Even before I started writing regularly for The Future of Freedom Foundation, I had thought a lot about the future of freedom and how those of us who care deeply about liberty in all its dimensions are going to bring about the world we want to see. For the over 30 years I’ve been involved in the libertarian movement, those of us who have been comrades in this struggle have always placed our confidence in the power of ideas and believed deeply that the truth would win out.
We also understood, correctly I think, that the real battle is at the level of ideas, not of practical politics. You cannot effect ground-floor political change until people have broadly accepted a profreedom ideology.
Those 30 years have seen progress in a few dimensions in the world of ideas. Libertarian books and authors are taken seriously in academic discussions. Economists who have been crucial to understanding and defending free markets have won Nobel Prizes. The resurgence of the Austrian school and the placement of dozens of liberty-minded young academics in good universities, many of them getting tenure, has put our nose under the tent of academia. Much the same is true of the think-tank world. And the Internet has given us all a new platform to promote liberty and level the playing field for profreedom voices.
But the Internet has done something more profoundly important in the long run: It has brought our ideas to young people in ways never available before. Even high schoolers can discover the ideas of freedom and arrive at college well-versed and well-read. Put that together with more liberty-minded professors, many of whom have grant money to create programs to attract students to our ideas, and you have a pathway to the future of freedom in the form of smart, motivated, energized, and effective college students eager to spread the liberty message.
This past weekend in Washington, D.C., I attended my first International Students for Liberty Conference. I gave a number of talks and went to several other sessions. There were about 1,200 young libertarians in attendance, and as a group, they were absolutely outstanding. They are well-read, engaged, articulate, organized, and passionate. They are thinking, not just about the ideas of freedom themselves, but also about how best to forward them to other students and to the public at large.
Two recurring themes of the weekend concerned the need to expand the audience for liberty. The first focused on underrepresented demographic groups, especially women. Those who follow the blogosphere are probably aware of the big discussion last month about why there aren’t more female libertarians. That was the topic of a couple of conference panels, but there was also a lot of informal discussion about how we reach beyond the largely white, male demographic in general. I’m not sure there were a lot of good answers, though I heard some bad ones, about how to attract more women. But the fact that this is an issue of concern and young libertarians are talking about how to address it is a huge step forward.
That said, I would remind my young libertarian friends that knowing some history can help you see progress where you think you have failed. The number of women attending the conference and in positions of leadership in Students for Liberty dwarfs the number of female libertarians I met in eight years of college and grad school! It’s also worth noting that the libertarian movement has had its share of female leaders, from the current president of the Institute for Humane Studies, to past editors of Reason magazine, to a number of major academics and think-tank staffers. We have work to do, but we have also made tremendous progress.
The other discussion about expanding freedom’s audience concerned the need to reach beyond the world of ideas narrowly conceived, especially the social sciences and philosophy. There was broad agreement that we need more people in the arts and humanities, and much of the conversation explored how they can both contribute to our understanding of freedom and become modes of expression and persuasion for our ideas. It is not lost on young libertarians that many people, though not as many as in my generation, came to liberty through the novels of Ayn Rand. Artistic depictions of freedom, whether of generations past or yet to be, will reach people in ways that another book on economics or philosophy won’t.
We don’t need to produce just “high art.” Much talk was devoted to the importance of popular culture. We need musicians, performance artists, filmmakers, and others who can take advantage of new technologies and the Internet. One need only consider the success of the Hayek-Keynes music videos to see the power of artistic expression and popular culture, and the way the Internet can spread good ideas in the right package.
Having spent a weekend with these amazing young people, I have no doubt that they have the smarts, skills, and passion to successfully take on all of these challenges. I saw the future of freedom last weekend, and I’ve never been more optimistic.