When Leonard Read founded the Foundation for Economic Education in 1946, he did not intend to create an overtly political movement with particular political goals. He wanted something deeper, more lasting, and more culturally profound. He sought to inspire a love of liberty in all groups of society. Only this, he said, would create the basis of a lasting freedom that could resist despotism over time.
That dream has been gradually building for nearly 70 years, and today we have the opportunity to gain a glimpse of what it looks like and what it means for our future.
This is precisely what was on display at the International Students for Liberty Conference (ISFLC) in Washington, DC. FEE had a big presence as an educational institution and as a bulwark of principled ideas on the economic, legal, and ethical foundations of freedom. The timelessness of the message resonates deeply with the young generation that is pretty well fed up with living in a world in which personal and economic freedom is curbed and cut off.
This insight became crystallized for me at the very outset of the conference. On camera, appearing live from Moscow of all places, was the whistleblower and dissident Edward Snowden. His virtual presence was accomplished with tools accessible to anyone, anywhere, mostly at zero price — an unthinkable reality 10 years ago. Here is a courageous man who did a daring and wonderful thing for the world in exposing what the US government was doing to its own citizens. For speaking out, he had to flee the US government’s jurisdiction. Officials have said that if they ever get their hands on him, they will wring his neck. So he ended up in … Russia.
I’m old enough to remember Cold War propaganda. We built weapons and waged hot and cold wars in order to protect our freedoms against the evil communist totalitarians in Russia. We were the good guys and they the bad, or so we were constantly told. And yet, here we are a quarter century after the end of that conflict, and now Russia, for all its government’s suppression and imperialism, is providing sanctuary to the United States’ own political dissidents — just as the United States once did for Russia’s. What an amazing world of lies we lived in, and still do.
If the US government could stop Snowden from speaking, it would. But it can’t. Here we were in the nation’s capital, at a gathering of some 1,800 young liberty activists and intellectuals, and Snowden greeted us in real time. Stunning. He spoke, and we asked questions, and he spoke some more. His answers were beautiful and erudite and inspiring. He speaks the language of liberty, and only technology allows him to do so within our borders.
Indeed, what thrilled me the most was the technology and how it is serving up freedom even in our times. We are evidently living in a post-censorship world. Not even the world’s largest and most powerful state can stop its most famous dissident from speaking from his sanctuary (a former communist state) directly to a huge crowd right in the nation’s capital! How about that for the triumph of freedom?
For those who despair for the future of liberty, I can only suggest a trip to this conference. It has matured into one of greatest liberty gathering of its kind. The energy, emotion, and mass dedication were on display even before the conference began, and they extended all the way to the tearful ending.
At the last session, we heard from the person who is probably the best living historian of human liberty today: Professor Deirdre McCloskey. We heard her model what great scholarship sounds like. She was brilliant, humble, erudite, visionary. Following her speech, we had the final thank-yous and goodbyes. There wasn’t a person present who didn’t feel that liberty owns the future.
I gave several presentations at this event. They were in sessions that were somewhat edgy but ended up being very successful. The first was organized by FEE, and I spoke on ways to communicate liberty. Why is our method for communicating important? We are judged on the tone and tenor of our message. If we are harsh, all-knowing in our dogmatism, or unthinking in our sense of certainty, we risk giving the wrong impression about what freedom means. Freedom does not mean rule by libertarians. It means self-rule by people with an infinite array of hopes and dreams for their own lives. The people at FEE who gave these sessions emphasized inspiration and education over dogma and didacticism.
Another session was the art gala, our second one but much larger and more creative than last year’s. We had paintings on display, and a live session featuring music, poetry, and other forms of performance art. For my part, I opened with a lecture on how art lives longer than any existing state. To illustrate the point, I sang a song from the sixth century that illustrated commercial themes, a song from the body of music commonly called Gregorian chant. Others followed with fascinating presentations. The session lasted an hour but I felt like it could have gone on all evening.
The next session I hosted on an impromptu basis. It was designed to give people a chance to tell their stories with a liberty theme. It was here that it really hit me: liberty must mean something in our lives or it won’t mean anything at all. People told stories of personal struggle and triumph over the odds. The session gave people a chance to speak from the heart and get over that fear of sharing with a crowd of listeners. I’m really hoping to expand this session to last longer next year because I found it so beneficial.
I’ve said for several years that I sense a newer form of libertarianism arising among us. This conference reinforced that. There was surprisingly little talk about raw politics as such. As Bloomberg said: “At most other gatherings of young politicos, in February 2015, there’d be at least some focus on electoral politics. There was almost none of that at the Students for Liberty conference. Libertarian was their counter-culture; it contained multitudes.”
It was more about the demand for human rights and the urgency of living as if we have them. If we embrace our rights and liberties, and dare to live outside the plan, we can not only live better lives but also contribute to building a new world.
The number of exhibiting organizations was higher than ever. I would estimate some 100 of them came to give away free books, collect contacts, network with others, and generally show the students gathered what they had to offer. What were the major themes? Civil liberties and antiwar themes were high on the list, but I was also super pleased to see that this conference featured a solid opposition to the police state — an opposition as intense as any you might have found on the New Left in the 1960s.
Most of the students here had only the lowest level of interest in national politics. It has failed this generation and they know it. There will be no more chasing the illusory dream that some one person is going to gain power to save us. We must save ourselves or we won’t be saved at all. That is a welcome realization because this conviction is a much stronger basis on which to build a lasting social force than any political campaign.
And you know how national websites like Salon are always claiming that libertarianism is all about white males? Come to this conference and you’ll see that this claim is just false. ISFLC 2015 was hugely diverse. I would estimate probably 40 percent were women and 35 percent were nonwhite. They came from all over the world, forming a kind of libertarian international to rival the spirit and power of the Marxists of old. The new libertarianism is neither left nor right but its own thing: a maturation of the classical-liberal conviction that society can be built without dependency on the state.
As glorious as this event was, I have the sense that it is just now being born. It is going to grow and grow, from 2K to 3K to 5K to 10K. This is where we are headed. It’s all about the future. And yes, there will be factions — and factions within factions — and there is nothing wrong with that, because a proliferation of factions doesn’t preclude real community forming at the same time. Liberty is diverse. But we all have the same goal. We are going to get there one way or another. The cages are opening up, and the more birds that fly from them, the harder it will be for our overlords to put us back in them.
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