Given the requests for this that I’ve received, below is my opening speech at the 2013 International Students For Liberty Conference.
Last year’s International Students For Liberty Conference redefined the student movement for liberty by bringing together, for the first time ever, over 1,000 attendees at a libertarian student conference. This year, we are proving that number wasn’t a fluke. It was the start of something much greater. I am humbled to see so many young libertarians gathered together in the same room to begin an incredible weekend learning about the foundations of a free society, strategizing for how to create a freer future, and forging relationships that will last with you the rest of your lives. It’s something I once didn’t think was possible.
For me, all of this began in 9th grade when my father gave me a copy of Atlas Shrugged for my birthday. I remember him opening the book up and pointing to the first sentence, “Who is John Galt?” and saying, “That’s the line.” It took me a month to read over that summer, but when I finished, I said to myself, “This is what I’ve always believed, put into words.” I spent the rest of high school reading as much on Objectivism and libertarianism as I could, and by the time I went off to college at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, I was excited to move to a place where I thought I would be surrounded by other young advocates of liberty who would help me develop my ideas. Unfortunately, for the first 2 years, I didn’t meet a single other libertarian. I began to feel so isolated and alone, I actually said to myself, “Alexander, if you’re the only person on this campus who thinks this way, you must be crazy. Just give up and become a socialist. Life would be so much easier.” But, I didn’t. I decided to take a chance and start a group, the Penn Libertarians, to see if there were others out there. Within a year, we had over 200 members on our list-serve. Students, even professors came out of the woodwork and I realized: there had always been libertarians on campus. We just had no way of identifying one another until a group existed. But I was making it up as I went along. There was no handbook for what to do, no national organization to give me guidance. I was making lots of mistakes. When I found myself surrounded by 60 other libertarian students while interning in DC the summer before my senior year, I thought, “When will I ever be around this many libertarian students again?” I put together a roundtable discussion on best practices for student organizing for liberty. Twelve people showed up, and what was supposed to be a 1 hour conversation turned into 3 hours, until we were kicked out of the room. Without any institutional backing, we started planning what we thought was going to be a 30 person roundtable. That event turned into the first International Students For Liberty Conference with over 100 attendees, and here we are, five years later, at the 6th edition of that conference with over 1,200 attendees, put together by an organization that has over 900 student groups, ran 20 Regional Conferences in the US and Europe, launched our first in Venezuela, has inspired several more in Brazil, printed 175,000 copies of After the Welfare State, and has over 250 volunteer leaders changing the world. Even as someone who has seen the growth of the student movement for liberty from within over the past five years, it’s almost unbelievable to me.
I’ve told that story literally thousands of times since SFL’s start. But I’ve never told it when my dad was present. He’s here tonight. I admit, this is the first time I’ve invited him to a Students For Liberty event, to see what all of this has become. In far more important ways than just giving me a book, my father has been one of the most important influences on my life. So, I hope you will all allow me to digress for a moment, as I want to use this opportunity to say, “Thank you, Dad, for introducing me to these ideas, for keeping me going through everything, and in a very meaningful way starting all of this.”
Throughout this weekend, you are going to hear a lot about what the libertarian movement and Students For Liberty has accomplished. There is much in our recent past to be proud of. But, I believe there is something more important that the student movement for liberty should take pride in: our future. Our generation has an opportunity to change the world. We are in an unprecedented position to promote the ideas of liberty and justice, but only if we take advantage of the opportunities that are available. It will take time, hard work, and a scale of activity libertarians have never dreamed of before, but it can be done.
To do this, there are two areas where we need to change things. The first is the image of libertarianism. For too long, libertarianism has been a troubled brand. On the one hand, many have considered libertarianism to be an arm of conservatism that stands for the same things as people like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
And, I admit, it is difficult to counter this when staunch conservatives like Glenn Beck decide to start calling themselves libertarian. But, if Glenn wants to call himself a libertarian, I am happy to accept him as one… on the condition… that he comes here, to our community, and proclaim “mea culpa” for his past defenses of social and neo-conservatism in public policy and then take serious, public measures to undo the damage done by his offenses to liberty. While it is perfectly fine to be socially conservative in one’s private life, just as it is perfectly fine to be socially liberal in your private life, libertarianism objects to social conservatism mandated by government. It is time for us to express our disagreement and discontent with those who are not of us, but claim to speak for us. Should Beck or any other conservative admit their past transgressions and begin to defend liberty of all people, in all areas of their lives, we should welcome them. But should they try to co-opt libertarianism as they have done before, we must reject their efforts and make clear that we are not on the same team.
This is our movement. Not theirs. We stand for the liberty of all people at all times, not the liberty of some people to lead the kind of life that a particular elite thinks is best.
Yet, this damaging association with conservatism isn’t the worst of it. If people don’t think of us as extreme conservatives, they hold the stereotype that libertarians are heartless white guys sitting in their mother’s basement trolling Ron Paul forums to defend big corporations. Simply saying that this is not true doesn’t work. We need to show people that it’s not true. Libertarianism is diverse. As Antwan Andre Patton, better known by his stage name, Big Boi from Outkast, recently said in an interview where he came out as libertarian to the Huffington Post: libertarianism is “pro-people”. Libertarianism is concerned with the plight of the poor and offers the best solution to the plague of impoverishment, as the Bleeding Heart Libertarians will explain in their panel tomorrow. Libertarianism is pro straight marriage, pro gay marriage, and pro single life all at once in the sense that we want people to be free to choose whichever lifestyle they want. That needs to be our message, and that needs to be our image.
The second area of opportunity available is in leadership. There are two things that change the world: people and ideas. An idea represents how the world works and how we ought to act. But an idea doesn’t spread or implement itself. It needs the right people to advocate it to take hold in the world. The liberty movement is strong because our ideas are strong. And while we have had some outstanding leaders for the cause of liberty, we have not had nearly enough of them for several generations. We need more leaders for liberty, people who embody the three characteristics of a leader, people who:
- Set the standards for success.
- Find a way to succeed.
- Inspire others to become leaders.
Frankly, there aren’t enough libertarians out there who we can say embody all of these qualities. Of the few that do exist, two people stand out in my mind as the paradigm of libertarian leaders. The first is Ed Crane, best known for being the founder and now president emeritus of the Cato Institute. His achievements with Cato are well-known, but what you may not know, is that before he founded Cato, Mr. Crane was one of the first National Chairmen of the Libertarian Party and ran some of the most successful campaigns the Libertarian Party ever had. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, libertarians thought that they could immediately start to play the political game and win. At first, Ed Crane participated in that strategy, and blew everyone else out of the water, building a stronger libertarian political movement than anyone else at the time. But he didn’t stay in politics. Mr. Crane noticed an opportunity that no other libertarian did: he realized that libertarians could gain significant influence in public policy by focusing on research and writing papers that could influence law. When everyone was focused on politics, Ed Crane started the first libertarian think tank. Over the years, the Cato Institute has become one of the most prominent think tanks in the world, certainly the most prominent libertarian think tank. If you’re already immersed in the movement, you’ve likely heard someone say “We have too many people writing white papers. All anyone wants to do is go to a think tank.” And if you’re not immersed in the movement yet, you will hear it. In fact, it’s something I say quite frequently. But there’s a reason for this: Ed Crane showed everyone else what was possible. Ed Crane made libertarian public policy respectable and acceptable. Ed Crane first set the standards for success by beating everyone else in the libertarian movement in the political game, then he completely redefined what success meant by leaving politics and showing others what was possible with think tanks. That’s exactly the kind of leadership we need more of.
The second leader I’m thinking of is someone that has probably influenced almost everyone in this room in a very public way…. How many people have been influenced by Ron Paul? There is no question that Ron Paul has done a great deal for the cause of liberty today. It is great that Ron Paul inspired so many people to speak out in support of limited government while he was running for president in 2008 and 2012. But if his influence is limited to those two elections, then he will have only been a fad. For Ron Paul’s legacy to truly be one of leadership, a defining moment in history of libertarianism, those who were inspired by Ron Paul must pick up the torch of liberty that he has set down now that he has left congress. If the movement disappears, then his work, and ours, will have been in vain. Books will be written that treat Ron Paul as a blip on the radar, nothing more. Only if the libertarian movement grows beyond Ron Paul will he be remembered as one of the greatest figures in libertarian, and possibly even American, political history. Will you let his work and inspiration go to waste? Or will you pick up that torch and take it to greater heights than Dr. Paul ever imagined?
The cause of liberty is bigger than any individual person or organization. Liberty critically depends on people like Ed Crane and Ron Paul and organizations like the Cato Institute, Institute for Humane Studies, and others, but it does not rely solely upon them. Liberty depends on you, on everyone in this room. Ron Paul is no longer a congressman. He is not running for president again. He is still a powerful part of our movement, no doubt, but I have incredible respect for his decision to no longer be the one leading the charge against statism. He is making room for many more to step up to that role, and I see those individuals in this room tonight.
If you want to see the Ron Paul Revolution last beyond two election cycles, you need to take personal responsibility for it. But I’m not asking you to do this for Ron Paul or anyone else for that matter. I’m asking you to do it for yourself. Don’t wait for others to give you the rights that you have, inherently, as a human being. Learn to stand up and defend those rights yourself. That is the only way you will be able to preserve them. And when I say learn to defend your rights, I don’t just mean in the form of arms or politics. All too often in today’s world, people seem eager to treat violence as the solution of first resort. The first line of defense for liberty comes in the form of ideas, in arguments and persuasion. It was the marketplace of ideas in the Enlightenment that allowed liberty to flourish. In re-establishing that marketplace we can once again advance the principles of liberty and human dignity that are under attack today. Activism and politics are not equivalent terms. To engage the political system directly is one strategy of advancing liberty, yes. But to be an activist for ideas, to develop strategies for getting more people to embrace liberty as a principle, to create organizations that reach more people, to change the very foundations upon which politics rests, that is the way you truly change the world. Political Economy 101 and Public Choice Theory teach us that politicians and parties respond to the incentives given them by the general sentiment of the public. The greatest form of activism is to change hearts and minds. That is the way to advance liberty in the long-term.
The future of liberty depends on you. What I would ask you to do over the course of this weekend, your trip home, and really the rest of this semester is, knowing that: What are you going to do?
I can tell you what Students For Liberty is doing. Students For Liberty is taking up the call and we are planning to do more than we ever expected to five years ago. We are increasing our activity in the United States. We are creating a US-specific Executive Board, we are going to bring on more Campus Coordinators, distribute more resources, and build the student movement for liberty in the US to unprecedented heights.
Internationally, European Students For Liberty is going to run its 2nd European SFL Conference next month with nearly twice as many attendees as last year. They will run more conferences, expand their leadership programs, and provide more resources to our compatriots in their continent. A Brazilian organization, Estudantes Pela Liberdade, is integrating into the Students For Liberty-International fold to gain more resources and participate in the global student movement for liberty. Last month, we ran our first Estudiantes por la Libertad conference in Venezuela. If we can run a 70 person libertarian student conference in Venezuela, we can build this movement across the Spanish-speaking part of the Americas, and so are creating a regional Executive Board for those countries. While that is a lot already, we are making more investments to run our first event in Africa by the end of the year and expand our offerings across the world.
In short: Students For Liberty is going all in. There is the demand, the need, and the opportunity to build the libertarian movement to unprecedented heights, and we intend to make that happen!
Students For Liberty is only able to do all of this because we have the best individuals possible running the organization. Would everyone in SFL’s leadership, the International Executive Board, European Executive Board, US Campus Coordinators, European Local Coordinators, Charter Team members, and Alumni For Liberty Board members, please stand up? Ladies and gentlemen, please give these individuals a round of applause because they are the heroes who are building the foundations upon which the future of liberty will be built.
I hope you have the same admiration for these individuals that I do. We are looking for more to join their ranks. Liberty needs more, and Students For Liberty is looking for the best and brightest to join our team to do more. Last year, we rejected 50% of the applicants to the US Campus Coordinator Program. We’ve seen similar percentages for other leadership programs. One of the keys to Students For Liberty’s success is that we don’t take everyone. We take the best. We take those that we see the most potential in, and we make an investment in them. If you want to make a difference for liberty and think you have what it takes to join SFL’s leadership, sign up with one of our leaders at the registration table during intermission, or talk with anyone with a yellow name badge throughout the weekend. It is not easy to join SFL’s leadership, but it is one of the best ways you can stand up for the principles you believe in.
For what it means to be a libertarian who wants to actually create a freer world is to take responsibility for being the personification of libertarianism to the rest of the world. It means you recognize that the word liberty does not bring up an abstract concept in people’s minds. It brings up an image of you. It means committing yourself to make liberty one of your life projects, not necessarily your career or obsession, but one of the things that comprises your identity and is a purpose you work towards. Students For Liberty is here to help you do that, and to do it well.
This is our time. This is your time. Do not let this opportunity pass by and forever regret it. Become the leader of liberty you have the potential to become. Give these ideas the kind of person it deserves. And give yourself the freedom that you deserve.