Freedom, specifically economic freedom, has a pr problem. For the past few decades, advocates of government regulation and state planning have successfully re-branded free markets as the philosophy of the past. In a two pronged attack, economists, educators, and politicians deftly chalked the 2009 crash up as a failure of the private sector, while rewriting history to portray market excess as the driver of the Great Depression. At the same time, progressive policies, like mandated health insurance, sky high minimum wages, trade restrictions, and new taxes gained political and cultural traction.
Enter millennials: a group of individuals, of which I am a part, who grew up during the pinnacle of this brave new age. We saw the mortgage bubble rise and fall. We immersed ourselves in the new wave of technological innovation, and we absorbed the media that came along with it. The reality is that progressive or pro-government messages have won the ground war. From influential, sexy economics books like Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century, to well-produced Buzzfeed and AJ+ videos, the left has managed to blame capitalism for wealth inequality and present government as not only innocent, but as the savior. All the while, well managed and culturally relevant messaging is selling to America the idea that free markets and individual choice are ideas for the dustbin of history.
But there is a silver lining to this situation. First, the narrative that has been winning the millennial war is wrong. It was not free markets that destroyed economic prosperity in the 30s and again in 2009. Any examination of the Smoot-Hartley Tariff, government subsidization of the mortgage industry, tight and lax monetary policy, and massive government intervention will tell a more nuanced story. It is not economic freedom that restrains wages and crushes advancement: it is regulation, union monopolies, minimum wages, corporate subsidization, state licensing requirements, and government paternalism. Of course, some of these ideas are debatable. But others, like the economic benefits of right to work legislation, are almost foregone conclusions.
Second, the internet and technology revolution has established itself as inherently pro-liberty. The internet has made competing sources of information accessible to the average person. Lyft, Uber, and Sidecar have begun to bring down the taxi monopolies. Ebay, Amazon, and other online retailers have forced conversations about sales taxes. WebMD and other websites allow for free medical advice. Acorn and Scottrade allow people with small initial deposits to begin investing. All of these changes have one thing in common: they mean more choices. And millennials, despite their learned inclination against free markets, like more choices.
What remains now is for a political force to leverage the millennial opportunity to counter the past few years of statist victories. The party of economic freedom has traditionally been the Republicans. But riding the millennial wave will take more than a few awkwardly produced videos by the national organization. It will take three fundamental changes.
First, the party must embrace a comprehensive and consistent view of freedom and liberty. This means dropping platforms like harsh criminalization of low level drug offenders, opposition to same sex marriage (at least adopting a more Rand Paulish position on this one), and support of massive state surveillance programs. Polls numbers suggest these positions are no-goes with millennials, and I contend that this is likely because they are not consistent with a philosophy of liberty. In the place of old platforms, the party can reorganize and debate more fundamental issues. One such issue, abortion, is a philosophical question where government action could be defended. If a fetus is a person, than laws against abortion are not only justifiable, but necessary to protect human liberty. A more nuanced set of poll numbers regarding abortion suggests millennials appreciate the need for a discussion on this issue. Other areas include new ground, like right to try legislation. People, especially those facing near certain death, deserve the chance to try experimental drugs. The FDA does not have the right to stand in their way. In the immigration debate, Republicans should spend time convincing the non-millennial base of the value of a more free and open immigration system. Such a system recognizes the realities of our global world, and it resonates with millennials, who due to the Internet and an increase in foreign students, feel connected to those who wish to make the United States their new home.
Second, the Republican Party has to embrace the technological revolution. While this may seem easy, it requires accepting not just the shining tools of the future but the cultural changes of the present. Many libertarian think tanks, like the Cato Institute and the Mercatus Center are already doing this. One mainstream Republican candidate, Marco Rubio, has made technological changes a pillar of his campaign. He should be commended, but he and the other candidates would do well to not just embrace the Amazons and the Ubers of the world, but also the Reddits, The Onions, and Khan Academies. Millennials and the younger generations already recognize the value in these and other noncommercial aspects of the technological revolution. By recognizing the value of the disruption and even sometimes social change that comes with technological, Republicans can rebrand themselves as the torchbearers of the future instead of the gate keepers of the past.
Finally, the Republican Party needs to be willing to form unlikely alliances to accomplish policy goals. Political elections often conjure hatred, and sometimes rightfully so. But Republicans would win political points for taking the higher road when possible to work with nontraditional allies. Tax reform and licensing reform offer two areas for this type of cooperation, where pro-market reforms can help reduce poverty.
Republicans should also drop the personal attacks on political opponents. Rhetoric targeting a person’s religious beliefs or racial identity has become central to politics, especially with the rise of Donald Trump. And while his tactics may provide short term gains within the base, they are not sustainable in the general election or the future. Recent polls showed Trump polling at 25 percent among millennial conservatives, but dwelling on this result is missing the point. Conservative millennials are a small faction within a diverse generation. According to Pew Research, only 35 percent of millennials identify as Republican, meaning that even if the 25 percent number is accurate, it represents less than nine percent of the generation as a whole.
Overall, Millennials want action, not rhetoric. Some polling even suggests that the direction of this action is irrelevant. And if the Republican Party wants to win the hearts and minds of America’s future, it will need to act. It will need to generate ideas, be willing to evolve, and most importantly, embrace the full meaning of liberty.
Millennials want action: