In defense of today’s youthful activism

5 01 2012

There’s an interesting bit of back-and-forth going on at the Michigan View’s Watercooler blog. It was prompted by several competing analyses of the results of the Iowa caucus, which saw a virtually tied Romney-Santorum duo take the top two places followed by Ron Paul.

It might be a bit hard to follow the conversation at the ‘Cooler. It happened in roughly this order:

Burr, “We’ve seen this libertarian boomlet before”

Calabrese, “Young libertarians don’t want any responsibility”

LaPlante, “Libertarianism and responsibility can go hand-in-hand”

Burr, “Libertarian responsibility”

Anyway, it’s an interesting (and vital) discussion to have. Here’s my addition, published yesterday evening:

At risk of prompting a conservative-libertarian flame war, I’d like to address some of the points raised by my fellow contributors regarding young activists.

First, regarding historical precedent:

The libertarian boom of the sixties and seventies (Reason magazine was founded in 1968, the Libertarian Party in 1971, and the Cato Institute in 1977) is easy understand within the context of the nation’s economic and social turmoil. The libertarian cause was new (or at least, newly popular). The stakes were high; perhaps activists saw libertarian principles as the only way to avoid a generation of Carter-style malaise.

Then Reagan came along. His optimistic pro-America rhetoric was backed with tangible economic growth. Things didn’t seem to be so bad anymore; it became easy, perhaps, to stop fighting for “extremist” libertarian policy solutions and simply enjoy the era’s abundant opportunity.

I believe the difference between today’s movement and past “boomlets” comes down to one of the few concepts that mainstream neo-Keynesian economics gets right: opportunity cost. Why fight for a fringe ideology when things are going swimmingly? Easier to simply join the Reagan Revolution, earn a living, and raise a family. I’m not being accusatory here: that path was both rational and healthy. If our regulatory and economic situation were to improve overnight, I would expect a similar flight from activism. Unfortunately, given today’s troubling confluence of debt, entitlements, overspending, and crushing regulations, I don’t see that turnaround as likely.

True, a pro-individual liberty ideology invites accusations of selfishness. But today’s activists – activists I know – aren’t simply libertines fighting for easy access to drugs or the right to drive drunk or seat belt-less. Instead, we’ve sacrificed weekends of partying for conferences on free market principles, teaching ourselves what our overpriced college educations did not. Many of us are pursuing futures in academia, journalism, and policy – hardly the glamorous career choices of young and selfish debauchees.

And we are beginning to ask who the selfish members of the electorate truly are. Those of us fortunate enough to have jobs hold little hope of receiving the benefits of a Social Security system we already contribute to. Conservative publications correctly identify Obamacare as a transfer of resources from the young to the old – yet conservative and liberal voters alike resist efforts to make entitlement programs sustainable. Then there’s the minor issue of the national debt, which we had no say in running up…

I realize that the young and restless are easy to marginalize. But before you dismiss libertarian activism (and its offshoots, including the controversial Paul campaign) as just another naivety-fueled bubble ready to burst, ask yourself whether your generation has preserved the opportunity and freedoms that you inherited and enjoyed – and if anything short of a dramatic shift towards libertarian policies will restore the American promise of liberty and prosperity before it is too late for us.

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