I spent a fascinating weekend hanging out with a few hundred of the smartest, most forward-thinking college students I’ve met in years. It was a real inspiration to see how these young people are preparing to navigate an economic and social environment that is so radically different from anything their parents knew.
Rather than defeatism and despair, I detected a strong dedication to creativity, entrepreneurship, and living a great life despite a system that seems dedicated to bringing them down.
They were gathered for the New York regional conference of Students for Liberty, an organization that is absolutely on fire in its growth and spread around the world. My trip and closing speech were made possible by the Foundation for Economic Education, an innovative partner with Students for Liberty and other students.
This was one of four regional conferences taking place on that very day!
What seems at first to be a political movement is becoming more of a social movement of young people determined to claim human liberty as an operating principle in their lives and careers.
Many of the students I spoke with, for example, are thinking very seriously about launching startup companies and actively taking steps to make that happen. They are assembling their networks of talent and sharing ideas. They are dreaming of independent lives and making it big—on their own terms.
So here is the plan, which many out of college are already pursuing. Their educations and degrees are parlayed into jobs of whatever sort, 9-to-5 things that pay the rent and the cell phone bills but are not their careers or their dreams. They're just something they do. Thinking of it this way, even a terrible job can be endured with a sense of humor.
Meanwhile, on nights and weekends, they work on their real goals. They are writing apps, working on digital services, thinking through new ideas, and cobbling together business models. They are acquiring new skills and filling in the gaps in their education. And they are very careful about money, too—all too aware of the dangers of debt from bad experiences in college.
Think of dumpy apartments with four or five people living off ramen noodles and cheap beer. This is where the megabusinesses of tomorrow are being hatched. These young people seem to live on two levels: their conventional lives, which they see as temporary holding points, and their revolutionary lives, which they see as their real passions and their actual paths to the future.
I can’t remember anyone doing this when I was in college. We trusted that the system would take care of us, and our job was to fit in. These young people do not have this view. The existing system is something they will use, but only on the path to bypassing it with new innovations and businesses to change the future.
To be sure, this is a very commercially astute group. They see business as the way to change the world. The tools they use every day to navigate the world—buying everything from coffee to concert tickets, getting around cities, planning trips, talking to friends and family—came to them via the private sector. Government contributes nothing to their lives apart from annoyance.
What’s more, among these libertarians, there is very little hope that political change is a viable option. What would be the mechanism of change? The two-party system? The trends in politics are inexorably worse, regardless of the promise. The trends in commercial life are toward progress every day. Which seems like the better path?
Having been around this world some time, I see within Students for Liberty the emergence of a new form of libertarianism—something more intellectually and strategically sophisticated than forms from the last century.
First, among these young people there is a vast openness to radical ideas that rethink the relationship that politics has to the world. Rejecting the old-style collectivism of the prevailing regime is only the beginning. What about anarchism? If the State is useless and decaying, anarchism becomes the operational intellectual tableau through which to understand the world. This is a contrast to previous generations who romanticized some mythical past of freedom as guarded by a constitutional State.
As the hope that the State can ever purify itself has faded, a new hope in freedom has emerged. In the same way, edgier thoughts about production without intellectual property, Internet-based monies and cities, and new patterns of global social engagement are on the table. These visions are not dark, but hopeful: at once bourgeois and breaking bad, principled but broad, literate but also intuitive.
Second, there is a new pattern to learning among this generation. Whereas libertarians of the past learned from classic texts, large books of integrated but contained theory, these young people extract information from an hourly blizzard of news, memes, videos, social media threads, texts, forums, tweets, and group hangouts. There is no such thing as a protected sector of ideas, much less an information cartel. This setup produces broader and more agile minds with a less defensive posture.
For this reason, the ideological leanings borrow rhetoric and language from many sources. The most popular T-shirt among the Students for Liberty reads: “Peace, Love, Liberty.” My own shirt that came with the conference is a blizzard of short words: Tolerance, Compassion, Entrepreneurship, Love, Reason, Trade, Wealth, Freedom, Creativity.
So you can see what’s happening here. It’s finally dawning on libertarians that they have no model to impose on the world, no preset formula to improve society, and, therefore, no strict dogmas on how things should or should not work in a world of freedom. The point is to free themselves and the whole of society from the shackles of statism and regimentation to allow for experimentation, evolution, and trial and error—an agenda that stems from the conviction that only a free people can discover the right path forward for themselves.
Third, liberty for these young people is not just a political ideal, something that pertains to the State and civic affairs but otherwise has no personal application. As with the old classical liberals, these young people are dedicated to discovering the relationship between the political ideal and their personal lives. They want to find ways actually to implement an ethic of liberty and live with character and an entrepreneurial drive. So, for example, if you can use a free-market cab service over a government one, you should. If you don’t believe in “intellectual property” you should publish without it. If you believe that cooperation with others is the essence of social flourishing, you should seek to be a cooperative person. If entrepreneurship is the primary force behind economic progress, you should seek to make a contribution to that end.
Fourth, there are some non-negotiables, and they aren’t only about the ban on the use of power. As an extension of the above point, this generation puts a premium on civilized thinking and behaving that includes absolute exclusion of bigotry in all its forms. Racist, sexist, and anti-gay attitudes are not only tacky, but embody the opposite of the tolerance that old liberalism identified as a main bulwark against State oppression. This necessarily means a special identity with groups that have been victims of State oppression and remain so in many parts if the world.
So, for example, it is true that in our time many feminists look to the State for privilege, but it is also true that many racial minorities (and people of all races and classes) look to the State. But the fundamental history and drive of feminism and the anti-slavery movement, historically understood, are about empowering every member of the human family with the freedom that is his or her right.
If we love capitalism, we must remember that it alone has done more to bring about that empowerment than any political change. For this reason, we should embrace the ideals of feminism in the same way we embrace the anti-slavery cause. It is our cause, our banner, our history, our movement. We should never give this up to the oppressor class.
Fifth, there is a generation of liberty-minded thinkers who are filled with hope about the future, and rightly so. The digital world has opened up new frontiers for them to make a difference in their own lives and the world at large. The space in which this is allowed to happen is limitless, and so are the possibilities. Despite all the despotisms in the world today, the digital cloud makes possible a new path of progress in which individual and community expression can take new forms outside the reach of power.
Consider that Students for Liberty itself wouldn’t be nearly as successful without all the organizing tools of social media.
All of this crystallized for me this weekend. It is a gigantic departure from the darkness of the past and a new paradigm for the future. It reflects a confidence that liberty is right and effective, not only as a political philosophy, but also as a personal principle that helps us achieve new heights of personal accomplishment and well-being.
Thank you, Students for Liberty, and also Foundation for Economic Education, for existing and providing the platform and inspiration for the building of a new and better world.
Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.