Professor Patrick Deneen's Feb. 17 essay "Campus Libertarianism up, Civic Commitment Down" cries out for a response. He finds the apparent increase in libertarian thinking among college students disquieting, but I think that if this trend is real, it's a reason for optimism. It indicates that young Americans are breaking free of the adulation of government that is so much a part of the conventional wisdom in this country.
Deneen reports on a recent survey of college freshmen showing that, inter alia, students are becoming more supportive of allowing gay marriage and legalizing marijuana, while opposed to prohibiting undocumented immigrants from receiving public services and opposed to the nationalization of health care. That last point he thinks puzzling, but it is perfectly consistent with the other positions. All reflect a growing realization that government policies are often counter-productive and a belief that the country would often be better off if government simply left people alone.
The survey evidence is thin, but perhaps young Americans are figuring out that Jefferson was right - that government which governs least, governs best. If the libertarian "night watchman" approach to government had prevailed over the last several decades, we would have been spared a lot of wasted lives, wasted resources, and governmental incursions on personal freedom.
So why does the specter of libertarianism worry Deneen?
He writes, "What the data ... demonstrates is a keen and intense emphasis on the self. Today's students simultaneously urge toleration toward others, but expect to be left alone." To me, that sounds like an outbreak of The Golden Rule, but Deneen fears a "self-centered focus on material success" that puts at risk, "a cultivated belief in civic membership, a sense of shared fate and even forms of self-sacrifice."
That conclusion simply doesn't follow from the data. Just because people are becoming more skeptical about the beneficence of government action and concerned about their own well-being (and is there any reason to think that students were less concerned about wealth and comfort in the past?) does not mean that they will be less interested in civic association and willingness to help others.
In fact, the argument cuts the other way. Students who are imbued with pro-state notions about the world are, I submit, much more likely to adopt a "Hey - that's the government's job, so why should I get involved" stance.
We libertarians enjoy freedom but also grasp the importance of personal responsibility - not just responsibility for ourselves, but also responsibility for others. We donate money and contribute our time at least as readily as others. What we don't sanction is the coercion whereby politicians confiscate money and direct it to what they deem to be worthy causes. That's not only morally offensive, but often leads to bad results.
I don't believe that anyone is teaching American college students that "the most important thing in life is indifference toward others and ...earning the most money," as Deneen declares. If there really is a libertarian trend among them, it's not because they are being taught selfishness, but rather because they're smart enough to understand that our Leviathan government creates vastly more problems than it solves.