Generation Alienation and the Libertarians

Some libertarians are gloating as millennials abandon traditional social institutions. That's a mistake.

“Unmoored from institutions.” That is, in three words, what Pew Research found in a major study of “millennials” (that’s us, people aged 18-33) earlier this month. We’re more likely than any other age group to be religiously unaffiliated or politically independent. We’re less likely than any other age group to call ourselves patriotic, and we’re far less likely to be married than previous generations were when they were our age.

This unmooredness has real social costs—the study found millennials less trusting of others than prior generations and more likely to have children out of wedlock. Though we’re more liberal than previous generations, we seem to have lost the liberals’ concern for a common good—we’re less trusting of the Social Security system and less likely to identify ourselves as environmentalists.

Taken as a whole, the Pew study creates the impression that America is currently experiencing a social rupture, one in which old beliefs, old traditions, old ways of life are being abandoned en masse, and in which the communities and institutions associated with the old ways no longer command popular loyalty. You might object that these old institutions had their problems, that we’ve become a much more open society. And that’s true. Yet it was the old that created the social context from which the new has arisen. The Anglo-American tradition of rights and of laws—a tradition of many centuries—evolved steadily and naturally into modern liberty and toleration. It is hard to find nations without this tradition that have enjoyed uninterrupted democracy as long as the United States or Britain. Abandoning it for uncharted waters is risky.

Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief on the web for libertarian flagship Reason, sees it differently. “Millennials,” he says, “are simply rejecting the worn-out trappings and organizations of the Establishment—and quite right too.” The two parties, he says, “have been leaking market share for decades, the inevitable byproduct of wielding power directly at odds with the promises that got them elected in the first place.” The reasoning he offers for millennial distaste for the two parties sounds rather like a libertarian critique of the last two administrations—stupid wars, massive spending, discomfort with marijuana and, under Bush, “record-setting levels of economically significant regulations.” (If there’s one issue that moves young voters, it’s regulatory reform.)

The churches and the press also fall beneath Gillespie’s hammer—“it’s easy to understand why [they] are worried about all this. After all, it’s their ‘traditional institutions’ that are being left behind like Mayan ruins.” And so do people who like America—“Whoda thunk that growing up against the background of two inconclusive, ill-conceived, and poorly prosecuted wars might have soured Millennials on the old Red, White, and Blue?” Given all these failings on the part of traditional institutions, says Gillespie, “the real question isn’t why most Millennials are turning their backs on institutions, it’s why any of them are still clinging to the old ways.”

One of the few good trends Pew found among us millennials is a great optimism about the future. That’s in spite of the brutal economy we face—we are the best-educated generation, yet also, says the Pew study “the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations (Gen Xers and Boomers) had at the same stage of their life cycles.” Why are millennials so hopeful? The answer, Gillespie says, is “precisely because they are turning away from played-out institutions in American life and turning to a future in which individuals are free to form new communities and new ways of navigating a world that is as uncertain as it is untapped.”

There is a tendency implicit in all this, one that Gillespie does not fully enunciate but which is common enough in broader libertarian circles. It is the notion that political chaos is cause for this “Whoda thunk?” glee, because it will create space for the rise of new political currents—namely, the libertarians.

This tendency confuses the good of a political movement with the good of society. It is probably true that the current political and social breakdown will benefit third parties. It’s surely also true that a more diverse political discussion would be healthy for American politics, and that the intoxicating brew that is modern libertarianism would probably have the fastest and most invigorating effect. Yet this does not mean that the trends that make this possible are good, or that the social costs associated with them will eventually be balanced by the benefit of a better government. Libertarians, like conservatives, tend to doubt that government action can actively make society better. And so we’d view the rise of a better government at the cost of social pain as more like chemotherapy stopping a deadly cancer than like grueling exercise leading to more energy. The first kind of treatment merely stops the body from getting worse, the second makes it better. Gillespie and his allies are right that the last several administrations have set us on a path to declining health. Yet in hoping for the fall of our present institutions and their replacement by “new communities and new ways of navigating a world that is as uncertain as it is untapped,” they are proposing not to remove a cancer, but to let the body die and pray for its resurrection.

This is, of course, bad for the body. But it’s also bad for those who expect the body to rise again in a new, more libertarian form. A generation that is heavily indebted, unmarried, unemployed and unaffiliated will have little to lean on when life or markets turn against them. They’ll vote for the apparent security of a larger, more active government that tries to fill the space left by the fallen institutions. We can already see that happening in the Pew study. Fewer millennials favor a smaller government than any other generation; more millennials favor a larger government than any other generation. Millennials dislike Obamacare at about the same rate as all other generations, but believe in federal responsibility for healthcare more than any of their forerunners. And though we are less likely to identify with any political party, half of us either are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, and we’re the only generation in which self-described liberals outnumber self-described conservatives—a major shift from the past. What Gillespie says he “would charitably call the confusion of youth” looks more like the groundwork for a social-democratic America.

John Allen Gay is an assistant managing editor at the National Interest. He tweets at @johnallengay.

Image: Flickr/Miles Heller. CC BY-SA 2.0.