This weekend I went to the sixth annual International Students for Liberty Conference, and it got me thinking about the state of the libertarian movement. I’ve been a member of this movement for quite a long time; I was enthusiastic enough about libertarianism to join the Libertarian Party on a high school trip to Washington D.C. when I was sixteen.* I’m now thirty, so I’ve been involved for about half my life.
First, it’s grown exponentially even during the time I’ve been involved. There were more than a thousand attendees, and the vast majority of them were undergraduates. These are the undergraduates who either found their own travel money or get somebody to pay for their trip; they must represent many more young libertarians. When I first got involved most libertarians had never been in a room with 1000+ libertarians, much less thought of it as an annual event they could prepare for and look forward to. I was “that libertarian guy” in high school. Even in college there were only a few of us. Now, for college undergraduate libertarians, this is an institution. They now seem to know almost nothing of the disheartening loneliness of the earlier days of the movement when a libertarian might not personally know any other libertarians. I can’t overemphasize the novelty and importance of this fact.
Second, the quality might even be better, on average, than it used to be. As best I could tell, this was a very radical group. There are always a few odd conservatives and single-issue, i.e. pro-legalization people around at large libertarian events, but my random sampling of these students seemed to be very well acquainted with the great intellectual leaders of the movement; Bryan Caplan is a fixture at these events.** One would expect a dilution of the degree of radical belief as a movement expands, and I’m sure that’s true in general, but the hard core of this movement is expanding at a really mind-blowing pace. (As Exhibit A, a tweet from the Students for Liberty account: ‘In true libertarian form, “Would Not Vote” wins the 2016 Presidential straw poll’.)
As a corollary, the movement seems to be shaking off its lingering, historically contingent conservative shackles. Ever since libertarians and conservatives united against the New Deal, we’ve been stuck with them—in the minds of others, and all too often in our own. It’s been a constant frustration trying to explain to people that I consider libertarianism an antidote to both modern conservatism and modern liberalism, which in my mind should be grouped together before either should be grouped with us.
Third, libertarian events have always skewed heavily white and male. ISFLC13 was noticeably more even in gender ratio than any general libertarian event I’ve ever been to, and included delegations from across the world. This is also an important sign of the growth and health of the movement. I don’t have specific answers about how to make libertarianism more appealing to Group X or Category Y, but whatever they’re doing appears to be working.
All in all, I am very encouraged by where the movement is headed. I admit I had mixed feelings about the influx of people due to Ron Paul. I loved the enthusiasm for humbler foreign policy and smaller federal budgets, but I didn’t feel that the rich intellectual heritage of the movement was really getting its due, and I secretly feared the movement would be drawn off track. I’m not worried about that anymore. This is a sharp crowd.
* My LP membership lapsed not long after, for what it’s worth. Some people will read this footnote wondering why I included it, but I’m preempting the others.
** Full disclosure: Bryan Caplan is currently a professor of mine, but I don’t think he will take this as buttering him up.