“Libertarians and Conservatives are as different as Libertarians and Liberals. The truth is libertarians are the worst form of political affiliation in the nation. Combining the desire of economic greed, with the amoral desire to promote any behavior regardless of its cost to our culture is a stark departure from the intent of the Founding Fathers.”
In recent years, the libertarian movement has seen a substantial surge in its numbers. On college campuses, young libertarians across the country now constitute the majority of student-driven political activism. However, the message of liberty, while it is gaining ground, has yet to take hold as a generally accepted doctrine. Many libertarians believe the best way to change this is through political campaigns, while others think that working in ideas and educational outreach will yield the best results for advancing liberty.
Many forefathers of the libertarian movement, including Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, Nock, Read, etc., have all explained that political change can only occur through a diligent educational effort. One of the most famous essays, Hayek’s The Intellectuals and Socialism, explains that social change occurs when the intellectuals (whom Hayek called “the second-hand dealers in ideas”) accept a doctrine at which point their ideas are filtered through to public opinion which later converts into political action. Thus, as Leonard Read used to say, politicians and political change is simply a lagging indicator of the state of intellectual opinion. Hayek said it best by noting that “once the more active part of the intellectuals has been converted to a set of beliefs, the process by which these become generally accepted is almost automatic and irresistible,” and that “it is merely a question of time until the views now held by the intellectuals become the governing force of politics.”
Mises, too, understood Hayek’s argument when he stated that, “What determines the course of a nation’s economic policies is always the economic ideas held by public opinion. No government whether democratic or dictatorial can free itself from the sway of the generally accepted ideology.”
We as libertarians should strongly consider the value of each strategy to advance liberty. Should we invest time in learning how to manage campaigns, or should we learn how to refute illiberal arguments in clear, cogent, and convincing form? Is it more valuable spending a week at the Institute for Humane Studies or the Foundation for Economic Education learning about different classical liberal theories, or is it more valuable canvassing for a local politician? These are the questions that will determine the success of our movement for many years to come.
The student movement for liberty is stronger today than any time in history, but we must not mishandle this opportunity by choosing the easy way out. Educating oneself in the ideas of liberty is a daunting task and requires an enormous commitment, but I believe that it will ultimately yield the most positive results for the advancement of liberty.
Consider what F.A. Hayek told Antony Fisher when contemplating how best to further the cause of liberty; Fisher asks Hayek, “What can I do? Should I enter politics?” To this question Hayek replies with a resounding “No” going on to explain that “society’s course will be changed only by a change in ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and writers, with reasoned argument. It will be their influence on society which will prevail, and the politicians will follow.”
I will leave you with the following inspiring passage from Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism where he explains what FEE’s Frank Chodorov thought about social change. Chodorov’s ideas also exemplify the integral role that Students For Liberty will play in changing the world for many years to come: “Chodorov’s strategy for social change was a populist variant of the Hayekian model, aimed at changing the minds of the next generation of thought leaders, college students. (Chodorov thought it was already too late for the faculty.) The intellectual and political victories of the planning mentality in the United States were caused, Chodorov maintained, by student groups advocating socialism in the early twentieth century, capturing students’ attention by adopting an aura of idealism, radicalism, and pacifism. The individualist counterrevolution would have to do the same, assiduously planting individualist thought in the mind of the young, slowly turning the wheel that would change the world’s direction away from collectivism, toward individualism. A return to thoroughgoing individualism culturally could take another fifty years or more, he realized.”
For the second year in a row Students For Liberty participated in the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this past weekend and it certainly was quite the event this year. Present were many of the traditional groups and stars of the conservative movement who shared the event with new Tea Party leaders, conservative-libertarian icons, and groups that were both young and old. It was a diverse crowd that led to high tensions, hyperbolic warnings, and downright meanness, but there was also a sense of optimism, peaceful discussion, and hope for a rebirth of the movement for peace and prosperity.
This year was the largest showing in the history of CPAC and at the center of the 10,000+ people was a controversy that has the potential to redefine libertarian/conservative fusionism, and possibly the conservative movement itself. Social issues and foreign policy were the heart of the debate with traditional social conservatives and Bush-era neo-conservatives defending their policies against a perceived libertarian threat. In reality libertarians are not “taking over CPAC” but the youth presence at CPAC is a reflection the changing attitude towards government that reflects the beliefs of people like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
Today’s youth are beginning to realize that you can be a social conservative in your personal life while being a political libertarian. Actions that conservatives deem immoral cannot be prevented by outlawing homosexual acts/relationships, prohibiting the use of drugs, and censoring anti-American speech. Instead, if social conservatives feel these things are wrong they need to remove government and address them in the community. When government enters the picture individuals become complacent in their relations with those in their community and turn to bureaucrats for solutions instead of handling the problem themselves. Conservatives should be embracing solutions based on what works, not intentions.
In the same vein young Americans are continuing to turn their back on unjust wars. This is not a retreat to the anti-war “left” but a belief in maintaining American sovereignty through a strong military that is only used in just wars. While even libertarians may have seen Afghanistan in 2001 as just, it is no longer so, and the war in Iraq is an invasion that represents the actions of an empire, not a small government republic. This is not a libertine attack, this is a return to common-sense and small government principles lead by the youth. Conservatives need to be reminded that Republican is not the same thing as conservative.
The question remains, is this a split in the fusionism that has been maintained by conservatives and libertarians? I believe the answer is no, though some shifts will be made. As the old players (YAF, Heritage, etc.) continue to show they are out of touch with today’s youth and continue to grow irrelevant, priorities will shift. The people who have climbed up in the ivory towers of these organizations will continue to scream about how great they are but those who live outside the beltway will continue to wonder who they are and need to turn to Wikipedia for information on their former glory. Fusionism is not dead, but social conservatives will need to realize their primary issues are better solved outside of federal government intervention and instead should be handled at the most local level possible. Society does not live and die by the policies of the state, it lives and dies by the compassion and interaction of individuals in the community.
The future does look bright for the conservative and libertarian movement. While once mighty organizations like YAF have fallen, two new groups have formed to take their place. Young Americans for Liberty and Students For Liberty are both showing record numbers in their programs and are active on more college campuses than YAF ever was. Instead of attempting to be the “be all, end all” of the fight for freedom YAL/SFL have formed a dynamic partnership where they each focus on the different portions of the structure of social change where they have a comparative advantage. YAL continues to mobilize students for political activism and future public office runs. SFL lays the intellectual foundation through motivating conferences and supplying much needed philosophical resources around the country.
The times are changing and the Old Guard is passing away, but a rebirth for liberty is happening with two groups working hard together to fight for the victories that include personal freedom, economic freedom, and peaceful relations with all people.
To learn more about SFL’s experience at CPAC 2011, check out some of the press SFL received:
When you hold an event on campus and three students show up that you’ve never seen before, what do you do? Do you (a) ignore them and keep talking with the regular group members, (b) say hello, hand them a flyer, then go back to your friends, (c) ask them to sign in by giving you their email addresses on a sheet and then leaving, or (d) chat with them for a while before the event starts and getting their contact information to follow up with them afterward? Be honest with yourself. If it’s usually (a), (b), or (c), you’re doing the wrong thing.
Students who show up to your group’s event for the first time are likely going to feel awkward and unsure of what to do with themselves. They have expressed a strong enough interest in your group to give up at least an hour of their week to be at your meeting, but they’re not sure if it’s the right fit for them. They’re taking your group for a test drive, seeing how your group handles, what the feel is, and whether they want to make a commitment to it. If you ignore them and don’t give them the chance to actually participate, they’re not going to keep coming back. However, if you make them feel welcome, like this is the kind of group they would like to come back to every week, and is the kind of place for them to develop their personal and intellectual skills, then you have a chance to turn new students into regular members.
Admittedly, option (c) is far better than (a) or (b) because you can at least follow-up with the new students later on, add them to your list-serve, and invite them to future events. But if they had a bad experience at the first meeting, why would they want to accept an invitation to future events? Why would they even want to open your emails? You skim the “From” line and “Subjects” of your emails to weed out the emails from groups that you don’t deem important enough to read. Other students do the same, and if you don’t work hard to prevent it, your group may end up being one of them.
The best group leaders take option (d). When new students show up, either they, or their friends, go up and make the new students feel engaged, like they are already part of the group. Instead of talking about how great the group is, they ask the new students what their interests are and why they are interested in the event. The leaders get details about the new students to use in subsequent contacts to spark their interest in attending. They also get enough contact information to reach out to the new students later on and make sure that the students respond when contacted.
If you want your group to grow and succeed, you need to bring in new members. To do that, you need to engage new students and make them feel like they’re members of your organization, not outsiders.
Cato on Campus and the D.C. Forum for Freedom invite you to their student forum, titled ‘The Internet and Social Media: Tools for Freedom or Tools of Oppression?’ on Friday February 24th at the Cato Institute. Join Christopher Preble (Director of Foreign Policy, Cato Institute), Alexander Howard (Government 2.0 Washington, D.C., Correspondent, O’Reilly Media), and Tim Karr (Campaign Director, Free Press) for this free event at the Cato Institute on Friday, February 24 at 3:30pm EST. The forum will be moderated by Jim Harper, the Director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. According to the description:
Freedom movements around the world are using Twitter and Facebook to express dissent and to organize, particularly in the Middle East. It might be fair to say that the Internet is becoming the platform for political liberation. But the “just add Internet” thesis has its skeptics, who argue that, in fact, the Internet may give authoritarian governments the upper hand. Social media platforms are very amenable to government surveillance, and revolution doesn’t come easy, online or off. Should lovers of freedom be saying “Internet FTW!” or is it one big “#InternetFAIL”?
What: Student Forum, ‘The Internet and Social Media: Tools for Freedom or Tools of Oppression?’ Date: Friday, February 24, 2011 Time: 3:30 pm EST Location: The Cato Institute, 1000 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20001