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Which Way the Young?

Mises Daily: Thursday, May 27, 2004 by

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A new poll shows 18–29 year olds turning against Bush, with 58 percent believing that the country is on the wrong track. This, however, doesn't translate into support for Kerry. In fact the margin of difference between support for either major candidate is negligible. What does seem clear is that the wave of student enthusiasm for the GOP that came about after Sept. 11 has subsided.

But since political polls are both tedious and intellectually vacuous, let's move on to the real question we should be asking: are students tending toward socialist thinking or free-market thinking as compared to the past? It is hard to discern this based on polls alone, because of the enormous confusion concerning the meanings of liberal and conservative, and left and right. Any poll that stays within these conventions is likely to be misleading (even aside from all the other weaknesses of polling).

In the conventional view, to be politically leftist means to have faith in government at home but doubts about the same government abroad—at least that's what it means right now. Thus are the bookstores packed with riveting attacks on the Bush administration's foreign policy for attempting to use the state for messianic purposes in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with all the attendant evils that come with such attempts (lies, debt, death, and all the rest).

At the same time, the same political left decries the Bush administration for not having been messianic enough in its use of government power at home, where they believe the state should equalize incomes, provide free goods and services for one and all, and regulate commerce until it comes to a halt, which would supposedly yield great benefits for the environment.

So partisan have been the attacks that Bush gets no "credit" from socialists for having been the biggest spending president since LBJ. At some point in the future, however, the left may inaugurate Bush revisionism and decide (once he is safely out of office) that he wasn't so bad after all since he brought back government power after its decline in the 1990s—just as the political left discovered after the fact how much they owed to World War I for socializing the economy.

As for the political right and its current literature, we are supposed to be ever vigilant against "big government" unless of course it is the really very big government that seeks world empire in the name of spreading freedom and democracy. In this case—and probably only when the GOP is running the empire—we are supposed to believe every claim of the government, spend hundreds of billions without flinching, arrest dissenters, violate civil liberties, and possibly even draft people into military service. Such positions are said to be "right wing."

Is it any wonder that students become confused, especially when there is so little serious discussion of principled ideological issues in popular political literature? The essential message of most political books on the shelf is either: a) the Bush administration and its friends are fabulous and wonderful, or b) the Bush administration and its friends are liars, crooks, thieves, and murderers. Come to think of it, the same was true about 10 years ago, when all political books fell into the camp of either pro- or anti-Clinton.

There is nothing wrong with beating up the politicians in charge. It serves a good social function. But serious thought requires a more fundamental rethinking of the role of government in the world, whether at home or abroad, and the true meaning of human freedom.

The attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001 did prompt such thinking on the part of a generation of students, but not in a way that suits the cause of liberty. There was the crisis effect, which always seems to cause people to embrace power. There was the heralding of public service, which apparently these students accepted without question. Then there was the nationalistic impulse—among the basest emotions to afflict people—that was unleashed by the idea of swarthy foreigners murdering innocents and demolishing urban landscapes.

The government is always looking for something that appears more dangerous than itself, and these criminals seem to fit the bill. Never mind that it was the government that promised but failed to protect us. It was the government that prevented the airlines from protecting themselves. It was the government that so badly botched the rescue operations. It was the government that had stirred up the hate that led to the terrorism. And there was not much the government could have justly done to fix the problem after the fact, since the perpetrators were all dead.

Nonetheless, all these thoughts are stage two, and most students never went beyond stage one. Joshua Foer, writing for the New York Times, reminds us of how pro war this generation of college students became, and remained until last year, when polls showed far higher support for war among students than people over 30. Pro-war rallies were common on campus. Foer speculates why:

The class of 2004 grew up at a time when it was easy to have faith in the goodness of our government. Vietnam, Watergate and even Iran-contra were not a part of our direct political memory. For my generation, abuse of power meant sexual indiscretions in the Oval Office—not shifting rationales for war. While President Bush's claims about weapons of mass destruction and links between Iraq and Al Qaeda may have revived memories of the Gulf of Tonkin for some of our parents, my generation wasn't inclined toward incredulousness. After all, according to that same poll, 50 percent of those surveyed under 30 said they trusted government to do the right thing; for Americans older than us, that number was 36 percent.

Thus did the lack of skepticism about power (owing to inattention or lack of experience) translate into support for the war. But it turns out that the war has displayed features of all government programs, and taught close observers a thing or two about the unintended consequences of government action, the ever escalating costs of government programs, the inability of government to control events, the inflated egos and lies of public officials, the tendency of the press to play along, and the inevitable result of government programs that they produce the very opposite of their stated purposes.

No seasoned observer of government can be surprised that the war on terror produced more terror and threats of terror, any more than we should be surprised to see the wars on tobacco, poverty, drinking, fat, speeding, illiteracy, and all the rest, fail just as badly. In short, this war has provided an essential civics lesson that the state is not a friend of truth and liberty but rather its enemy. And so support for the war among students has dropped from 65 percent to 49 percent.

But will the lesson penetrate beyond the superficial level of who should be supported for president? Will the current generation of students see through the partisan fog and observe the core ideological battle of our age and every age? This is the crucial question, and so long as people talk about left and right, liberal and conservative, we are likely to miss it.

Foer closes his NYT's op-ed with a thoroughly conventional prediction that the new generation will be liberal on social issues and conservative on national security (he might have added economics to reinforce this repetition of rhetorical conventions). Based on correspondence and applications to Mises Institute programs, it seems to me that we are observing a turn towards a politics that evades the media's radar: libertarianism, which combines free-market politics, opposition to the warfare state, and a peaceful world outlook.

This view borrows from the right’s critique of the state at home, and from the left's critique of the state abroad, to forge a political perspective that is as realistic as it is radical. To discover it counts as the great moment in the life of any intellectual because it opens vast vistas for creative thinking on economics, history, philosophy, law, sociology, and even literature.

This summer our humble campus at the Mises Institute is filled with students working in all these fields and coming from many different ideological backgrounds but drawn to something more substantive than the political harangues available at the bestseller rack. This is also a generation that has benefited beyond measure from the products of free enterprise and global trade; they are surrounded by the blessings of the "anarchy of production" and witness to the destructionism of government planning.

To believe in liberty, and understand its application in all affairs in life, is to cease to be buffeted by the winds of partisan politics, and instead to do your part in the preservation and further development of civilization itself. If students are drawn to ideals in our time, the libertarian ideal is poised for a renaissance. As always, your assistance in helping make this happen is greatly appreciated.

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [rockwell@mises.org] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of LewRockwell.com. He is the author of Speaking of Liberty. Comment on this article on the blog.