My experience at the 8th International Students For Liberty Conference


I just came back to Germany after attending the last International Students For Liberty Conference (“http://isflc.org/”) in Washington DC. More than 1,700 libertarians from all over the world poured into the biggest libertarian conference organized by and for students.The program was very promising, featuring a variety of great speakers such as Ron Paul, Andrew Napolitano, Vicente Fox, Justin Amash, David Boaz, Deirdre McCloskey, and Edward Snowden via videoconference. Nevertheless, those big names and many others were just a part of the picture. Libertarians gathered together there, not only to hear speakers talk, but also to network with other fellow students, exchange ideas and last but not least, to have a lot fun.

When I arrived and took a closer look at the program booklet I was overwhelmed. I wanted to attend almost every session, but that was impossible. The format of the conference usually offered keynote speakers and at the same time several breakout sessions with other speakers or panels. Sometimes there would be about ten different sessions going on at the same time, so it was hard to choose only one to attend. The variety of topics was also impressive, including: activism, foreign policy, monetary policy, Bitcoin, police militarization, police misconduct, incarceration, drug policy, youth, Objectivism, science, robots, technology, rhetoric, strategy, storytelling, Austrian Economics, women, academia, baby boomers, media, career development, philosophy, elections, films, Christianity, free speech, Second Amendment, health, environment, immigration, journalism, and art. I knew it was going to be a packed schedule so I decided to make the most out of the three days I had ahead.

The conference began on Friday afternoon with the art exhibit, and after a short time to do some networking, I rushed into the first breakout session. The topic which succeeded at drawing my attention was“Good news! Robots are going to take your job and have sex with your partner”. It was sponsored by Reason and the speakers were Katherine Mangu-Ward, Elizabeth Brown, and Ron Bailey. Katherine started explaining the obvious but unfortunatelyoften ignored benefits of technology/robots and how good it is that they can “steal our jobs”. Later on, deeper and more specific arguments were made, for instance about how wars could be more moral if more warbots were used, or that car accidents could be greatly reduced thanks to robot cars. At the end the speakers engaged us by posing questions about sexbots, social robots in general and morality. While the audience seemed to be sympathetic with most of the arguments outlined during the session, the most challenging questions during the Q&A part were about the morality of warbots, something I had expected considering how critical libertarians tend to be with Obama’s drone program. While Ron Bailey, the speaker who put forward the argument of the morality of warbots, said he could not be completely sure wars would be more moral thanks to warbots, he insisted that it would be wrong to ban them before knowing. Bailey wrote an article one month ago, which might be worth reading if you think warbots are inherently immoral.

The session about robots was really interesting, but I was dissatisfied that I missed a session about activism going on at the same time, with James W. Lark III as a speaker. For the second breakout session I wanted to attend something related with activism so I crossed out other interesting topics. For instance I could not attend the session with Grover Norquist from Americans for Tax Reform as speaker,or another one about foreign policy with Rep. Walter Jones as speaker and sponsored by Young Americans for Liberty, or“Gays, Guns, and Ganja: The Libertarian Moment at the Supreme Court” with Ilya Shapiro as speaker and sponsored by the Cato Institute. The session I attended was titled “The Dark Art of Persuasion: Ten Spells to Enchant your Audience”, with Max Borders as speaker and sponsored by FEE. The session was very clear and (of course) persuasive. The speaker started outlining that having a perfect and logical argument is not enough. It is also not enough to appeal to the Non-Aggression Principle, to outline facts and to be knowledgeable about the topic. To persuade, we have to “cast spells”. He then presented ten things to consider: concretization, moral matrices, metaphors, credibility cues, intuition pumps, stories, charisma, 3Rs (repeat, reiterate, reframe), empathy,and aspirational selves. For each one of those “spells” Max Borders gave great explanations and examples that should be really useful to be more persuasive. While many of the “spells” are self-evident, there is one I had never before consciously thought about:moral matrices. What I understood is that we should consider that every person has a different mix of moral foundations. While for some of us liberty could the highest value that binds us together, for other people other values such asfairness, authority or loyalty could be more important. Because every person has a different “mix”, when we are trying to spread the ideas of liberty we should be aware of the moral appeals instead of going on the offensive being self-righteous about our own moral matrix.

The first two breakout sessions, no matter how much I enjoyed them, were just the warm up of the day. The first big event of the day was the ceremony giving the Alumnus of the Year award to Edward Snowden via video-conference, right after the opening remarks by Alexander McCobin, the President of Students For Liberty. There are two good reasons why I will not summarize what Snowden talked about. The first one is that I was so awed to see and hear him talking about liberty with 1700+ libertarian students gathered in Washington DC that I could not take any notes. I just had to forget about everything else and enjoy that moment. In addition, it is worth hearing to every second of what he said and a complete video is already available. If I had to choose two things he mentioned to remember, it would be when he mentioned that“perfect enforcement of the law is not a good thing, in fact it is a very serious threat”, and when he emphasized during the Q&A part that he does not consider himself a hero. He said that “we should never admire individuals for who they are, we should admire them for their actions”. The explanations of those statements are really worth listening to.

For a moment I thought that the inspirational talk with Edward Snowden was more than enough to end the first day of the conference, but then I remembered that the evening was just beginning. Following Ed Snowden, Ron Paul and Judge Napolitano came to the stage for a conversation moderated by Nick Gillespie. Judge Napolitano was invited to start and I will never forget the power of his opening remarks. He enthusiastically talked about the American Revolution, natural rights and about “Hamilton vs. Madison”. I had already planned a trip to Philadelphia after the conference in Washington DC, and after hearing Judge Napolitano, I couldn’t wait to be at the place where the Constitution was drafted. Ron Paul followed Judge Napolitano with an equally energetic speech. His main focus was on the monetary system, inspiring the audience to chant “End the Fed”. He also talked about foreign policy, focusing on ISIS, suggesting that America should stop giving terrorists incentives to recruit, and sending weapons to the Middle East, that terrorists will end up using. He also mentioned that we have to recognize the possibility of blowbacks if we want to solve the problem. During the rest of the conversation with Ron Paul and Judge Napolitano it was mentioned that we live in a special era, that liberty is ignited; and thatcurrent foreign and monetary policies are failed ideas, the same way communism was a failed idea. Bastiat and Snowden were mentioned, as well as raw milk and marijuana. During the Q&A Judge Napolitano was favorable to migration and Ron Paul did not deflect the question of who is his favorite libertarian, mentioning Jefferson, but also the Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises and Leonard Read.However, not all the students were so thrilled to have Ron Paul as a keynote speaker. He was challenged by a student from Kiev on his stance on the Ukraine crisis, to which he replied “I am not pro-Putin, I am not pro-Russia, I am pro-Facts”. The most controversial moment of the day was when Ron Paul was also questioned by a student from the Center for a Stateless Society about his association with paleo-conservatism and the supposedly racist and homophobic content that appeared on some of his newsletters published decades ago. He responded that he did not personally wrote those newsletters and that the request to condemn the newsletters was too broad.“For me to disavow everything I ever wrote in a newsletter, I mean, that’s foolishness”, he said. The reactions were varied and in some cases perhaps too emotional. Social media was flooded with commentaries about this issue and a couple of days ago an article about this was published in the C4SS website. No matter what you think about what happened and the subsequent reactions, maybewe should remember the advice Ed Snowden gave us about not idolizing persons, but admiring specific actions. Anyway, hundreds of students were delighted to have the opportunity to have a picture with Ron Paul after his speech, myself included.

After a long Friday night it was not easy to wake up early on Saturday to be on time for the first session. However, I did not want to miss“The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking Liberty”, with one of the most inspirational and charismatic figures in the liberty movement: Jeffrey Tucker, sponsored by FEE. He recognized libertarians usually do not like being told what to do or not to do, but he gave us some advice,for example to be patient when talking with other people, because not all of us were born libertarians. He insisted that we should not presume that other people hate liberty and that we shouldalways distinguish between goals and means, especially when other people do not understand problems the way we do. He also warned us not to regard othersas political enemies, which is what thestate does fine on its own, by dividing and polarizing the population, a game we should not play. So what to do? Inspire! He said that spreading liberty is not so much about rationalism and it is what we love what turns us on what we believe. In addition to that, we should find points of agreement and say “that is brilliant!” when someone with whom we do not agree with on many issues says something we agree on. We should also have an intense emotional and intellectual confidence, which means being calm because we know the immense intellectual power we have within us and we do not need to show off. Another “do” is to speak the same language. We should be flexible with terms because what is important is the substance, not the terms. We should also read side literature. It is imperative to read real books, to read and re-read “The Law” by FrédéricBastiat, to read the classics, but also to read outside libertarianism. During the Q&A he suggested many books, for instance: “A Brief History of Misogyny”, and he mentioned literature on distributive networks and Bitcoin. Jeffrey encouraged us to say “I do not know” without being afraid when we are insecure about a certain topic. He said “the whole point of freedom is to discover the answers”and added that “if we knew the answers we would not need freedom”. He criticized the state for shutting down social evolution and mentioned entrepreneurship and technology as the best way to circumvent and dismantle the state. He said that the state is becoming obsolete as people get bored of it and find no use for it. As an example he mentioned government regulated marriage, which creates conflict, and he suggested to move it to the blockchain. Toward the end of his talk Jeffrey mentioned that libertarianism is not about possession or greed as sometimes it is pictured. It is for instance about the shared economy. It is especially about the freedom to find answers we could not anticipate. He kept on suggesting literature, such as “The Rise and Decline of the State”, and insisted that libertarianism has no canonical text and catechism. He encouraged us not to be afraid to change our minds because that is what freedom is about, and emphasized we should always stay away from political arrogance.

For the next session the keynote speakerswere first Yeon-mi Park, who talked about black markets in North Korea; and then Tom Palmer sponsored by Atlas Network, who talked about personal responsibility.However, at the same time there were also many other interesting sessions. My choice was “How can Bitcoin advance wellbeing in society?”, because the speaker, sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute, was Sam Patterson, a person whose work I have been following since I discoveredOpenBazaar, “a peer-to-peer marketplace that allows individuals to trade instantly, without fees or censorship”. His talk began with what he called a “Bitcoin refresher”which was clear and useful especially for those who were not familiar with decentralized digital currencies. In addition, a printed guide titled“Up and Running with Bitcoin”was given to every participant. Sam mentioned some of the attributes of Bitcoin, comparing it with fiat money. He mentioned that it is limited and that it is a great payment network: decentralized, pseudonymous, voluntary and peaceful. After the introduction the main part of his talk was about the ways Bitcoin could improve wellbeing, which he defined as happiness and life satisfaction. He mentioned six ways: opportunity to make life better, health and environment, freedom, community and relationships, living standard and peace and security. Sam had various examples to support his claims. Among them, I remember when he mentioned that about half of the world population is unbanked but 80% of them have a mobile phone or internet. Bitcoin is a simple technology that makes the time and complications needed to open a bank account obsolete, having the potential to integrate millions of people into the world economy. Regarding economic freedom, he mentioned that Bitcoin is censorship resistant, and mentioned the example of WikiLeaks donations. While PayPal had to bow to the government and cut off donationsto WikiLeaksusing their service, there is no way the government could block Bitcoin donations. Examples of how Bitcoin could improve living standards included the fact that Bitcoin is much safer against online fraud and fees, which are a huge expense; and Bitcoin easily enables micropayments, which are hard or impossible to do with credit cards or other traditional financial services because of the fees. Perhaps his most compelling case for Bitcoin was when he talked how Bitcoin could promote peace and security. Sam said, for instance, that fundraising could be made easier and more accountable with Bitcoin, for instance in cases of natural disasters, because you could follow where the donated money goes. To end his talk, Sam suggested some projects we should pay attention to because they are taking control away from gatekeepers. He mentioned of course OpenBazaar, but also Namecoin, Maidsafe, Counterparty, and others.

At midday the halls started to get flooded with students learning how to talk with strangers and seeing demonstrations of how to table on campus, but you could already feel that everyone was getting ready and excited about the taping of the Stossel Show which was about to begin. Unsurprisingly, I was very excited to be at the taping of the show, after watching it online from far away so many times, I was more than content to just sit back and enjoy the show. And again in this case, the show is going to be online for everyone to enjoy. Click here if you want to know in advance what the topics were about.After the Stossel Show the main session was with Rep. Justin Amash and Rep. Thomas Massie, but the offer of breakout sessions was impressive once more. I decided to go hear what Antony Davies from the IHS had to say about his title “Is Freedom Really Good?”Davies compared the 25 freest states with the 25 least free states in the US from 1985 to 2009. He showed how freer states had a consistently higher median household income, lower unemployment, less poverty and less outcome inequality. He distinguished between the mutually exclusive equality of opportunity and outcome inequality and he insisted we should not focus on outcome inequality but on poverty. As an example, he mentioned that Sweden and Afghanistan score similarly in equality. Another argument he presented is how people moved consistently from less free states to freer states, “voting with their feet”. He then continued the comparison on an international level, comparing the freest and least free countries in the world, and the results were very similar. To answer the “rich country effect” critique he also compared countries only within the poorest countries of the world, and within that group again the freest countries scored considerable better in every aspect.

For the next timeslot the keynotes speakers were Matt Kibbe from Freedom Works first, and then Vera Kichanova who talked about “Fighting for Freedom in Putin’s Russia”. Among the breakout sessions David Friedman talking about criminal law was one of the options.I attended a breakout session about drug policy, sponsored by Students for Sensible Drug Policy because of my special interest in the topic. Their “tax and regulate” approach to drug legalization was presented, with examples such as the US states of Washington and Colorado, and Uruguay. The speakers emphasized that in none of the places were marihuana has been liberalized we could see catastrophes as some conservatives warned. The session was very interactive, and I had the chance to raise skepticism about the “tax and regulate” approach. I mentioned the Uruguayan example where the benefits of legalization will be harder to see because of excessive regulation and paternalism. The discussionturned into how much we are willing to compromise to get legislation passed. Toward the end, the speakers suggested us take advantage of the tremendous momentum that drug legalization activism has right now.

For the last breakout session of the day there were once more faced with about ten different options, including for example David Boaz’s “Ask me anything” session. Because ESFL will be hosting a conference about open borders soon, I attended the session with Bryan Caplan about immigration, sponsored by IHS. Caplan presented the typical arguments usedto justify restrictions on immigration. He clearly demonstrated how each of those arguments is false, half-truth, or extremely exaggerated. In addition, for each argument he presented alternatives that would not hurt so much the freedom of people to move. For instance, if it were true that native workers would suffer wages reduction because of immigration, which he demonstrated is not the case on an overall level, a non-ideal but at least better alternative to prohibition would be to charge admission fees to compensate native workers. He was clear saying he did not favor those fees, but at least it would be better than pure prohibition. Another argument is the supposedly immigrant abuse of the welfare state, which again he demonstrated not to be true. And once more, even if it were true, it could be solved not making immigrants ineligible for welfare. He continued with all the typical arguments against immigration, demonstrating how flawed they are, and showing not ideal but at least better alternatives if those arguments were true. To mention a couple more: if immigrants were really “destroying our culture”, test them about “our culture”; if immigrants would vote bad policies, do not let them vote. At the end it was very compelling that it would be extremely difficult to make a case against immigration from a libertarian perspective. During the Q&A section Caplan answered questions about vaccination rates, and mentioned that many diseases would be drastically reduced with the reduction of poverty thanks to open borders. Anyway many third-world countries even now have a higher vaccination rate than the US so there is no reason to be alarmist. It was also asked if it would not be harmful for the country of origin that immigrants could easily leave, making the country even poorer. Caplan replied that brain drain is a problem right now, because the wealthier and more educated people from poor countries are the ones who can easily solve the bureaucratic migratory barriers. In addition, an open borders policy would increase even more the remittances immigrants send to their home countries, which already now outweighs foreign aid. Unlike foreign aid who tends to end up in the hands of corrupt politicians, remittances go directly to the families. Regarding crime, he suggested not giving incentives to be a criminal, with policies such as prohibiting immigrants to legally work, or the minimum wage that destroys employment opportunities for the least privileged.

Saturday evening continued with the presentation of the students awards, where students from Honduras who resisted a left-wing University takeover attempt obtained the Student Event of the Year award. Ana Jakšić from Serbia won the Student of the Year award, because of her work hosting many events in Serbia resisting threats from far-right groups.For instance,about cannabis legalization, a seminar for high school students, and about LGBT. The Group of the Year award went to Nigerian students, whose activism has been remarkable, for example hosting a SFL conference in Africa with 1,150 student participants.After the awards were given, David Boaz gave a speech about the principles of libertarianism. He emphasized that “liberty is what happens when you leave people alone”, and that we are the consistent ones, because we believe in liberty as a whole and not just a part of it. He also insisted on being humble and advised us not to confuse non-intervention with support of authoritarian regimes. Toward the endhe said we should not only commit to liberty, but also to truth, honesty, integrity and decency. As examples of libertarian accomplishments he mentioned the abolition of slavery and bringing power under the constraints of the rule of law. After David Boaz, a representative of Young Americans for Liberty had a short presentation about their organization and following that we could see a short video Senator Rand Paul prepared for the ISFLC. To finish the evening, several partner organizations sponsored social events.

Sunday began with the last breakout session, the only one I did not attend because the socials of Saturday evening extended further than I had expected into the night.Following that, the first keynote speaker of the day was Vicente Fox. The former Mexican president began his speech talking in general about liberty and democracy, insisting that “purpose is needed for all of our actions”. Talking about leadership he mentioned that everyone has the potential to become a leader. He continued saying that leaders have to carry responsibility, and to be an all-round leader you need compassion, love and purpose. He told us how with commitment he moved from the private sector to the public sector, becoming President of Mexico and he mentioned that we live in an timewere information is power and access to the accumulated knowledge of humankind has never been so easy. The next part of the speech was probably what the audience was expecting and it was about the war on drugs. He began referring to America’s Founding Fathers, claiming that governments should not have the right to interfere in the private behavior of individuals unless third parties are harmed. He claimed that because of dogmatic and religious reasons drugs (including alcohol) were prohibited. A good laugh was provoked when he mentioned something about the apple in the Garden of Eden and suddenly his cellphone started ringing. He solved the uncomfortable circumstance joking that it was God calling him. Fox continued describing the disastrous effects of the war on drugs in Mexico, talking about the shocking number of young people killed during the last administration. He said it clearly: “the war on drugs has been an absolute failure”, describing how huge amount of money goes to the cartels, used later to bribe almost anyone. Fox mentioned that only way to get out of the trap is legalization.

The final keynote speaker of the ISFLC 2015 was Deirdre McCloskey. I had the pleasure of meetingthis incredible womanlast year in Vienna when she was awarded the Hayek Lifetime Achievement Award, and I was reallyexcited to have the privilege to listen to her again. She began her speech talking about the attributes that define us as humans, such as love, justice, temperance, faith, hope, courage, and prudence. For this reason, we need to think of economics in a way that would bring all of that in the game, for which she uses the neologism “humanomics”. McCloskey, who called herself a motherly bleeding-heart libertarian, focused her talk on the topic of why humanity got so rich after being so illiterate and shockingly poor just a couple of hundreds of years ago. She brilliantly visualized that by saying to the audience: “I see the descendants of peasants here”. She said that how and why economic growth happened is the chief question in economic history, criticizing Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” for focusing only on inequality. To continue, she said that conventional economics cannot explain the modern world. The explanation of capital accumulation is not enough and she mentioned historical examples of capital accumulation, such as the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Egypt that did not provoke a remarkable change in the wealth of the population. She also criticized the leftist explanation of wealth thanks to slave trade, exploitation and colonialism, because that has been the norm during the history of humankind and only recently humanity became so rich. For McCloskey, the key thing that change the world was the change of ideas in Northwestern Europe that then spread to the rest of the world, mentioning the recent examples of China and India becoming richer after liberalizing the economy. According to McCloskey what changed the world was not only the industrial revolution, because there had been others before, such as in northern Italy in the XV century. Institutions are also not enough, because countries with similar institutions can have tremendously different outcomes, and she compared Italy with Germany. It is the ideas that people have about each other what matters, and she finished saying that more laws will not help much to reduce corruption when what is needed is an ethical community. During the Q&A she spoke about the role of the Enlightenment, she agreed with Brennan’s argument that contracts were not what made us rich, she claimed to be ignorant about Ayn Rand andjestedthat she was “not old enough to read Hegel and not young enough to read Ayn Rand”, she talked about voluntary altruism, and finished her speech insisting that capital accumulation is endogenous. Ideas come first, and the attitudes toward innovators, traders and entrepreneurs were what changed the world.

After McCloskey, the closing remarks were given, and the date for the ISFLC 2016 was announced. If you could not go to the ISFLC and read all of this I hope you do not miss the chance to be there next year. Consider that what I wrote about was exclusively my own experience, which could have been quite different from others because of the vastvariety of topics and speakers. Moreover, I only wrote about the official sessions, but I did not write about all the interesting conversations at the halls and bars, I did not write about the parties, I did not write about the huge room packed with dozens of sponsors showing their work and materials. I cannot mention everything I lived during the conference, but I can say that those three days were an unforgettable experience and thatI never enjoyed a conference so much, learnt so much and networked so much in just three days.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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