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The ISFLC, or why I haven’t slept since Wednesday yet feel fantastic

February 21, 2011

The International Students for Liberty Conference proved inspiring over the weekend.  A quick recap will suffice, then an analysis.  Over 500 students showed up from almost every state and I believe 13 countries (?), but that number may be slightly off.  I cannot locate the source, so take that as you may.

Speakers included Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan, John Stossel, David Boaz, Megan McArdle, Neil McCluskey, Gary Johnson, Nigel Ashford and more than a dozen others.  The schedule consisted of keynote speeches and breakout sessions on various topics of interest such as Austrian economics, public choice theory, climate change, libertarianism in sci-fi and fantasy, gun laws, sex laws and libertarian strategy.

The energy, enthusiasm, intellectual discussion and diversity (minarchists, anarchists, Austrians, Friedmanites, Hayekians, Misesians, Rothbardians, agorists, voluntaryists, egoists, individualists, objectivists, conservatarians, liberaltarians, public choice theorists, left-libertarians, dozens of other obscure labels), networking and camaraderie were nearly overwhelming, along with the events, debates, discussions and activism currently progressing across the country.  It is indefatigable and emboldens any isolated college libertarian striving to improve the current political and societal situation.  Immersed with hundreds of libertarians and pro-liberty students, they produce intellectual humility and a challenge to improve; my list of libertarians to read never ends.

However, any large political gathering develops a few troublesome trends.  In the case of ISFLC, it was a certain lack of respect for opposing viewpoints and a demand for ideological pureness.  An important caveat: For the vast majority, such problems did not exist; most recognized and disapproved of the trends (loudly and dismissively in a few instances), but focusing on the positive aspects of any movement romanticizes it and a lack of critical review atrophies its scholasticism, rigor and effectiveness.

1. “Statist” as a label (but usually applied as an insult) should be purged from the liberty jargon.  No individuals claims the label “statist,” and the only context in which it is utilized is to insult and marginalize the individual holding whatever opinion the speaker abhors.  “Socialist” should also be lightly used, only in the sense of accurately describing a proponent of the economic idea of socialism, or to distinguish between classical and modern liberals. Language is important, and out of intellectual respect, descriptions with negative connotations should be avoided when possible; when this is unavoidable, qualifications must be made.

2. Intimately linked with the first point, libertarians must reject the idea that the only barrier to liberty-conversion is economic and philosophical ignorance.  Contrary to popular belief (liberals, conservatives and libertarians alike), intelligent and honest individuals can disagree with a philosophy while absolutely understanding it.  Demonstrating that the minimum wage increases unemployment or the drug war is counter-productive does not automatically usher a libertarian conversion.  Philosophical, moral and economic alteration is not strictly a matter of rational discourse.  Such an attitude toward debate and inquiry is haughty and insulting; the insights of Hayek should have taught us this already.  Tradition, custom, intelligence, context and a multitude of important factors influence an individual’s interpretation of society, ideas, and the world.

3.  Possibly the most troubling trend, ideological purity reoccurred throughout the conference.  “Can you be an anarchist and a libertarian?”  “How libertarian are you?”  “You don’t agree with X and Y, therefore you aren’t a libertarian.”  Not all of these questions were literally expressed, but the sentiment overhung some conversations.  Tension always exists within coalitions (fusionism, left-libertarian alliances, etc.), but challenging credentials or ideas to evoke a specific reaction for support instead of starting an honest discussion fails to advance discourse and intellectual rigor.  It also reeks of an intolerance of intellectual diversity (which infests some prominent libertarian writers, past and present) that holds the presumption of total correctness.  Libertarians are not right about everything, and a demand of every self-labeled libertarian to be absolutely anti-war, pro-gun, anti-corporate, pro-life, anti-welfare, et al., damages the vibrancy of the liberty movement.  All ideas should be endlessly probed, even the very definition and ideological beliefs of libertarianism.

Other issues exist which should be touched on (preferably by a more competent writer and thinker), but I hope the preceding analysis sparks self-reflection and renewed critiques of the liberty movement and what it means.  The greatest value of liberty conferences reflects in the passion, conversions, alternations and improvements upon the thoughts and actions of the attendees.

In the interest of capturing the atmosphere of the ISFLC (and displaying his wonderful hair), a picture of Clint Townsend lecturing me during lunch about why I’m incorrect and foolish will suffice.

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