During the 10th ISFLC, as I was no longer president of SFL, I only delivered one talk on the main stage: to present SFL's Alumnus of the Year Award to Dr. Tom G. Palmer. It may have been short, but I consider it one of the most meaningful speeches I have had the honor of delivering.
Over the years, the Alumnus of the Year Award has been given out to some notable individuals. They have all been an inspiration to young libertarians in some way. But this year’s Alumnus of the Year is someone who has played an important role in the lives of more young libertarians than anyone will ever know.
Students today can communicate with hundreds of activists by sending mass-emails that take ten minutes to write and send. When he was a student, he would take rolls of quarters to the pay phone at the end of his dormitory hallway and monopolize that prized tool for hours on end just to reach a handful of other libertarian students and check in on how they were doing.
This individual is the embodiment of the phrase, “a gentleman and a scholar.” There is no person who carries him or herself with greater poise or generosity. He did not go down the traditional academic route after receiving his DPhil from Oxford in philosophy, but he has written more books and articles than I can count, including editing and contributing to all 5 of SFL’s books from The Morality of Capitalism to Why Liberty. What’s more, he is an activist, putting his own safety on the line for the sake of others, exemplified by his experience smuggling copies of the Declaration of Independence into Russia at the height of the Cold War.
Nine and a half years ago, when we were organizing the first Students For Liberty Conference, he saw the potential in this movement long before we would. When we turned that conference into a nonprofit organization, he helped raise money, secure speakers, and advise us at every step. When SFL went international, he began recruiting new leaders for us in country after country visited. Since then, he has been SFL’s strongest advocate.
There is no greater role model that young libertarians today should strive to emulate.
Ladies and gentlemen, the 2017 Alumnus of the Year, the Atlas Network's George M. Yeager Chair for Advancing Liberty and Executive Vice President for International Programs, Dr. Tom Palmer.
The 10th Annual International Students For Liberty Conference (ISFLC) took place this past weekend, in Washington, DC. The entire weekend, I was filled with a mixture of a joy so strong that it made my eyes mist up, pride at seeing the strength of the student movement for liberty today, and optimism for building a freer future. Only a handful of individuals have been to all 10 ISFLCs. As a former organizer of the event and now participant, I want to document the tribulations, the successes, and the growth of the ISFLC over 10 years.
At the 1st ISFLC in 2008, we organizers woke up at 6:30am to a phone call from a Wake Forest student asking if the conference was canceled because of the blizzard that hit NYC the night before. Four hours and hundreds of phone calls later, every student, sponsor, and speaker new we were going forward no matter what. Students in CA whose flights were canceled, took new flights to DC, a train to New Jersey, then a bus to NYC just to make the event. In the end, 100 attendees made it. After an incredible weekend with students coming up to us to ask, how they could help next year, we announced during the closing remarks that we would turn the conference into a nonprofit organization with year-round resources to support students dedicated to liberty.
The 2nd ISFLC (2009) drew 153 attendees, the growth proving not only that the conference had a future, but the student movement for liberty did as well. This was when SFL introduced the annual Awards, to connect past, present, and future student activism together through the recognition it deserves.
The 3rd ISFLC (2010) barely took place, immediately following Snowpocalypse, which shut down the entire city for a week. Yet, 300 attendees arrived to hear from Gary Johnson (his first ISFLC appearance) and visit the Cato Institute for a speech by its founder and then-president, Ed Crane.
The 4th ISFLC (2011) grew to 500 attendees, and for the first time featured a taping of the STOSSEL Show. This event hit its stride.
The 5th ISFLC (2012) marked a number of firsts: the first 1,000+ attendee ISFLC, the first musical performance (by Remy), the first Alumnus of the Year Award with a Keynote Speech by its recipient, Peter Thiel, and the first time Judd Weiss photographed the event in what is now his iconic black and white perspective. STOSSEL came back and brought with him some non-libertarians to introduce debate to the segment, such as with Ambassador John Bolton, which gave libertarian students the opportunity to question interventionist foreign policy.
The 6th ISFLC (2013) reached 1,400 attendees. The musical tradition was carried on by Dorian Electra, who participated in SFL while a high school student years ago. John Mackey gave a Keynote Speech after receiving the Alumnus of the Year Award. And STOSSEL brought along some new controversial guests, including Ann Coulter. She ignored the books strewn around the hotel titled After the Welfare State to claim that libertarians only cared about marijuana, but the real highlight was when she called libertarians a nasty word on national television (see below).
For many reasons, the 6th ISFLC was the most important ISFLC for me, personally. John Mackey's speech on Conscious Capitalism was one of the first introductions to the philosophy that I now have the honor of working on day in and day out (see www.consciouscapitalism.org). That conference gave me the courage 3 days later to ask one of SFL's alumni out to dinner, the now Mrs. Gabrielle McCobin. And, it was the first and only ISFLC that I had the chance to invite my father to attend. During the opening ceremonies I told the story of the founding of SFL as I always did, at the start of my own journey when my dad gave me a copy of Atlas Shrugged for my birthday in 9th grade. I called attention to him in the audience, thanked him for starting all of this in his own way. The crowed roared with applause. I suspect he was embarrassed. I didn't care then and am grateful now for that. He passed away several months later, and I will always cherish the memory of him at the ISFLC, the chance for me to thank him in front of everyone, and the knowledge he got to see what my work had become.
The 7th ISFLC (2014) faced off against yet another blizzard, which prevented hundreds from attending. In spite of this, the conference still drew over 1,200 attendees and showed off just how international SFL had become. The conference opened with a skit including leaders from SFL in the US, Europe, Brazil, the Spanish-Speaking Americas, and Africa. And Dr. George Ayittey won the Alumnus of the Year Award.
The 8th ISFLC (2015) was a tour de force. It was the largest ISFLC, with over 1,700 attendees. Friday night opened with Edward Snowden livestreaming to speak, followed by a conversation between Ron Paul and Judge Andrew Napolitano, moderated by Nick Gillespie. Saturday was packed with amazing breakout sessions from sunrise to sunset. And Sunday closed with speeches by former Mexican president Vicente Fox and Professor Deidre McCloskey. This time, the blizzard didn't hit until after the conference, which stranded dozens of students in DC for days.
The 9th ISFLC (2016) carried on the momentum of the previous year with a conversation with Pussy Riot's lead singer, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Interviewing her was one of the most challenging things I have ever done. While she seemed excited about speaking to us when we first reached out to her, she showed up in a Bernie Sanders shirt and seemed intent upon emphasizing points of disagreement rather than collaboration. If I could go back, there are many things I would have done differently with that interview (including not showing up in a tie, but rather putting on my "Bernie is my comrade" t-shirt). But after we played her latest video and began to talk about the dangers of totalitarian regimes, the rest of the conversation went well. A surprise appearance by Vermin Supreme was the highlight of social media throughout the weekend. PJ O'Rourke gave his first speech at the ISFLC. Brazil swept the student awards. And both Gary Johnson and Susan Herman (president of the ACLU) closed the conference with inspirational calls to action.
The 10th ISFLC (2017) was the first and only one where I did not serve as organizer. I stepped down as SFL's president this past summer, so got to attend solely as a participant. In that role, I simply enjoyed the event and beamed with pride nonstop over everything:
The ISFLC is more than an event. In a meaningful way, it represents the student movement for liberty and so the liberty movement. It is a gathering place for advocates of liberty of all ages to come together, share their ideas, discuss best practices, and provide one another with hope for the future. Over the past 10 years, the conference and the movement have become something greater than anything we imagined.
I'll close with this: The history of the ISFLC can be told through its weather, with no greater contrast than that between the start of the 1st ISFLC and the end of the 10th. The first year, a horrendous blizzard threatened the very creation of the event. It was as if the universe was conspiring against the student movement for liberty. But we fought back. We said, this event will go on, whatever obstacle is laid before it. At the end of the 10th ISFLC, Washington, DC was aglow with warm sunshine beating down on our faces. It took a long time, but in the end, the ISFLC and the student movement for liberty that grew up with it, seemed to be welcomed in the world.
One day, a young boy, an old man, and a donkey were traveling along the road together. The young boy rode the donkey while the old man walked beside him, and as they passed through a village, they heard people talking amongst each other, “Oh how terrible that the young boy is making that old man walk while he rides the donkey.” After passing the village and hearing this from so many people, the young boy and the old man decide to switch places. As they walk to the next village, the old man is riding the donkey and the young boy is walking alongside. When they arrive at the next village, they hear the people talking again, “Can you believe that old man is making such a young boy walk while he rides the donkey?” After passing the village and hearing this enough, they decide they will both walk alongside the donkey. They come to another village and hear more chatter, “What fools! Those two have a perfectly good donkey and they are just walking alongside it.” After leaving that village, they decide to both ride the donkey. At the next village, they hear people complaining, “That poor donkey! How can those two force it to carry both their weight?” So, they decide to get off and between the two of them carry the donkey the rest of the way. They come to a river and start to cross a bridge. Before they know it, they lose control, the donkey falls in the water and drowns.
The moral of the story: If you try to please everyone, you will surely lose your ass.
Thank you to Scott for introducing me to this fable from Aesop.
I recently participated in a webinar on how people with different political views could engage in more meaningful dialogue with one another. In today’s highly polarized climate, it seems like this is a worthwhile topic of exploration. However, no sooner had the basic rules for discourse been laid down than disagreement exploded. In response to the claim that we should “Hold ourselves and each other in the highest regard, respect and compassion”, someone asked, “How do you respect people who are racists, sexists and bigots?”
The kind of respect that was being requested was one that asked for recognition of the basic dignity of another person, not respect in the sense of admiration of that person. Yet this minimum threshold was too much for one participant. Other participants began to offer justifications for the presumption of respect.
One person responded, “We have labeled the person a racist. He may not think he is. We need to respect his thinking, just as we want to be respected.” This may be true. Miscommunication, misinformation, ignorance, or other factors often lead different people to contradictory conclusions regarding the beliefs or intentions of one another. It could be that the person is not racist at all, but was misheard. It could be that the person misspoke. It could be that the accuser was too loose in the application of these names. It is important to level criticisms for legitimate reasons rather than mere misunderstandings.
But what of people who really do hold deplorable beliefs, such as those who are openly racist and articulate in clear statements their support for the superiority of one group over another based on their race? Do they deserve basic respect from others?
Another person offered that even if someone has deplorable beliefs, you may still be able to learn from them. Again, this may be true. You may not ultimately adopt every view they hold. You may not be persuaded to agree with them on any view that they hold (even if they have sound views on matters beyond those beliefs that are deplorable). You may not even be convinced of the logical validity of how they justify their beliefs. By honestly listening to someone, though, you can come to understand what they believe are appropriate reasons to hold their beliefs, and so learn more about the way another human thinks.
But should your respect for another person depend upon your ability to learn from them or in some other way benefit from them?
All of the reasons offered in this forum for respecting others were conditional. They depended upon a person having some quality or being of some use to deserve respect.
What was missing from this conversation, and what may be missing more broadly in social and political discourse today, was the presumption that we ought to respect other people simply because they are other people. Human dignity is unconditional.
Humanity has made great progress in understanding this. But there is more work to be done. The dignity someone deserves should not be based on:
This does not mean that every person is deserving of admiration or emulation. You can show respect to someone to someone that is morally reprehensible, the antithesis of a role model, someone that you actively work against in terms of public policy or private endeavors. Nor does it mean that every belief ought to be treated with the same level of intellectual seriousness. You can respect someone while saying that they are completely wrong about either empirical or moral beliefs.
All this calls for is to treat every person ought to receive a baseline level of respect from others for no other reason than being a person.
It is a sad state when someone starts with the presumption that others do not deserve respect. It is little better when the justification for extending respect is conditional. Now more than ever, it is important to articulate the concept of universal human dignity and adhere to it by showing respect for all.
My final day as CEO of SFL was on August 31st, 2016. Last night, I took SFL’s DC office out for one last staff dinner at Fogo de Chao, the place where we have traditionally celebrated milestones. During the evening, I shared some thoughts with everyone present that I will share here as well.
Moments like this afford the opportunity for reflection. I often looked back in wonder as SFL grew year over year. Each first was a meaningful milestone for the movement: the first conference, the first time John Stossel filmed a show at the ISFLC, the first international leadership team, the first time SFL leaders had to be evacuated from their country, the first 1,000+ person conference, the first time SFL had leaders on every continent, and the first time SFL alumni impeached a corrupt president. As exciting as it is to look back on all of these firsts, I am far more exciting to look forward to the 10th, 50th, and 100th time they are all accomplished.
Over the years, I have held many roles at SFL: even planner, recruiter, trainer, manager, fundraiser, writer, editor, envelope stuffer, pack mule, financier, heavy lifter, strategic planner, spokesperson, architect, and more. My credit cards have been SFL’s sole access to capital. My dorm room and apartments have been SFL’s office and storage facility. My suitcase was our FedEx account.
From all that, there are too many stories I am leaving with to recount here; the first ISFLC where we fended off a snowstorm and my credit card companies shut down my accounts because of unusual spending activity; sleeping on floors, couches, or a shared bed if I was lucky; fending off attacks from CPAC, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, critical news outlets, and the Ron Paul Institute; stuffing more envelopes, taking more Chinatown bus rides, making more phone calls, debating more issues than I can remember; and surviving risky situations from questioning the Venezuelan military in a Caracas polling station to making it through the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria unscathed.
I can sum up my feelings about the past decade as: Much has been sacrificed. More has been gained. I am leaving with incredible relationships, the love of my life as my wife, great friends, fond memories of those we lost too soon, old colleagues to reminisce with, and future partners to keep up the cause. I learned a great deal, principles like “never assume” and “always ask,” how to do things like build an international structure that balances centralization and decentralization, and how now to do many more things with the long list of failures that paved the way for SFL today. What may be least tangible, but incredibly important, is that I am taking away an optimism for the future that contrasts starkly with the pessimism I felt early in college.
This is not good-bye. As I have said many times before, leaving staff does not mean leaving SFL. My role is changing, as it always has, much like how SFL is changing and always has. But I will still be here to support each of you however I can and to support the student movement for liberty as best I can.
Stay big tent. Maintain high standards. Keep learning, changing, and growing. Build relationships. Always remember the purpose to all this: a freer future.
Thank you, everyone, for what you have done, are doing, and will do. The future of SFL is in your hands, which means the future of the liberty movement is in your hands.
This is a place to share my passion for liberty, thoughts on leadership, and other musings.