About 2,000 people, most of them young, gathered at a Washington, D.C., hotel over the weekend for a conference where Bernie Sanders fans rubbed elbows with Ted Cruz supporters — even though the main political choice from the current field of candidates was “none of the above.”
For International Students for Liberty, a libertarian group founded in 2008 and the host of the conference, the main issue was promoting freedom — a value that, despite much lip service, neither major party honors in practice. (Disclosure: I am affiliated with two conference sponsors, Reason magazine and the Cato Institute.)
Libertarianism in pure form — which rejects social welfare programs, government regulations, foreign involvements, and restrictions on personal behavior including hard drug use — is not a popular philosophy. Luckily, libertarian groups tend to have a big-tent approach that focuses on expanding personal, political, and economic freedoms, not on ideological purity. This was an event where many people of many persuasions would have found something to applaud. While libertarians tend to be a forward-looking crowd, the mood at the conference was not quite sunny. The panel on “Why the World Is Actually Getting More Libertarian,” featuring Reason editors Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie and syndicated columnist George F. Will, often sounded like a refutation of its title: Gillespie asked whether the “libertarian moment” was over and whether we should be concerned about “the authoritarian moment.”
Will agreed, observing that “the current front-runner in the party that has a libertarian wing” — Donald Trump — wants to daily deport thousands of immigrants here illegally and to make it easier to sue journalists for libel.
On the optimistic side, Welch pointed out that a record 27 percent of Americans in a recent poll could be classified as at least mild libertarians (defined by agreeing that government should do less to regulate the economy and should not promote traditional morality). Yet Will noted that Americans often “talk the Jeffersonian talk” while voting for politicians who promise that the state will take care of them.
Is there anything wrong with that? As the Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow argued on another panel, “Government has a tendency to grow and take over everything.” Even those who agree on the need for a social safety net and for some governmental restrictions in the economic and personal realms can agree that, in Bandow’s words, “We should err on the side of liberty” against “the expansive state.”
Generally, libertarian optimism is rooted less in political trends than in cultural ones — what Gillespie called “increasingly hyper-individualized choice” in lifestyles, consumption and media use. But this may be a mixed blessing. In a panel on campus censorship, Greg Lukianoff from the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education warned that “intolerance toward disagreeable speech is the dark side of libertarian optimism,” because “modern media give people the ability to talk and listen only to people who agree with you.”
The solution to anti-freedom trends, most agreed, is conversation and education. In an inspiring session titled “Why We Fight,” Tom Palmer, who has spent decades advocating for freedom around the world as an activist with the libertarian Atlas Network, noted that this fight is “a long-term effort,” in everything from the fall of communism to the legalization of marijuana.
As for the depressing election? At the conference’s keynote dinner, Students for Liberty president Alexander McCorbin reminded the gathering that the good thing about this election cycle is that it’s a cycle. It will pass; the call for liberty will endure.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.