Where are all the libertarians coming from?
There’s a silent revolution happening on campuses across the world. Libertarian activism is on the rise. Political figures like Ron Paul have started to draw huge support from younger voters, but the trend seems to be much deeper and more sustained than any single political campaign. Rather than simply throwing support behind individuals and politicians, students are rallying around distinctly pro-liberty ideas and ideologies.
The US has been at the forefront of this change. Even discounting Ron Paul drawing huge crowds to his rallies, purely ideas-based organisations like Students for Liberty have grown rapidly. Its International Conference attracted over 1000 students this February, and while this might not yet compare with some socialist and conservative rallies or conferences, the most astonishing thing is that just four years ago that same conference attracted only 100 people. A tenfold increase should be cause for interest, and the first four-figure libertarian student conference in the world, without any of the politics or rallying around a central figure is unprecedented.
Groups like Students for Liberty have even become confident enough to set up activism infrastructure in Europe too, with the very first European conference last year attracting over 200 people from 25 countries. Generally considered more socialist, with large welfare states and the continuation of radical socialist politics on its campuses, many would have said Europe was a highly improbable place for libertarian ideas to be so popular.
In the UK alone, the number of freedom-oriented student groups quadrupled in just a year from 7 to around 30, and the conferences held by the Liberty League, the UK’s network for young libertarians already attract over 100 people. The presence of these groups allows for all sorts of possibilities. Once they start to use their support to make their voice heard around campus, it will no longer appear as though the radical left is dominant in universities, and this may eventually lead to a new status quo in student politics.
So where have all these young libertarians come from? The underlying answer is that the internet has allowed more rapid transmission of ideas and opinions. Whereas there was once only a solitary libertarian bookshop in London which had to be either visited or written to, the internet has provided the opportunity to read the intellectual forebears and opinion-dispersing bloggers of classical liberalism for free, and instantly.
But that’s not a sufficient explanation. Although ideas may spread, this effect would only amount to lots of dispersed, isolated people being broadly sympathetic to libertarianism and classical liberalism. The appearance of an actual movement depends on the growing infrastructure to gather pro-freedom students together in one place to discuss their ideas face-to-face, form social bonds, and perhaps most importantly of all, show that they are not alone: the most frequent phrase I hear from potential activists is “But my campus is so socialist, I’m probably the only libertarian there!”
This activism infrastructure started with think-tanks and pressure groups spreading the ideas, and even crafting the policy proposals to implement them. But with the advent of dedicated support networks for student societies and young people to bring them together, this has allowed an initially small number of activists to inspire each other, create their own social groups, and consequently expand them even further. Perhaps most importantly, the success of these ideas-based groups is likely to be more sustainable than any overtly political or partisan project. Unlike political party youth groups, they lack the wannabe politicians and careerists, have a much broader appeal across the political spectrum, and aren’t dependent on individual political figures or the popularity of parties.
So it’s a good time to be a libertarian. The policies may not all be going that way just yet, but if the movement maintains its rate of progress, we may soon see student libertarians being a large enough constituency to sway even the politicians.Tagged in: libertarian, politics, Ron Paul, Students for Liberty
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