Young Liberty

“I consider myself socially liberal, but I’m also fiscally conservative.”

If you’re between the ages of 15 and 25, chances are that when asking your friends about their political ideology, you’ve heard a variation of that response before. Whether in  conservative-leaning suburbia or on famously liberal campuses like Penn’s, this ubiquitous line only seems to gain more and more traction as America’s college and high school students develop political views. To be fair, it should be noted that some liberals who claim to be “fiscally conservative”  are in fact lemmings following the popular trend of this expression. Nevertheless, this ideological sensibility is becoming widespread. To this expanding crowd, I have a reply that might be met with chagrin:

“Congratulations on joining the Libertarian Party.”

This next American generation, so often considered extremely liberal, is actually far more libertarian than many of  its members even realize. This generation is a generation of liberty, albeit one misinformed by false perceptions. Contrary to popular belief, Paul Ryan is not a libertarian simply because he read an Ayn Rand book as an awkward 10th grader, nor are libertarians wingmen for the Gordon Gekkos and Green Goblins of Wall Street.

The Libertarian Party, the third-largest political party in the United States after Democrats and Republicans, values the principles of liberty and individual freedom. Libertarians are socially liberal, fiscally conservative, and favor a non-interventionist foreign policy. Libertarians avidly support gay marriage, liberal immigration policies, limited American involvement in foreign countries, and smaller government with less spending and less taxation. If you’ve ever heard any of your friends also say “America needs to stop acting like the world’s policeman,” then you might as well go ahead and buy them that Ron Paul Revolution t-shirt.

The reasons why libertarianism is so popular with the youth (whether they know it or not) are glaringly simple:

This is the generation that grew up watching Glee and wants nothing more than to watch happily as gay friends walk down the aisle with the ones they love.

This is the generation that grew up unable to remember a time when America wasn’t at war in Afghanistan or Iraq, and now looks back on the neoconservative years of George W. Bush with no desire for America to be the world’s policeman.

This is the generation to whom men in Washington who look older than Dumbledore are leaving behind 17 trillion dollars of national debt (and counting!) to be paid off long after they’re gone by today’s youth, because government is simply too big and does too much.

Any junior or senior in a high school government class can tell you that the  sole animating issue for the half of the class that couldn’t care less about politics is legalizing weed. Their classmates may not know which party controls the Senate, but they can all tell you which state legalized marijuana this year – even if they’re too baked off Colombian kush in class to recall that the Libertarian Party is the only political party endorsing that position. In many states, the newest generation of voters is ushering in libertarian reforms with everything from legalizing marijuana to balanced budget amendments to gay marriage reform. This generation wants government out of peoples’ lives and a freedom to make their own choices.

Everyone knows Ron Paul. Remember, the excitable old coot who just ran for President twice? His libertarian-minded supporters are famously more enthusiastic than anyone else’s, and many of them are these very same young people in high school and college. It is no surprise that Ron Paul’s Facebook fan page has more “likes” than almost every politician in the country, including Vice President Joe Biden and Senator John McCain. Even in the American bastion of liberalism known as Berkeley, California, Ron Paul’s visit was met not with protests but with rockstar treatment, despite the fact that he neither wore Birkenstocks nor ate tofu.  The Ron Paul Revolution presents the most obvious example of how millions of young people realize that this ideology of a smaller federal government – one that lets states decide their own positions on social issues and spends less money on fiscal issues – is one that speaks to their generation’s values.

As more and more of this younger generation becomes eligible to vote, one can chart the growth of libertarian political philosophy with the performance of the Libertarian Presidential candidates. For the last few decades, these candidates consistently received around 500,000 votes, or about 0.4% of the national popular vote. But in 2012, Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson shattered this precedent, garnering 1.3 million votes (1%) – almost triple the performances of years past, easily an all-time record for the party. Johnson also won in the range of 3% of the vote in most Western states, despite having virtually no money to bolster name recognition.  One can only wonder how many more votes he would have gotten if masses of Ron Paul’s die-hard supporters hadn’t chosen to write-in Ron Paul’s name.

In the modern era of big government, this generation — let’s call it the indebted generation — is a generation of liberty. The Libertarian Party may never acquire the national recognition it needs to become a major party, but young and old alike should realize if they identify with libertarian positions and should further the message of smaller government it bears. Similarly, Democrats and Republicans alike should (and will) react to this new libertarian generation of voters by courting them with libertarian, small-government positions on issues ranging from marijuana to gay marriage. The Republicans, still licking their wounds from election failures and going through an identity crisis about their future, could benefit greatly by returning to some of their party’s libertarian roots.

As for the rest of us, the least we can do is accept reality. The next time a friend offhandedly vocalizes support for a “stay-out” government that “stays out of my bedroom, stays out of my wallet, and stays out of foreign countries, consider gently suggesting support for the party of liberty. Let’s make sure this third voice doesn’t stay out of of politics.

You can reach Jacob with comments or questions at jacobl@sas.upenn.edu. For more politics, wit, and a little boyish humor, follow Jacob Levy on twitter @jacobmlevy. 

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