Some Highlights From the 2012 International Students For Liberty Conference


[Update: I originally incorrectly referred to Representative Justin Amash (R-MI) as a Senator.]

This weekend marked the fifth and largest International Students For Liberty Conference (ISFLC) yet. Over one thousand students, supporters, and organizations convened on the Grand Hyatt Hotel here in Washington, D.C. to discuss the philosophies, applications, and proliferation of libertarian ideas. Of course, given the age range and the rarity of so many like-minded people together in one location, other priorities were likely to surface. As the MC, Gilles Verstraeten, put it, "The best way to spread the ideas of liberty is for libertarians to breed. We're all in a room together now, so get to it."

Besides that, and the beautiful moment when performer GoRemy asked if everyone had a good Valentine's Day and a spontaneous chorus of adolescent male voices boomed No! in response, the highlight of opening night had to be the Alumnus of the Year speech by Peter Thiel, libertarian venture capitalist and founder of of PayPal. Thiel's praise for the advances in the tech world was tempered by admonitions of little to no innovation in other fields, especially transportation. "The failure of innovation in transportation is the result of a failure in energy innovation," he declared, and considered this the outcome of government overregulation. "We've had progress where there was little regulation," meaning the digital world, "but anything in the real world, the world of stuff, has seen little advancement."

Thiel also warned of the third economic bubble we are likely to witness, as he did of the first and second most recent ones: he said it was "the government itself. It is deficit spending and it is bigger and dumber than the other bubbles, if that's even possible."

He called the crisis of rising higher education prices "a very important subcomponent of the government bubble" and said that, as in the mortgage crisis in which "people told trillions of dollars' worth of lies to convince others that there was no bubble," there is an imbalance between those who oppose reckless education spending and those who encourage it. He invited students, entrepreneurs, and individuals in general to ask themselves: "Do you want to do what hundreds of other people have done or do you want to do what's right for you?" The proposition was met with applause.

There was no Alumna of the Year speech, probably proving that libertarians are a bunch of sexist evil lady-haters. Or maybe not: Marty Zupan, president of the Institute for Humane Studies, closed the conference with a speech and a Q&A session. When asked what libertarian women can do to move forward in the promotion of a free society, she smiled and said without hesitation, "Work hard and don't underestimate yourself."

International Students

Not surprisingly, there was a good number of international attendees at this year's conference. A young man from the People's Republic of China named Baoguang Zhai, who asked Peter Thiel a question about seasteading after the venture capitalist's speech, received applause for the gravity of his mere presence at a libertarian conference.

One group that generated a lot of excitement was members of the African Students For Liberty chapter. The group was started as an initiative of Atlas Economic Research Foundation, "a nonprofit organization connecting a global network of more than 400 free-market organizations in over 80 countries to the ideas and resources needed to advance the cause of liberty."

I got a chance to speak to their founder, Adedayo Thomas (pictured, far left). He said he met Tom Palmer, Vice President for International Programs, at a 2007 conference in Kenya, where they discussed "the issue of African liberty." He lamented that students in Africa have little to no knowledge of classical liberal philosophy, mainly because "the history of Africa has been distorted by the misconception of capitalism as colonialism…. This makes Africa what it is today." When asked how he became concerned with introducing students to the ideas of liberty, he told me he had considered talking to politicians to be a waste of time and saw more potential in going directly to people and to students in particular. 

Thomas' argument for exactly why colonialism was bad seems to be refreshingly uncommon. "There were no borders in pre-colonial Africa. People freely moved their wares, voluntarily. We had a king who was not a dictator and a council of chiefs" who served solely as mediators in disputes. "Individualism existed in pre-colonial Africa. Dictatorship was an import of colonialism." When describing the system of voluntary enterprise that characterized pre-colonial African commerce, he said, "What we had was exactly capitalism."

Goodies and Politicians

The event came with lots of good swag, including T-shirts, bumper stickers, and even a souvenir from the Young Americans for Liberty's photo booth:

One of the most interesting breakout sessions was a Q&A session on Saturday night with Representative Justin Amash (R-Michigan). Attendees of ISFLC got to hear about how the youngest freshman Congressman became what he calls "a Libertarian Republican." He pointed to his father, a Palestinian refugee, who he said "taught me the importance of liberty."

There was a lot of emphasis on the power of social media in Amash's talk as well. He claimed that "Facebook is helping to break down the two-party system" and said he first discovered libertarianism as a concrete political philosophy by Googling his own views on issues. Continuing on the theme of individualism, he urged the audience to contact their senators more. He said that senators so rarely hear from their constituents on specific issues that they are easily swayed by such appeals. "If ten people call, they panic. They say, 'No, I've got to vote no on that one. Every single person who called today said they opposed it.' Even if only three people called, that's what usually happens."

Read more from reason on Peter Thiel, Justin Amash, and teens having sex. More coverage from me on ISFLC 2012.