14 July 2014

The post-ideological millennium?

The Reason Foundation, a libertarian think-tank, published a survey of "millennials" -- Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 -- and finds them socially liberal and fiscally "centrist." While all parties will cherry-pick the report to find results that suit or encourage them, the key finding seems to be that "millennials are not committed to one ideological form of government action." To summarize:

 When asked about policies to stimulate the economy,some of which would increase the scope of the federal government (such as raising taxes on the wealthy) and others of which would decrease it (such as cutting spending by five percent), millennials endorsed all the policies. Millennials favor action, and they appear to be less motivated by the governing philosophy behind the action

At the same time, millennials are skeptical about both government and markets. They recognize that governments can be "wasteful and inefficient," and also question whether "the centuries-old American belief that the free market drives economic opportunity still applies," even while many still look forward to starting their own businesses and being their own bosses. In short, they seem to believe in both the free market and the welfare state -- which tells me that there isn't really anything new about their attitude.  The belief that you could have both without contradicting yourself is really the post-New Deal consensus that prevailed from World War II until the rise of Ronald Reagan amplified ideological challenges from Goldwater Republicans, Randian Objectivists and libertarians in general. The Reason Foundation's findings suggest that the Great Recession of 2008 halted and reversed the pendulum swing of opinion toward free markets, even while millennials retain a vague commitment to limiting government spending.

Democrats and Libertarians alike have read the survey as bad news for Republicans, since it shows increased alienation from the social or cultural conservatism that increasingly defines the GOP for younger voters. Since the Reason Foundation is libertarian in orientation, its report on the findings looks for signs of hope that millennials will embrace free markets and limited government more unanimously. The authors attempt to blame the current skepticism about markets, and a perceived naivete about government spending, on many millennials' having to live with their parents due to continuing hard times. The more self-reliant (if not successful) they become, the Foundation predicts, the more fiscally conservative rather than fiscally centrist they should become. In the analysis, there are also hints of the old excuse that young people are economically illiterate. Some evidence admittedly isn't flattering to the respondents. The survey found that many were enthusiastic for government programs and supportive of more government spending until it was mentioned that these would require more taxes.

Elsewhere, the results leave the authors wondering whether millennials know the meaning of socialism. The survey shows a more favorable attitude toward "socialism" than toward a "government-managed economy," although most millennials still favor free markets. This confuses the Foundation, since in their view a "government-managed economy," whatever its inherent flaws, is "arguably less interventionist" than socialism. The authors blame this result on the ability of only 16% of respondents (in a separate survey) to define socialism "correctly" as "government ownership, or some variant thereof." While the Reason Foundation shows a fair amount of objectivity in reporting the survey results, I still wouldn't trust them to define socialism. "Government ownership, or some variant thereof" reveals that, as far as the Foundation is concerned, "government ownership" is the essential thing, the variations being relatively trivial. For real socialists, I presume, "ownership" of the government is just as important, if not more so, than what the government owns. For libertarians, the degree of "ownership" or control is what really matters, and what makes "government ownership" unacceptable, but it must make a difference whether the economy and the government are "owned" by bureaucrats (as libertarians implicitly assume) or by the working class. To clarify, I don't think the millennials understand socialism any more correctly than the Reason Foundation, but the mere word "socialism" clearly has lost some of its old repellent power. At the same time, "capitalism" has lost some of its charm, as the survey itself suggests. Respondents are less enthusiastic for "capitalism" than for "free markets," and while the Foundation likely sees the two as synonymous, the authors infer that millennials may identify "capitalism" with "crony capitalism" or "government favoritism," which libertarians themselves deem antithetical to free markets.  All of this is interesting to comment on, but none of it looms as large as the results pointing to a return to consensus. I suppose it'd be unfair if Republican economic policies are repudiated mainly because of an irrational identification of them with reactionary cultural attitudes, but there's also reason to believe that millennials are rejecting Republican economic dogma not because of but simultaneously with their rejection of Republican social dogma. After all, I doubt whether the 2008 recession changed anyone's attitudes toward homosexuals. But if these findings cause concern for the right, they don't automatically inspire optimism in the left, either. As the Foundation suggests, millennial attitudes remain in flux and a wide range of factors could change them in ways we can't fully anticipate yet. Nevertheless, if the findings mean that a less ideologically polarized generation is taking over, that should be good news for everyone.

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