The people who gathered for the 10th annual conference of the International Society of Students for Liberty in Washington last weekend were a motley crowd that included anti-war activists with neon-colored hair and law students in three-piece suits. In the exhibit hall, a display honoring Ronald Reagan was only a few feet away from a LGBT group with a rainbow version of the “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsen flag and from the table of a group called Muslims for Liberty.
Despite the festive atmosphere, this year’s speakers at the libertarian event were mostly in a dark mood — worse than last year, when many warned about a rising authoritarian tide. While libertarians tend to be at the Republican end of the two-party spectrum, Donald Trump Republicanism is about as un-libertarian as you get. There was raucous applause when Katherine Mangu-Ward, editor of Reason magazine (where I am a contributing editor), declared at the opening-night session, “Free movement of people and goods across the border is good.” Another Reason editor, Nick Gillespie, contrasted the libertarian spirit of “cosmopolitanism and tolerance” with Trump’s demonization of undesirables — and with the left’s anti-pluralist drive to silence politically incorrect speech.
Tom Palmer, vice president for international programs at the nonprofit Atlas Network, also spoke of illiberal trends on both the left and the right in his talk on “global anti-libertarianism.” But while Palmer named left-wing identity politics and thought-policing as part of the problem, his focus was the threat from the right: in America, Trumpism, with its cult of the leader who embodies the people’s will and its paranoia about the foreign; in Europe, populist, nationalist, and sometimes outright fascist movements, many financed by Russia’s authoritarian regime.
Social psychologist and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt, whose talk on the rise of the “safety culture” in colleges was probably the biggest hit of the conference, warned that “the end of liberal democracy” was a real threat. Haidt, whose 2012 book, “The Righteous Mind,” examined the moral foundations of political beliefs, painted a dire picture of polarization in America — and of the drift toward a leftist echo chamber on college campuses. Social justice, Haidt said, is replacing pursuit of knowledge as the central mission of universities, and there is less and less tolerance for dissent. The result is a generation sympathetic to censorship of offensive speech.
Haidt argued that “diversity of thought is desperately needed” on campus, and that libertarians may be the key. Conservatives are seen as “poison” in the academy, while libertarians are merely viewed with wariness and confusion, and are thus in a far better position to get unorthodox opinions heard. “Do something about the mess that we’re descending into,” he implored the audience, mostly of libertarian students.
In the age of Trumpian populism versus political correctness run amok, libertarianism offers promise beyond the campus, too — if it doesn’t descend into laissez-faire utopianism at home and isolationism abroad. Gillespie noted that if libertarianism is defined as a preference for less government involvement in both economic and moral matters, at least one poll finds that libertarian leaners are now the single largest group of voters, at 27 percent (while 26 percent are conservative, 23 percent liberal, and 15 percent populist).
While parts of the conference had a decidedly pessimistic tone, there was optimism as well — and discussion of libertarian victories from deregulation to gay civil rights. Libertarianism may not have all the answers; but right now, it may be our best hope for rebuilding a culture of freedom and tolerance.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.