Links, Libertarianism

Who Are the New Student Libertarians?

As I’ve said before, I think it’s a pretty exciting time to be a libertarian on a college campus – whether as a student or professor. And a great deal of that excitement is due to the tremendous energy and entrepreneurial activity of Students for Liberty – certainly the most well-organized and effective libertarian student organization I’ve seen in my lifetime.

I’ve learned most of what I know about SFL from my own personal involvement in their events, and from anecdotes from other professors. But for those of you who – like me! – want to learn more, there is now an academic study of the “Liberty Movement” in which SFL features prominently, authored by Liana Gamber Thomson, a postdoc at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The study is called “The Cost of Engagement:Politics and Participatory Practices in the U.S. Liberty Movement.” Here’s a bit from the executive summary:

In a letter to Richard Rush dated October 20, 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.”1 This report suggests that participants in the Liberty Movement would concur with respect to the challenges they encounter; largely ignored by mainstream media and pushed to the margins of the electoral process, libertarians have it tougher than many groups when it comes to the task of gaining voice and visibility in the mainstream political debate. This report examines how young libertarians confront such obstacles and presents readers with a detailed account of young libertarians and their relationship to the contemporary political landscape.

One of the more interesting topics on which the report touches is racial and gender diversity within the Liberty Movement. A theme is that the movement is becoming diverse, but still largely white and male. According to one interviewee, “There’s pretty big gender discrepancy, and it’s largely male. I would say 60% [men] to 40% [women] on a good day. Sometimes, it’s like 70-30…” I had to chuckle at this. Not to sound like an old fogie or anything, but back in my day we would have killed to have 30% women in the libertarian movement! If we wanted to find a woman libertarian, we had to walk eight miles, in the snow, uphill, both ways!

Unfortunately, the study doesn’t include any detailed analysis of the demographic makeup of SFL or the Liberty Movement more broadly. The closest we get is a note in the appendix saying that of the 27 people from whom she obtained demographic data, 17 identified as male and 7 as female, and 18 identified as white. As far as that latter number is concerned, 66% is still far from ideal, but again, it’s absolutely mind-blowing compared to anything I would have seen when I was a student.

There’s a lot more interesting stuff in the report. Go read it yourself.

  • Sean II

    In my day, the way you met a libertarian woman is you pretended to be a left statist in college, long enough for a left statist woman to become interested in you.

    If everything went perfectly, she might fall in love with you, and after a suitable interval (say, ten months) you could leave a copy of Hazlitt on your bedside table, hoping she might see and ask about it. Of course you couldn’t risk being too eager, so the first time you had to say “Hmmm? What? Who put that there? I’ve never seen that book before in my life. I’m not taking economics or whatever. The security in this building is unforgivable!”

    Weeks later, sometime when the mood was perfect, you would arrange to get caught reading a chapter, and very cautiously start a conversation saying “It’s the craziest thing, but you remember the book that would-be burglar left in my bedroom a few months back? I’ve been reading it, and according to the author there’s, like, a whole different way of looking at the miner’s strike besides what we learned in Professor Skidelsky’s textbook. Totally crazy, right?”

    The immediate result would be a very tense conversation about what to do with this horrible piece of disinformation in print, the need for a united front against imperialism, the terrible fear that all our friends could tell we’d explored momentary doubts about the bien pensant consensus, along with renewed promises that once we had some money saved, we would purchase and then immediately divest ourselves of a few Kruggerands, in order to send a message that fascism will not be tolerated. But the upshot was, when you threw the book out, you did it together.

    Building on that success, the next step was to get married, and after twelve years or so, if you did everything right and never once pushed your luck even a little bit, you might find yourself sharing your life with a libertarian woman, or at least a woman that didn’t hate you for being a libertarian.

    And that’s just what happened, if you were lucky.

    • Kyle

      The main reason we need more women in the movement is NOT so male libertarians can get girlfriends.

      • Sean II

        Good point.

        Now what’s our plan for ridding the movement of humorless prigs? Because we’ve got, like, a huge surplus of those.

        • Kyle Nearhood

          Just want to point out, that kyle is not me.

      • Geez, lighten up. Exactly like Sean said.
        We don’t have more women because so many libertarians are too up-tight, have no humor, or know how to socialize.

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  • At the moment, we don’t have more women in the movement because 1. Some people have associated us with the GOP, that has indeed made some horrific anti-women statements 2. We haven’t made a good case for how libertarianism is good for women, and goes along with the older feminism that meant independence and individuality, rather than fighting for govt goodies, which leads me to 3. We don’t offer “free” birth control (like I said, because apparently being a strong woman means depending on the govt).

    • Sean II

      To echo what Matt said earlier, the fact that it’s possible to talk about which campus libertarian group is better organized is just…glorious. I was an undergrad in the early 1990s, and one night during my sophomore year I went – against my better judgement telling me it would no doubt be a total waste of time – to attend a libertarian party event in the library.

      I was completely psyched after I arrived, because there were about 35 people in the conference room. You’d think I had discovered a new planet or something. In fact, I was so excited that for several minutes I didn’t even wonder why everyone was spending so much time talking about neoprene socks, hard hats, figure-of-nine knots, and the importance of never panicking in the dark. Turns out I’d gone to the wrong room and crashed a meeting of the Spelunking Club.

      Everyone was really nice. “Oh, how funny! You’re actually supposed to be over in Conference Room 3B. Here, let me show you the way…”

      When I met the actual libertarians, I immediately regretted not staying with the cave weirdos. These were six of the saddest looking dudes you can imagine. To get the idea you have to picture a clique of Rush fans from back before Rush became ironically cool. One of them actually had a suede vest. And the worst part was, in a truly massive library with a whole floor devoted just to philosophy, the group leader was holding a copy of “The Ominous Parallels”, by Dr. Leonard Peikoff…and you guessed it, the discussion that evening was based around his book.

      Needless to say, I never went back. A gay man who found himself appointed to the Guardian Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran could hardly go to greater lengths concealing his identity, than I did hiding my libertarian curiosity on that campus for the next 3.5 years.

      • Hey. What do you mean, “ironically” cool?

        • Sean II

          Er…you see, that was just a stupid typo on my part. Obviously I meant to write “irenically cool”.

  • M.R. Orlowski

    Well, considering that libertarianism is a philosophy and the fact that the philosophy profession (economics too, since many libetarians are philosophers) is predominantly male, wouldn’t the movement be majority male partly for those reasons? Ditto for being white.

    • M.R. Orlowski

      libertarians are economists*
      sorry for that

  • 66% white—isn’t that close to the national demographic?

    • Sean II

      Even a bit under, if you take “white” to mean “white + white hispanic”, as the census does. Because I’ve never seen a libertarian gathering where whites were not massively over-represented, I got way skeptical and took a close look at that part of the report. Here’s the catch:

      “27 total respondents completed the survey, though many failed to answer every question on the survey (the survey did not force answers on any of the questions except for the one regarding age)”

      As I read that, it means several of the respondents probably left the ethnicity question blank, so we’re not talking about 18 whites out of 27, we’re talking about 18 whites out of X which is <27.

      Not that it matters much. Anything less than 100% white would be a great leap forward for libertarians.

  • Kirsten Tynan

    “Not to sound like an old fogie or anything, but back in my day we would have killed to
    have 30% women in the libertarian movement! If we wanted to find a
    woman libertarian, we had to walk eight miles, in the snow, uphill, both

    Dear Matt,

    I’m sorry you spent so much time looking for snowy hills in Tucson to hike eight miles up both ways- it was unnecessary!

    Back in your day, if you wanted to find a libertarian woman, you needed only to show up at a Libertarian Students of the University of Arizona meeting as you did more than once. Arguably, Rachel Alexander wasn’t really libertarian, but I was very active as you might recall. I participated in campus debates, helped bring Waco: The Rules of Engagement to campus, and helped organize the Million Marijuana March in Tucson, among many other things. I’m not sure exactly what years you were there, but while I was a member, LSUA also had Jackie Casey who was our founder and president, and a young woman Theresa whose last name I don’t recall who was instrumental in LSUA bringing the only showing of Waco: The Rules of Engagement to the city of Tucson at Gallagher Theater.

    Perhaps part of the reason people wonder where are all the libertarian women is because they fail to recognize those who are and have been here for quite some time now.


    Kirsten Tynan
    founding member of Libertarian Students at the University of Arizona
    National Coordinator, Fully Informed Jury Association