I have attended the annual “Liberty Conference” (formerly the “International Students for Liberty Conference”) for years now, and the decline is palpable. At its peak, from 2012-2015, the conference was always covered by Establishment outlets such as National Review and Bloomberg (and VDARE.com!). But by 2017, the non-libertarian coverage of the event discussed one thing only: that Richard Spencer had showed up, uninvited, and caused a stir [Libertarians clash with Richard Spencer in DC, by Daniel Chaitin, Washington Examiner, February 18, 2017]. The 2018 gathering just wrapped up, but no one seems to have noticed. The only article I could find outside of libertarian outlets was a puff piece in the Washington Times [‘Don’t Tread on anyone’—LibertyCon draws young Libertarians, by Jennifer Harper, March 1, 2018]. What happened?
Anecdotally, I can tell you that in the golden years, attendees really felt like they were part of a rising tide that would sweep the country in their lifetime. More recently, everyone feels at best like a virtuous remnant.
Looking back on past Liberty Cons, two other things jump out.
First: how many of the more prominent speakers from past years have subsequently left the Libertarian world. In 2012, the first year the conference broke 1,000 attendees, the keynote speaker was Peter Thiel. Thiel was once one of the most prominent libertarians in the country—but now he is a prominent Trump supporter [Peter Thiel Gives Full-Throated Endorsement of Donald Trump, By Dan Primack, Fortune, July 22, 2016]. He can no longer be found at libertarian events, but instead attends more Dissident Right gatherings such as the 2017 DeploraBall.
The next year, 2013, saw a performance by Dorian Electra, who was at the time something of a Libertarian pop star. These days, she makes music videos about female genitalia and drag—and has purged from YouTube all her old videos about Libertarian economics.
In 2017, Senator Rand Paul was slated to be the keynote speaker, but he pulled out at the last minute. Rumors were afloat that during his speech, some left-Libertarians were planning to stage a walkout to protest his support of President Trump’s travel ban [Fearing Possible Walkout, Sen. Rand Paul No-Shows Students For Liberty Conference, by Shane Trejo, The Liberty Conservative, February 17, 2017 in News]
Sen. Paul knew that a walkout would cause embarrassing MSM coverage. But there was also no real gain in addressing the conference even if everything went smoothly—so he decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
His father, Ron Paul, maintains his distance from the annual gathering for the same reason. In 2015, he was heckled by some Leftist in the audience, and since then has declined to attend the gathering. All of this means that LibertyCon may be the first annual conference with a speaker retention issue.
Second: attendance has gone down. Between 2008 and 2012, it rose rapidly. From 2012 until 2015, it rose slowly. Now it is slowly dwindling. In 2015, there were around 1,700 attendees—this year it was closer to 1,200. [Reflecting on 10 ISFLCs, by Alexander McCobin, February 20, 2017.]
And this slump is happening right across the Libertarian movement: the active membership rolls of Students for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty are past their peak, and the same is true of the student programs at the Charles Koch Institute.
Libertarianism as a relevant political force is over. The triumphalist essays on the ideology’s ascendency from a few years ago [ The Libertarian Surge, By DAVID BOAZ, Politico, April 7, 2014] now seem about as laughable and far-fetched as Leftist critics claimed at the time. [On The Libertarian Summer, by Emmett Rensin, Medium, September 10, 2014]
At this point, Libertarianism has moved back to its more traditional role in American politics: the hobgoblin of a few, often brilliant but eccentric, academics, intellectuals, and journalists. With no natural constituency and few sizeable patrons aside from the Koch brothers, Libertarianism will continue as a gadfly in American politics, but never a consequential participant.
There is a reason for all this.
I tend not to agree with Matt Yglesias, but if he’s right about one thing, it’s that “All Politics Is Identity Politics.” [Vox, June 5, 2015] To put it another way: sociology is real. Outside of their immediate families, what matters most to your average human is the collective identities they have with others, particularly those forged over a shared race, ethnicity, religion, culture, or geography.
This is why Libertarianism is not going anywhere, no matter how much it seemed that way a few years ago. Unlike almost all other political orientations or groups, Libertarianism is relatively “pure” in its ideological orientation. It is not tailored to protect, promote, or glorify a particular class, or race, or any other sociological group. Simply stated: it lacks an identity outside of its own ideological axioms.
Libertarians, and Libertarianism, have nothing to offer any of the combatants. The issue of free speech is an illuminating example of this.
While Libertarians firmly and genuinely believe in this right, they believe in it as an abstraction. Meanwhile, the rest of the country (and humanity) wants to uphold or abolish the right for very specific, and self-interested, reasons. Fans of college tours by Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter do not uphold their right to free speech out of principle—they simply like the speakers and want to see their presentations. That was equally true of Leftist advocates of free speech in the 1950s who were sticking up for blacklisted Communists. It was not that those Leftists were truly enamored with the principle of free speech—they simply wanted to give their Communist friends some breathing room.
So it goes for just about every political issue out there. Very few conservatives believe in gun rights out of some philosophical principle. They believe in gun rights because they grew up using guns inside a culture that valued guns. On top of that, they view guns as a means of self-defence, and rightly understand that a government hostile to guns would be hostile to many other facets of their way of life. Those who oppose gun rights, meanwhile, view gun confiscation as a way of eliminating social norms they loathe: white “vigilantes, “self-reliance, and traditional rural American culture.
Human beings are not philosophical creatures. They are self-interested parties looking to protect the people and cultures they value. It is a very rare bird who will advocate for a particular public policy while considering only its abstract justness and not its real-world impact.
And America today is a pitched battle between conflicting cultures and preferences. Broadly speaking, you have one side yearning for a classical republic with traditionalist values, and another trying to create a cross between black ruled South Africa and socialist, immigrant-ridden Sweden. Libertarianism has little to give either side.
But Libertarians should consider what their fates will be depending upon which side in the current struggle for America wins. As I have personally told purist libertarians before: President Trump and his cohort may hold many beliefs you find abhorrent, (border security, trade protectionism, travel bans, etc.) but consider the practical alternative. Aside from “Trumpism,” the other rising force in American politics is the new strand of SJW-influenced socialism. Bernie Sanders is supposedly the most popular politician in the country. [Bernie Sanders Is the Most Popular U.S. Politician, Even as Some Blame Him for Clinton’s Loss, By John Haltiwanger, Newsweek, August 25, 2017]. In his wake, Leftist groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are growing faster than you can say “Joe McCarthy,” Socialist magazines such as Jacobin are gaining influence, and influential liberal outlets such as The New Republic are becoming more and more socialist.
If this crowd takes power, immigration patriotism and tariffs will be the least of Libertarians’ worries. Instead, America will be facing runaway inflation, gun confiscation, debilitating taxes, and Hate Speech laws.
While Libertarians despise the governments of both countries, Hungary is obviously preferable to Venezuela. Remember too that these socialist SJWs hate Libertarians about as much as they hate every other variety of right-winger. Consider their regular attacks on Libertarianism as a whole, its more prominent figures [Gary Johnson’s Hard-Right Record, By Nick Tabor, Jacobin, September 6, 2016] and even its left wing [Bleeding Heart Bullshit, by Jonah Walters, Jacobin, August 30, 2016].
A President Sanders would almost certainly have the federal regulatory bureaucracy target the Koch brothers and their many businesses. Should the government become involved in punishing “Hate Speech,” most every libertarian organization and publication will be lined up for fines and lengthy, expensive, investigations and court battles.
The unfortunate fact is that, while Libertarianism has no natural social base, many classes of Americans do have a natural hatred of Libertarianism. From non-whites looking for handouts and an ego boost to white yuppie managerialists looking to restructure the state in their image, Libertarianism is not merely an incorrect worldview, it is a hateful threat to their moral order.
Though ideas certainly do have consequences, power has more. President Trump does many things Libertarians dislike, but he does nothing to threaten or harm them directly. This will hold true of any Trumpian president in the future.
However, future socialist and/or SJW presidents will not have this “hands off” approach. Put another way, would you rather have more immigrants or retain your gun rights—a few protected industries or a 75 percent income tax on top earners?
This kind of dichotomy has presented itself to Libertarians in the past, and when push came to shove many Libertarian godfathers wisely chose the Right: Friedrich Hayek with Augusto Pinochet and Ludwig von Mises with Benito Mussolini.
Supporting these autocrats represented a compromise for both Hayek and Mises. But it was a wise one. How do you think the philosophies the men promoted, or the men themselves, would have fared in Fidel Castro’s Cuba or Vladimir Lenin’s USSR? After all, not even Left-wing anarchists lasted long in the Soviet Union.
Libertarians should consider my argument tough love. For the record, I do not think it a good thing that in a year’s time the DSA will have a national convention that’s bigger than LibertyCon (they are already close.) I, and much of the Dissident and Trumpian Right, have always had something of an affinity for Libertarian thought. There are many bright lights among its adherents, both past (H.L. Mencken and Murray Rothbard—to name just two) and present (I’ll save them the embarrassment of being named by me).
Though I am not a Libertarian, I wish y’all no harm. It’s simply that it’s undeniable that as a political force, y’all are spent. Not even your most prominent elected official will attend your largest (but shrinking) national conference.
Today, everyone threatened by America’s Emerging Totalitarian Left must hold tight. It’s time Left-Libertarians grew up and recognized this reality.