Students for a Freer Future
As U.S. campus politics deteriorate, a global movement of young libertarians finds its footing.
These are not encouraging times for libertarians on campus. Studies show millennials' political views are much more reliably liberal than those of the population at large, and college students increasingly lean to the progressive left. In 1981, about 20 percent of freshmen described themselves as "liberal" or "far-left" (as opposed to "middle of the road" or "conservative"); today, more than a third do.
Students and professors who dissent from leftist orthodoxy often keep their views to themselves, for fear of suffering social or reputational harm. That can make it difficult for libertarians to identify each other. Some of the most elite colleges in the country maintain academic departments that teach, with a quasi-religious fervor, that capitalism is the root of all the world's problems. The activist left increasingly views free speech with skepticism or even outright hostility.
The right, meanwhile, occasionally makes overtures to libertarians; young conservatives tend to be much more in step with libertarians on issues such as drug legalization and gay marriage. But many conservatives aren't interested in discussion either. They invite the same provocative speakers to campus over and over again for the deliberate purpose of angering rather than persuading their progressive classmates. The Trump era has exposed the conservative movement—young and old—as much too willing to embrace populism, protectionism, and political incorrectness if doing so succeeds at "owning the libs," as critics of this strategy have derisively nicknamed it. And conservatives are often no less inclined to harness shutdown tactics than their counterparts on the left: Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychology professor whose war on political correctness has made him the philosopher king of the young right, occasionally threatens to sue his critics for defamation.
Campus activism in the Trump era is a battle between two extremes: an uncompromising, take-no-prisoners leftism at odds with the principles of intellectual diversity and free speech, and an obnoxious, trolling conservatism that seems perfectly happy to self-destruct as long as it annoys a few progressives on its way out. Yet even as campus political culture has deteriorated, some surprising bright spots have emerged. Among those is the rise of a professionalized global student libertarian movement.
Students For Liberty (SFL) traces its origins to the summer of 2007, when Alexander McCobin, then a student at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to organize a small roundtable of libertarian students interning in Washington, D.C. The meeting lasted for three hours—and would have gone longer if the group hadn't been kicked out of the room by the George Mason University cleaning crew.
One of the attendees was Sloane Frost, who now chairs the SFL board. "Being a student at Cornell, I thought I was the only one in the universe who was not a socialist," she says. "I was super excited about the roundtable."
The enthusiasm McCobin encountered gave him an idea: Why not host a conference for student libertarians who were interested in learning from each other? The following February, he and some friends, including Frost, hosted a conference at Columbia University in New York City. Some 100 students from more than 40 schools showed up. The plan from the beginning, McCobin recalls, was "We're going to bring everyone together and we're going to find a way to make it work. And it did."
At the time, there was no national, coordinated effort to support libertarian college students. Individual colleges had libertarian clubs, but these people had no idea what folks on other campuses were doing, no idea what kinds of tactics were effective, and little clue about the broader professional network that could help them. "We were all operating independently, making tons of mistakes," says McCobin. "I just wanted to share best practices with each other."
Today, Students for Liberty is among the largest and best-known organizations for promoting libertarianism on college campuses. According to the group's latest annual report, more than 65,000 people worldwide attended SFL conferences, seminars, and training sessions in the last year, compared to 56,000 in the previous 10 years combined.
In little more than a decade, Students for Liberty has grown from a small cadre of ambitious student interns into a vast network that includes 2,100 active students in more than 100 countries, and into an international force supporting local activism in corners of the world where the threats to freedom are a lot more serious than trigger warnings.
These days, it's easy to think of U.S. college campuses as uniquely inhospitable to freedom, but international students often face more dire struggles. They have also achieved the student libertarian movement's most visible successes.
In 2012, McCobin met Luis, a young man from Venezuela who wanted to start a Students for Liberty chapter in his home country. McCobin recalls asking him if he really wanted to risk arrest or persecution. "His response was, 'Alexander, I'm going to do this with or without you,'" McCobin says. "'I would just rather do it with you.'" (Luis' last name has been omitted here for his protection.)
At present, SFL's Venezuela coordinator, Jorge Jraissati, is working to call attention to the numerous human rights abuses and widespread deprivations of political rights committed under the socialist regime of President Nicolás Maduro. In a 2017 interview with The Huffington Post, Jraissati thanked SFL for helping him educate people abroad about the plight of Venezuelans.
The risks for these students is real: Authorities in Venezuela and Belarus have arrested SFL members; Russia has banned some from ever returning. SFL activist Alieu Bangura had to flee Gambia after learning that agents of then–President Yahya Jammeh's dictatorial regime were coming to question him. He lived with SFL's program coordinator in Nigeria until Jammeh was forced to step down in January 2017. But despite the tough conditions, the organization's footprint has continued to expand.
Today, the "African Students For Liberty" Facebook page has more than 5,000 followers, and there are SFL chapters all over the continent, with the most recent launching this year in Mali. Activists affiliated with the organization have been working to spread awareness about the benefits of economic freedom in India. And in 2015, Students for Liberty's Brazil liaison, Kim Kataguiri, led a 200,000-person march against Dilma Rousseff, his country's corrupt left-wing president.
Kataguiri—at the time a 19-year-old college dropout who had learned about economics by reading online about Milton Friedman—once told Larry Reed of the Foundation for Economic Education that people close to Rousseff's government threatened him for his activism. "I knew from the very beginning of our Free Brazil Movement that we would be fighting against criminals," he said. "What the people want now is less government and more money in their own pockets where it belongs."
A year later, Brazil's Senate impeached Rousseff and she was removed from office.
Another leader of the anti-Rousseff movement, Julio Lins, has worked to make local government policy in the Manaus region of the Amazon more amenable to ride-sharing services, launched a campaign for public office, and begun hosting events for young libertarians.
"Students travel up to 300 miles to attend events at his club," says Kyle Walker, director of international programs at SFL. "They basically take a boat for a couple days up the river to go to SFL events."
SFL's founders were not the first student libertarians to present an organized challenge to the dominant forces of leftism and conservatism they encountered. Libertarian and anarchist factions emerged on campuses during the 1960s as reactions to both Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the far-left activist group, and Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the conservative youth organization founded in the home of William F. Buckley.
YAF initially tried to hold onto its libertarian members, insisting that both the "trads" (traditional conservatives) and the "rads" (radical libertarians and anarchists) had a mutual enemy in communism. But as the decade wore on, the war in Vietnam and the draft galvanized the rads. (YAF formally opposed the draft, but libertarians demanded support for draft resistance as well.) By 1969, a libertarian caucus within the club had emerged and begun agitating for rebellion.
On some campuses, libertarians could be found allying with progressive student groups. A cohort of students at the University of Kansas decided they had more in common with the left than the right and switched from YAF to SDS, as chronicled in Senior Editor Brian Doherty's 2007 book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.
Libertarians had their own clubs too. An Alliance of Libertarian Activists came into existence at Berkeley in the '60s. A leader of that group, Danny Rosenthal, was arrested over his involvement with the Free Speech Movement, which united all kinds of politically active students against the University of California's censorious administration.
The 1969 YAF national convention ended with the expulsion of some libertarian and anarchist members—but by then, many of the more radical students had already connected with each other. A few months later, activists hosted a conference for libertarians in New York City; more than 200 people attended.
By the late '70s, Students for a Libertarian Society and the Libertarian Party's Young Libertarian Alliance had come into being to promote cross-campus organization among pro-liberty students. These organizations died off during the 1980s, however, partly due to tactical disagreements between their purist and pragmatic wings. For the next two decades, there was essentially no national libertarian group involved in student organizing—until McCobin came along.
While SFL has left arguably its most impressive mark on politics abroad, it's also cultivated stateside talent: a dedicated base of alumni, many of whom now hold influential positions in libertarian organizations such as the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and even Reason.
Indeed, SFL was a formative part of my own college years, critical to my intellectual and professional development. I attended my first SFL event, the international conference that now goes by the name "LibertyCon," in 2009 at the behest of my roommate at the University of Michigan. He had returned from one of the earliest SFL confabs full of wonder that we weren't alone in the world—that there were other students out there talking about the kinds of things we stayed up all night debating, like privatizing the police and ending the war on drugs.
The intense intellectual nature of most SFL events has generated considerable devotion among attendees, who frequently must brave inclement weather to attend. The Columbia University conference that kick-started the organization took place in the midst of a massive blizzard. One group of students flying from California had their planes rerouted to D.C.—and then hopped a train to New Jersey, followed by a bus into Manhattan.
I, too, have a stuck-in-a-snowstorm-en-route-to-SFL story. It's a 10-hour drive from Ann Arbor to Washington, D.C.—longer by bus, and much longer in bad conditions. But time flies when you're discussing and debating ideas—the gold standard, immigration, the very legitimacy of the state—with friends. Through SFL and the wider libertarian world the club put me in touch with, I made more friends than I could begin to count.
There are many reasons to despair over the current state of campus culture, but the successes of the student libertarian movement over the past decade are cause not to be too pessimistic about kids these days. It isn't all lib-owning and speaker shutdowns: The ideas of liberty are alive and well.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Students for a Freer Future".