Attendees of Young Americans for Liberty’s 2014 national convention.
I spent this past weekend with more than 300 college students from more than 200 universities spread across all 50 states. They’d sacrificed five days of summer break to travel to Washington, DC on their own dime to sit in a classroom for nearly 12 hours a day, taking endless notes.
Why? Because they’re really into liberty.
The event was the sixth annual Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) National Convention. As a YAL employee, I’ve attended each and every convention we’ve held since the first one in 2009, and it’s given me a unique and inspiring inside look at the youth movement for liberty.
From that experience—plus years of broader involvement in college activism and polling data which supports the following observations—here are 3 things you need to know about young people and liberty in America today.
1. Freedom is popular. A recent Reason-Rupe poll confirmed what we’ve seen at YAL for a while: Millennials are the most libertarian generation yet. Yes, libertarian, not liberal.
As the poll showed, two-thirds of young Americans (ages 18 to 29) think the government is wasteful and inefficient. Nearly as many (63%) understand that government regulations favor special interests, not the general public. Strong majorities favor cutting government spending, regulations, taxes, and overall size.
Millennials are also uniquely pro-liberty on social issues like marriage and the drug war, with a majority agreeing that the government shouldn’t dictate what we eat, smoke, or drink. They are also very suspicious of both major parties, with more than half identifying as political independents.
All of this is fantastic news—and it’s not just this one poll which shows the promise of the Millennial generation. Another recent survey from Pew Forum received a lot of attention because it categorized Americans into eight cross-partisan political typologies.
None of them are explicitly called “libertarian,” but the two that have the strongest representation of young people? Well, they sound pretty libertarian to me (or at least close enough to be persuaded in that direction): The “Young Outsiders” and “Next Generation Left” both want government to get out of our personal lives, and while the first group is definitely fiscally conservative, even the latter category understands far more than many older left-wingers that DC can’t keep spending like we have unlimited free money.
2. We’re making real progress. At the inaugural YAL National Convention six years ago, there were just 60 attendees. This year, we had more than 325 hand-chosen activists who have proven their dedication to advancing liberty at the local and state level. This event is not a casual conference where you can wander in and out at will, taking long lunches and hanging out in a hotel lobby. It’s an intense, invitation-only event that requires serious commitment to advancing freedom.
And there’s a waiting list every year.
But this isn’t just about the YAL convention. It’s a broader generational shift, as young people who have grown up under endless (and completely bipartisan) war, debt, and a perpetual eating away of our individual liberties realize the government is no friend.
Remember the two-thirds of Millennials who label the government wasteful and inefficient? Just a few years ago, in 2009, only 42% of my generation agreed with that statement.
3. There’s still more progress to be made. As much as Millennials have very solid instincts on the issues I mentioned above—and on blind support for government in general—that’s not to say my generation is politically perfect. Thanks in large part to an awful, federally mismanaged education system, most graduate high school (or even college) with hardly any real economic education. In many high schools, economics classes aren’t even an option.
Inevitably, confusion ensues, and thus we see contradictory support for more government action on some specific issues (like raising the minimum wage or taxing the rich) that don’t match up with Millennials’ other ideas about getting government out of their lives and wallets.
This isn’t as encouraging as points 1 and 2, but here’s the thing: Economic education is not an insurmountable hurdle.
I wasn’t born with knowledge of basic economics. You weren’t either. And there are plenty of fantastic organizations like YAL, Students For Liberty, Generation Opportunity, and others dedicated to providing the economic education they need to match their excellent pro-liberty instincts with specific pro-liberty policies.
There’s a lot to worry about today. The economy is screwed up. Our military is entangled in too many endless, aimless wars. And each new newsday seems to bring yet another report of some secret, dastardly way the government is violating our liberties and trampling the rule of law.
But I’d suggest that there are real and good reasons to be hopeful about my generation, and the role we’ll play shaping and leading our country and our world as we grow older.
Every generation has its flaws and its unwarranted idealism, but I just spent a weekend with more than 300 college students from more than 200 universities spread across all 50 states.
They are really into liberty. Some of them might even do something about it.