How Young People Are Destroying Liberty

Younger Americans no longer want to own things. Instead, they crave access. They don’t know that liberty has always been tied to property.

10.11.14 10:45 AM ET

One of the most painful and confusing paradoxes of life today concerns our sensation of scarcity amid plenty. The culture is flooded with talented creative types, most of whom struggle fruitlessly to break through. Colleges churn out graduates and confer advanced degrees, but the scramble for jobs continues. The financial system is awash with money, yet the Federal Reserve accuses both consumers and institutions of hoarding it. These difficulties seem to mock us personally. Why would a system, on so many levels, manufacture hopes and ambitions designed for disappointment?

In an effort to cope with the implications of this question, Americans have subtly but sweepingly shifted their ideals. Our growing hope is to find happiness without being consumed by the struggle for possessions. In almost every sphere of life, the trend is to trade in ownership for access. The impact of that shift isn’t just changing the culture. It’s upending the way we think about politics and freedom. It could even decide the 2016 presidential election.

To understand why, turn back the clock a decade or so. Although it wasn’t clear at the time, George W. Bush’s presidential ambition for an “ownership society” fell flat because society had begun to abandon the ambition of ownership. The internet was making us realize how pointless it was—or even unwise—to own things. In an era when planned obsolescence had yet to link up to the Apple model of endless subsidized upgrades, people began thinking about everything from transportation to information in one big ownership-averse way.

More deeply, Americans burned out from the frenetic materialism of the late ‘80s and late ‘90s began to realize that ownership often failed to give us the kind of experiences that marketers still promised material goods could provide. Rather than fueling our sense of open horizons and limitless potential, accumulating a bunch of “stuff” made us quiet, all too quiet. Surrounded by inert goods, we felt hemmed in, pushed toward a lifestyle cul-de-sac. Ownership struck us as all destination and no journey. And as our prejudices against the authority of any one set of “life goals” grew, that threw our happiness—and even our sanity—into peril.    

Unfortunately, we still badly needed some “stuff.” Some goods and services were essential in a way that couldn’t be replaced by experiences. Amid our growing sense of scarcity, we began to fear that we’d fail to secure them unless they were somehow guaranteed. But we recoiled against the idea that the only way to secure them was to work hard enough and long enough to own them. Earning ownership had come to feel like a scam—even when it came to the things that we felt made life worth living.

In a way, the roots of this predicament reach back hundreds of years. In America’s earliest days, key things that made life worth living were thought of as human rights. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were singled out, as a matter of principle, for government’s guarantee. Interestingly enough, those things weren’t ownable.

But property was. Back then, property was understood by universal consensus as a foundational cornerstone of human liberty and a life worth living. 

Today, that consensus has all but collapsed in the popular imagination. In our heart of hearts, and in our rational minds, we have replaced the right to ownership, and its accompanying yearnings, with the right to access.

The triumph of access over ownership has changed the way we think about rights. Rather than a right to health care or abortion, people assert a right to access those things. Rather than contenting themselves with the right to a free press, journalists increasingly focus on securing access to the people they cover. Access has become a master commodity, an experience that can be granted or charged for but never owned.

That benefits elites—big time. And elites with ambitions in national politics are learning to electioneer accordingly.

We, for instance, have begun to think of the internet itself as a right—something without which life isn’t worth living—precisely because it confers such vast access without requiring any ownership. On cue, a new generation of Democrats is lining up to sell us on the idea that they’ll guarantee it.

In America’s coastal urban enclaves, where class inequality focuses the mind so sharply on the paradox of scarcity amid plenty, the right to Wi-Fi is a telling talking point among the progressive ruling elite. In recent remarks to CNN, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley called wireless internet access a “human right.” As early as 2005, trendsetting San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom called it a “fundamental right.”

O’Malley wants us to believe that the right to wi-fi isn’t just an abstract idea, but a fact that emerged from real-life conditions. “Younger people are choosing to live in cities,” he says. “They realize that connections to each other are making us better.” They make us realize, he explains, that “proximity is important to entrepreneurship.” It fosters—yep—“access to capital and talent and diversity.”

Policymakers, strategists, and citizens alike need to recognize that a major new political debate is emerging.

Republicans have already run up against the first harsh realities of this change. Even if they cannot clearly articulate the insight, many of them intuit that it’s difficult even to think up an idea like political freedom in a culture unmoored from the habits of responsible maintenance that property ownership inculcates.

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Without an ownership society, where citizens are prudent stewards of broadly distributed private property, freedom tends to become what it was in revolutionary France—an abstract ideal that can easily arouse destructive political feelings that know no bounds. That’s why the shift from right-to-own to right-to-access has the real potential to overturn centuries of cultural certainty about the foundations of liberty and its importance to human flourishing.

Although this is a burning issue for any friend of liberty, great skepticism should meet the apparently easy fixes Republicans now rely on. Policy is an ineffective tool to address the cultural problem of privileging access over ownership. Pro-business Republicans are locked into the failing market mindset of boosting purchases by discounting goods. Too often, ownership really is getting too expensive or too difficult—but that’s not enough to explain why it’s losing its charm.

The portentous trend is that ownership is becoming relevant only for two kinds of cultural elite: those whose ambition is to run the access system, and those whose ambition is to be free of it.