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Volume 24, Number 8
August 2004

How the New Generation Learns
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.

At our conferences and programs, the students who attend are the first to have been educated in the age of information. Nearly all the students now attending were born on or after the year of our founding (1982). The Mises Institute went online in 1995, about the time that web browsers were becoming more common and a new world of communication opened up to us and to the world. The average student we serve was a young teenager.

We are now seeing the fruits. My impression is that both the right and left are wrong about the internet. The left has held the contradictory view that it is a dangerous medium capable of spreading hate and therefore ought be suppressed, and that people should be taxed heavily to even the gap between the "information have nots" and the "haves." They have worked to put an internet connection in every community center in America, as if the presence of technology alone can educate people.

The right has tended to believe that the internet will wreck the culture by making the ugly side ever more accessible, by driving people out of the libraries and enticing people with yet another artificial medium. In fact, the internet is a lot like life in that what we do with it is our choice. The great merit is that people can read the great works of the social sciences that either are not in libraries or which people have systematically overlooked. Clear thinking has a greater chance of advancing now than ever, which creates opportunity without guaranteeing success.

Actually, my impression is that we are now working with the most educated and most exposed generation ever. Rather than going through grade school and high school with only appointed texts, the students have the opportunity to seek out other points of view. On mises.org, for example, they can read all the great works of the Austrian School, not just on economics but also history, and listen to hundreds of hours of great lectures by some of the best teachers of the last 50 years (including Mises himself!). And they can do this without paying a dime (thanks to generous donors to the Mises Institute).

Are today’s students tending toward socialist thinking or free-market thinking as compared to the past? Polls show a drift between "liberal" and "conservative" thinking—which is how the pollsters usually ask the question. It is hard to discern this based on polls, however, 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. 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 on 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 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 seemed 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. 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 to 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 to truth and liberty but rather their 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 electoral politics? 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.

Based on correspondence and applications to Mises Institute programs, it seems to me that we are observing a turn toward political thinking that evades the media’s radar: libertarianism, which combines a free-market, opposition to the welfare 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 has been filled with students working in all these fields and coming from many different ideological and scholarly 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 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..FM

 

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of LewRockwell.com (rockwell@ mises.org).

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