This weekend, about 1,500 young libertarians arrived in the beating heart of American power for the annual conference of Students for Liberty at the Grand Hyatt in Washington DC.
The event itself has grown substantially in the last four years, taking over most of the hotel with lectures on everything from Seasteading to police militarization to libertarianism’s gender imbalance, exhibitors (including The American Conservative!), and various other activities including “Pin the Drone on the Foreign Country.”
There were not one but two tapings of “Stossel” on Saturday (episode to air Thursday), the Fox Business show hosted by the former 20/20 reporter who stopped winning Emmys when he became a libertarian. The producers keep the guests–a mix of libertarian icons and statist scapegoats–secret until the last minute but the lineup is always interesting. The single most entertaining moment of last year’s conference was watching John Bolton face a roomful of livid hostility. Though the students missed the chance to inquire about his support for the since-delisted terrorist group MEK–what better way to illustrate Bush-era civil liberties abuses by pointing out the possibility that a former UN ambassador had violated the PATRIOT Act?–it was nice to see him get asked the sort of questions he never gets as a Fox News contributor.
This year the show opted for a whipping boy–woman, as it was–who could at least dish it out better than Bolton did. With characteristic decorum, Ann Coulter used her introductory time to call libertarians “pussies.”
She puts it more bluntly than most, but Coulter’s disdain for politically-skeptical libertarians is shared among many in the GOP. For the most part, the disdain is mutual. Though a “libertarian narrative” is often touted as a way out of the Republican Party’s current crisis, capturing actual self-identified libertarians–as opposed to the merely fiscally-conservative and socially-tolerant–is probably pointless and impossible, if the high-information, well-educated subset of young people at SFL’s conference is any indication. Especially if the GOP starts moving in Scott’s “solidaristic” direction. A philosophy that’s essentially about the kenosis of political power is at odds with sustainable long-term governance.
Nonetheless, despite being an elected official who accepts the basic legitimacy of government, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) was well-received. NRO’s Betsy Woodruff writes:
Most attendees tend to view the Republican and Democratic parties with equal contempt. “I think the Republican party still represents the best opportunity for bringing liberty to the political system,” Amash says, and they’re listening. His talk is punctuated with applause — when he praises the sequester, when he mentions his fight with Carney — and after laying out a simple criticism of the president and a defense of his membership in the GOP, he announces that he’d rather take questions than ramble on. …
Amash is eminently unflappable. He explains that though he supported Romney, he wanted his endorsement “to mean something.” He says that he’s received “implied threats” because of his willingness to break ranks with his colleagues and that he doesn’t get invited to fancy dinners. He explains that he supported funding the court case to defend DOMA but doesn’t support a federal definition of marriage. He argues that the rest of the GOP — the establishment, old-guard types — are the extremists and that he’s the commonsensical moderate. And he says that the party’s libertarian wing is its future.
“If it ever was a contest, libertarianism has certainly triumphed over conservatism in the battle to galvanize non-leftist students,” writes Robby Soave at the Daily Caller, highlighting the biggest way Students for Liberty has changed the landscape of campus political activism. Fresh off reading Becoming Right (review forthcoming), similar thoughts were in my mind during the conference. Binder and Wood’s sociological study of college conservatism during the waning years of the Bush administration inadvertently demonstrates what an unprecedented thing SFL has been able to accomplish. The largest national conservative group profiled by them, the Reaganite Young Americans for Freedom, has somewhere around 100 chapters. SFL-ers have corrected my exact number several times, but their total affiliates number somewhere between 700 and 800, and it was founded in 2008. That puts it beyond even Students for a Democratic Society in its heyday. Ron Paul ran for president twice after Binder and Wood conducted most of their research, and it’s entirely possible that the picture they sketch bears no resemblance to right-wing student activism today.
But while they may be winning the fight on campus, the limitations of the American political system and prospects for it taking root abroad have caused the liberty movement to devote more attention to the developing world in recent years. It’s there, the thinking goes, that libertarian ideas in practice can do the greatest good, as well as challenge the dominant humanitarian aid paradigm in places like Africa that assumes the barrier to economic development is simply poverty, rather than effective liberal institutions. Projects to create free cities are in the works in several countries, though the most well-known experiment in Honduras experienced a considerable setback in the Honduran supreme court late last year. Reflecting the new focus, Sunday’s keynote speaker was Senegalese serial entrepreneur Magatte Wade, wife of noted free cities advocate Michael Strong. In a deeply moving speech that ended with tears, she exhorted libertarians to spend time outside both their country and their self-imposed intellectual ghetto, and to cultivate more of a humanistic sensibility. It struck me as having more in common with Bacevich’s message to conservatives than yet another call for the politically marginalized to engage with a vaguely-defined “culture.” Both spoke to the negative influence of Ayn Rand, though Wade thinks a cosmetic papering-over she called “Rand with a heart” is sufficient. (Bacevich would favor ditching Rand altogether, and for his part, MBD would support her remorseless suppression.) Hard truths, but necessary ones.