(A) Millennial Political Philosophy: Part One – Values

It would be a fool’s errand to attempt to define one “Millennial mindset,” because Millennials are the most diverse generation in America. But that question – what do Millennials believe? – is important, and an answer might be approached by Millennials bringing forward our political beliefs to begin the dialogue on defining this newly-politicized generation.

Here, I’ll share my (budding) political philosophy. How’s that for an anti-click-bait opener?

Before you call me just another entitled, presumptuous, holier-than-thou Millennial, let me say this: Obama made me do it. From his farewell address:

This generation coming up – unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic – I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.

In 2014, only 17% of Millennials voted in the midterm elections. In 2016, only 30% of Millennials were contacted by a presidential campaign. And by 2020, Millennials will be the biggest voting bloc in America. That is an amazing power, and perhaps by defining what we value, we can wield it with the amazing responsibility that it deserves (Uncle Ben, ‘02).

My political philosophy is simple: people should be free, and people should be kind. From those two beliefs, all others flow.

It follows from the respect of freedom that people shouldn’t be able to take away the freedoms of others. Our Declaration of Independence acknowledged the rights to life, liberty, and happiness as a “mutual pledge” to preserve our “sacred Honor.”

Of course, however, there is a contradiction inherent to that truism. How can we stop people from hurting others without limiting their freedoms? I see that as the foundational challenge of government: to determine when it makes sense to limit particular liberties to maximize the exercise of liberty in the long run. Any political philosophy should have criteria to help make those determinations.

Mine has two. First, it’s clear to me that death is the ultimate loss of freedom.

It shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that government should enact policies to save lives. Unfortunately, however, it seems to be: see the debates on gun violence, abortion, and health care. I also believe that existential threats – like nuclear war and global warming – should be prevented at all costs. The application of the “death is bad” principle is straightforward in most cases. In others, it’s more controversial, but may only take a backseat to other liberties in extreme cases (e.g., the death penalty).

Second, I believe that freedom has diminishing marginal returns.

However you define utils (e.g., “happiness,” “fulfillment,” “dollars,” etc.), the millionth one is less valuable than the tenth. This informs my beliefs on taxation. It also means that “first-order” freedoms should take precedence over “second-order” freedoms. To define those categories, have each person order their freedoms from most- to least-important and give greater weight to the former. That’s but a thought experiment, of course, but implies protecting the most basic freedoms first – freedoms like subsistence, shelter, security, and education. (And, it would be interesting to see how different individuals would rank their rights to bear arms, marry who they wish, or practice a particular religion.)

Alongside freedom is kindness, and to me, to speak of kindness is to speak of respect.

America is a diverse nation, and it should be. As Americans, we should respect those with whom we disagree. America is a nation of immigrants; a nation borne in part out of religious diaspora; a nation where the majority of babies born since 2014 have been “minorities.”

America is an experiment that only works with widespread participation; so a measurable goal for government could be to maximize the number of people that meaningfully engage in civic life.

That means educating the disadvantaged, feeding the hungry, and getting out the vote. There are a number of challenges to that ideal that exist today – some of which President Obama mentioned in his farewell address and many others are top of mind after November 8th. Barriers to meaningful participation are civic (gerrymandering, unfair registration and voting practices), socioeconomic (lobbying), cultural (bubbles, anti-intellectualism), and – perhaps most notably – partisan.

Partisanship politicizes civic participation. The civic need not be political – but I fear that we have forgotten that today, where all that seems to matter is one day every four years when winners and losers are made. What happened to exchanging ideas, or, god forbid, collaborating and compromising with those with whom you disagree? What happened to loving your neighbor? And more directly, what happened to the 729 days between elections?

To me, a world in which “winners” get the spoils and “losers” live in agony sounds broken. Why not cast away binarity, embrace diversity and the varied viewpoints it necessitates, appreciate the rights of all to express their opinions, and be kind? I don’t see the alternative. Or, rather, I see it all too clearly, and I don’t like it.

If we are all free to do that which doesn’t infringe on others, kind even in the face of disagreement, and – seriously – just showed up for midterm elections, I think we’d be pretty well off.

My plan from here is simple: I’ll test each of the specific beliefs mentioned above, and then return for a post-mortem to see which of my general ideals were lost in battle, and which survived. And as part of that process, I want to – and will need to – talk with you. What do you think about my principles, as articulated here?

I am eager to hear what you believe. Especially if you’re also a Millennial.