Second Wave Libertarianism: A Manifesto

Now Comes A New Era For Liberty

By Alexander McCobin

(This speech was delivered at the 2014 International Students For Liberty Conference on Saturday, February 15, 2014.)

I want to talk about a change that is taking place across the world.  A new generation of libertarians is developing, forming our own identity and crafting a new strategy for social change.  It is a generation that strongly promotes libertarianism, but it is a libertarianism of a different stripe than that which was advocated throughout most of the 20th century.

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If Brian Doherty’s tome, Radicals for Capitalism, documented the founding of the modern libertarian movement, then the period where the book ended (the late 80’s, early 90’s), saw the birth of a new wave of libertarianism.  While this second wave is a continuation of the principles developed in the 20th century, we are diverging in many ways to emphasize the positive nature of libertarianism.

It’s important to remember that libertarianism is not new.  The term is historically unique, but the ideas are the oldest in political philosophy.  Fareed Zakaria has argued that the problem for contemporary libertarianism is that we have already won the major battles: ending slavery, expanding suffrage to more people, guaranteeing civil liberties, even defeating communism.

What we are now arguing for is the last 5% of liberty when we have already achieved so much over the past several centuries.  If we take this point seriously, the historical legacy of libertarian thought extends long before the first ardent proponents of the term: from the defense of democracy in Ancient Greece to the Magna Carta in the United Kingdom to the founding fathers of the U.S. to the abolitionists of the 1800’s to the women’s suffrage movement in the early twentieth century.

While I will be explaining the divergence between a first wave of libertarianism in the 20th Century and a second wave of the 21st century, and arguing that the libertarian movement ought to embrace fundamental changes, it is important to remember that just as there was unity to the cause of liberty throughout the centuries, there is still unity in our cause as we respond to new threats to liberty and adopt new strategies to create a freer world.

Today, though, libertarianism is often stereotyped as either a group of “extreme conservatives” or kooks.  But, realistically, this is a holdover from the first wave of libertarianism, between the 1940’s and 1990’s, when the philosophy was first being developed by intellectual leaders like Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, and Milton Friedman, and leaders were grappling with how to interpret and apply these ideas.

Because communism was enemy number one to both libertarians and conservatives, some people thought they were the same thing, with individuals like Barry Goldwater representing this alliance.  Because there were no libertarian institutions at the time, and no seeming prospects for success for the movement, some people did go off the deep end and chose to rant to prove just how “libertarian” they were.

However, there were those who decided to truly build the libertarian movement with its own institutions, as its own philosophy: Leonard Read with the Foundation for Economic Education, Ed Crane with the Cato Institute, David Nolan with the Libertarian Party, F.A. “Baldy” Harper with the Institute for Humane Studies and those who founded and built up the Reason Foundation.

At the birth of a new articulation of the philosophy of freedom, constrained by the lack of infrastructure and the power of its enemies, the 20th century saw the first wave, the birth of libertarianism.

Today’s youth are able to carry on the libertarian tradition with new interests, new strategies, and new leaders.  This Second Wave or Millennial Libertarianism is defined not only by two distinctly different conditions from the First Wave (the threat of communism is a relic of the past, so we can take on other enemies of liberty, and we have had libertarian institutions to incubate our ideas and activities in a way that Leonard Read, Ed Crane, and others did not), but by other circumstances as well:

  • A decade-long war that has defined our youth.

  • Overreach of the security state into our private lives and curtailment of our civil liberties.

  • Bloated government spending and corporate-government cronyism that is threatening our economic future.

  • Militarization of the police, mass imprisonment of nonviolent individuals, and a breakdown of social structures as a result of the war on drugs

  • The failures of two presidential administrations, one Republican and one Democrat.

All of this has led to a newfound interest among young people in libertarianism, along with a new approach to the philosophy by what the generation now known as “Millennials.”

And the approach of Millennial Libertarianism challenges many of the old models of politics, of organizing, and even the first wave’s approach to libertarianism itself.

  • We challenge the notion that people can only be libertarian if they are motivated by a particular argument either derived from the Non-Aggression Principle or that came from the mouth of a historical figure like Ludwig von Mises.  We recognize that there are many reasons people defend liberty and many influences that can bring people to this philosophy.

  • We challenge the purity test that many have tried to impose on the movement.  We accept people who agree on 90% of issues and are committed to the same principles as us.

  • We challenge the mindset of “inevitability” that has dominated the libertarian movement for so long.  We do not believe that the world will forever be defined by constraint and oppression.  We do not believe that libertarians must forever be relegated to choosing between the left and the right to affect political change.  Our generation as a whole is defined by an entrepreneurial spirit that has never been so widespread in the history of mankind. Our generation has the tools to actually make a difference in a way that few have had before.

The stereotype of libertarians as dark, negative, cold, and calculating, may persist in some minds, but anyone who seeks to gain even a cursory understanding of what we stand for will realize this is far from accurate.

There is a reason SFL’s color is gold: it represents the future prosperity that liberty promises to everyone.  It is said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, but it is so much more. It brings color to the world at the start of the day. It is the basis upon which our energy depends and colors derive.  And, just as the precious metal provides a sound basis for currency, the color provides a sound image of our philosophy.

Second Wave libertarianism is one that stands for the freedoms of all people at all times, not simply when it is convenient or when it is in our interests to do so.

Second Wave libertarianism unifies the movement, not by an appeal to purity tests or an agreed upon end state, but rather by a commitment to a common principle of liberty that can be defended by diverse justifications and lead to meaningful policy debates.

Second Wave libertarianism seeks to organize libertarians with one another, to dispel the idea that liberty means isolation.  At the first ISFLC, I repeated an old joke at the time that “organized libertarians” was an oxymoron.  However, what we have shown over the past 6 years is that this is very much not the case.  Libertarianism is about association and cooperation, far more than the use of force statist philosophies depend upon.

Most of all, Second Wave libertarianism is defined more by our collaboration with those who agree with us than our opposition to those who disagree with us.  We seek to build the big tent of the libertarian movement and work with as many people as possible. This means that we are opposed to neither the left, nor the right.  The origins of today’s conservatism and liberalism can be traced back to libertarianism.   The most respectable positions of both philosophies today are those that are libertarian.  Given libertarianism’s historical association with conservatism, it is important for us to make clear that there is a difference between libertarianism and conservatism.

But we must also be sure to not condemn conservatism outright or conservatives who are making a serious effort to understand libertarianism.

Each and every one of us must do this, and I will be the first to admit that I must strive to improve my attitude in this regard.  Beyond my philosophical views, I have had a number of personal experiences with some conservatives that have left a bitter taste in my mouth.  I remember a representative from the Leadership Institute approaching me during my senior year of undergrad about affiliating the Penn Libertarians with LI.  During our lunch, she went through a laundry list of social issues, condemning everything from gay marriage to the “hippies” who wanted to legalize marijuana.

Afterward, I thought to myself, “Why would I ever affiliate with an organization that disagrees with half the issues my group believes in?”

Another time, during the first year of Students For Liberty’s existence, I was having lunch with representatives from Young America’s Foundation to see if there was an opportunity for collaboration.  About halfway through the meal, one of the representatives said to me, “You know, Alexander, we see libertarianism as a fringe part of the conservative movement, but still part of conservatism, so want to bring you guys in under the fold.”  I was baffled that they were so dismissive of a philosophy with such a rich intellectual history and constituted such a rapidly growing movement.

But the right is changing.  I see many people there recognizing libertarianism as an independent philosophy, conceding to libertarians not only on economic, but also social and foreign policy issues, and striving to better understand what it means to believe in limited government, not just for a few or in those areas they care about, but for all people, in all areas.

To that end, I’d like to comment on two recent cases of notoriety.

Jack Hunter began his career as a conservative radio talk show host who would wear a Confederate flag mask and call himself the Southern Avenger.  He made comments that were racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and toed the conservative line more than the libertarian one.  He had privately distanced himself from these comments, but his public persona was still associated with them.

This past summer, I condemned Jack for those comments and suggested the libertarian movement would be better to distance ourselves from such comments.  However, Jack has done something even better for the libertarian movement: He penned an article published in Politico titled, “Confessions of a Right Wing Shock Jock” explaining the transformation in his views and publicly acknowledging the importance libertarianism places on toleration.   He did a brave thing in admitting his past mistakes, and has taken on a new priority of promoting tolerance to conservatives.  I have tremendous respect for him for doing so.

At last year’s ISFLC, I criticized Glenn Beck for calling himself a libertarian, and asked him to come to this year’s ISFLC to talk with us if he actually had become a libertarian.  I must admit, I am disappointed that while Beck was willing to call me a few nasty words on his radio show, he was not willing to engage in a conversation with me either in public or in private even after several overtures to him and his people.  However, I must also admit that I have been pleased to hear Beck start to take more libertarian positions on those issues where we are different from conservatism.

Since last year’s ISFLC, Beck has defended the right of individuals to consume what they want in the privacy of their own homes.  He has come out against bans on same-sex marriage.  In short, while I believe he still has some serious work to do, he is moving himself and his actions more into our camp, and I want to praise him for that, even if he will not show similar praise to those libertarians who have been working hard to make it a mainstream philosophy, to those who built it up to a level of respect and recognition (and are still building it up) that has made him willing to embrace it.

Yet, we must also recognize that there is a long way to go with many people.  At last year’s ISFLC, because libertarians believe in decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing same-sex marriage, Ann Coulter called libertarians a word that had to be censored out of the Stossel show.  She asked last year’s students why we didn’t focus on economic issues.  Her blind opposition to anything that does not toe her line of conservatism led her to ignore the stacks of books lying outside the room where she spoke titled, “After the Welfare State.”  At the same time that SFL was promoting equal rights for individuals regardless of their sexuality, we were also distributing 175,000 copies of a book about the dangers of welfarism and the potential of free markets to do far more to end poverty than government programs.

Let me express the point another way: we are not opposed to the left/right paradigm.  We transcend it.  We have as many friends on the left as we do on the right.  To those who have been involved in libertarian politics for more than a few years, this may come off as leftist.  After all, SFL is not condemning the left, and we do not work exclusively with the right.

However, what makes us unique is not that we are “left-libertarian”, but rather, that we are simply, libertarian.  We embrace the commonalities left-wingers and right-wingers have with libertarians, and highlight both.  Our balance is what is unusual, and throws many people off.  Just look at this conference’s schedule.

Those who want to peg SFL as “left-wing” may cite the fact that we have panels with Oliver Stone and Jeremy Scahill on civil liberties, a speech by Tom Palmer on the dangers of war, and even a panel titled “Libertarianism and the Left”.  Those who want to say that libertarianism is just an arm of conservatism will almost certainly point to the conference having multiple main room sessions on how libertarians can work with the right to affect politics, speeches on economic freedom, and training from the National Rifle Association.  But notice that this conference does is not prioritize the left or the right.   We include both.  That is the key to SFL’s success; that is the key to the future success of liberty.

Second Wave libertarians have a unique opportunity to bridge the gaps in the political system right now.  We must remain positive and enduring.  Whenever we hear someone from the right say that libertarians should declare liberalism to be the enemy of freedom, we ought to respond politely, but absolutely, “No.  That is not true.  We have many allies on the left, and we will not condemn them.”  Similarly, we must not get so caught up in trying to build alliances the left that we ignore those potential allies on the right.

Second Wave or Millennial Libertarianism is first and foremost a perspective far more than a pre-defined, utopian end that everyone seeks.  It is one that says the more limited the government’s purpose, the more likely it will do well; the less power government has, the less it can be abused by those in power; and the more personal freedom people have, both as individuals and as voluntary associations, the greater their dignity and prosperity.

That means our libertarianism is one of action rather than inaction.

 In the Politico article about SFL that came out this week, the author suggested that young people believe in big government because they think our government needs to take action and could do better.  I agree with that sentiment.  I do think we need a government that will take action, a government that does better than it is doing now, a government that is more efficient.  But do you know how we get that?  By limiting government, dramatically!

One of the greatest dangers and failures of governments around the world has been mission creep.  They have moved beyond the purpose of government, that purpose for which they were formed and that they have moral authority to be involved in, and have instead begun to serve as leviathans whose tentacles wrap themselves around every part of our lives, seeking to monopolize industry, argument, and activity.  I strongly desire active politicians, active legislation, and active efforts by people involved with government to limit the overreaches and abuses of government.  Given how corrupt and abusive government is these days, what will save us is not inaction, but strong wills, perseverance, and committed activity.

The critics of libertarianism focus on the stereotypes, caricatures, and activities of the past.  They do not realize that this fundamental change is taking place between the generations.  Those who want to understand the future of libertarianism should look to the actions of today’s youth. Here is what they would find:

    • This past summer, we held the first African Students For Liberty Conference at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.  We had only planned for 100 attendees, but more than 350 people showed up for the conference.  For almost everyone, it was a wonderful weekend that involved interesting discussions and new friendships.  However, this was not the case for a group of 25 students from Ghana who had raised enough money to rent a bus and were willing to brave the more than 12 hour ride to the conference.  While they successfully crossed the borders of Togo and Benin, they were held up at the entrance to Nigeria.  The border guards refused to let them pass.  The bribe the guards wanted was more money than the students had.  The students slept overnight in the bus as they pleaded with the guards to enter.  They waited and waited, and as the conference neared its end and they realized they wouldn’t be able to attend in time, they realized they didn’t have enough food, water, or money for gas to get back to Ghana.  Only through a circuitous routing of emergency funds were they able to get back home safely.  For these students too, their dedication to liberty was further established, not in the comfort of a lecture hall, but by living out the consequences of repressive regimes.  They are now organizing a tour of universities in Ghana to bring the message of liberty to students in their own country.  They are taking action.

    • Time and time again, we see individuals deface, destroy, and oppose free speech walls that pro-liberty campus groups display on their campuses.  What should be a well-accepted and revered right, freedom of speech, finds itself regularly under attack whenever libertarian students attempt to educate people about it.  In the last academic year, a professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas took a box cutter to a free speech wall to remove an insult against President Obama, and the campus police later required the students to take the wall down.  At Carleton University in Ontario, Canada, a fellow student tore down the Carleton SFL’s free speech wall and tried to publicly justify his actions on the grounds that a space for free expression would offend some people.  We do not need less action.  We need more action to stand up for such a basic right as freedom of speech.  As SFL friend and St. Lawrence University Professor Steve Horwitz has said, “The best argument for why free speech walls are necessary is that they keep getting torn down.”

    • Or, consider the case of Rob van Tuinen, a student at Modesto Junior College, who on Constitution Day this past year, was told by his university that he could not pass out copies of the US Constitution.  After a video of his interaction with campus police and administrators went viral, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sued the university on his behalf.  The very existence of FIRE, an organization that I greatly admire and am proud to SFL works with, shows that there is a great need for more action.

Now, there are many great advocates of liberty in our generation who have not come up through SFL’s ranks.  I think most notably of Zach Wahls, the student at the University of Iowa who gave what he probably thought would be an innocuous speech before the Iowa state legislature against a proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriage in the state, which ended up becoming the most viral political YouTube video in 2012 and led to a book, a speech at the Democratic National Convention, and tremendous success for his organization, Scouts for Equality, which has been a leader in the private campaign for the Boy Scouts of America to accept LGBT members.

However, more and more often these days and in each one of the cases I presented here, an SFL leader has been the organizer of these activities..  I am proud to see the great successes of SFL’s leaders, the North American Campus Coordinators, international Charter Teams members, Estudantes Pela Liberdade Executive Board members, or otherwise, have been the organizers of those activities of perseverance and dedication for liberty.  For this is how the libertarian movement will grow: by individuals taking action and responsibility for promoting the cause of liberty on their campuses.

If you are looking to do more to advance the cause of liberty, to be an active leader of the second wave of libertarianism, Students For Liberty is here to help you.  We will provide training on how to organize students on campus, resources to make the brand of liberty ever-present on your campus, and a support network to help you through the challenges you will face.  All you have to do is go to the SFL table outside and say that you’re interested in applying for a leadership position, and SFL’ers will help you go through the process.

Liberty has come a long way over the course of human history.  The first wave of libertarianism defined the philosophy in a way that no one had done beforehand.  But now, it’s up to us, the second wave of libertarians, to take the cause of liberty to grander heights, with greater clarity, and a larger base of support than ever before.

This is our time, our generation’s chance to build a freer future, it’s up to everyone here to make liberty a reality.


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