Wolf von Laer joins us this week to talk about the movement for liberty on college campuses around the world.
What are the biggest challenges to liberty for today’s university students? How difficult is it to communicate ideas on college campuses?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Listeners may be interested in our Free Thoughts episodes with Robby Soave and Greg Lukianoff on First Amendment rights on college campuses.
The 10th International Students for Liberty Conference is February 17th-19th, 2017. More details here.
Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.Org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Caleb Brown: And I’m Caleb Brown.
Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Wolf von Laer. He is the CEO of Students for Liberty. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
Wolf von Laer: Thank you so much for having me.
Aaron Powell: Will you start by telling us, what is Students for Liberty?
Wolf von Laer: First of all, I would like to say thank you to the Cato Institute, not only for hosting me, but also, Students for Liberty was incubated in your very halls here. So we are now ten years old, but [00:00:30] we got started off here in your offices. You provided a lot of support initially, and now we are a $3.9 Million organization.
To answer your question, Students for Liberty is a worldwide active organization that focuses on empowering the next generation of leaders of liberty. What does that mean? So, we are really reaching out to students here in the United States and across the world who are interested in classical Libertarian thoughts. The thinking that the Cato Institute embraces as well. And once we identify these people, [00:01:00] we’re going to train them more in how to do advocacy. How to be a good Libertarian, but also how to reach out to others and organize events.
So, just last year alone, we had 98 conferences all around the world with 20,000 attendees. And we do this with a $3.9 million budget, and we are now active in all inhabited continents. But we started here in the United States, and the main focus is still on the United States because we are here in the land of the free and we’re working very hard to continue to make it better.
Aaron Powell: [00:01:30] You’re relatively new to the CEO position, right?
Wolf von Laer: That’s right. It’s only been six months and it has been a wild ride, but I enjoy it very much so far.
Aaron Powell: How did you get involved in SFL, then, and then get to where you are?
Wolf von Laer: Yeah. So we incorporated here in the United States in 2008. In 2011, Students for Liberty went for the first time abroad. So it was an experience. And we started off in Europe. I was one of the people who applied for the executive board position. Because everything we do is basically volunteer-led. All of the 98 conferences I was talking about are organized, [00:02:00] operated, and led by our volunteers.
And so I applied for the position and I got into it. And suddenly I found myself in the room with Alexander McCobin, the founder of the organization, and incredible students from all around Europe who had so much more knowledge than I had, who knew so many different movements in different countries in Europe. I felt a little bit intimidated when I was there at the Institute for Economic Affairs. On the one hand, I was sitting high at the table, at the other hand it was [00:02:30] Ayn Rand and these people were talking things that I didn’t really know about.
But I quickly learned that the organization trusts young people and trusted me. I became very active. I raised over 50,000 Euros to start the first training program in Europe and organized conference with several hundred attendees and later became the chairperson.
Caleb Brown: What do you view as some of the biggest challenges that you face on campuses, both in the United States and around the world?
Wolf von Laer: So the answer would differ, of [00:03:00] course, depending on the country we’re talking about. So currently we have a leader with the name Jan imprisoned in Venezuela, because he stood up for the ideas of liberty and continued so as an alumnus of our programs. So they face much harsher conditions than we do here in the United States. But if we’re talking about the U.S., you know very well about the free speech issue on campus. You have been working on that as well.
So that is certainly an issue and we are reaching out to both the left and right to really address that and form coalitions and talk about the importance of these [00:03:30] ideas.
Besides that, I think the current generation is really ready. They are sick of the left-right dichotomy about butting heads, of the Republicans with the Democrats. Our message really resonates with them, because we are not going on campus and trying to yell at them. We’re trying to understand where they’re coming from. And then, once we understood where they’re coming from, trying to tell them, “Okay, maybe we have similar goals. We all want to live in a prosperous, more just, more equal society, but we have different means. Let’s talk about that.” Instead of just being in their face, [00:04:00] and I think, especially in the United States, people are ready for that message.
Aaron Powell: How hard is it to communicate this message or to get a sizable group of Students of Liberty on a college campus now? It’s been quite a while since I’ve been in college, and when I was there, it was in a very Leftist college in Boulder, Colorado, but I never got a sense that the university [00:04:30] itself was mobilized against these ideas. It felt pretty welcoming and open. Has that changed? You talk about the free speech on campus issues, which we hear a lot of anecdotes about, but it’s hard from not being on a college campus to see how really pervasive that is, how much that’s become kind of a culture among young people. Is there a strong anti-liberty culture that you have to push back against?
Wolf von Laer: Sometimes we do experience that. So, students [00:05:00] of ours basically nearly got fined because they were handing out the Constitution. The very version that the Cato Institute produces. So we were handing that out on campus, our students, and they got really a lot of trouble into that because it’s not like [crosstalk 00:05:12]
Aaron Powell: Just cause people were offended by Roger Pilon’s intro. It wasn’t the Constitution itself that was the problem.
Wolf von Laer: No, I think it was just like doing this. Because like I said, this is not a dedicated zone where you can do that, please stop, refrain from doing this. Many universities are public institutions, so the Amendments should apply to these places, [00:05:30] so it is of course deeply upsetting. But it doesn’t happen too often. Of course sometimes, when you have controversial topics, so we for instance had a single-issue campaign once on free market environmentalism. So they talked about how the free market actually benefits the environment and how it has become much better. And your Human Progress Center here also has a lot of very informative data on that.
The speaker was there and suddenly, there was a bunch of very hardcore Leftist groups were shouting down the speakers and the student leaders then had to call [00:06:00] the police. Similarly, we also faced this from the right, like in Serbia, we had an event about decriminalization of drugs and suddenly, right-wing groups came in there, like Neo-Nazis, with spitting at our students, which was outrageous. But in both cases, our students remained calm and tried to get the situation in control and tried not to escalate it further. We sometimes have to face that, but generally, these are the exceptions. Normally, as long as we talk to people in a friendly manner and also try [00:06:30] to reach out to the left and the right on the campus beforehand when we have an event, that works very well.
Caleb Brown: How much overlap is there between Students for Liberty and overt political activism? That is to say, going out and supporting candidates or opposing other candidates?
Wolf von Laer: Yeah, so we are a 501(c)3 organization, so we refrain from taking any policy stance or supporting any candidates. So we cannot do that and we don’t do that. [00:07:00] So I would say that we have a very heterogeneous set of students who are interested in academia and journalism and becoming business people but also, in becoming politicians. So we certainly talk about that and we talk about that this is one of means of spreading the ideas of liberty and in this country, Ron Paul was very formative. And even internationally, Ron Paul was very formative for many classical Liberals or Libertarians. And so many of our people go on into politics.
So you might have seen how much impact had we in Brazil. So we not only talk about Brazil, we also get a lot of stuff done. So you [00:07:30] saw these massive, massive events on the streets, where people were protesting, and many of them were holding signs up like, “Less Marx, More Mises” in Portuguese of course. There was a whole classical liberal movement there. Many of these people now who we have trained as part of our leadership are now in state parliaments. Sure, they’re not part of our organization anymore, but they are our alumni and they are still affecting change this way too. So we do not prevent that and many of our people are going to do that. But we do not focus only [00:08:00] on politicians like some other organizations.
Caleb Brown: In Brazil, Kim Canaguri is one of the people who figures prominently there. Fabio Osterman was another one and were largely instrumental in organizing those large protests that ended with Dilma Russeff being ousted from office.
There are people here, and I think there are even people in Brazil who count themselves as being among the Libertarian ranks who were incredibly surprised [00:08:30] at the robustness of the student movement in Brazil. Can you speak to that at all, in terms of where that came from?
Wolf von Laer: Yeah, so Fabio is a friend of mine and Kim has also been working with us, so we’re really in the forefront. We’re not the only organization who’s working on Brazilian issues. So they have a very robust landscape of think tanks, et cetera. But I think it was a combination of that we really had the right approach and it was just also the time. They were sick of [00:09:00] so many decades of cronyism and leftist populist policies there and they were just sick of it. So we were there with the right people, with the right training, and the right ideas. I think it was just the timing that also what was really what played into that.
Also, it has been a year, basically, since many of these events happened. Dilma Russeff was ousted more recently, but we still have a huge demand for our programs. We just trained, last year, several [00:09:30] hundreds of them, close to a thousand. And that interest continues, so it’s not like a fluke as far as I can tell. But if we can sustain that momentum, that is a good question and we have to look into that and we are improving our programs constantly to still be attractive to these students.
Aaron Powell: What does this training look like? What do you do to help student advocates become better advocates for liberty?
Wolf von Laer: So it really depends on what we are talking about because we have a leadership pipeline. So we invest more resources in the people who are the most active. But if you talk about the first step, one of the basic tenets [00:10:00] of ours is learning about our state as a 501(C)3, what they can do, what they cannot do. About the history of the organization. But more interestingly, we are talking about persuasion. How we as classical liberal can get the ideas of liberty across in a better way. That we are not going to yell at other people. That we’re trying to understand where they’re coming from. Because you can see so much activism, if you want to call it that way, on Facebook where people are just like, writing angry comments all day, all night. And that is not very productive. So we have a different approach and we are trying [00:10:30] to make young people realize that this is not the best way of going about it, but they should be friendly, kind, and understanding.
I think that works much better, because when I discovered the ideas of liberty, that was after the financial crisis, the Great Recession. And I became very passionate when I was reading Hayek and Mises and Rothbard and people like that. I thought I found the truth, and many young people feel that way. It’s an exciting worldview. Sometimes they become so ingrained in this that they just see everything in black and white, and [00:11:00] I certainly have pushed people away from the ideas. It’s the last thing I want to do. So I’ve learned from my mistakes, and we’re trying to really push it forward.
But we also talk about fundraising, and project management. Because everything that we do, the 98 conferences, our media, to a large extent, is driven by our volunteers. So they have to learn how to run an event of 700 people. And they’re learning really, really valuable skills doing that. And I can honestly say, without Students for Liberty, I would not have a fraction [00:11:30] of the skills that I have today. I have to learn much more, I know. I am still young. But most parents tell their kids what they should be doing. Most universities tell kids what they should be doing. We believe in them, that they can do great things, and we see that every week.
Just recently, one of our so-called Local Coordinators, one of our volunteers, was on French national television, quoting Frédéric Bastiat and defending Uber. These are kids who are like twenty-two years, twenty-three years old. And he’s not an outlier. We have thousands of these and they really have a huge [00:12:00] impact for the ideas of liberty because we trust them and they come up with their own programs and ideas.
Caleb Brown: I think it’s actually just a hazard of being a young person, where if you are aware of something that you believe to be the truth, you are perhaps a little bit more brusque with people than you ought to be. What would you tell young people who are interested in spreading the ideas of liberty to avoid engaging in that kind of [00:12:30] turning people off?
Wolf von Laer: What to avoid is basically when you talk to someone, our natural inclination, not only for young people, but for everyone, is always to respond and give counterarguments. If somebody’s talking, and Aaron gives me a very good argument right now why the minimum wage is the best thing ever, and I’m already thinking about all the arguments I would have against that point. One should try to observe one’s mind, and if you’re doing that, and try to overcome that. So just trying to listen first and understanding where [00:13:00] the other party’s coming from. And if you do that first, I think that’s the most important step, because then the other party, let’s say you’re talking to a left-winger, realize that you’re actually listening to them, to understand them.
There’s this wonderful saying, and I’m probably butchering that, but you should strive for that we can articulate the ideas of the other side, right-wing or left-wing, better than they ever could. We should be striving for that. Because that really means that we understand where they’re coming from, that we understand the arguments, and then, and only then, it is really useful to talk about [00:13:30] our approach and our ideas. Because then the other side would listen more. And that goes back to things from Carnegie and how to influence and influence people, which is standard reading for us and training on emotional intelligence which we’re trying to incorporate more and more in our programs.
Aaron Powell: How much do you encourage, then, your people in this leadership pipeline, or the people you’re working with in training, to learn about the ideas of the other side? This is one of the things that I’ve noticed, so we have interns come through here, and the work that I do with Libertarianism.Org, I [00:14:00] spend a decent amount of time talking to people who are kind of new to Libertarianism. And there’s often this attitude of, “I found the truth in Mises and Hayek and Rothbard and Bastiat. Those guys knew what they were talking about. And so why should I spend time really reading the people that I disagree with?” You get this a lot from kids who have gotten their beginnings with objectivism. “I’ve [00:14:30] read Ayn Rand, so I don’t really need to read John Rawls or any of those anti-human philosophers.”
So is that something you, how important do you think it is to really learn those foundations of the beliefs that you may think are out to lunch?
Wolf von Laer: It is absolutely crucial. But it really depends, also, on the preferences of the students. So we do not encourage all of our students to become perfect academics. So if you just are there because you’re a part of the community and you happen to really like the ideas and you want to organize some social events where [00:15:00] you gather with other people, and talk about the ideas, that is totally fine. But the people who really want to get out there and want to talk with other people, I think they quickly learn that they need to do that. Because once you’re actually listening to someone else and do not stay in your own echo chamber of Libertarian groups and organizations, then you quickly learn that sometimes they have very sophisticated ideas.
So one of the first things that I did when I came here, free speech is not such an issue in Europe compared to the United States right now on [00:15:30] campus, at least. The first thing that I did, I was reading a paper from the Frankfurt School. Like, what kind of arguments they had, and I was shocked to see that unfortunately, their arguments are quite logically coherent. They’re misguided, and I think they have the wrong approach, but they’re logically coherent. And that’s the only way how I could approach people on campus and try to engage with them. Because if you’re just like in their face and just say, “Oh you have to believe in the Constitution and in free speech,” it’s not a value of theirs. And if you don’t understand that from the get go, you will never be able to communicate to other people.
[00:16:00] We are filtering our people very selectively. We go for quality over quantity. I want people in our organization who have good knowledge and understanding of the ideas, but who are also kind human beings. Because that’s how you form a community, which is also attractive to others. Because there’s so many other groups out there which are very hostile and they work on an anti-left mentality, or the left is working on an anti-right mentality. That’s not how you’re building bridges and that’s not how you get more people excited about [00:16:30] the idea, which I truly believe, have been changing the world and can make the world even better than it is today.
Caleb Brown: In Europe and the United States, there has been a rise of, at least in the United States, there’s called the alt-right, and in Europe it is Populist Nationalist parties. In Spain it’s Populist Communist party, there. What do they have to offer in terms of a pitch for young [00:17:00] people and how do you evaluate the values of Libertarianism against that kind of argument that they make?
Wolf von Laer: We see these threats coming up in many, many different countries. There’s Le Pen in France as well. And the interesting thing is that this is always very, not very encouraging, right? Because we’re saying, “Oh we’ll be talking about classical liberal ideas for so many years, why is so many people excited about [00:17:30] populism?” It is true, and what can you do? Even though that France is going, let’s talk about France for a second, has taken such a wide turn, it is also true that it has seen, and in France, of all places, it’s like a strong classical liberal movement. One of the major German newspapers was just reporting about that, that young people really embrace these ideas. So I think the first thing is that we need, again, like the right people in place for advocating the ideas and then they stand up against this populism.
[00:18:00] People become sick of it. We see that with Trump. His approval is in the basement, right? And people are ready for a new message and the left and right dichotomy doesn’t work so well. So I think it’s also an opportunity, but how to do that specifically, I cannot give you one answer. Because we very much work with the Hayekian framework of decentralized knowledge. And local knowledge. So we believe that only the leaders in France or in Brazil, that they have the right approach. We don’t tell them what to do. We tell them [00:18:30] what has worked in other countries in our ten years of organizing stuff on campus all around the world. But we don’t tell them how to approach it and how to engage with the public discourse in their specific country. Because we would otherwise also endanger them. Because if you use, for instance, the term “free market” or “capitalism” in some of the African countries, that can get you in real trouble. And our students have been in trouble, even though they have used softer language.
Caleb Brown: Where have been some of the strongest … We talked about Brazil, of course, that’s an obvious example, but specifically in Europe, where [00:19:00] have we seen some of the biggest growth of classical liberal, Libertarian ideas in Europe?
Wolf von Laer: The biggest growth of classical liberal ideas, it’s in a bunch of countries and it’s really striking. I’ve already alluded to France, but when we started on the board, actually, we had seven people sitting on it and planning the future, how are we going to do this, organizing events. And we said, “Oh, we’re not going to touch France because nobody is Libertarian there whatsoever.” And now it’s like one of our strongholds there. Besides that, the Iberian [00:19:30] Peninsula, nearly every week they have massive events with hundreds of people talking about very intellectual topics. They have a very strong leadership team there.
Georgia, the country, is also very strong. And I was blown away by that when I read a report. So each time, when they organize something, they write an after-action report. And they wrote 15 pages. They had 500 people there for a one-day event. They have been on a campus tour before to tell other people about it. They have been on television before this talking about the event. They had Subway there, Coca-Cola, all kinds [00:20:00] of corporate sponsors there. And they raised all their own money for this event, so we didn’t have to pay one dollar of the money that we are raising here in the United States and also abroad.
There’s really many pockets where we have strong, strong leaders. I also will say Latin America, in Guatemala, of course, we all know about the university Francisco Marroquín, but our leaders are organizing frequent events with 300 people there just talking also to high-school students. So there are many different countries out there which are very strong.
Caleb Brown: [00:20:30] You mentioned Ron Paul earlier. A lot of my younger colleagues got involved in Libertarianism because they got involved with Ron Paul’s campaigns, but he’s kind of dropped away from that. Rand has always been an influence. Are a lot of your students kids who grew up in Libertarian homes and it’s been in the water for them, or what brought them into it in the first place?
Wolf von Laer: So if you talk about the United States specifically, it is still Ron [00:21:00] Paul. People still see the videos and are still excited about that, but it is ebbing away. And we have seen that, because we have been growing a lot in the United States, and once Ron Paul was gone, we saw that our growth was not as dramatically anymore. So that certainly has an effect, if you have a public figure like that.
Besides that, I think the network of institutions in this country is very strong. I’ve been an alumnus of IHS, of the Institute for Humane Studies, of Cato’s, and many other organizations out there. So many people are quoting [00:21:30] that they have been influenced by them. You’re working now on this podcast, and I’m sure many people will hear about Libertarianism for the first time through your good work, here. That is also an answer to that and I would say it is not very often that people really grow up in a Libertarian household. Because we still are very much a minority, even though we’re growing. But that is rarely the case.
So we have, in our organization, also on staff, both examples, where people came from the very hardcore left, where people were reading Marx day in and day out, and then they discovered, “Okay, maybe [00:22:00] it doesn’t work.” And then they studied Mises and the socialist calculation debate and saw, suddenly, there’s something else to this and learn more about that. For instance, we also had one leader in Venezuela, again, his name is Oscar, I don’t want to go into detail. But he grew up in a very poor neighborhood in Venezuela, even for Venezuelan standards. He grew up very much committed to the ideas of Marxism. He was even teaching others. Until 2012, when he went to a conference that we organized about private [00:22:30] solutions to public problems. And that was the first time that his world view was challenged. Significantly. So he had to think a lot about that and he started studying more. He became part of our leadership, we trained him. Now he is an awesome economist. He’s actually trained, he’s now working at the only classical liberal think tank in Venezuela, and spreading the ideas of liberty not only there but throughout the whole of Latin America.
But we also have people that grew up in a very conservative household and then suddenly saw a Reason video, or went to a conference of ours. Then [00:23:00] they see, “Okay, these are actually nice human beings who happen to believe in radical ideas about freedom and free markets and all of that stuff.” So they can come from a variety of ways. And also of course, here, it’s often connected to Ayn Rand and Objectivism in the United States, it’s not so much abroad.
Caleb Brown: One of the issues that … So I was a campus coordinator for a young Libertarians group, now 20 years ago, on a college campus. This was, of course, [00:23:30] well before Students for Liberty. It was an extreme challenge to try to organize anything, this was also when the Internet was fairly young, so it made it that much more difficult. But one of the challenges that I think you probably face even today, is that you have cohorts of students. They arrive on campus, they may be very active for you, and then they’re gone.
Wolf von Laer: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Caleb Brown: And in terms of maintaining that kind of [00:24:00] trajectory, maintaining that kind of momentum to expand and continue to spread the ideas of liberty, does that pose any specific unique challenge?
Wolf von Laer: I mean, this is the business that we’re working in. So leadership transitions is part that every student learns from us. Each time you’re building up a group or something, we said, “Okay, one year before you graduate, you should think about, who is the next leader that you should try to get in place.” And doing that. So we really try to teach that to our students. Does [00:24:30] that always happen? No. Does it always succeed? No. But this is basically the nature of the game that we are playing. And so you also have to offset that with systematic outreach. You were alluding to, and thank you for your services on the campus back in the day, you were alluding to that it’s sometimes hard to find other people.
And so you have to do systematic outreach. Nowadays, with the Internet, that’s much easier. So we are not only using Facebook graph search because everybody’s using that, but we also are doing this [00:25:00] in conjunction with sophisticated training how to use these tools. Incentive structures, how to incentivize the students to do this systematically, and scripts, which helps them to get more names and reaching out to more people, invite them to events and tell them about resources that we can offer them.
Because one thing that we do, for instance, in this country, is “Okay, you’re interested in free speech? Okay, please make the case to us that you can organize an event on your campus. Tell us about that and then we send you resources.” And then they can use that. We find these people systematically. They don’t have to necessarily be [00:25:30] a group that is just branded Students for Liberty. So we are also open for Young Americans for Liberty groups or Social for Sensible Drug Reform. We are like a loose network, as long as the people work towards the goal that we agree with, a goal towards liberty, then we are happy to help them.
Aaron Powell: Is there much collaboration between SFL groups and then groups that are not Libertarian at all but might agree on a specific issue? I ask because it often seems like [00:26:00] there’s this, the example I sometimes give is from back when the Snowden records came out. And Libertarians were kind of way out in front on that one, because we’d been talking about state surveillance for awhile when other people weren’t paying attention to it and we were some of the first to condemn it. And so a lot of Cato scholars were in the news when this was coming out and there was this push-back on the left of, “Don’t get tricked by these Libertarians. [00:26:30] It may look like they’re your friends on these issues, but really what they want to do is dismantle the welfare state,” or whatever else.
So is there a concerted effort to reach out on, say, single issues where there’s agreement with groups that are not Libertarian and is there problem getting them to work together given the disagreement on the other issues?
Wolf von Laer: It depends on the case-by-case basis, I would say. So we are one of the few organizations that can actually build interesting coalitions, because we are broad-term [00:27:00] Libertarian. We do not hide that. We want to have Objectivists within our leadership, but also people who believe minimal government or no government. And so we are very heterogeneous there. But we also try to build bridges to both the left and right, as I’ve said. And we do that. So we are one of the few organizations where you can find, just last year at the conference, you can find the NRA, the National Rifle Association, but you can also find the ACLU. The American Civil Liberties Union.
As an organizational level, we really try to do that and do it more. Very often, they really thank [00:27:30] us for being there. So recently, we were in the protests for the travel bans. We were there and saying, of course you need some checks and balances in the system, but you should not just ban refugees, because this is a nation of refugees. And also there’s of course self-interest because I have a visa as well and I’m living here. People thanked us very often. That was the majority of responses were very positive. “Thank you for being here, thank you for standing up for that.” But also some guy took one of the books we had there, which was called The Morality [00:28:00] of Capitalism, like “Is this for free?” And we said, “Yes.” And he took it and ripped it apart and threw it away.
But that was one guy. Mostly people were reacting very nicely and it works well. But it really depends on the group. This is on the organization level, what groups do individually, it really differs. Some people have a median interest of having concealed carry on campus or something and they’re working more with the right. Just at the University of Maryland, we had several events with hundreds of students, where you have a variety [00:28:30] of groups there. And the coalition is built by our leader, Ethan Pritchard is his name. He’s reaching out to them and he’s saying, we have all of these different groups there, from the left and the right. We want to talk about free speech, you will be missing out when you’re not there. And then they’re showing up to talk about it with one another. Often it’s the very first contact.
Aaron Powell: Libertarianism often, you can say there’s the economic side of it and there’s the social side. The social liberties side of it. Are students, do you notice that students are more-or-less interested in one versus the other? Do they seem to care more [00:29:00] about the social angle and less about the economic or other way around?
Wolf von Laer: So, one thought is that generally, the younger generation is more sociable than the older generation. Not in Libertarian circles, just statistically true for all different circles. We also see that. But I would say that some people are of course interested in one issue over the other. But most of the people still are coming from the economic angle, to the ideas.
And when we recruit people, we really want to make sure that they form an understanding of the ideas. So we test, like “What [00:29:30] is your favorite thinker?” Or “What is the book that influenced you the most?” So that we’re getting at that. And economics is really the most important. I would say it’s the backbone. Also, I studied political economy and I have to defend my dissertation next month. I believe this is really something every student should understand.
But of course, some people are more interested in marriage equality and some people are more on gun rights. But I really want to facilitate and continue to foster an environment where Libertarians from both side, from the left and right, can feel themselves [00:30:00] as part of a community. Because it is perfectly valid to be Libertarian but to hold deeply conservative values. It’s perfectly fine. As long as you don’t want to have the state or the government impose your preference over others. And it’s a very reasonable preference. Not everybody wants to party and smoke pot. I don’t consume drugs. I don’t even drink alcohol all that much and I think it’s totally fine to be that and we want to have a welcoming environment there. We see this quite frequently, people with conservative values also join our leadership.
Caleb Brown: Do we know [00:30:30] much about how young people in the United States, members of Students for Liberty, how they voted in 2016? Of course we had two of the most despised candidates in recent American history, and how they broke down?
Wolf von Laer: I don’t have any firm data on that, but when I talk to our students, it seems that most people were voting for Gary Johnson.
Caleb Brown: Sure.
Wolf von Laer: The Libertarian alternative that they were basically appalled by both alternatives. [00:31:00] Really didn’t see that coming. We are living in a post-election world with Donald Trump in the office. Certainly an interesting challenge, because it’s quite easy for a Libertarian organization and Libertarian students to stand up against Obama and criticize him. And we will continue to do the same thing with Donald Trump in office. We had an event here with 90 people in our office here in Washington during inauguration week. The message that I sent to people that were there is that it really doesn’t depend on the personalities. We have to stand for liberty. [00:31:30] It’s principles over expediency. Hayek taught us that. We really have to adhere to that.
So we still try to reach out to the left and the right and we will say that if Donald Trump is doing something that is beneficial for the economy or something that is very good for liberty, we will say, “Yes, that’s good.” And if he’s wrong on something, then we should criticize him.
Caleb Brown: I raise that specific question because I know several Libertarians that describe themselves as Libertarians who were ardent supporters of Donald Trump. And [00:32:00] I’ve struggled to understand exactly why.
Wolf von Laer: I mean, I talk to many people, and for me as a European it was at first impossible to understand. But now I think I understand it much more. I don’t claim that I have the full picture, first of all. But it seems to me that many people latched on to one specific issue. For instance, the Supreme Court. And then they say, “Okay, Donald Trump would be so much better than Hillary.” So it’s always in comparison to Hillary. And people are very skeptical if she would have done anything good. And people were very afraid of [00:32:30] her being in charge.
They latched on to this one issue and then say, “Yeah, he would be much better on that,” and say, “Trump is my guy.” And then maybe take it too far. That they only look at this one issue, but on embracing all of his policies, that’s what I see very often when I talk to people at least.
Aaron Powell: Trump’s election appears to be a catastrophe in so many ways but it’s nice to try to pry out some silver linings in it. Do you think that there’s a [00:33:00] chance that the left, the young people that were really excited by Obama and a lot of them … there seem to be an inexplicable excitement among many for Hillary that didn’t seem to have anything to do with her at all.
Caleb Brown: Her actual policy descriptions?
Aaron Powell: Yeah. There was some platonic ideal of Hillary that they were fans of instead. But it made it harder sometimes to argue against, you know, the state, [00:33:30] to make our public choice arguments or our moral arguments because there was this exciting, well-spoken, dashing guy in the White House who everyone loved. So do you think that there’s an opportunity with Trump to reach out to, particularly people on the left who might have been opposed to or very skeptical of Libertarianism but suddenly are maybe a little more willing to listen to our arguments about how you shouldn’t invest a ton of power in these [00:34:00] people?
Wolf von Laer: Yeah, that’s certainly the argument that many of our students are making. So I hope that we can reach out more to them, because after the election, the left imploded on campus in general and they couldn’t really deal with the new reality. And we can say, “We told you so,” but I don’t think that that argument alone will be very effective, so we need to show them why the Libertarian body of thought is, in general, much better in order to address some of the issues that they care about. And so Libertarians have become much better and much [00:34:30] more diverse in what they’re talking about. It’s not all about economics, even though I think it’s very important that we understand all of that and that we talk about these thinkers, but it’s also about minority rights and about what is happening to black communities and what their concerns are. And that we are taking these things seriously and that we engage with them and talk about that more.
I see many Libertarian organizations doing this more and more. We also do that, and I think that is the right approach. So I hope that we will be successful at it, but we have to wait some more time in order to see if the left is [00:35:00] coming in huge waves to the Libertarian movement. I certainly would like that.
Aaron Powell: On that diversity, the Libertarian movement has long had a reputation for being a bunch of white dudes. I guess, what do the demographic breakdowns look like for student groups now?
Wolf von Laer: So I’m very happy to report that, at least on the female and male division, we are much better. So very often at our events, we have 40% women there. And I think it’s also because we address many more topics and because we try to really have a community which is [00:35:30] not based on anti-something but pro-something and being more open to discussions about all kinds of different ideas. I think that certainly helps. But I think it’s still mostly white people. And I’ve noticed this, when I came specifically to this country, and I found myself doing a training and there were 250 Libertarians in there and also conservative people. And there were four black people. And only one of them was African-American. The other people were from, one from the Bermudas and the other two from Africa.
I was talking to them for an hour or [00:36:00] so and was trying to figure out why. I realized that I didn’t understand some of the issues that they are facing and what they care about. Similarly, I went to a donor event and there was only one black donor. There aren’t many people on them. I also talked with him for an hour, tried to understand why he thinks that the black community is not hearing this message or is not attracted to this message. And at the end of the conversation, I also asked him, “How many people, how many white people have asked you this question?” And I’m not special in any way [00:36:30] but he said, “You’re the only one.”
We’re talking always about how to get more women in the movement, but apparently this question, we don’t raise enough. So thank you for raising it and how we can change it. So we are right now working on a proposal, which I want to have a staffer just focused on historically black colleges and universities and trying to engage with these communities more and bringing the Libertarian message there and trying to get them more into our leadership. Because it’s just very natural. Even if, let’s say you are a [00:37:00] black person, and you’ve read Mises and Hayek and Rand and you’re super excited about that. And then you see a group of 100 people, only white people, talking about the ideas? Would you go there? You don’t know if you’re allowed in that club, right? And it’s just very natural.
And so we will really try to make an effort in order to bridge that more and try to speak to that community more. But we first have to understand how do they see capitalism? Why do they see it negatively? Why do they believe more in the government if that’s really the place and all of these sorts of things.
Caleb Brown: Have you come to any conclusions about that?
Wolf von Laer: [00:37:30] I mean, I’ve only had a couple of conversations. So I’m still very ignorant and I still have to learn much more. I want to be very clear on that. From what I’ve heard is, a, capitalism is very much connected, as a system, to slavery, that’s part of it. It is also the belief that federalism is very good for black communities because they believe that Jim Crow, the federal government stepped in and did away with Jim Crow. They don’t know that most politicians back in the day were really much against that and that even the president [00:38:00] had close to a nervous breakdown because he didn’t want to pass that law.
And so, it’s basically, the trust in the federal government to step in and to improve the situation, I think that is another piece of the puzzle. They see the states as problems because police is state. But they think that the federal government might be able to help. But capitalism itself is very much connected to colonialism and to slavery. So we have to address that, we have to learn more about that, we have to learn more about the thinker behind these arguments. And then address it head-on [00:38:30] and try to reach out more.
Caleb Brown: But it’s not that uncommon for young people to believe that kicking a debate or kicking a decision-making power from the local level to a higher level of government is going to result in some sort of more responsible decision.
Wolf von Laer: Fortunately, it’s the opposite. So Libertarians really embrace decentralization and more power on the ground. It might be another argument, they see “Oh, if I give more power to the local cops,” or something, it would be even more tyrannical. [00:39:00] But also research from Elinor Ostrom has shown that that’s not very true, because if you have more local police in the community who comes from the community, there’s so much more interactions between them and it’s much more peaceful than if you had the state governing everything and people you don’t know is policing your area and interacting with your crowd in the wrong way.
Aaron Powell: So if I’m one of those people that’s being questioned, you know, what is this Libertarianism thing? Are there arguments [00:39:30] that you see or ways of presenting it that you see young Libertarians, people new to Libertarianism, make that you think are particularly ineffective? That you wish they’d stop? And then ones that you think you wish they’d make more of that sort of either argument or description or libertarianism or just way of presenting it?
Wolf von Laer: It goes back to the whole persuasion thing, and what is the best arguments. And so one part is that you first have to understand what the other party really [00:40:00] cares about. Because if you just come up with your best arguments independent of what the other person cares about, then that will not be very effective. That’s one part. The other part is that I think we have to be careful with moral arguments. I think we both have to make the moral case as well as the utilitarian case, why freedom is important, or freedom of the world index and all that stuff. But with the morality we should be careful, and I think that is the mistake that I have made and I see many young people are doing. They think, “Okay, whatever the government does is evil, therefore if you advocate for policy [00:40:30] X, you are evil.”
And that is a sledgehammer approach where there is no way out for the other party to really engage in the conversation. Where do we go from there? We should make the moral argument and we should point out that the government and all their policies will finally end up in some sort of violence against people. And we should try to make that case, but we should be careful in leading people to that. Because it’s such a radical different view that they have never heard. That one should have a gradual approach, [00:41:00] starting for what the other person cares about first. That would be my general advice.
Caleb Brown: So I shouldn’t just shout, “Taxation is theft!” At people.
Wolf von Laer: Maybe not now.
Caleb Brown: Or just loudly call them a statist.
Wolf von Laer: Yeah.
Aaron Powell: That seems to work okay.
Caleb Brown: You’re thinking, don’t do that?
Wolf von Laer: No, no, maybe not. And that’s also why we try to brand us differently. For instance, we have slogans that says, t-shirts and people love it, it says “Peace Love Liberty.” That’s what it’s about, right? Stop bombing people. It’s about respecting other people. Love them like your [00:41:30] neighbor. Because Libertarianism is the only ideology which really trusts people. Because if you talk to both the left and the right, if it really goes down to something, why they want to impose their world view is because they think that people are stupid. Because they think they cannot govern themselves. We believe that people can actually do that.
And the other slogan is, “Don’t Tread On Anyone.” It’s not only about me, me, me, me, me, it’s not about this isolated individualism but it’s about don’t tread on anyone. It’s also about other people. And that is something that we also have to go against on campus because most people when they hear Libertarianism, [00:42:00] it’s things like, we are just like radical individualists who just want to fight for ourselves and build the empire and screw everyone else. But no. We understand the value of community. We understand that complex social problems have to be addressed by complex institutions which are built of many, many people. We know that we have social needs. As much as we have the need for food, we have the need for acceptance of others. And once you understand that, and learn a little bit of evolution of psychology, [00:42:30] then you know that this is not true for Libertarians and we have to also make the case for that.
Caleb Brown: That seems like it presents a particularly good opportunity for Libertarians in the coming four to eight years where you have a broadly right wing, for lack of a better term, anti-immigrant, anti-trade push, and on the other side, sort of a would-be totalitarian, [00:43:00] anti-speech, anti-fascism is what a lot of these groups call themselves, who seem every bit as scary as the other side.
Wolf von Laer: I think that what we can really do differently is that we should stress more the positive aspects of our ideology. Because we get all teary-eyed if we read I, Pencil. But why? Because we marvel at the market, and that’s the word that Hayek used in his essay, “The Use Of Knowledge in Society.” The price system is a marvel. [00:43:30] If we can get this excitement to other people, like look at a supermarket and think about the thousands and thousands of people behind that, how is it possible that this most boring item, like the tomato soup, is still interesting? I can eat that and I don’t die.
Like how is it even possible? Think about it.
This sort of excitement and the positivity of the ideology. Also talking about not only we have erased poverty, absolute poverty was in 1990 at 37%, [00:44:00] now it is since 2015 less than 10%. Also explaining what this means. Just think about all these data points. All these individuals who used to work themselves to death and only lived until 40 years old.
Now they have a family. They have more options. Whole countries like China and India, suddenly they can get much better education, much better healthcare. Have these countries still problems? Sure. Are we in a perfect society? No. Is the world perfect? No. But look at all of these positive developments and say, [00:44:30] “This is why I believe classical liberalism and Libertarian ideas are so important.”
And excite other people for that. I think that is the message that people should hear more, and that is independent of who is in charge. Because there’s so much negativity out there, the left is hating the right, the country is really divided and we see that in this country and many other countries as well. And if you had a positive message which is more uniting, and not only complaining about all the things that are going wrong, I think that really resonates with people.
Aaron Powell: So this week, as we record this, you guys have got, this weekend, you’ve got a pretty cool event going on here [00:45:00] in DC. You should tell us about that.
Wolf von Laer: Yeah, that is our tenth year anniversary of the International Students for Liberty Conference. So over a thousand people have registered and tons of partner organizations, the Cato Institute is one of our main sponsors of course, coming there, so we expect 1500 people who are celebrating with us, liberty. It’s an event where people talk about all kind of topics, from our foreign policy, about drug reform, to prison reform and all kinds of other things and we have great speakers there. Rand Paul is going to be there. [00:45:30] Steve Forbes is going to be there. Amir Nasir is going to be there, who is a refugee actually, who is in Canada right now, who cannot travel to us because of the travel ban, which is very unfortunate.
He’s going to speak there about his topic, about how liberty can actually help to argue against some radical forms of Islam, which he experienced when he grew up in the country of Sudan. And so there’s a variety of speakers there and also it’s not only for students because last year alone, 50% of the attendees [00:46:00] were non-students. So it’s really a movement event and people interested in the ideas, old and young.
Caleb Brown: There is a conspiracy theory that I’ve heard from multiple sources about Students for Liberty. It goes something like this: you hold your annual international conference around Valentine’s Day. We’re recording this on Valentine’s Day. Also, the birthday of Frederick Douglass. And [00:46:30] the idea is that you’re trying to actively make more Libertarians by holding it this close to Valentine’s Day.
Wolf von Laer: Ah, I see. I guess the people are coming up with the conspiracy theories are smarter than we are. But it’s actually a good idea, that we are going to grow as a movement more just by … Okay, I see where you’re going with that. I don’t think that is really conscious that we made that decision, but it cannot definitely harm. And we know that, for instance, Alexander McCobin found his wife through the organization and we have many of these cases. So there is [00:47:00] love to be found in the ideas. I think it’s wonderful that we recorded on this day because we all have a love for liberty here in this building, especially at the Cato Institute, and we should be more open about that.
Caleb Brown: So we can expect to see a Tinder for Libertarians from you guys?
Wolf von Laer: I don’t know, we do have quite a few entrepreneurs among our ranks. Many people start businesses, so that might be one of the projects that maybe we see coming out of Students for Liberty soon. Which is exciting. And just one more note, so people can go [00:47:30] to www.isflc.org and can check it out and hopefully register. And I would love to see you there. And on the topic of alumni also, it’s very uplifting, because one part of our work is empowering students on campus to learn more and to become better leaders. But all of these people then follow their own career. And that’s really our theory of social change, which is based on Hayek’s Intellectuals in Socialism. Because we do not only need people on The Hill that are affecting change.
Because if the ideas in society didn’t change, then everything [00:48:00] we’ve worked to adjust to the next period. We need journalists. We need people like you here in the think tank world. We need media folks. We need journalists. We have many, many success stories of people who have started businesses. We have over 18 nonprofits right now. In the United States and abroad, who are now working with the Atlas Network and other organizations and affecting change that way as well. And that’s really exciting to see, because it’s not only about the leaders today, but also the leaders of the future, and those we are trying to create.
Caleb Brown: What do Libertarians not study [00:48:30] enough in school?
Wolf von Laer: Libertarians?
Caleb Brown: Yes. What should Libertarians be studying that they typically don’t? Aaron made reference to understanding the arguments of your opponents, but in terms of deeply understanding a body of thought, what should they be studying?
Wolf von Laer: First I heard your question differently, and I thought, “Nobody is studying Libertarianism in school and so they don’t become Libertarians in the first place.” But I would say, and this is close to my heart, it’s probably psychology, and specifically, political [00:49:00] psychology. So I’m a fan of Jonathan Haidt’s work, he’s also going to speak at our conference, actually, and his book The Righteous Mind is a fantastic read. I recommend it to your listeners very much because, and I’m sure he would be mad at me if I summarize it that way but, he basically summarizes how smart human beings can really become very irrational when talking about politics. And this is something very deeply ingrained with us because the ideas that we have, we identify with them. They are part of us. And if someone is arguing [00:49:30] against those ideas, and undermines them, which sometimes happens, it is somewhat a personal attack against us.
That can lead to all kinds of different responses that are inappropriate. That’s one point. And it’s also about emotional intelligence, actually understanding how other people think, trying to be empathetic, trying to really be open about what’s going on. Because we are putting our students in very difficult situations where they’re speaking in front of hundreds of people. This is nerve-wracking. Maybe they think they’re [00:50:00] impostors. I certainly felt that I was very intimidated when I was around all these leaders like Alexander McCobin and others. If we address that more, and if we understand more of this thinking, then we can become more productive ourselves, better leaders ourselves, and can speak more effective to people who are not Libertarians.
Aaron Powell: So you’re in your first six months as CEO of Students for Liberty and I’m sure you have big plans for the organization. So what do you see in the future of Students for Liberty and [00:50:30] the Libertarian student movement more generally?
Wolf von Laer: To answer your first question, first, we are currently working through an extensive process of creating a vision document for the next five years. It has been very productive and we involve volunteers and all kinds of staffers all around the world because we have 41 staff members. And it has been very fruitful. So, three pillars we will focus on as an organization is the community aspect. Reaching out to more people, but also being the kind and reasonable alternative, even though, with radical ideas, alternative on campus.
[00:51:00] The second thing is really improving our training. We have trained just this year, so only in our fiscal year nine months in, over 2,000 people. We want to have more impact, but we also want to really be the go-to Libertarian organization for young people so that they can learn more, become better leaders. So increasing our pipeline. So we now have, for instance, also top hundred retreats, where the top volunteers in a region, for instance Europe or America, then come all together and train one another and get trained from others [00:51:30] for three days in different leadership principles.
And the third thing, which I’m also very excited about, is about incubate. Because many of our students come up with unique projects. We have people for instance in France, Ukraine, and Vienna and some people working also in the United States, who have started a start-up incubator, helping businesses get started, working with big companies together, but also teaching why a free society and a free market is necessary for that. That’s not something we could have come up with, but they were just pursuing that and were very able to pull it off.
[00:52:00] We also had an event where there was a massive concert, it was like 2000 people. It was a festival but they also had speakers like Tom Palmer there. So having part cultural stuff, but also partly Libertarian topics. So really focusing on these students who are doing unique things and helping them, setting them up with a network, giving them specific training. I think that would be also very interesting. And so they also have at some point a top fifty retreat, where they bring all the best leaders, like the people you mentioned, [00:52:30] like Fabio Osterman from Brazil, talking to our American leaders, talking to our European leaders, and then they can really engage in high-level knowledge sharing and really continue to change the world in the future.
That’s one part. And the other part is that we see so many of our alumni now starting businesses and engaging in nonprofits and becoming academics and really continue to ever change for the ideas that we all embrace here in this room. That’s just very wonderful to see. For Libertarianism in general, I mean, I’m very optimistic because [00:53:00] I’m looking at our organization. And I see so many good organizations like the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies doing tremendous work and I think it has a huge effect. Libertarians, as a group, have been growing, and I don’t think that ten years ago you could envision we’d have a conference like this year in DC where 1500 people would show up. So I’m optimistic about that. Will this translate into change in the short term? I don’t know. I’m more skeptical about the short run but very optimistic about in the long run.
Aaron Powell: Thanks for listening. [00:53:30] This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us at www.libertarianism.org.