24 April 2019

How to sell the free market to millennials


The millennial generation are ever so different, apparently.  As they grow up, we’re told, an intergenerational shift is underway.

Those under the age of 35 not only think differently to the rest of us, claimed Matthew d’Ancona recently, they are deeply concerned about climate change.   It’s not just that they value identity over individualism.  The young are, apparently, much more anti free market capitalism than those that came before.

What’s more, with every passing year this rising generation will ease the oldies aside – and the so called ‘Overton window’ of what is considered mainstream in politics will move inexorably leftward.

Really?  Perhaps this sort of analysis tells us more about the preconceptions of middle-aged opinion formers than it does about the attitudes and aspirations of younger people.

If younger people have different attitudes, it’s because they are much more favourable towards choice and competition, the two central tenets of a free market system.

As Matt Singh noted recently on these pages, a Kantor Public survey across Europe has found that competition is extremely popular, with 88 per cent of UK respondents agreeing that competition between businesses is good for the consumer.  Young people in particular are more likely to see competition as a good thing.

How do you square the fact that 90 per cent of 15–24 year olds see competition as good for the global market place with the idea that the young are anti free market capitalism?  You can’t.

Young people are digital natives.  If this has shaped their values, it has been to give them an enhanced sense of individualism, not collectivism.  Digital technology makes self-selection a cultural norm, with freedom to choose your own music, entertainment, dating partners and much else.  Indeed, it’s a kind of uber-individualism that helps explain some of those campus-based debates about the extent to which people can select their own gender and ethnicity.

Why then doesn’t any of this translate into support amongst the young for free market political parties?

To which the answer might come – what free market parties?  Only those with a memory of 1980s Thatcherism would presume that there was anything free market about the Tory party these days.

For years, the centre-right has defended the last vestiges of post-war rationing that we have in health and education.  Like Labour and the Lib Dems, they were happy to use public money to bail out the banks.  They have presided over a housing system that constrains supply to such an extent that a property-owning democracy has become a kind of ownership oligarchy.

Young people today might be able to get a great deal on mobile data, or a £30 flight to Europe, but unlike previous generations, they struggle to afford their own home.  It’s not the attitudes of the rising generation that are somehow out of sorts, but the anti-free market public policies that have created these sorts of anomalies.

But even if there was to be an authentically free market party in Britain, it might still find it a hard sell.  Why?

Because free market ideas are often counter-intuitive.  None of us is born understanding comparative advantage, or with an innate appreciation of the moral advantages of free exchange.  What we are born with is a child-like notion that its unfair for someone else to have more than we do.

If we are to make the case for the free market anew to the rising generation, we need to make the moral case for free exchange – rather than simply show that it works.

We need, too, to make better use of new media. Establishment broadcasters in this country are incapable – and unwilling – of giving a fair hearing to liberal economic ideas.  So we should stop trying and instead take to making the case directly.  PragerU in the United States shows how this could be done.

One lesson free marketeers could learn from the US is avoiding getting caught up in what you might call ‘culture war’ questions.  The easiest way to avoid any meeting of minds is to allow yourself to be labelled.

Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, has been brilliant at making the moral case for the free exchange of not only goods and services, but above all ideas.  We could all learn a lot from his example.

Perhaps the single biggest obstacle those of us who believe in liberal economics need to overcome is the mood of pessimism that often prevails in popular culture.

If – like a shockingly high number of young people – you believe that the world is getting worse, or perhaps even poised on the brink of some sort of ecological calamity, you are half way to accepting the need to organise human affairs according to some sort of top down intervention.

Our single most important objective must be to show that the world has been getting better – and that it’s free exchange that has been the engine of our elevation.  Win that argument, and the millennials can be sold on the free market.

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Douglas Carswell is a former MP. He was a member of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.