A Populist Libertarian Youth Movement?

Can the liberty movement of the 21st century duplicate the success had by socialists in the 20th?   That’s the topic of discussion as I fidget in an uncomfortable 19th century desk chair at Humboldt University in Berlin. 

I am attending a conference of European Students for Liberty (ESFL), where some 570 libertarians -- all about half my age -- have come from 41 countries to celebrate their growing movement, and to strategize.   How will they grow from here?  

At the front of the room, Rasmus Brygger of the Danish Liberal Youth Alliance asserts that the socialists had their intellectual leaders, but didn’t expect everyone in their ranks to study them as nerdishly as libertarians do.   (Case in point: later in the evening, young men in attendance will swoon as libertarian songstress Dorian Elektra croons about the Austrian business cycle theory: “Since these low interest rates, like you said, are lies/ Malinvestments come as no surprise.”)

Brygger notes that the hippie generation of the 1960s captured the culture for the Socialist Left; and earlier in the century, its principles were advanced en masse by workers’ unions.   Could libertarians make similar advances in coming years? 

I’d like to suggest one avenue that I expect would yield success, and caution against another that could yield problems.  

Populist movements often stoke resentments as a path to political power.   This can be ugly stuff.    In American politics, we see the simple class envy that President Obama has used in rallying voters against “the 1%.”    In countries like Greece and Hungary, populism has taken a more sinister turn, blaming economic problems again on Jews and other ethnic minorities.  

But young people in Europe (and the U.S.) have legitimate grievances against the political class that built the Welfare State and handed them the bill to pay. 

Frederik Cyrus Roeder, director of marketing at Students for Liberty, put it succinctly:  “Our generation is the victim of the largest inter-generational theft one has ever seen.  Policy-makers have rewarded their voting constituencies with welfare benefits at our expense.  Millennials are at the bottom of this Ponzi scheme and will be asked to pay for such unsustainable pay-as-you-go welfare policies.”

Perhaps you think this is a re-tread of familiar debates between the parties of government and the parties of business; if so, you are wrong.  When Swedish economist Johan Norberg gave the ESFL conference’s keynote address, his biggest applause line was a rejection of crony capitalism:  “We are not pro-business; we are pro-market.”  

To me, this sounds like a winning message for rallying a generation that finds itself over-burdened and under-employed. 

Can libertarians win on the cultural front too?   Well, to me, it seems they already have, as social attitudes have become much more tolerant on a range of libertarian causes, from gay rights to gun ownership to recreational drug use.    ESFL’s “Peace, Love, & Liberty” t-shirt slogan certainly has a nice ring to it.

Where I see danger lurking is in the efforts of some within Students for Liberty, who go beyond advocating for tolerance and instead embrace Leftist critiques of religion, traditional gender roles, and the like.   In doing so, they create unnecessary litmus tests for new recruits and they open a door for a new breed of cultural coercion.  Students for Liberty co-founder Alexander McCobin warned against this in an essay last year, writing “Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not an ethical philosophy.”  He also pointed out: “Libertarians include people of all religious faith and of none, holders of many different encompassing philosophies, followers of a variety of lifestyles, members of many varied ethnic and linguistic groups, but all are united by a common principle of liberty.”

Those who want lasting victories for liberty should contemplate the reasons the French Revolution devolved into tyranny, whereas the American Revolution did not.   The former tried to remake all of society according to new values; the latter kept its clear focus on protecting individuals’ liberty. 

While it is worthwhile to make the case for social tolerance, it is also important to practice the art.  Libertarians advocate in good faith against government prohibitions on drugs and prostitution, but a free society does not require that everyone adopt libertine appetites for the same.  I worry that some of those attending this European Students for Liberty conference would roll their eyes at the concerns of Little Sisters of the Poor, who have fought Obamacare’s mandate to pay for contraception services, without recognizing the religious freedom issue at stake. 

Similarly, some younger libertarians want to attract members of the Left by agreeing with politically correct notions of Western society as hopelessly racist and sexist.   This is wrong-headed and strategically unwise.   Exaggerating cultural injustices (like the debunked-but-prevalent complaint of a significant “gender pay gap” in the U.S.) invariably creates demand for government to “do something” -- and that “something” is unlikely to expand freedom.

The truth is, while no society is perfect, the liberal democracies of the West have fostered inclusive cultures that have allowed women, gays and minority groups the ability to flourish as never before in human history. You will find the true enemies of social tolerance ruling over unfree economies, stoking resentments to distract from the lack of economic opportunity. 

Let’s remember that it is the free market that fosters tolerance, even cooperation, among people of radically different beliefs and values.   This is the hopeful message that we should impart to continue growing the ranks of the liberty movement. 

Brad Lips is CEO of the Atlas Network

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