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For nearly a century, many libertarians have seemingly forgotten many issues their 19th century forerunners talked about. One of the most crucial topics was feminism, which gets a bad rap in most libertarian circles today, perhaps somewhat justifiably so because modern feminism is so closely knit with pro-government voices. However, rightly understood, libertarianism and feminism are natural allies and can learn from one another. Unfortunately the libertarian feminist went nearly extinct in the 20th century as libertarians increasingly aligned with the right.

During this time, the rise of state socialism and communism changed the direction of classical liberalism and radical individualist thought. In order to combat the forces of central planning, the individualist thinkers focused more and more on economic issues, spending less time on other aspects of the individualist tradition (such as minority rights, worker empowerment, and feminism) and starting to align with the right. The ever-growing libertarian movement grew as a subset, or more radical branch, of mainstream conservatism. This is why, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, libertarians are often lumped in with the right.

Enter Ron Paul in the 2008 election. While he did run on the Republican ticket, the growing student movement for libertarianism that he inspired has adamantly rejected being lumped into the conservative milieu. Instead, these millennial libertarians fully embrace social freedom as an integral part of their libertarianism, and want to talk about things beyond just free market economics. Millennials are recognizing that libertarianism is about much more than low taxes and getting rid of red tape.

It’s not that millennial libertarians are trying to alter libertarian principles or create a new philosophy. Instead, this shift is about embracing our core principles, which date back to the enlightenment, but with a wider focus, thereby destroying the old stereotypes. As Students For Liberty President, Alexander McCobin writes,

“What does it mean that a second wave of libertarianism is taking charge? … First is a new prioritization of issues for second wave libertarians, particularly regarding social freedom, foreign affairs, and the environment.”

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Who: Leonard Read (1898-1983) founded the Foundation for Economic Education in 1946, the first educational think tank dedicated to correcting people’s misunderstanding and ignorance of free market economics, thus establishing the institutional framework for the broader libertarian movement. The first American to make libertarian education in the modern sense his life’s work, Read was as John Chamberlain called him, “a curious mixture of American go-getter, Tolstoyan Christian, Herbert Spencer libertarian, and dedicated medieval monk.” Read was far from an intellectual and preferred to convey economic education through parables, “in a manner more preacher than teacher,” as Brian Doherty says in Radicals for Capitalism. Read firmly believed that the only way to change the world was through self-education and self-understanding, not politics.

Why he matters: Read hoped FEE would educate all people about the ideas of liberty, from students to industrialists, from storekeepers to politicians. As Doherty writes, “To Read, any and every person might end up being the most important person the freedom movement could ever reach…Woe betide someone sitting next to Leonard Read on an airplane, who wasn’t in the mood to hear about how coercion could never generate creative activity.” “He tended to carve deep and lasting marks in the minds and souls of those he spoke to,” Doherty writes. It is unsurprising then that upon his death, a FEE trustee summoned G.K. Chesterton’s admonition that all Western men are living statues to the romans to declare that all libertarians are statues in tribute to Leonard Read. “Certainly Read is no more than one link away in the chain of influence on any libertarian, at least through the 1980s,” says Doherty.

Major works:

If You Only Read One Thing: The 1958 essay I, Pencil is Read’s most famous piece of writing. Milton Friedman and many other educators to this day use the essay to illustrate how spontaneous orders emerge from complex systems thanks to markets.

Favorite quote:

“The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.”

As the month of September idly passes us by, the time comes for a pivotal and potentially life-changing libertarian gathering, multiplied several times around the world: Students For Liberty (North American) Regional Conferences. Sitting here, typing these words for this wonderful organization, I pause to think back through this whirlwind of a year to where it all started for me, “it” being my involvement with Students For Liberty and the libertarian movement.

My first real experience with libertarianism, and the motivation to continue immersing myself in it, was the very first Regional Conference ever held in Canada: the Toronto Students For Liberty Regional Conference of 2013. What’s really funny is that one year ago, when this conference was held, it was referred to by SFL as the “Canadian Regional Conference,” because it was the only one in the entire country. What incredible luck, what an honour, then, that I was in the right area, geographically and politically, to experience this conference, which ultimately changed my ideas, and my life, for the better.

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The phrase “invisible hand” can easily evoke fanciful imagery of invisible hands magically manipulating the world. So it’s no surprise that many critics of laissez-faire, particularly on the left, misconstrue the concept as a form of magical thinking or religious fundamentalism. For example, Neil Douglas and Terry Wykowski allege that “market fundamentalists imagine that the market magically transforms market participants into moral agents who mitigate self interest through the ‘invisible hand’ as described by Adam Smith.”1

But economists don’t argue that markets produce moral outcomes as a result of “magic.” Rather, they argue that the institutions associated with markets produce incentives and those incentives guide self-interested individuals towards socially beneficial actions. As Peter Boettke explains, Adam Smith did not argue “that the pursuit of self-interest will automatically translate into public benefits.”2  To the contrary, Boettke points out:

The Wealth of Nations actually has plenty of examples in which the pursuit of self-interest can lead to socially undesirable options. His discussion of the vocation of teaching in Oxford (bad) and in Glasgow (good) provides a classic example. In Glasgow, the teacher had a strong incentive to provide valuable instruction because salary was a function of fees paid by the students, whereas in Oxford, because an endowment guaranteed a teacher’s salary, the professors had long ago given up even the pretense of teaching. Smith’s work is full of such comparative institutional analysis. The pursuit of self-interest in one case leads to a socially desirable outcome, whereas in the other it leads to an undesirable one. The key point: Smith’s analysis does not turn on the behavioral postulate of self-interest but instead on the institutional specifications that are in operation.3

Boettke uses this emphasis on institutions to rephrase Smith’s invisible hand proposition as follows: “Individuals pursuing their own self-interest within an institutional setting of property, contract, and consent will produce an overall order that, although not of their intention, enhances the public good.”4 Under these conditions, social cooperation emerges that is a result of human action but not of human design.

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“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.” –Doris May Lessing.

Since the distant past, creators have used fiction and allegories to comment on issues of the day. From Shakespearean dramas to modern day shows like House of Cards, media has been used to convey ideas about present situations without directly attacking current regimes or leaders. This method is sometimes even more effective than outright criticism because it entertains, engages, and teaches a lesson that may be more likely to stick. Joss Whedon’s short-lived but much loved science fiction series, Firefly, is full of libertarian ideas. Whether Whedon intended to or not, he created a powerful narrative of trying to maintain individual agency in a totalitarian world.

Firefly is the story of a ragtag crew of space cowboys on a ship called the Serenity, taking smuggling jobs a la Han Solo. Captain Malcolm Reynolds, an ex-Browncoat (resistance) soldier, just tries to go about his day-to-day life without attracting the Alliance’s eye. His first mate, Zoe, has been loyal to him since they fought together in the war. Her husband, pilot Wash, sometimes feels left out of the camaraderie they share. Jayne Cobb, money-hungry gunman, learns the price of being disloyal to his crew. Kaylee Frye, mechanic, keeps them in the air while maintaining her cheerful outlook and loving nature. Inara Serra, a Companion (prostitute) that rents out their shuttle, adds an air of respectability to the ragtag crew with her legal, credentialized profession as they go about their (often illegal) deeds. Shepard Book, a traveling man of faith, offers (usually unwanted) spiritual guidance while hiding his Alliance past.

The show is, simply, about making your own way in the universe despite government control. A small, elite few remain in power while people live in poverty and resort to criminal activity to get by, like the crew of the Serenity. The Alliance achieved this control through a war, killing and colonizing the people and planets that didn’t want to be part of their empire. Now they’re in power and people who don’t want to live by their unjust rules are imprisoned or killed. Despite this, the crew of Serenity keeps flying. They make their own way, supporting each other, and they stay in the air.

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