by way of a Generation X rock and roll analogy. The heavy-hitters came calling. Paul Krugman issued a response; Jonathan Chait opined in New York; David Frum weighed in from The Atlantic. Now nearly ten weeks out, the coverage is still going in Talking Points Memo and The Washington Post. A dire warning regarding our rapidly diminishing reserves of unused Rand Paul stock photos is expected from the AP any day now.

Gaza, ISIS, Ferguson. Ebola and Ukraine. Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, the midterm elections. If we’ve learned anything this summer, it is that there is no news cycle so dense or so grim that it can distract the American media from its obsession with divining the political intentions of young people.

The consensus seems to be that the kids will be alright. There are of course self-servers within the libertarian community (as well as a few leftists evidently in search of a good haunted-house-style risk-free scare) still selling a youth-fueled groundswell for liberty, but among more sober respondents, incredulity hasn’t even remained inside partisan lines. Chait and Frum treated the “libertarian moment” with equal condescension. Drawing a sentence at random from each of their responses (That young voters actually favor ‘bigger government’ in the abstract is a sea change in generational opinion, not to mention conclusive evidence against their alleged libertarianism” and Young voters are not libertarian, nor even trending libertarian. Neither, for that matter, are older voters. The “libertarian moment” is not an event in American culture, for example), I am reasonably confident that nobody who is not bizarrely familiar with the idiosyncrasies of Chait and Frum’s respective writing styles could even confidently say which was which.

Libertarian apologists will no doubt argue that the across-the-board mainstream dismissal of their moment is a bipartisan consensus with emphasis on the bi (that is, the revolution is a threat to their cushy two-party status quo), but any honest look at the available numbers says the consensus is right: Millennials are not libertarians. They do not share more than a few, mostly incidental, goals with Reason Magazine. They will not defect from the left in large numbers to elect Rand Paul President.

There he is again, looking a little more concerned this time.

But these conclusions concern ultimate electoral outcomes. That it is unlikely that any voters, young or old, will pull the level for the Libertarian candidate in 2016, or that shifting sentiment will force the major parties to permanently adopt more libertarian positions does not, by extension, imply that there isn’t something going on in the miasma of Millennial political consciousness, or that libertarianism has had no impact on my generation’s politics. The “Libertarian Moment” is not a serious threat, but consider Krugman as he really gets going:

When it comes to substance, libertarians are living in a fantasy world. Often that’s quite literally true: Paul Ryan thinks that we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel. More to the point, however, the libertarian vision of the society we actually have bears little resemblance to reality.

This goes beyond taking a dim view of a libertarian’s electoral chances. It is an absolute dismissal, and one that is typical of the intellectual left. That isn’t to say I don’t agree with the characterization. I’ve engaged in it myself: portraying Paulites and Randians less as political players than as status seekers, overgrown teenagers who embrace the sanctimonious middle-class warrior poet vibe first and the curiously bias-confirming political content second. And yes, some libertarians seem eager to confirm this cliché (at one point in Draper’s Times story, Reason Editor Nick Gillespie predicates a sentence with the words “The whole point of America – and this is an admixture of Saul Bellow and Heidegger and Jim Morrison lyrics…”). But the roots of the particularly Millennial libertarian instinct deserve slightly more serious consideration than Krugman, Chait, and company allow them.

The Professional Libertarians–like Welch, Gillespie, Rand, and Ryan–may be living in a self-serving fantasy world. But my peers — the ones who care about politics but don’t work in it, the ones who discover themselves unexpectedly nodding along to a Rand Paul filibuster–aren’t doing so out of a conscious desire to get on the A-list for the Galt’s Gulch Gala. I don’t think they’re doing it consciously at all.

Nick Gillespie, alchemist of Bellow, Heidegger, and Morrison

As it happens, I do think this generational phenomenon has a generational cause. Consider the political environment in which Millennials, especially the majority left-wing set of Millennials, came of age. For the better part of our adolescence, the American government was controlled by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, personifications of the pre-Tea Party Republican Party’s toxic mix of domestic Evangelical moralizing and reckless foreign adventurism. We came of age in a political climate dominated by a senseless, costly, and violent use of the military abroad, and a culture war at home. The issues we found our voices arguing about weren’t socialized medicine, or structural racism, or even the value of limited, humanitarian intervention. They were the Iraq War and Guantanamo; abortion, gay marriage and medical marijuana; whether or not the CIA ought to be torturing people in black-site interrogation rooms.

Liberals, in the minority, were playing their typical out-of-power role: protesting state abuses with all the rebellious verve of anarchists. The Times casts libertarians as people “who long have relished their role as acerbic sideline critics of American political theater.” It sounds like a pretty accurate description of a leftist in the Bush Years, too. Perhaps it’s a role the left only relishes when evicted from The White House, but being born when we were, it was the only role Millennial liberals knew growing up.

It is no coincidence that these Bush Era disputes are the issues on which Millennials ostensibly reveal their secret libertarian sympathies; it is even less surprising that given the opportunity these incidental overlaps created, real libertarians have emphasized these policy areas in their marketing pitch to young people. But that isn’t the whole story. If an alliance of convenience, a shared dislike for the particular policies of then-ascendant neo-conservativism, was the only cause of Millennial libertarianism, then it ought to have evaporated so soon as the political ground shifted. Once the nominal left–now in control of the state and ready to implement its agenda–found itself back at odds with the Nick Gillespies of the world (who remain opposed to forceful implementation of any agenda whatsoever) that should have been it.

Yet Millennial sympathy (if not actual support) for libertarianism lingers, to a degree inconceivable toward more traditional Republicans. Spend some time listening to Millennials talk politics: it isn’t uncommon to find one sharing some new Rand Paul quotation, admitting, almost uncomfortably, that they agree with it even as they swear their ongoing loyalty to the left. “I think Paul is actually right on this one,” they’ll say about some protestation of the police state, “Even if he’s crazy about a lot of stuff.” You never hear them talk that way about Rick Santorum.

Even when Leftists and Libertarians agree – say, in the case of abortion – they don’t reach their conclusions for the same reasons. A libertarian (at least not the bizarrely Evangelical variety) supports abortion rights because they’re appalled by the idea of state interference in medical practice. They are ideologically opposed to the regulation of any private decisions, whether those be the medical choices of a woman or the wage practices of a business. A Leftist, meanwhile, predicates the permissibility of state intrusion in terms of compelling interest. Of course a socialist doesn’t believe the government has no role in regulating acceptable medical practice: even neoliberals register support for socialized medicine far beyond The Affordable Care Act. Rather, left-wing support of abortion is a manifestation of left-wing ideological axioms: that reproductive freedom specifically is vital to redressing gender inequality; that empathy for the impoverished requires family (and therefore financial) planning, and that both these things, if they are to be meaningful, must be enforced with the power of the state. They are entirely opposite starting points that happen to reach the same practical conclusion.

It is the same with marriage equality: the state has no business regulating private contracts, says the libertarian. “Traditional marriage” laws are needless, punitive discrimination against a marginalized group, says the liberal. On marijuana too: the Left sees it as a drug the state has good reason to allow, Libertarians just don’t like the state “allowing” certain drugs. That’s why libertarians end up supporting heroin legalization and liberals typically don’t.

Of course, these are just the de jure differences between libertarians and the left, the kind a political scientist might identify when attempting to make various planks of co-selecting ideology conform to a central logic. But as nobody ever tires of pointing out, most citizens are not rational. They’re certainly not political scientists or even possessed of a particularly cohesive understanding of their own beliefs. The incoherence of Millennial politics implies this truism: in the face of patently contradictory policy preferences, the simple explanation is that most people, even holders of especially strong opinions, do not rationally examine the consistency of their worldview.

But even if we aren’t typically self-aware, there is still a process by which we come to believe what we do. I tend to think we develop our worldviews first by accident and then by rote. We believe something, or think we ought to. We find ourselves in need of a reason to justify that belief. Deployed enough times, the lines of reasoning we’ve stumbled upon become habitual; the quick trains of thought that served us in the past are applied interminably to the present.

Eventually we find them bubbling up to our considerations like the outcome of common sense. By the time we’re old enough to engage in any kind of critical reflection on our biases (and who of us, really, has bothered even now?), the whole holistic nexus of our politics is already in place: obvious, true, and what we’ve always believed in.

A stock photo of a generation.

In the New York Times story, author Robert Draper notes one common defense of the libertarian worldview: “Virtually every other libertarian leader I met,” he writes, “told me that their philosophy was unique for its ‘consistency.’” Another word might be “simplicity.” This need not be derisive–I only mean that liberals have always had the harder project, on the one hand unwilling to reject the usefulness of state power, but on the other opting to write its own, new guide to its moral use rather than rely on inherited, conservative values. Libertarians by contrast have a clear moral vision, one which happens to answer–as a matter of consistency–most questions with the answer “let people do as they will.”

The practical consequence of this simplicity is that libertarian arguments for policy positions tend to be more easily learned, to include fewer statistics and caveats, to derive their weight from the force of moral principle rather than some dull assessment of what we can achieve, and how we might do it, and why.

What kind of argument is more appealing to teenagers? To anyone trying to win a political argument over the Internet or beer or Thanksgiving dinner? In the Bush Years, libertarians and leftists happened to share some policy goals. In theory–and to some extent, in practice–we supported those goals for different reasons. But the arguments both factions ended up using were the simple ones. The libertarian ones. For older leftists, perhaps this was a conscious decision–but for Millennials, it was how we learned our liberalism.

Habit is the strongest force in political life: if you spend your teenage years and twenties saying over and over how the state shouldn’t get to make medical decisions, or how marijuana smoking, at worst, is a victimless “crime,” the logic which underlies these arguments will grow on you. Even after the political ground shifts, and the convenient alliances vanish, the unconscious logic remains. When you hear it deployed by Rand Paul in defense of some position you consciously reject–say, that government enforcement of civil rights laws is federal overreach–your learned intuition will still tell you that there’s something to his point. Dissonance ensues, thus the uncomfortable murmurs, thus the poll results that show a generation with moral schizophrenia.

So what does this mean? Millennial politics, like everyone’s politics, are largely incoherent. The presence of a contradiction won’t force a reckoning. The brain is a rationalizing machine, but it is not a rational one and for most people dissonance doesn’t inexorably resolve toward one or the other strict consistency. Most Millennials will carry on relying on the discrete logics they’ve learned for every issue, the priority of one or the other artfully exploited by whomever’s got the better messaging team that year. But there won’t be a “Libertarian Moment.”

The youngest Millennials will be able to vote in just four years. By then, though, we’ll have moved on to the next generation of youngsters, and begin again the quest to figure out just what these kids are thinking.


Emmett Rensin is an essayist in Chicago, IL. His previous work has appeared in The Atlantic, New Republic, Los Angeles Review of Books (where he is a contributing editor), and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @revemmettrensin.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Emmett Rensin’s story.