By Duke Cheston
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.