This weekend Students for Liberty hosted the Fifth Annual International Students For Liberty Conference in Washington D.C. It was the largest libertarian student event in history, featuring students from across the world and a variety of speakers. As well as featuring breakout sessions on topics such as second amendment rights, political economy, public education, Austrian economics, and social media, the conference also included an exhibition hall that included organizations such as the Learn Liberty, The NRA, GOProud, the Cato Institute, and Young Americans for Liberty. What became clear throughout the conference was that while most of the students were fiercely uncommitted to party politics they all expressed sympathy with some beliefs shared in the conservative movement. Given the ideological tendencies amongst what is a growing voting group, it is remarkable that the Republicans are not engaging younger voters more effectively.
The guest speaker on Friday evening was libertarian Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and angel investor of Facebook. Outside of the technology industry, Thiel is known as an important supporter of groups like the Seasteading Institute which aims to develop and realize the idea of floating, politically autonomous communities. In his talk Thiel spoke on the lack of innovation in areas outside of technology and finance, something he attributed to overregulation and the growth of government. Thiel also spoke on the growing government bubble that, like the Internet and housing bubbles, will burst dramatically. All of these arguments are familiar to conservatives. Thiel did not speak on drug prohibition, foreign policy, or religious freedom. Even at a libertarian conference, then, the subject of a keynote speech was a matter on which there is a high level of agreement between conservatives and libertarians. There were of course plenty of opportunities for the socially liberal arguments to be heard, with breakout sessions featuring narcotics and the war on terror being among some of the more popular.
Libertarians are notoriously tribal, and the different constituent groups were all represented. James Padilioni Jr., winner of this year’s Student of the Year award, noted that the word “anarchism” had been his source of inspiration over the last year. The Republican Liberty Caucus had a stall in the exhibition hall, as did the Libertarian Party. There were followers of the Austrian and monetarist schools of economics, as well as Voluntarists and Objectivists. Some came to libertarianism through conservatism, while others through liberalism. The diversity of the attendees is not something that worries Alexander McCobin, co-founder and Executive Director of Students for Liberty: “SFL is a big tent organization, united by beliefs in social, economic, and academic freedom, principles which serve to unite the liberty movement.” Indeed the diversity of Students for Liberty seems to be one of its strengths; it allows for a concentrated focus on a common intellectual adversary. The uniting force among all conference attendees was a belief in liberty being politically fundamental. This unity was clear from the results of the conference Straw Poll, with 71% of votes cast for Ron Paul, followed by “not voting” in second.
One of the most interesting parts of the conference was the filming of John Stossel’s show, which I attended with my colleague Jordan Bloom. The conference episode will be shown on Thursday evening on Fox Business. Guests included David Boaz of the Cato Institute and Nick Gillespie from Reason. The most notable guest was former U.S. Ambassador the United Nations John Bolton. Bolton gave a defense of his neoconservative arguments, reiterating his support for attacks on a potentially nuclear Iran. Given the visible outrage felt by many of the students it was a shame that most of their questions to the ambassador were weak. The questioners failed to address what role U.S. foreign policy might have had in motivating the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks or Bolton’s support for the Iranian terrorist group MEK (an omission noticed by Jordan).
For those who support individual liberty, free markets, and peace the conference was a great reassurance. SFL events are growing year over year, and there is no reason not to think that there will be more successes in the future. Yet, despite the growing number of students sympathetic to liberty, the GOP seems committed to alienating not only a significant number of young people who are more likely to volunteer and campaign, but libertarians more broadly. Ron Paul supporters will not be easily persuaded to vote for Romney in a general election. Current polling shows that the GOP will have to be more inclusive in order to win in November. Perhaps in that sense at least, the GOP could learn something from Students for Liberty.