The Rise of the Libertarians


Libertarianism is spreading on our college campuses. An unusually large number of politically-minded, frustrated students, who refer to themselves as the “liberty movement,” believe themselves to be part of a rising tide that will restore the country to greatness.

Much of the recent growth in libertarian activism emerged after Ron Paul’s 2008 failed presidential bid, when Jeff Frazee, Paul’s national youth coordinator, founded Young Americans for Liberty (YAL). Aided in part by the right-of-center activist training group the Leadership Institute and its team of field representatives, YAL now boasts chapters on over 380 campuses and a membership of some 125,000 students. Another libertarian group, Students for Liberty, has since seen exponential growth since its founding in 2008. At the end of 2008, there were 42 campus groups in the SFL network. By 2013, SFL claimed an affiliation with 930 groups worldwide: 767 in the U.S., over 100 in Europe, and a few dozen in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

David Deerson, who was the president of UNC-Chapel Hill’s YAL chapter until he graduated in May, says that his personal story is a “microcosm” of the growth of the liberty movement on campus. When he arrived at UNC as a freshman, he sought out the student libertarian group. There were only about four people regularly attending the weekly meetings, and they didn’t do much in terms of activism. But by the time Deerson graduated, roughly 25 people attended weekly meetings, and the group–now a chapter of YAL–was winning awards for its activism.

Deerson credited the growth of the club to the training he received from Students for Liberty and to changing attitudes among students. A handful of studies lend credence to this view. A 2011 study by UCLA scientists found incoming students to have more liberal views, but only on social issues, meaning that there are more students who identify as fiscally conservative and socially liberal–in effect, libertarian. A 2012 survey by the Panetta Institute found that 30 percent of college students have libertarian beliefs. Indeed, the present time seems to be a “libertarian moment” for the entire country, as statistician Nate Silver has suggested.

There are several issues that seem to drive students to the libertarian camp. One of the most prominent is foreign policy. Deerson pointed out that the war in Afghanistan, which has been for ongoing for over half the lifespan of today’s college students, leads them to question American foreign policy’s goals and methods.

Foreign policy was certainly a driving force for Craig Dixon, who currently works for a nonprofit organization that assists conservative and libertarian students. “I was raised in a Reaganite household,” said Dixon, but “became disillusioned with the contemporary GOP during the Kerry v. Bush Presidential race in 2004. I was very disgruntled with what I saw as a distorted foreign policy that had ceased to be conservative.” Though he still considered (and considers) himself to be a conservative, he tried to start a campus libertarian group at Appalachian State University in 2005, without much success. He later succeeded in 2007, aided by enthusiasm for the Ron Paul campaign. That group became a YAL chapter after the election, and Dixon became state chairman for the organization.

Another issue driving libertarian activism is disenchantment with middle class entitlements. Programs like Social Security are beginning to run deficits, and demographic projections suggest that receiving a substantial payout upon retirement may not be an option for those just entering the program. In surveys, many millennials say they don’t think the program will exist by the time they’re supposed to receive benefits.

Young people are getting a “raw deal” from politicians’ deceptive promises, Deerson said.

So there are more college libertarians nowadays, but where are they coming from? The UCLA survey mentioned above suggests that it is primarily conservatives who are losing ground to libertarians, but some anecdotal evidence suggests a greater diversity of backgrounds. In an informal survey of members of the YAL chapter at UNC, Deerson said that about 40 percent of students had been raised Democrat, about 40 percent had been raised Republican, and about 20 percent said they had always been libertarian.

Establishment conservatives are leery of the young libertarians for several reasons. Some, like Lindsey Graham and John McCain (who recently dismissed them as “libertarian kids,” much to the delight of YAL members), say they are naïve about world politics. Others, like National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, believe that a coalition of social liberals and fiscal conservatives–the kind the libertarians hope to build–would be disastrously ineffective in terms of actually limiting the size of government. In practice, Goldberg notes, strong social conservative credentials tend to coincide with effectiveness in lowering taxes. Social conservatives tend to vote for tax cutters and are crucial in efforts to limit government. Moreover, many people who describe themselves as socially liberal and fiscally conservative–those people that Kate O’Beirne dubbed the “jackalopes of American politics”–tend to vote Democrat, making it clear that they care more about social liberalism than fiscal conservatism.

It’s difficult to say what impact the campus liberty movement will have on American politics. Some of the things they do–such as press releases that mock John McCain for being old–suggest that they are unserious and not ready for the mainstream. Then again, perhaps we should expect sophomoric antics from sophomores, and the movement will gain maturity as its members do. In any case, they have momentum and they will be interesting to watch in coming years.

Duke Cheston is a student at Southeastern Theological Seminary and a former writer for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.


5 thoughts on “The Rise of the Libertarians

  1. “What is morality, or ethics? It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions-the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.
    “The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?
    “Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all-and why?” (_The Virtue of Selfishness_, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 13).
    “Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival. . . .
    “I quote from Galt’s speech: ‘Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice-and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man-by choice; he has to hold his life as a value-by choice; he has to learn to sustain it-by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues-by choice. A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality.’
    “The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics-the standard by which one judges what is good or evil-is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man.
    “Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil. Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are: thinking and productive work” (Ibid).
    “A moral code is a system of teleological measurement which grades the choices and actions open to man, according to the degree to which they achieve or frustrate the code’s standard of value. The standard is the end, to which man’s actions are the means.
    “A moral code is a set of abstract principles; to practice it, an individual must translate it into the appropriate concretes-he must choose the particular goals and values which he is to pursue. This requires that he define his particular hierarchy of values, in the order of their importance, and that he act accordingly” (_Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology_, “Concepts of Consciousness,” 33).
    “In spite of all their irrationalities, inconsistencies, hypocrisies and evasions, the majority of men will not act, in major issues, without a sense of being morally right and will not oppose the morality they have accepted. They will break it, they will cheat on it, but they will not oppose it; and when they break it, they take the blame on themselves. The power of morality is the greatest of all intellectual powers-and mankind’s tragedy lies in the fact that the vicious moral code men have accepted destroys them by means of the best within them (Philosophy: Who Needs It_, “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” 67).

  2. The Kerensky and Weimar governments had their own splintered “pro-liberty” groups, too. And they failed, just as today’s will fail–just as the conservatives and Republicans have always failed–unless they adopt an ethics that supports the politics of the (selfish) right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
    An ethics of rational egoism.

  3. Of course social security will be gone when they retire. Obama care will be insolvent when they get sick. Politicians found out long ago that they can pass a tax today based on a promise for tomorrow, and that keeps them at the government teat until the promise is due and payable.
    If you want a government job, then you should never be allowed to have one.

  4. When I think of libertarians I think of weed and the mistaken belief in sex without consequences. Come to think of it they two go together.

  5. I find it amusing to read that millenials aren’t confident in SS. I’m 50 and have felt that way since I was in college. My retirement planning has always been based on the assumption that I will receive nothing from SS (more precisely, that Medicare will be severely cut and SS largely means tested before I reach 67).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *