Libertarians vs. Progressives: The New Campus Divide

American college students these days seem to divide by moral temperament into two very different cohorts.  On one hand, a large number of students prize the freedom to do and say what they want and deeply dislike the constraints of external authority.  On the other hand, a large number of students prize social control as an instrument of justice and are deeply committed to a regime of close regulation of their fellow students’ behavior.  While there are, of course, students who fall into neither camp, they are relatively few and not very conspicuous.  The outliers include adherents to traditionalist religious groups, self-professed conservative students, and students single-mindedly focused on career preparation.

Of the two large and conspicuous cohorts, one may be thought of as “libertarian” and the other “progressive,” but these labels are only approximations and in some respects inaccurate.  They suggest more in the way of ideological clarity than either cohort really possesses.  The libertarian side includes a large contingent of young people who aren’t so much checked in to libertarian ideology as they are checked out of larger social and political issues.  And the new generation of campus progressives are more radically anti-freedom than their predecessors and a lot more willing to forego the search for knowledge for the excitements of immediate power.

To say that these cohorts are in stark opposition is also misleading.  They do diverge, but they are rooted in the same soil.  On matters such as the legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage, acceptance of sexual minority lifestyles, and—more abstractly—personal autonomy, they are almost indistinguishable.  And this makes it difficult for observers to see the real differences between the two cohorts.

A Libertarian Moment?

It has been widely reported that American college students are more libertarian than ever before.  The observation is supported to some degree by polls. The polls are suggestive but it seems no one has tackled systematically the question of just how many college students fit into the libertarian-leaning category.  Depending on the diagnostic question (marijuana?  same-sex marriage?), the percentage might be 70 to 80 percent of college students.  But “leaning” doesn’t mean “all in.”  The hard core of the libertarian movement on campus is probably better captured by the students who join libertarian organizations.  The two main ones are Students for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty, which grew out of Students for Ron Paul.  Both are growing rapidly.  Young Americans for Liberty boasted in February, “Since our founding just five years ago, our network has ballooned to include more than 500 chapters; 7,000 dues-paying members; and 162,000 activists.” Students for Liberty, by contrast, explains that it “does not utilize a strict membership model,” but operates as something “more akin to a coalition.”

It is easy to see why, when it comes to gauging the scale of libertarian attachment among college students, it is hard to come up with solid numbers.  That said, the phenomenon itself is plain.  Step onto almost any college campus and start striking up conversations, and you will soon find yourself among people whose views are strongly flavored with “small ‘l’ libertarian” views and some who are full-on supporters of the movement.

Blue Jays

Most seem to be drawn to the lamp of freedom to make their own lifestyle choices unhindered by laws meant to restrict the options.  That seems to be what “libertarian-ish” and “small ‘l’ libertarian” mean.  These are students who have a strong sense of personal autonomy, but not necessarily an ardent admiration for the magic of free markets; or a swelling interest in the ideas of John Locke, a burgeoning enthusiasm for the views of Murray Rothbard or Ayn Rand, or a keen appreciation for the anarchist gurus of the Occupy movement.  The large “L” Libertarians are there too, and are to be seen staging colorful events such as YAL-oween at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the “graveyard of civil rights” at Elizabethtown College and numerous other colleges.

The small “l” libertarians, however, are larger in number and more indicative of the spirit of the times.  These folks are “libertarian” today in the way that blue jays are bossy. They simply want what they want. Relatively few are prepared to offer a cogent explanation of their views, and fewer still can summon meaningful arguments against contrary positions. Those are indications, of course, of how liberal education has been hollowed out in the colleges.  Students pick up the campus zeitgeist easily enough; attitudes and values come across; but the kinds of reading and instruction that would equip students to make meaningful sense of the larger debates about civic order in our self-governing republic have become rare.

The rise of this blue jay libertarianism cross-cuts and contradicts several other trends.  Our colleges more than ever preach the importance of “critical thinking.”  But the blue jays aren’t really interested in pecking out hidden assumptions or weighing alternative views.  They are comfortable with their certainties.  A student at Williams College recently told me that in the college debate league, everything is open for debate except legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage.  Those subjects aren’t debatable because “those matters are settled.”  ‘

Conformity of Opinion

Where else have we heard that?  “Settled science” is, of course, one of the rhetorical sledgehammers wielded by those who argue that man-made global warming is upon us and that the time for debate is over. We now seem to be hearing that more matters of social policy as well as science are settled, not in the sense that we have arrived at answers that convince all reasonable people, but in the sense of something like, ‘We will make life difficult for you if you express disagreement.’

Such threats are sometimes explicit but often merely implied, and they succeed to a surprising degree to enforce conformity of opinion.  But they reveal a fracture in the small “l” libertarian view of things.  How can those who elevate the principles of volition and personal autonomy as the highest good of the social order make peace with a regime based on exclusion of dissent and stigmatization of dissenters?

One possible answer is that the blue jays are less “libertarian” than they have been given credit for.  Mark Bauerlein in his post mid-term elections essay, “Are Democrats Losing the Youth Vote?” offers such an assessment.  Observing the erosion of support for Democrats among voters under age 30, he notes that young people are “just as liberal as ever on social issues,” such as same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana, and “more likely than older generations to say they support activist government,” but that they have adopted “a laissez-faire posture in moral and private matters,” that Bauerlein calls “a soft libertarianism that makes individual preference king.”  This attitude “blunts lasting commitments to any political organization” and breeds “mistrust of institutions of any kind.”  He sees in this “a new kind of constituency, fluctuating and unpredictable,” socially liberal but subject to gusts of enthusiasm for other ideas and the candidates who embody those ideas.

The blue jays in this view are more like leaves in the wind than principled supporters of anything in particular. What’s “settled” at one moment might be unsettled the next.  Bauerlein’s strongest points are his emphasis on the elevation of “individual preference” and the broad mistrust of institutions.  These look like some form of libertarianism, except that they veer away from ideas about individual rights, including the rights of ownership, and they fail to touch the ideals of “spontaneous order” that are central to the libertarian vision.  “Preference” is to “right” as sand is to bedrock:  not a very good foundation.  And “mistrust” is to “spontaneous order” as dissolving is to crystallization:  not much of a positive outcome.

Progressive Hostility to Individual Rights

Blue jay libertarianism would appear to be at odds with the attitude of the other great cohort of students today:  the “progressive” students who favor harsh impositions on speech and behavior to achieve greater “social justice.”  The spirit of the censor has been welcomed back to campus.  It has three distinct manifestations:  the impulse to keep representatives of disfavored views off campus; the readiness to label some speech as so intrinsically dangerous that it should be accompanied with “trigger warnings”; and the determination to create a version of lynch law for students accused of sexual assault.

The contemporary college campus looks like a pancake swimming in the syrup of politicized sensitivity.  Intellectual exchange and intelligible debate are flattened and then drenched in self-congratulatory rhetoric about the need to suppress hate speech, protecting the “victims,” and all the while advancing “critical thinking.” The censors are primed to jump on anything that suggests deviation from the approved positions on race, sexual preference, and feminist doctrine.

This side of the picture of campus life today is too well publicized to need much elaboration.  We can pick the incident of the week to capture it.  Recently it was a group of students at Dartmouth assaulting Texas governor Rick Perry with scabrous questions focused on anal sex.  The political point was to dramatize the students’ disagreement with Perry’s views on homosexuality.  The tactic was to destroy the “decorum” of the occasion.  At least that’s what one of the perpetrators, Emily Sellers, explained in her article in the Dartmouth student newspaper.  What’s most striking about Ms. Sellers’ defense is the utter absence of contrition and her explicit rejection of “decorum” as an ideal.  She and her fellow activists set out to destroy the possibility of civil exchange, and having more or less succeeded, retired to bask in their victory.  Offenders against the rules of civilized discourse on campus are generally proud of their offenses, which they conceive of as hammer strikes against patriarchy, heteronormativity, petrol-capitalism, or whatever.

Non-aggression Pact

The differences between the libertarians and the progressives on free speech are stark and look made to order for conflict.  The libertarians on campus treat individual rights as the bedrock of liberty.  The progressives are at war with individual rights as an obstacle to achieving their version of social justice.  This applies to dozens of progressive causes.  Due process and the presumption of innocence for men accused of an ever-expanding definition of “sexual assault”?—gone.  Individual property rights for those who might decide to use their land or their possessions in a way that impedes the sustainability agenda?—doubtful.  The free expression of religious beliefs if these views derogate homosexuality or sex outside marriage?—banished.  The free expression of ideas that cut against progressive views?—obsolete.

All these instances would seem to provide a clarion call for the libertarians to turn out in defense of individual rights.  But the silence is deafening. There is a very large gap between the energy and commitment of the libertarian just-relax cohort and the progressive social justice cohort.  The latter are marching around campus carrying mattresses on their backs to protest “rapes.” The rapes may or may not be instances of coercion, since the favored definition has been expanded by the protesters to include sexual encounters in which both parties eagerly proceeded, but in which the woman failed to provide “affirmative consent,” in the form of explicit, positive, unambiguous words.

One might think the libertarian-ish cohort would be appalled by this rejection of personal responsibility for their voluntary actions on the part of the women who freely participate in these sexual encounters.  A friend suggested to me that the ennui of the libertarian students might reflect their sense that the college would side with the progressives anyway, so why bother?  But that seems less an explanation than a description of how deep their apathy goes.  Faced with the growing power of moral scolds, outraged defenders of psychological “safety,” avengers of heterosexual male lust, and histrionic dramatizers of identity-group grievance, the great cohort of student libertarians can barely rouse themselves to answer any of this.  The burden of work is carried by outside organizations such as Reason and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

My own political views are better classified as conservative than libertarian, but I have sympathies with libertarians who take a principled stand against the race-class-gender ideologues who now dominate the positions of power on most campuses.  But why has the movement proven to be so toothless in confrontation with those who are determined to supplant individual liberties with an authoritarian regime based on group identity?

Narrowing Rights

One possibility is that knowledge of civil rights has fallen to the point that many libertarian-ish students simply don’t understand that their “rights” extend beyond the realm of what they might want to ingest and whom they want to have sex with.  The right to confront your accuser; the right to see the evidence against you; the right to legal representation; and the right to a fair trial might warrant a place in the list of individual rights students should care about.

At a deeper level, students ought to demand an education that is as free as possible from political and ideological impositions.  At public universities, this might be phrased as a “right,” but at all colleges and universities it is the foundation of genuine liberal education.  And because it is centered on the ideal of the individual mind in pursuit of truth through critical examination of competing views, it is an understanding of higher education that should have profound appeal to both libertarians and the libertarian-ish fringe.

The passivity of this cohort when faced with a hard core challenge by those intent on replacing liberal education with illiberal social control is, in that sense, a troubling mystery.  One way to resolve it is to conclude that the “libertarian moment” in higher education is mostly an illusion. Is it possible that the small “l” libertarians are themselves not really libertarian at all?  Could they be simply the crowd that follows where the progressives lead?

I’d like to think that there is more heft to the libertarian moment than that, and it simply hasn’t yet found its leaders or its voice.  The history of confrontations between the party of liberty and the party of social control, however, is marked with many occasions where the champions of liberty came to the field with too little too late. Cromwell wins. The maypole of Merrymount is razed.  Prohibition wins.  Eventually people tire of Puritanical control and restore some ordered liberty.  But the wait is long and very unpleasant.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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7 thoughts on “Libertarians vs. Progressives: The New Campus Divide

  1. I consider myself somewhat a “Libertarian Marxist”. That is to say that I agree with “progressives/socialists/marxists/etc” about FINANCIAL CLASS{economic} justice/injustice, I think that the fact there are super millionaires and multi-billionaires…few of them..while so many lower working middle class and poor and also whole nations of starving destitute people to be disgusting, and a revolution is needed to rectify this gross injustice, though I stop short of forcing millionaires and hundred thousandires, only focring super billionaires to give at least half their wealth to end such mass extreme poverty and repression/oppression through economic means. They could still be pretty well off if they gave up at least half or 3/4’s of their wealth and power to fix this situation{but most super billionaires are sociopaths, not all..I’m sure there are some benevolent ones..but they’re not dooing enough to chalenge themselves and their fellow multi-billionaires to end the mass poverty and poorness and worse in the world, some are doing a bit..but not enough, not quite their fair share}.
    I’m NOT wanting to see an enforced financial equality, some work and staus’s deserve a littkle more pay than others, it’s only fair that those who take the greater risks to life and limb and health and privacy be allowed a bit more than those that don’t, but the situation we have of so few with so much and so many with so little is perverse and psychopathic.

    That issue aside I agree with Libertarian thought in every other way.

    I do not consider myself left or right{nor do I think Libertarianism can be pigionholed as either left or right; though “libertarianism’ was first sued in a socio-poltical context by anarcho-communists/socialists/syndacalists/etc as well as anarcho-indivdualists of the “left”, which many people seem to be either ignorant about or just neglect to remember and mention; and the N.American ‘libertarian parties” may often side with the center-right; Libertarianism is neither wing, it encompasses valid ideas from both wings and rejects invalid ones from both, and it is supposed to be about freethought, indivduality promotion, and basic human rights and liberties for every indivdual period}. I consider myself far above that false left versus right binary.

    I am deeply pro-free speech/expression and against all the Orwellian shit pulled by the pseudo-“progressives”{“regressives”, as libertarianism – especially of the Libertaerian marxist/etc are the TRUE ‘progressives”}, the radical 3rd wave feminist cult, and extremist SJW’s who pervert the name of social justice with their authoritarianism, intolerance of dissenting views, and orwellianism. And in fact, I have suffered their wrath and the wrath of the system itself on their behalf for offending and challenging their narratives and actions and policies. I got banned from the local University a few years ago for several months because I so offended the radical campus feminists that run campus by counter-protesting with a sign about domestic violence against men by women[stats} at a ‘take back the night” rally…that several of them falsely accused me of bullying, harrassing, and following them{which is false, the harrasment part is true…if you accept the radical feminists new defnitions of what “harrasment” is, but not if you accept reason and a logical and objective idea of what that term/accusation and the others entail.
    I was treated like a monster and criminal for emrely challenging their misandric and gynocentric narrative.

    I’ve suffered the wratch of radical 3rd wave feminazis and sjws in other ways as well; I’ve been character assasinated by them in newspaper letter to editors about me or my views, silenced{attempts; I will not be silent for demogogue bullies though} and demonized and had my views misrepresented by many progressives{as well as be neconservatives and other ideologues}.

    I know better than most the extent of their orwellian and authoritarianism, and the extent of their ideologies being imposed by the state and mainstreajm media and pseudo-social justice activists, that they have the upper hand at this time…sadly..and frightenly.

    So you can count me as a libertarian that is not afraid to face their persecutions, silencings, shamings, and wrath and their use of authority in an orwellian manner to silence dissenting views.
    And I KNOW I’m not alone, there are plenty of civil libertarians[whether of the left or right, anarcho-etc’s, center-right, left libertarians,etc} who challenge them on this and are’nt afraid to do so.
    I think that while not nearly enough such libertarians or freethinkers or objective people are speaking out and fighting against this encroaching fascism of theirs, that still there are more of so dooing so then this article claims.

    Anyways, thanks for the article.

  2. Among “small ‘l’ libertarians” are “anarchist gurus of the Occupy movement”? The “anarchists” of Occupy were not, in fact, anarchists. Anarchists believe in no government, while the faux anarchists of Occupy, like the rest of the movement, believe in strict government control of the economy, and are redistributionist progressives. How in the world do they become “libertarians” of any stripe? These “anarchists” style themselves so only in so far that they believe in destroying the current system, however they would replace it with one with an even more rigid regulatory environment for the control of the economy. This is not “anarchistic” at all. It certainly isn’t “libertarian” either.

  3. First a nitpick … forego and forgo are not the same words tho OFTEN muddl’d. Forego is to “go before, precede”; forgo is to “refrain from, decline”.

    Next, the definition of a “libertarian” whether big L or small l has always been somewhat slippery. There are “purist” libertarians and there are somewhat more practical libertarians.

    Think of it this way, there are social “conservatives” that are not fiscal conservatives and visa versa. Many social “conservatives” are still big gov’t backers … they want you to spend tax dollars on their projects and makes laws to make folks bend to their ideal.

    Libertarians slip are mostly fiscal conservatives and mostly a bit more socially liberal.

    The bedrock principles of libertarianism is individual freedom and property rights. As along as I do no direct harm to another body (assault, theft) then I … and my property … should be left alone.

    The clash with social conservatives and liberals is that both of those groups want to make you conform to their “better world” … every law, every regulation is done with good intentions … but the road to tyranny is pav’d with good intentions.

    1. “The clash with social conservatives and liberals is that both of those groups want to make you conform to their “better world” …”

      That pits libertarians against EVERYBODY, of course, because it’s perfectly normal to want to use politics to bring about a better world. And as much as libertarians don’t want to hear it, what they advocate would involve a tremendous amount of intervention by the state, even if only to undo the wreckage it’s wrought. Far more than what most progressives have in mind, incidentally, as a majority simply want to preserve things that the state is involved in (or amplify it to offset the effect of market transformations).

  4. I think calling these young college students “libertarians” isn’t accurate. They’re not libertarians, they’re libertines. As you say, they want what they want, which is to be able to put whatever chemicals into their veins and stick whatever body part into their partners. Arguments to those ends are memorized, but beyond that they have little interest.

    IMHO, they’re different than the social justice warriors only in that they aren’t social justice warriors. They have no interest in making the world a better place for others, merely making college a better place for themselves.

    1. If they are true libertarians they should form a political party (maybe name it the nacdr – national association for the continuation of a democratic republic); and go for the true middle of the country vote. We know that the far left lberals and far right conservatives are only 10% of the population but own 95% of the country’s wealth. We need a new party to beat both.

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