Society and Culture

Are Millennials more libertarian than we think?


On 8 September 2018, several IEA staff members took part in the Big Tent Ideas Festival in Cambridge. Dr Kristian Niemietz spoke on the panel “Millennials: Maybe they are more libertarian than we think?”, held in the Economy Tent. The article below is loosely based on his remarks.

I’m afraid I’ve been given a rather thankless role on this panel, which is the role of the grumpy pessimist. I’m not an expert on polling, but as far as I can tell, the cliché of the socialist Millennial is broadly correct. It is certainly borne out by a lot of survey evidence.

A few examples. According to one recent survey, among people under the age of 50 – which is to say, Millennials plus the younger half of Generation X – two out of five have a positive view of socialism. That’s a clear relative majority, because another two out of five answer “Don’t know”, or don’t have an opinion on the subject, which leaves only one in five with a critical view of socialism. In other words, among those who do have an opinion, the supporters of socialism outnumber the critics in a ratio of about 2:1.

For capitalism, you get more or less the inverse result. Capitalism has far more critics than supporters in this age group.

According to a different survey, about two out of five people under the age of 35 believe that communism could have worked, if it had been “better executed”. Once again, this is a relative majority (albeit a slim one), because plenty don’t have an opinion either way. So the old canard that “real” communism has never been tried is actually the mainstream view among Millennials.

You could counter that socialism and communism are just labels, and that such responses don’t mean much. But if you look at opinion polls on specific policies, it gets worse, not better. There is mass support for a wide range of policies that you could reasonably describe as socialist, perhaps not in isolation, but certainly as a package. Industry nationalisations, price controls and rent controls are particularly popular.

The only difference is that if you look at those policy-specific surveys, the generational gap disappears. It is now no longer true to say that Millennials are systematically more left-wing than Generation X or Baby Boomers. They are on some issues, but not on others. There’s no clear pattern here.

But then, we need to bear in mind that support for those policies is generally so high that there simply isn’t that much room left at the top. If you already have a two-thirds majority in favour of nationalisation among Baby Boomers and Generation X, plus plenty of “Don’t knows”, then how much higher can Millennials realistically go?

In short, a relative majority of Millennials support socialism in the abstract, and they also support plenty of socialist policies.

The usual counterargument to this is that Millennials cannot logically be socialists, because they are used to such a high degree of consumer choice in their daily lives. This is clearly not something that we would associate with socialism.

This strikes me as a fallacy. When it comes to public opinion, you cannot jump from what logically ought to be to what actually is. By that logic, you could also argue that the typical American consumer is, in their personal life, highly integrated into the global economy, buying goods and services from all over the world – so they could not logically elect a protectionist president. Except, they very much can, and do.

It also reminds me of the argument that idealising socialism is something that would only occur to a Western middle-class hipster, who never had to live under socialism, whereas people who did live under socialism would never do that. Again, that seems perfectly logical. It’s also completely untrue. Socialist parties have made a comeback in Central and Eastern Europe. People who have lived under socialism do vote for socialist parties.

Why? Well, I can’t speak for the whole region, but I lived in East Berlin, where pretty much everyone is a socialist, for long enough to know what’s going on there. It’s quite simple: people just do not associate the GDR with socialism. They believe that that was a distortion of the socialist ideal. They believe that next time will be completely different.

And something similar is true of British Millennials. If you associate socialism with queuing, rationing, and bureaucratic control, then sure, it seems strange that a generation that is so used to free choice would hanker after socialism. But Millennial socialists simply do not believe that socialism will be like that. They believe that ‘their’ version of it will be completely different. They are wrong. But that is what they believe. And that is why you will not convince them by banging on about how grim the Soviet Union was.

Finally: what should we do about it?

That, of course, depends on your own perspective. If you’re a socialist yourself, you don’t need to do anything. You can just lean back, and enjoy the show. Things are moving your way.

But if you believe, as I do, that a free market economy is the best way to achieve prosperity and freedom, while socialism destroys both, the answer is a bit trickier. I’ll just mention two things.

Firstly, some people on the pro-market side believe that Millennials simply do not know enough about how bad socialism was, so the solution is to tell them. I do not believe that for a second. That would be true if socialist Millennials had a romanticised view of the Soviet Union or of North Korea, which they don’t. They will therefore just see that as a straw man.

The case we need to make instead is that socialism turned out the way it did for a specific set of reasons, which are inherent in the very concept of socialism, and which mean that future attempts will not turn out very differently.

Secondly, we also need to make a positive case for the market economy, and in particular, we need to show how Britain’s worst economic and social problems can all be addressed within the framework of a market economy. Take the housing crisis, which has probably done more to foster anti-capitalist resentment among young people than anything else. The way to solve the housing crisis is not to smash capitalism. It’s a much more mundane one. We need to make it a lot easier to build a lot more houses. Housing markets work alright in most of the developed world. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to work here as well. It’s a political choice.

If issues like the housing crisis were sorted out, my guess is that we’d soon find out that Millennials’ commitment to socialism is only skin-deep, more of a fashion statement than a deeply held conviction. So not all is lost. But let’s not kid ourselves that this is, somehow, a generation of capitalists, just because they enjoy the spoils of capitalism. They’re not. If Millennials are “more libertarian than we think”, they are pretty good at hiding it.

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).


2 thoughts on “Are Millennials more libertarian than we think?”

  1. Posted 26/09/2018 at 13:09 | Permalink

    “better executed” is an unfortunate phrase when it comes to communism

  2. Posted 28/09/2018 at 12:03 | Permalink

    If you can solve the housing crisis (which I know you’re working on) and thus quash this directional push towards socialism in the UK, then in effect, you’ll be saving the UK.

    I’ll have to buy you a beer as reward. Even though I live in Australia. I’ll fly over I suppose, and take a holiday there.

    If socialism wins out at any future election, and thus such policy becomes entrenched, it will likely take decades to recover from. So, you can come to Australia and buy me a beer (while moving here permanently, or at least as a stop-over while moving to US / Asia).

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