Are Millennials anti-democratic?

MillennialsLet me set up the question with two observations.  First, from an interesting piece today at New Geography discussing the Millennial Generation’s government-friendliness:

Last November, when Pew asked whether Americans preferred a larger government that provided more services or a smaller government that provided fewer services, Millennials opted for a bigger government over a smaller one by a large 54% to 35% margin. By contrast, 54% of Boomers (born 1946-1964) and 59% of Silents (born 1925-1945) favor a smaller government. .

In addition, a majority of (55% to 41%) Millennials favored a greater level of federal spending to help the economy recover from the recession rather than reducing the federal budget deficit. Millennials also continue to support governmental efforts to lessen economic inequality; 63% agreed that government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep.

And an observation I made in December about the correlation between relatively-few-legislators and relatively-high-rent-seeking, and between relatively-high-rent-seeking and relatively-high-regulatory-burdens:

Centralization makes our democratic institutions less democratic, making fewer representatives responsible for the fate of greater shares of the economy and the population. This decline makes it easier for special interests to buy influence. The pressures of this influence lead lawmakers to engage in policymaking designed as much to elicit campaign dollars as to benefit the public. This conflicted-interest policymaking results in more opportunities for rent-seekers to buy or extract further political influence. Decentralization of federal power and returning governance to states and local governments will increase the democratic function of legislative institutions and make it more difficult and expensive to buy influence. States like California and Florida with poor democratic representation can increase the number of state legislators to make rent-seeking a more expensive proposition. These measures would substantially dry up opportunities for crony capitalism, and direct special interests’ profit motive to the marketplace where it belongs.

And finally to my question:  If Millennials are indeed receptive to relatively high regulatory impacts and governmental policy influence on the economy (so long as those impacts and influence are the variety that Millennials like), does it matter if relatively non-democratically-responsive legislators, bureaucrats, and special interest rent-seekers play a significant role in getting there? 

My assumption, to be clear, is that you don’t get the kind of effective big-government policies that Millennials presumably are after without a centralized and thus relatively undemocratic government.  Is this a concern for Millennials or other big-government types?  How important is the democratic process?  I’m well aware of the argument that political equality matters little without economic means.  But does economic welfare take precedent to political process?  

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


  1. First of all, you’re assuming that they’ve thought things through. They may sincerely believe that you can have both an effective centralized government and democratic controls over it consistent with substantial personal freedoms from the negative effects of the government’s efficacy.

    Secondly, you’re assuming that this isn’t simple greed, ordinary rent-seeking behavior. They want big government to help solve the problems they perceive in the world, and they want big government to solve those problems with someone else’s money. After all, millenials are relatively young and likely have little money compared with the Gen X’ers like you and me, or the Boomers ahead of us. So if there is money that needs to be taken to pay for stuff, it won’t be theirs anyway.

    Thirdly, they may believe — and rational arguments have been offered by thoughtful people here at LoOG — that simply borrowing and spending the money now, and paying it back over time, is cheaper than paying as we go. In 1981, a 10-year T-bill paid fourteen percent interest. But money is cheaper today than it has ever been, and Millenials have grown up in a world where double-digit interest rates are bogeymen from mythic legends of the Bad Old Days. They’ve also grown up in a world where deregulation caused or was at least credibly blamed for a lot of problems, and they have no memory of a world where extensive regulation caused or at least was credibly blamed for a different constellation of problems. So they aren’t scared by the idea of deficit spending rather than taxation to pay for what they want, and they aren’t scared by the idea of a strong guiding hand from the government, because they’ve no reservoir of experience to tell them that these things carry their own risks.

    • Deficit spending would cost less in the short term. and I think in the long term as well (for the same short-term deficit spending)

    • Burt,

      I don’t mean to get at a coherent political philosophy, just the general mood about whether democracy is very important. (All this ties into my running them about substantive versus procedural fairness. I think very few people, regardless of age group, “think through” their political positions that nevertheless tend to reveal they care more about where we end up than how we get there.)

      As to greed, I tend to think impetuous idealism tends to define the motivation of younger generations. Greed is still there, but less relevant than for older groups since attitudes about what government ought to do – whether or not realistic or thought through – are comparatively very clear and unequivocal in the minds of young people.

      Your third point may really be onto something. Have to give that one some thought.

      • I think greed — a desire for unearned wealth — is a very real factor for Millenials. Everyone wants wealth, but lots of X’er and Boomer managerial types report what pyschologists would call assaults on the ego occurring in kids recruited out of college who are profoundly disappointed with not quickly realizing very substantial material success and advancement. “Why don’t I have a corner office and profit-sharing yet? I’ve been here for three and a half years! At this rate, I’m going to be, like, forty before I get a seat on the Board of Directors and it’s not fair!”

        • Very true. In my youth, I fully expected riches prior to age 30. I’m sure many others did and do as well. It matters what one does when faced with reality: adjust expectations, or start politically agitating?

        • “I think greed — a desire for unearned wealth — is a very real factor for Millenials.”

          But only for Millenials.

          Boomers who have grown wealthy in the New Deal and Great Society economies and now are reluctant to pay taxes, of course are merely principled Burkean fiscal conservatives.

          Greed has not one thing to do with it.

          • Well, I think you know that’s not what Burt meant. But I did find his definition of greed interesting. Millennials are not greedy under a more limited definition, one might argue, but certainly under Burt’s. It’s a good discussion topic on its own.

          • But why characterize the (alleged) desire of Millenials for gummint goodies as being any different than the “rational self interest” we see and expect from any other group?

          • See, e.g., this. I’m entirely open to an argument that there are other kinds of greed represented by redistributionist governmental schemes, although that’s not at all what I was referring to. I’m entirely open to an argument that the increased prevelancy of what is described in the linked article is a perception rather than a reality. But I’ve heard similar sorts of things from a lot of different sources for a long time now.

          • The link isn’t working.
            But in the meantime, why is a Millenial’s desire for say, increased college funding any different than a Boomer’s desire for lower taxes?

          • “why is a Millenial’s desire for say, increased college funding any different than a Boomer’s desire for lower taxes?”

            I think I see where you’re going, but I’ll get the ball rolling: Because Boomers have a right to keep the property they’ve lawfully acquired that is superior to Millennials’ claim for government benefits.

          • I’ll play along.

            Why is such a claim superior in a situation of high government budget deficit? The Millenials might favor increased services – but their future time horizon implies they’ll be paying for it. The Boomers might prefer to keep more of that’s theirs, but, in doing so, have created necessary future taxation on those same Millenials who will be forced to either forgo the same services or pay significantly higher taxes than those same Boomers in order to cover the debt service incurred by previous generations.

          • If they’re were going to pay for it, they could avail themselves of the abundant voluntary financing mechanisms available.

            As for the Boomers, I’m still slowly coming along with a critical piece so it seems strange to come to their defense. But I still come back to FDR’s evil genius underlying social security: in every way that matters to regular people, it’s a trust account. It’s only a tax-and-spend program to the bean counters.

          • They might, or they might make the political calculus that previous bad Federal policies have broken the tuition model – most private funding options only reinforce that model. They might also make the calculus that while they can avail themselves of funding for themselves, that the system itself isn’t conducive to long-term economic growth that is necessary to avoid the kind of debt-fueled negative feedback loop that’s ravaging Greece right now – one that comes to them courtesy of their predecessors.

        • “Everyone wants wealth, but lots of X’er and Boomer managerial types report what pyschologists would call assaults on the ego occurring in kids recruited out of college who are profoundly disappointed with not quickly realizing very substantial material success and advancement.”

          I wonder to what extent that’s about increased entitlement, and to what extent that’s about the increasing agency of the millennial generation. I have a friend who was a published author in high school and designs medical devices in college. Once he graduates, he’ll probably get a job fetching coffee and stapling papers for more experienced engineers. Won’t some sense of entitlement be justified on his part?

          I’m vastly overqualified for my job. That doesn’t make me special–it makes me normal. Most of my co-workers are in the same boat I am. We live in a world of technology that provides hugely expanded opportunities for education–and at the same time makes possible ever-increasing levels of automation and centralization.

          So while this new generation is even more capable of handling challenges than previous generations, they’re faced with fewer challenges than previous generations. Under those circumstances, I think our dissatisfaction with the lack of advancement is pretty understandable.

  2. Tim, this is a very interesting question. To some extent, obviously, it is a function of the assumptions/argument you’re basing it on. But I think there is pretty interesting dynamic with younger politically-minded people that is very much at play as well.

    First, I think Millennials consider representation to be more personal and less economic than older citizens do. So even if a greater part of the economy is under some degree of control of a smaller (as federal compared to state) number of representatives, they may not actually perceive a lessening of democratic representation. Further, it may seem natural to them that the nation, including the economy is presumptively governed by a centralized (even Federl – more on this in a moment) government in which they have stipulated amount of representation. (By all means, younger people raised in a culture of political conservatism may not have this baseline attitude toward government – I’ve always wondered about this. the fact that young people tend to have more of what we would call liberal views relating to government despite more people overall identifying as conservative than identifying as liberal suggests to me that the latent attitudes of a lot of people who don’t identify as liberal would actually be pretty liberal by our reckoning.) As Burt suggests, this makes some sense, since they have somewhat less of a stake right now in the representation of economic interest relatively compared to personal representation. So that’s one thing.

    A more interesting and explanatory (though not alternative – merely additive) point to me, however, is that I think younger adults are less ambivalent about their relationship to federal government vis-a-vis to their state governments than older citizens are. I think a lot is going on here, but I feel like it’s something I see quite a lot. I get the sense that in many cases, they’re just okay with the idea that they are represented by five people in Washington they can vote for, and that the federal government will do a large share of the overall governing in the country. They like the clarity of that. I don’t think they consider that a lot of what the federal government does could be devolved to the states, or don’t trust that it should – they assume that what the federal government does is generally related to essentially national concerns (if they even consider the question). As a result of thinking that most governance could not be re-sited to a level of government other than the one where it is currently performed, they tend to think that how much they are represented is more or less fixed so long as the size of Congress is fixed and the rate of population change is gradual. It’s unlikely they have engaged much with the idea that their state legislatures ought to expand the number of representatives they contain, nor considered much what you see as the representative options this could give them in theory.

    Moreover, state government can be relatively confusing for them compared to the federal government, and more threatening as well. You can’t relate to, and thus learn from, people far away from you via Facebook over issues of state government as well as you can over the shared matters of the federal government, for example. Even more basically, frequently young people’s first real engagement happens in college, where quite often the more compelling interactions take place as you eet people from other places and develop areas of shared interest. Those areas, when they center on politics, will often not end up converging on matters of state politics, especially when frequently classes are taught from the perspective of general knowledge, abstract principles, and in government classes, usually national institutions before local. Further, in some states, state and local politics can be truly scary to young people, seeming unpredictable and immoderate. Where the extremes of American politics find their wellsprings, the extremes are extreme indeed. National politics can actually seem, as crazy as this sounds, almost a comforting refuge of sanity (there is rough partisan parity, gridlock about which they can be lovingly and safely cynical etc.) by comparison. I think all of this combines to foster an internet-enabled culture of shared national politics that actually renders local politics relatively foreign. (I realize this will be a most amazing inversion of assumptions for anyone who tends to look at American governance from the perspective of how it was established in the 18th Century.) This is not to say younger people don’t engage in state and local politics, but I think they do it when it imposes itself on them unsuspectingly (your Scot Walkers, your Bob McDonnells). In contrast, I think they see the federal gv

    So basically, I don’t think Millennials feel that they are less represented the more of the economy some given government has some control over. (In any case isn’t it true that from any one person’s perspective, there is only one local government, so to say that more control should be given to it rather than another level is kind of a wash? Only from the national perspective can the relative perspective of decentralization be perceived. The government that governs you is just as central if it’s located a hundred or a thousand miles from you.) And I don’t think that young people tend to actually experience the theoretically greater responsiveness of state and local government compared to the federal government, or if they do, they perhaps don’t experience it as a good thing. In that sense, perhaps Millennials are a bit anti-democratic.

    • Michael,

      Good observations here. It seems like Millennials are both more politically sophisticated and less politically sophisticated at the same time. Their preferred means of political engagement are, for better or worse and for one reason or another, more conducive to national politics. And then there’s the excitement factor (which I would tend to blame on the Courts and Congress for arrogating the “exciting” local matters in the first place). Those alone might explain the lack of engagement in local and state affairs.

      So maybe a better question is, do Millennials prefer Facebook to the polling booth?

  3. Consider the following:

    Almost every federal law that affects me does so to my benefit.
    Almost every local law that affects me does so to my detriment.

    You rightly note that the nature of the federal government makes it vulnerable to influence by certain interest groups. But the fact is, the millennials are one such group. Because they are so geographically diverse, their interests are almost never represented by local elected officials, at least insofar as they conflict with the interests of older generations. Nationally, though, they have some influence (See the 2008 democratic presidential primary, for example)

    • This is a very good point. I think there’s a lot with this dynamic that all our political analysis is still catching up on.
      As ideology is getting more uniform nationally and less regional within the Republican/Democratic parties, any group that feels like they’re not right on a party’s political axis is necessarily going to shift their political focus on the national. This has very important ramifications for bigger/smaller government movements and, in my opinion, goes a very long way to explain the failure of smaller federal government advocates to translate the popularity of many of their ideas into results.

      • I’ve posited that one reasons why Millennials might prefer to direct their political energies to D.C. is because it is more susceptible to special interest/undemocratic influence than state/local governments. If I understand Alan and Plinko’s comments, they seem to be confirming this contention.

        Also, Alan’s point that “Because they are so geographically diverse, their interests are almost never represented by local elected officials,” sounds vaguely similar to the defense against accusations that the Senate is undemocratic by nature.

      • Forgot to include this link about a new Millennial-friendly proposed California law:

        Under the proposed amendment to the vehicle code, both the DMV and individual insurance providers would be required to provide electronic versions of their respective documents to anyone who asks. And California cops would obviously be required to accept smartphone PDFs of our crumpled glove-box necessities.

  4. I think you should be slightly suspicious of that notion that older Americans want a “smaller” government. How is that question being asked? In a distant, theoretical way, or with specific references to specific programs to cut?

    • Yup, I’ll believe older Americans want a “smaller” government when they support cutting Social Security and Medicare.

      • FDR: “We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.” No, Social Security and Medicare are not “trust funds,” they’re just tax and spend programs. But in reality, and as intended, they are believed to operate as trust funds. Thus, I don’t think it can be said that their recipients favor big government. That was the genius (for good or ill) of FDR.

        • A federally-funded medical and social security system is the very definition of big government. If Tea Partiers truly wanted smaller government, they’d support politicians who support giving Medicare and Social Security to the states to run, not politicians who make ads slamming Obama for cutting Medicare.

          The truth is, like most people, old people hate big government, except if it helps them out.

        • It’s insurance. if it wasn’t, everyone would have to pay it.

  5. Of course, this is all under the assumption that wanting greater federal control is anti-democratic. Just because a government is closer to you doesn’t make it any or more less democratic.

    • Not necessarily, I guess, but it leans that way. And the federal government is indeed less democratic than every state in terms of proportionate representation, with the sole exception of California.

  6. Tim,

    A better question–one better answered by your assumptions and the way you’re framing the issue–might be “Do Millenials demonstrate a preference for policies that might turn out to have anti-democratic results.”

  7. I’m guessing (hoping) that this is more age effect then generational effect. The Boomers were big-government types, too, before they grew up, weren’t they? We really just need to raise the voting age to around 35.

    I’m under 35, so I can say that.

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