The Big Tent for Liberty
2016 ISFLC Opening Speech
February 26, 2016
By Alexander McCobin
Each year, I think the International Students For Liberty Conference can’t get better, and somehow it does. I hope you’re excited because this is going to be an amazing weekend. We have political commentator George Will, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova from Pussy Riot, political satirist PJ O’Rourke, the man, the legend, the stache, John Stossel, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, Susan Herman, Grover Norquist from Americans for Tax Reform, Jeffrey Tucker from the Foundation for Economic Education, Tom Palmer from the Atlas Network, and more leaders in the cause of liberty than I can list here! One thing you might notice: Students For Liberty is not a traditional right or left wing organization. Nor are we an insular organization that preaches to the choir. We are here to build the liberty coalition, that brings the left and the right together on the moderate and reasonable principles of liberty that we can all agree upon. We may disagree on some issues. That’s okay. Because we can and will work together on those issues where we align, and as a libertarian organization, will bring diverse groups together to advance the cause of human freedom in our lifetime!
You’ll also have the chance to attend workshops led by some of the top liberty organizers from around the world on topics like communication, event organizing, and building a community for liberty. And, of course, throughout this weekend, you will get to meet some of the best people out there who share your passion for liberty.
There is a lot going on this weekend. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and I encourage you to get the most you can from it. But this weekend is not an end. It is a beginning. It is an opportunity for everyone to draw as much energy, ideas, and inspiration as possible to go out afterward and do all that you can to advance the cause of liberty after this conference is over.
These are trying times for liberty. Never before in Students For Liberty’s history have we seen such fierce opposition to our ideas.
In the United States, the vocal criticism of fundamental principles like freedom of speech on campuses, and support for socialist candidates on both sides of the aisle are ill omens.
Abroad, actual and aspirational dictatorships are entrenching their power utilizing censorship, political arrests, and modern technology to clamp down on any opposition to their regimes, while both state and non-state sponsored violence is on the rise.
In times like these, it is all too easy for the liberty movement to dissipate. The warning I gave years ago seems to be even more pertinent today: Success is not inevitable. No organization or movement is a given. The ultimate victory of liberty in the world will require vision, action, flexibility, and patience. And it will require the right people who are willing to commit live up to those virtues.
Times like these require a movement to reflect upon what it stands for. That which is extraneous has the potential to divide and undermine our work. That which is essential provides the motivation, inspiration, and perspiration to keep fighting in the face of such great opposition.
Students For Liberty was founded by a Republican, a Democrat, and an Objectivist. In our first year after graduating, one went to work at the Cato Institute, one dedicated her time to City Year, an Americorps Program, and one went to work for a Republican Senator on the Hill. While we all pursued graduate school later on, one went into philosophy, another into public policy, and the other into law. One grew up with family lessons that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was too moderate. Another clerked this past year for the recently departed Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
As different as SFL’s leaders were from the beginning, there was one essential passion that we shared: liberty.
Liberty in the sense of freedom for all people in all areas of their lives: Freedom to think, to use one’s mental capacities without intimidation or encroachment. Freedom to be who you are without reprisal. And freedom to act so that each person is able to carry out their plans and strive to turn their dreams into reality. These are the principles of intellectual, social, and economic freedom that Students For Liberty has stood for since our founding.
We may not share the same justification for why these principles matter. We may find ourselves on different sides over what policies best represent these principles. And we may employ divergent strategies. This leaves a great deal of room for debate. We have had many debates within the organization over the years. Early on there was the question of whether we should collaborate with religious organizations. Then there was the question of whether we should attempt to become an international organization. There have been debates over standards for leadership recruitment. And there have been countless projects that did not get off the ground or were killed after spirited discussions about their efficacy.
Students For Liberty did not grow in spite of these debates over the years. We grew because we used those debates to strengthen our vision and actions, remain flexible in our approach, and patiently work through problems and opportunities as they arose. By engaging these debates with a fundamental presumption of respect for one another and focusing on action and results rather than empty rhetoric or grandstanding, we have been able to accomplish more than we could have as a small, homogenous group.
The first SFL conference was organized by 5 students from 5 schools for 100 attendees. Today, SFL has over 1,400 trained volunteer leaders in over 100 countries. I’d like to ask everyone who either is or has been a volunteer SFL leader to please stand up in the room. [APPLAUSE.] You are the people working on the ground to introduce liberty to more young people, organize events, and start new groups. I cannot thank you enough for all that you do day in and day out. But if we are successful, the fruit of freedom that we reap in the future will be the greatest fulfillment.
There is no guarantee that the cause of liberty will succeed. It is up to each of us here to ensure that it does.
SFL is here to do our part in helping you out. Students For Liberty’s mission is to educate, develop, and empower the next generation of leaders of liberty. If you’re one of them, we are here to help you. You can visit the SFL booth outside or check out the opportunities on our website at www.studentsforliberty.org to learn about the online and in person courses we have available for leadership training. Or, if you think you’re ready to take the next step, you can apply for our Campus Coordinator Program in the US or one of our Local Coordinator Programs abroad. These are year-long volunteer leadership programs that are not to be taken lightly. But if you think you’re ready to make the commitment and if you think you have what it takes to accept responsibility for the student movement for liberty on your shoulders, talk to SFL leaders this weekend about it.
Of course, if you have an idea for how to advance liberty, let us know what it is. Students For Liberty is a platform for our students and alumni to do great things yourself. SFL won’t do the work for you, but it can be a springboard for you to do great things for liberty.
This is a place to share my passion for liberty, thoughts on leadership, and other musings.