One thing appears certain: What we see on campuses and online is the largest youth movement with a distinctive libertarian bent in many, many years, if not in our nation’s history.
Sure, there was Barry Goldwater, but he was a warmonger. There was Gene McCarthy’s great antiwar movement, but it lacked the classical liberal program on economics and personal liberty.
Ron Paul has managed to do what no libertarian organization or electoral candidate ever has: Energize the masses of young Americans, all throughout the nation’s college campuses, including its most leftist, and get them interested in the politics of freedom and peace.
How did this happen? For years, libertarians have struggled over how to appeal to the youth. I myself worried that as we lost the great libertarians now in their autumn years — the old-timers who knew Murray Rothbard and maybe even Mises, the venerable class of libertarian veterans who are our precious link to our radical past in the Vietnam era and all the way back to the Old Right — that there would be fewer enthusiastic and informed libertarians a generation from now than there are currently. My worries were largely subdued when I first visited Mises University and realized there were many young Austrians and radical libertarians being well trained to take the torch and continue the battle. But in terms of sheer numbers, I still had no idea how many young freedom-minded folks there were.
I don’t think any of us knew. The Ron Paul Revolution has awakened me and many of my young libertarian friends to just how many of us there are in this world. This alone has been a great source for hope.
But it is still a puzzle to many within the movement. Libertarianism has often been stereotyped as an eccentricity for old, white, well-to-do men. The question, especially in Libertarian Party circles, has been how to "sell" it to new audiences — to minorities, to the disenfranchised, to the youth, to the other groups who are in fact among the biggest victims of the state and have the most to gain from liberation.
The strategists and activists have suggested downplaying our free market positions, or making compromises on economics. They have said we need to play up social issues that would supposedly appeal to the young. This would include issues like drug prohibition, which has in reality led to a desecration of the Bill of Rights and hundreds of thousands of innocent people in prison, but often the suggested emphasis was not on the human rights side of it, but the implications for the lifestyles of middle-class teenagers and college kids. So marijuana would be a focus, and not the harder drugs for which more people actually suffer behind bars. In other words, libertarianism would be pitched to the youth as something compatible with their social identities and life choices, rather than a philosophy of non-aggression and property rights.
We have been told that libertarianism needs this kind of a makeover — it needs to be hip, to be 21st century, to embrace whatever culture and lifestyle are in vogue. Maybe this millennium’s libertarianism could be recast as low-tax metrosexualism. Tax reform, vouchers, cross-dressing and bong rips would prove the winning combination. Just stay away from the revisionist history, the natural law philosophy and the mechanics of monetary policy. This won’t win the kids over, we were told.
And yet, what has inspired the youth to rally around the ideas of liberty? Not vacuous appeals to their lifestyle. Not a [neo]classical liberalism that wears its hat backwards and listens to the newest pop music. In fact, such gestures are likely to turn off today’s intelligent and young libertarians. It turns out that what they really needed to get excited was no more nor less than the promise of liberty itself.
Ron Paul is much like the stereotype that we have been told would not appeal to the youth. He is a devout Protestant in his early seventies, happily married for half a century, a medical doctor who puts more care into being genuine and persuasive than coming off as being with it. But this honest messenger has gotten more young people visibly excited about the message of liberty than any other single approach or campaign in the history of the movement, certainly in so short a time.
This comes as a shock, and as somewhat of a refutation, to two groups of people: Those libertarians who thought that a veneer of youth, freshness, and modernity was absolutely necessary to appeal to today’s youth; and those curmudgeonly types who dismissed kids these days as a bunch of narcissistic and ill-informed brats with no interest in the direction of their country and future of their families.
Indeed, today’s young Paulians, the left-leaning, conservative-leaning and plumbliners alike, are mostly sick of the culture war as it has been conventionally defined by the mainstream media. Ron Paul is not a culture warrior: he brings people together around the issues of freedom. That he does so from a distinctly bourgeois and culturally conservative place is not a deal-breaker for the vast majority of today’s young people with an interest in freedom. Indeed, they understand that we must, if we want to save our country’s freedom, appeal to the majority of Americans, who lean culturally conservative.
Yet Ron Paul’s message has not been politically conservative at all — not in the classic sense of siding with theocracy, corporatism, imperialist privilege and war. He is a genuine liberal in the old sense, and he has focused mainly on foreign policy, as well as the nation’s deep financial and monetary troubles and the dangers posed to our personal liberty by the police state.
He does not promote recreational drug use but, as a man of principled morality, he seeks to end the war on drugs in its entirety, recognizing it is cruel, wicked and illegitimate. He is not an overbearing multiculturalist, but he believes in the natural rights of all humans, regardless of nationality, background, lifestyle or religion, and indeed does not display any of the mindless bigotry of so much of the right today. He is not an anti-American in any meaningful sense of the word, yet he is as fierce an opponent of American imperialism, both as a threat to our rights and those of foreigners, as any prominent candidate in American history. He does not come off, like some libertarians unfortunately do, as a man who sees material wealth as the highest of spiritual values, yet he fights for free trade for the sake of the liberty and prosperity of humans everywhere, including in nations unfortunate enough to be cut off from trade by the US empire.
The youth are excited about Ron Paul’s message, his principles, and especially his courageous dissent from the Washington foreign policy consensus. He speaks his mind, even if it offends the respectable gatekeepers on the official left and right. He discusses quaint peculiarities like habeas corpus and Just War Theory. He upholds a traditionalism that goes back further than Ronald Reagan or Bill Buckley, and indeed traces back to the natural law principles on which Western Civilization so precariously rests. Yet he also points out that the libertarian principle is in many ways a new idea — the notion of radical liberty for all has only been around a few hundred years, and has only been refined since. He is offering something very new: a traditional liberalism, but more equally and rigorously pursued for today’s world.
Ron Paul’s young supporters attend his campus rallies cheering for the gold standard, the Constitution, and a Jeffersonian foreign policy. But they are not cheering on conservatism, even though they hearken back to America’s best traditions. As Paul points out, even the gold standard wasn’t well enough understood back in the nineteenth century. No, what his supporters cheer is essentially the libertarianism that was crafted by Rothbard and others in the 20th century — an integration of natural rights, anti-imperialism, individual liberty, private property and free association.
How is this radical and comprehensive libertarianism gaining so much ground among the youth? It is because the ideas were always great, but just needed the right messenger at the right time. Ron Paul has filled a void, though with his typical modesty he claims he is only lucky to be part of the revolution.
Some have wondered how Ron Paul’s positions on abortion would resonate with the youth. And what about all his nuanced positions regarding states rights, federalism, and local school prerogatives? Even all this has not been the problem some expected it would be.
Actually, young Americans today are in many ways considerably less anti-religion and more pro-life than their parents are. And they are less federally-oriented than their parents, more skeptical that the federal government should dictate everything nationally, whether through a national war on abortion or a continuation of the decisive Roe v. Wade regime. They are more localist and internationalist in their political sensibilities than the New Deal, Great Society and Reagan generations. They understand that some issues like abortion are complex and require rigorous philosophical deliberation and personal engagement, not the posturing we usually get from "pro-life" and "pro-choice" politicians at the national level.
As a general matter, America’s youth have for a while now been more libertarian than the Boomers and Greatest Generation. My generation is probably more "conservative" than my parents’, less post-modernist in certain underlying ethical assumptions and less touchy on social issue hot buttons. We definitely don’t believe Social Security will be there for us when we retire. We trust the market more than unions. We don’t like cops or federal agencies. And Marxism is way out of style.
Ironically, it was probably war on which my generation has had the comparative disadvantage, since we did not have the "benefit" of a Vietnam to teach us the important lessons. In rebellion against our rebelling parents, many of us have unfortunately had a much more positive view of U.S. wars than did the flower children. Six horrible years of George W. Bush helped to change this, but this crucial issue has also cried for a principled and accessible figure to help put things into perspective.
Ron Paul has reached out to the youth, as well as others, on the war issue and showed beyond a doubt that one not need be a bohemian radical or pampered Hollywood limousine liberal to adamantly oppose the Bush administration’s aggression abroad and police state at home. This has empowered people, including the young, to champion peace in the name of Americanism and patriotism, and has given a rebirth to the populist anti-imperialism that dominated both parties for many years about a century ago. Thus has Ron Paul helped to radicalize the youth on foreign policy!
While many libertarians have underestimated the ability of our message itself, without the façade of being hip or groovy, to resonate with the youth, many of the more curmudgeonly variety have downplayed the importance of reaching out to the youth, dismissing the young as hopeless and more obsessed with their rap music than with liberty. Some have similarly said that only the most obviously bourgeois and mainstream elements in society can fully appreciate the bourgeois libertarianism we see in such figures as Ron Paul.
Yet they also have been proven wrong. Take a look at the many great YouTubes hailing Ron Paul. They feature every style of music and come from every demographic in this country. There are rap and reggae songs for Paul that address the ills of central banking. This is indeed revolutionary. What we have is the realignment I have always envisioned, the end of traditional and constraining left-right politics, the unity of many from all walks of life around the ideas of peace and freedom. This is the true diversity that my generation craves and respects — that which is authentic, spontaneous and voluntary; rather than contrived by hypocritical politicians and social engineers.
The people of my generation, those a little younger or a little older, have been longing for an escape from politics as usual for a long time. Ron Paul offers the out. He is a cultural conservative and political radical. He is a Republican peacenik, a straight-laced Christian who wants true tolerance for all Americans, an honest and humble man offering an honest and humble foreign policy. He might not follow the latest fads, but he follows the Constitution and champions individual rights. His revolution is one of liberty, not the libertine conservatism that misses the point entirely.
And so he has been able to appeal to many thousands of young Americans who know that at this national crossroads, with the question before us being the restoration of a free Republic or the continued descent into totalitarianism, there are more important considerations than whether a presidential candidate watches the same movies or television programming and can thus "get" the youth — there is the question of moral principle and of political liberty.
The importance of youth in energizing any movement, to say nothing of continuing that movement when its oldsters pass away, is very nicely related in the Randolph Bourne quote that Rothbard was fond of citing:
[Y]outh is the incarnation of reason pitted against the rigidity of tradition; youth puts the remorseless questions to everything that is old and established — Why? What is this thing good for? And when it gets the mumbled, evasive answers of the defenders it applies its own fresh, clean spirit of reason to institutions, customs and ideas and finding them stupid, inane or poisonous, turns instinctively to overthrow them and build in their place the things with which its visions teem. . . .
Youth is the leaven that keeps all these questioning, testing attitudes fermenting in the world. If it were not for this troublesome activity of youth, with its hatred of sophisms and glosses, its insistence on things as they are, society would die from sheer decay. It is the policy of the older generation as it gets adjusted to the world to hide away the unpleasant things where it can, or preserve a conspiracy of silence and an elaborate pretense that they do not exist. But meanwhile the sores go on festering just the same. Youth is the drastic antiseptic. . . . It drags skeletons from closets and insists that they be explained. No wonder the older generation fears and distrusts the younger. Youth is the avenging Nemesis on its trail. . . .
Our elders are always optimistic in their views of the present, pessimistic in their views of the future; youth is pessimistic toward the present and gloriously hopeful for the future. And it is this hope which is the lever of progress — one might say, the only lever of progress. . . .
The secret of life is then that this fine youthful spirit shall never be lost. Out of the turbulence of youth should come this fine precipitate — a sane, strong, aggressive spirit of daring and doing. It must be a flexible, growing spirit, with a hospitality to new ideas and a keen insight into experience. To keep one’s reactions warm and true is to have found the secret of perpetual youth, and perpetual youth is salvation.
It might perplex some people that Ron Paul has rekindled the youthful spirit in our movement, but it is also a wonderful sign that he was able to do it. It means that today’s young people are more interested in the timeless ideals of freedom than superficial questions of red states and blue states, political parties or culture-war talking points and trivialities. It means they are willing to challenge their parents on the question of whether, in fact, it is time to repeal the 20th century — all for the sake of the 21st.
The kids are all right. They don’t need 90’s-style political correctness, 80’s-style intergenerational conflict or 70’s-style hedonism. They want liberty, and that’s the song Ron Paul is singing. The youth get it, even if some libertarians still can’t figure it out.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.