A New Hope
Over the weekend, I attended the 2011 International Students for Liberty (SFL) conference in Washington, D.C. Although I have participated in a number of similar conferences over the past decade, I found this one the most inspiring. That’s not primarily because of the speeches from figures like television host John Stossel, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and George Mason University economist and polymath Tyler Cowen. As impressive as most of the speakers were, I have seen their equals before. I was inspired by the 500-plus students that gladly gave up a weekend to spend hours in lecture halls in the hopes of advancing liberty.
Several of the speakers have since noted the growth in both the quantity and quality of young liberty activists over the last few decades. In his Washington Examiner column, Cato Institute Vice President Gene Healy recollects that when he founded a college libertarian group in the early 1990s, “we considered ourselves lucky when we could get a couple of dozen socially awkward malcontents together to grumble about the government.”
But economist Bryan Caplan probably summed it up best: “Twenty years ago, a pack of libertarian students would have been roughly as awkward and freakish as attendees at Comic-Con … or, say, me. Now I see hundreds of students who aren’t just smart, but smooth.”
My college experience was not nearly as benighted as Healy’s or Caplan’s. I helped lead a libertarian group at Washington University in Saint Louis from 2001 to 2005, and we were extremely active: holding weekly meetings, bringing speakers to campus (sometimes multiple times per semester), debating other student groups, helping to publish a biweekly conservative-libertarian student newspaper, etc. The group was a major force in campus political life, but we were still outnumbered and isolated. There were only a few other large and active libertarian college groups across the country (Loyola New Orleans, Hillsdale College, and George Mason University spring to mind), so we felt like the last of a dying breed, a remnant of brighter days.
At one point, we tried to launch a national libertarian student group, much like what SFL has become. When we started planning for a conference, we thought 100–200 student attendees would be phenomenal, but we never achieved that because there wasn’t a great deal of interest in the idea outside of those few groups. If someone told us that, less than 10 years later, there would be a pro-liberty student group hosting a convention with more than 500 attendees (and many others turned away because of a lack of space), we would have laughed in his face.
I don’t think it has ever felt this good to be wrong. (Maybe in 2006, when the Cardinals surprised even me by beating the Tigers and winning the World Series, but I’m pretty sure this is better.) Students and young people in general are listening to the message of freedom being articulated by talented writers, filmmakers, artists, etc. — and by groups like the Show-Me Institute. I get dispirited on an almost daily basis when I see the government grow and grow, seemingly without end, but I have seen real changes in people’s beliefs since I first started tilting at these government windmills. That’s no guarantee that things will change for the better, but it is something. It’s hope.