Are Young Americans More Liberal?

In a recent column, E. J. Dionne claims, “Young Americans are the linchpin of a new progressive era in American politics.” Those “born in 1981 or after” are “without question, the most liberal generation since [the] New Dealers.”

There is a rather large problem with Dionne’s article: he never explains what a “liberal” is or in what sense young Americans are more “liberal.” In the true sense of the term, I am a “liberal,” because I advocate liberty and individual rights, while the New Dealers were statist reactionaries who fought against market liberalism. So, absent any definitions or mention of specific beliefs, Dionne’s article is worthless.

So let us turn to the Pew study cited by Dionne to get some specifics. Offhand, the “Millennials” don’t sound like a bad bunch. Pew describes the Millennials as “confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change. They are more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults. They’re less religious, less likely to have served in the military, and are on track to become the most educated generation in American history.”

I regard this as great news: “One-in-four are unaffiliated with any religion, far more than the share of older adults when they were ages 18 to 29.”

What about politics?

About half of Millennials say the president has failed to change the way Washington works, which had been the central promise of his candidacy. Of those who say this, three-in-ten blame Obama himself, while more than half blame his political opponents and special interests.

To be sure, Millennials remain the most likely of any generation to self-identify as liberals; they are less supportive than their elders of an assertive national security policy and more supportive of a progressive domestic social agenda. They are still more likely than any other age group to identify as Democrats. Yet by early 2010, their support for Obama and the Democrats had receded, as evidenced both by survey data and by their low level of participation in recent off-year and special elections.

Pew recommends Chapter 8 of its full report for more details. So let’s see if that offers anything else of interest.

By a margin of 53 to 42, Millennials think “Government should do more to solve problems,” as opposed to thinking “Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” This is the only age category in which a majority agree with the first statement. However, the question is ambiguous. Government should do certain things that only government can do — run the military, for instance — whereas certain things our government is now doing should be left to the private sector.

I do not doubt that these younger Americans are more seriously interested in seeing government involved in the economy. In part, that reflects a lack of experience and economic literacy. With the lap-dog media repeating political lies about how the market supposedly caused the housing bust, when it is clear that political interference in the economy actually caused it, and without the memory of Carter or Watergate, it is no big surprise that youngsters place too much faith in political action. Moreover, George W. Bush was so horrible in so many ways that youthful exuberance for Obama was to be expected. Obama’s failures are already eroding that confidence.

What this represents is an outstanding opportunity for the true liberals of the country — market liberals — to help educate this generation on the benefits of a free market economy.

It is clear that the Millennials are more “liberal” in the good sense:

The distinctiveness of members of the Millennial generation is particularly evident in their social values, where they stand out for their acceptance of homosexuality, interracial dating, expanded roles for women and immigrants. At the same time, however, their views are not particularly distinctive in other areas, such as attitudes about business and the social safety net.

Given this apparent respect for individuals, it should not be too hard to persuade many Millennials that fully respecting individuals means respecting their rights, including their economic rights to control their property and freely associate with others.

At least Millennials are no more hostile toward business than are other groups:

Millennials’ views of business are not substantially different from those of older generations. On a three-question index of attitudes about business power and profits, Millennials’ opinions mirror those of Gen Xers and members of the Silent generation and are slightly less critical of business than are the views of Baby Boomers. Millennials are no more likely than other cohorts to say that big companies have too much power, and Millennials are nearly as likely as other cohorts to agree that the country’s strength is mostly built on the success of American business.

On one question, Millennials appear more supportive of business than their elders. A higher percentage of Millennials than other cohorts agrees that “business corporations generally strike a fair balance between making profits and serving the public interest.”

Of course, these questions are ambiguous, so answers to them must be interpreted accordingly. Some businesses really are too big and powerful, precisely because politicians have granted them bailouts, other forms of corporate welfare, and protectionist advantages. “The public interest” is notoriously ambiguous, and the question wrongly implies that pursuing a profit is at odds with “the public interest.” In fact a profit indicates that a company is ably serving its customers’ needs.

Millennials “are not particularly supportive of an expanded government social safety net.”

On the whole, thankfully Dionne is wrong to see in the Pew results youthful support for “liberalism” of the “progressive” (i.e., socialist) variety. What I see is a group of Americans who may be naive about the efficacy of political action and unknowledgeable about the benefits of market liberalism, but who may be very open to arguments about the need for individual rights and economic liberty.