John Stuart Mill may not have been the single predecessor of modern libertarianism, but his barely 100 page volume “On Liberty,” in addition to finding a permanent place in my backpack, says, “There have been, and may again be, great individual thinkers in a general atmosphere of mental slavery.” Mill would have been floored if he were alive to see the growing movement of student libertarian organizations worldwide resisting that same mental slavery he referred to in 1859.
The 200 college students gathered at John Jay College of Criminal Justice last Saturday for the 2013 New York Regional Students for Liberty (SFL) conference turned the misconception that millennials are apathetic on its head. The conference included tables from liberty-oriented organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Drug Policy Alliance, Foundation for Economic Education and several more. However the main attractions were the talks from professors, entrepreneurs, and economists. On the same day as the New York conference, similar ones were taking place in Dallas, Stockholm, and Chicago. Last year’s International Students for Liberty conference (ISFLC) attracted 1,400 liberty-minded individuals from all over the world to the Grand Hyatt in Washington D.C. Anthony Proto, a Marist sophomore who attended the New York conference with me, said “I didn’t know much about the libertarian party when I went, but I was curious because I was dissatisfied with the Republican and Democratic parties.” This dissatisfaction is fuel for the movement, and was echoed in almost every aspect of the conference. Libertarianism is entering the public’s consciousness and while candidates like Ron Paul and Gary Johnson do not pull in the percentages in elections that Republicans and Democrats do, the liberty movement is gaining ground.
Kyle Ducham, an SFL Campus Coordinator from SUNY New Paltz and one of the organizers for the New York conference, emphasized the importance of the international networks that SFL and similar organization Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) create. SFL is a primarily philosophical nonprofit group while YAL is a more political one which is allowed to endorse specific candidates and policies. The biggest challenge Ducham faces in organizing the conferences is logistics and promotion, because in her words, “the conferences kind of sell themselves,” with their free food and distinguished speakers. Once students are immersed in the liberty movement, the networking circle grows. Ducham talked about how individuals with SFL provide resources for students in nations such as Venezuela, Nigeria, and Kenya, and pointed out that Americans take freedom of information for granted. On a smaller scale, she promotes liberty on her campus by taking people out for coffee and handing out copies of “Why Liberty.” My friends and I followed all of the speakers on Twitter the day of the conference and most followed back promptly. I was asked for my email address by several of the tablers and speakers who I talked to, and most of them followed up after the conference. Steve Horwitz, a professor of economics at St. Lawrence University said in his talk that being friends with him on Facebook is somewhat of an SFL rite of passage. Through her involvement with SFL, Ducham earned a public policy fellowship with the Institute of Humane Studies and co-sponsored a liberty fund symposium with political theorist John Tomasi at Brown University. Joe Kuhn, a sophomore English major at Marist was particularly interested in the internship offerings from the Charles Koch Institute.
But it’s not all about networking and internships. Matthew La Corte, a student at Hofstra University and another organizer of the New York conference said, “I can’t tell you how many stories I hear of friendships being forged at SFL events. The camaraderie from being an SFLer is just wonderful.” Ducham said, “My friends are all in different time zones and everyone meets in D.C. for ISFLC,” she said, “I get to talk to people in France or from Nigeria, from all over the world and we can talk about these same ideas and the same issues.”
Grace Henderson, a Marist sophomore who entered the New York conference with a basic concept of libertarian beliefs said that one thing that struck her was the diversity of the libertarian movement, both in terms of the attendees and of their political stances. While a dictionary definition libertarian may be hard to pin down, “I might be an anarchist or a socialist, but I think that libertarianism is a step in the right direction to fixing the problems,” she said. Henderson is an art major, and while she may not be required to be well-versed in Mill’s philosophy, she wants to incorporate the problems addressed at the New York conference, such as immigration policy and foreign intervention into her art. Her latest project for her book making class is a “dos-a-dos” book which displays two sides at once: one side of hers will display the political problem, the other the solution. She was especially struck by the morning keynote speaker at the conference, Shikha Dalmia from the Reason Foundation who described how Bollywood movies influence individuals from heavily Muslim nations. Although it is, as Grace said, “an underground influence that people in the West don’t necessarily identify with,” it reinforces the idea that art can be a major player in sociopolitical changes. Henderson also particularly liked comedian Andrew Heaton who offered comic relief to the conference by referring to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg as “Marcus Aurelius Bloomberg” and with quips like, “I live on the corner of hipster and violent death,” in reference to his Brooklyn neighborhood. Additionally, Henderson was able to speak with libertarian representatives from her home state of New Jersey, who gave her information on becoming involved with local political issues. She was also fascinated by the survey that the Koch institute had participants fill out, which revealed that she would be moving to New Orleans. “I just think that it was a great experience,” said Henderson, “I’ve read almost every amendment to the Constitution since then.”
Alexis Seijas, another sophomore art major, pointed out how art can be used to promote liberty in advertising, political campaigns, and event promotion. While she went into this conference without many strictly libertarian beliefs, one point she drew was, “There are alternatives. There are always alternatives;” referring to Isaac Morehouse’s talk on his innovative education program Praxis. More alternatives discussed by Morehouse were Bitcoin’s challenge to the Federal Reserve and Uber’s challenge to public transportation services. She said that academically, the biggest thing she gained from the conference was to “question what you learn.” Kuhn echoed her; he said, “Don’t give in to common knowledge, superstition and conventional wisdom. Do your homework.” Proto said that he now realizes we are on the cusp of a big change. It is up to us to decide what is going to happen and how we’re being infringed upon, what our rights are and how to defend them and how to create a system that protects personal liberties. Ducham pointed out that these organizations are especially important because, “we are the next generation of policymakers.”
We live in a much different world than that of the Founding Fathers or John Stuart Mill, but participating in the New York SFL Regional Conference made me feel empowered to create change. When I asked my friends who their favorite speaker was, Jeffrey Tucker from Laissez-Faire Books took the overwhelming majority. In his evening keynote, what struck me most was his statement, “For you, it’s 1775.”
For more information about participating in this year’s International Students for Liberty conference, click here. If you are interested in forming a liberty organization at Marist along with the students mentioned in this article, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.