Notebook from LibertyCon: Libertarianism shines the light on U.S. divisiveness

Less Marx, More Mises; Steve Forbes on Fake News; Applauding the Government Shutdown

By Dr. Rainer Zitelmann

From a German point of view, all we ever see from the United States are stories about either Donald Trump or his left-leaning, Democratic opponents. But a strong libertarian movement has developed as a third force. One of the groups behind this movement is the Students for Liberty, who held LibertyCon, their annual international conference, on January 17-19 in Washington, D.C. Rainer Zitelmann was one of the speakers – here is his report:

Wolf von Laer, the German CEO of Students for Liberty worldwide, held up a Che Guevara T-shirt: “That’s what students wore when I was studying. It shows a mass murderer.” Students for Liberty wear different T-shirts: “Peace, Love, Liberty” or “Less Marx more Mises.” And they mean liberty for all. Students for Liberty is a forum for a diversity of themes and philosophies that you wouldn’t normally see in Germany: LibertyCon’s sponsors include LGBTQ For Liberty, a group that campaigns for the rights of gays, lesbians, transgender people and other sexual minorities, alongside the conservative Heritage Foundation and the Mises Institute, whose science-based studies prove the superiority of capitalism. Facebook, Google and Microsoft are also sponsors, as is the Atlas Society, which networks various libertarian and conservative initiatives and think tanks.

The awards dinner honored the most impactful and talented students in the liberty movement. These included groups from Africa and Asia who are committed to the struggle for the rights of sexual minorities as well as to capitalism and deregulation. I spoke with a young Canadian who helped organize the conference. He explained to me how absurd it is that people are allowed to smoke cannabis products in Canada, but they are not allowed to sell cannabis tea or cookies, thereby encouraging more people to smoke. He advocates for consumer rights and against over-regulation by the state in the name of “consumer protection.” As a student, he wrote his thesis on the relationship between economic freedom and human rights, proving that human rights are far better off in capitalist countries.

Trump: Libertarians caught between two stools

Trump is a difficult topic for libertarians; whatever they do they attract criticism. At the LibertyCon reception, a young man working in the fundraising arm of the Cato Institute explained to me that Trump highly polarizes donors: “Some criticize us for not being critical enough of Trump, others for criticizing him too much.” It bothers him that Trump is against free trade and wants to dictate to companies where they should invest, although he welcomes the fact that Trump does not care about political correctness. Another employee of a foundation told me he’s 70 percent against Trump and 30 percent for him. As a libertarian, it’s not easy today with such differentiated attitudes. The Trump fans expect 100% support, the Trump critics 100% condemnation.

At dinner, researchers from Harvard University and Georgetown University discussed “The Constitution in the Trump Era.” Question: Does Trump endanger the fundamental freedoms of the American Constitution? Opinions differed. On the one hand, they pointed out that the system of checks and balances still works, on the other hand, they also highlighted threats to the Constitution.

It is probably the fate of libertarians to be caught between all stools. From the point of view of the left, they are too far to the right (and above all too pro-capitalist), from the point of view of the right, they are too far to the left. In their stances on immigration or fighting crime, they often take positions which remind me of the unrealistic ideas of the Greens in Germany. Based on our German understanding of politics, American libertarians advocate positions we would typically associate with left-wingers and the Greens while also supporting positions we would expect from conservatives and right-wingers. No one here at LibertyCon seemed to find this unusual or contradictory.

Socialism on the rise in the USA

Justin Haskel and Donald Kendal from the libertarian-conservative Heartland Institute in Chicago warned against the rise of socialism in the United States in their lecture “Socialism is Evil.” According to surveys, 57 percent of Democrat voters in the United States favor socialist ideas, and socialist ideas are now popular with 50 percent of Americans, especially young Americans, even among the general population. In the past, “socialism” was a “dirty word” in the United States, but this is now quite different – today, for many, it is “capitalism” that is the “dirty word.” The two speakers argued that the endless suffering that socialist systems have caused, the millions of murdered and displaced people, have largely been forgotten today, three decades after the end of communism. In their opinion, the American education system, which has been strategically taken over by the political left, is partly to blame for this undesirable development. In addition, they blamed Hollywood films, which they said regularly portrayed rich capitalists as villains. Haskel and Kendal mocked leftists for claiming that after every failure of a socialist experiment, as recently seen in Venezuela, the world had not yet seen “true” socialism, and that the next time it would work. Leftists haven’t changed their tune for a hundred years now, Haskel commented. However, he continued, the increasing popularity of left-wing socialist ideas has led to a strong counter-movement. For today’s libertarians, “socialism” is still the “dirty word” it used to be for almost all Americans.

Intolerant climate of opinion at U.S. universities

In a country where freedom of speech is prized so highly, this is no longer the case at many American universities. They are home to an intolerant climate of opinion, which we also know from German universities – but in the United States, things have gone much further. A radical “Shut Up!” movement has emerged that fights to ensure that dissenters (i.e. non-leftists) are shut out at universities and are not allowed to give lectures. In opposition to the “Shut Up!” movement, some universities have invited controversial speakers, at which point, left-wing activists have tried to prevent and disrupt such events. Intolerance is reinterpreted as virtue. In addition, professors at U.S. universities are required to issue “trigger warnings” if there is any danger whatsoever that anyone might feel offended by any text (e.g. from classical literature). And the left-wing students are dismissed as “snowflakes” who feel offended by everything that does not correspond to their ideology. Robby Soave of the libertarian think tank Reason gave a lecture on “Campus Panics.” Over several years, he interviewed campus radicals at American universities for his book Panic Attack, which is due to be published in June. The students, who do not tolerate non-left opinions, shout them down and partly suppress them by force, are indeed a minority, but often the university administrations “go along” with them – partly because they are ideologically close to them, partly opportunistically to maintain the “peace.” There are now counter-movements at the universities, partly led by so-called “Trumpies,” partly by libertarian groups. Here, too, Trump has polarized the student population, because quite a few student groups from the Republican camp, who were extremely critical of Trump two years ago, have now become Trumpies. After all: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The good news: Numerous left-wing groups are ideologically at odds with each other and have got caught up in their own dogmatic discussions. And there are even some left-wing professors for whom the extreme intolerance exhibited by left-wing students has gone too far – we in Germany saw the same during the student uprising of 1968.

Steve Forbes on Fake News

The conference’s star guest was the legendary Steve Forbes, the founder of Forbes magazine, which today has a circulation of 900,000. He ran in the 1996 and 2000 Republican presidential primaries and advocated a flat tax. According to 2017 estimates, he is worth $430 million.

Forbes spoke about “Fake News and What to do About it.” He put forward an interesting, optimistic thesis: The general population should not be underestimated. He referred to the theory of “secret seduction,” which was popular in advertising circles in the 1950s. At that time, a book by Vance Packard, a consumer champion, had caused a sensation because it exposed the subtle seductions used by advertisers. Nevertheless, the fears raised by the book turned out to be false because people had become increasingly critical of advertising. From this, Forbes drew an analogy to newspapers and news broadcasts: If the supposed “gatekeepers” of traditional media no longer fulfilled their function, and this is often the case, then people would become increasingly critical. And, according to Forbes, this is a good thing. When it came to taking Forbes magazine online, he adopted a different approach: Today, alongside permanent staff writers, Forbes has 2,800 freelancers making regular contributions. Of course, some of the articles published by Forbes, and the authors who write them, do not always satisfy strict journalistic standards, but the same is true of traditional media. But today, in the Internet age, such problematic articles are frequently exposed in a matter of seconds by their readers. On the other hand, online media benefits from being open to contributions from freelance journalists and of using the expertise of thousands of people who have a great deal to contribute to news and opinion-forming. Steve Forbes wondered why most other traditional media failed to grasp this and left these enormous potentials untapped.

Universal Basic Income?

Libertarians are not a uniform movement with a uniform philosophy. Many issues are extremely controversial, such as the demand for a universal basic income (UBI). Andrew Yang, a successful entrepreneur whose parents come from Taiwan and who wants to run for the Democrats as a presidential candidate in 2020, strongly advocated a universal basic income of $1,000 per month – with the familiar arguments: Technological advances are destroying more and more jobs and it would make greater sense for the government to guarantee an unconditional basic income with very little red tape than to stick with the complex raft of current social benefits, which are associated with a bloated and costly bureaucracy. His ideal would be to abolish income tax and replace it entirely with a new sales tax. The libertarian economist Jeffrey Miron of Harvard vehemently disagreed: Ever since the machine breakers, people have been afraid that new technology would destroy jobs, and yet every major disruption has led to new and different jobs being created. Miron argued that with every major technological leap, people believed that jobs would be lost, and every time they turned out to be wrong. The costs associated with a universal basic income are also astronomically high, he calculated. Moreover, he argued, it is a naive illusion to believe that universal basic income could replace existing social benefits. On the contrary, he asserted, it is more likely that massive additional costs would arise, thereby making the United State’s current social system financially unviable. The same is true of sales tax, which Yang proposed as a means of financing UBI: In reality, Miron claimed, sales tax would probably not replace income tax, but be added to it.

How can Americans heal their divisions?

American society today is more divided than ever before. Intolerance toward people with different opinions has reached alarming proportions. This is true of both sides –Trump proponents and Trump critics. This was the starting point for Arthur C. Brooks’ talk. He is one of the best-known libertarians in the United States. This social scientist, musician and New York Times columnist is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Against the current societal background, he said, the most important task of libertarians today is to stand up for respect for those who think differently. He observed that people who disagree are not the true enemy. Not even those who favor socialism. People have forgotten, he said, that a pluralistic, free society needs people who think quite differently: everyone has a right to express their opinion. Today in America, tolerance and respect for those who think differently are unfortunately often seen as signs of weakness and social media contributes to this. Brooks believes that libertarians have a duty to take a stand.

Republican Congressman Justin Amash, a representative from Michigan, was also among the speakers. He is one of the best-known and most dedicated libertarians in Congress. His conclusion: Most Americans today don’t like Democrats or Republicans, which makes this is a historic opportunity for libertarians. On this point, it is important to distinguish between the Libertarian Party and the cross-party libertarian movement that is now supported by numerous think tanks and initiatives.

Applause for the government shutdown

Whenever Amash and the other speakers mentioned the government shutdown that is currently dominating political debate in the United States, the audience applauded. The shutdown, which has partially closed the federal government, is fascinating for some libertarians. Amash was critical of the audience’s applause and said that voters and unpaid government employees would certainly not appreciate such a celebratory attitude. Amash is a popular figurehead and opposes libertarian fundamentalism. Self-irony is a good remedy for this – and the comedian Lou Perez had the audience laughing when he said: We Libertarians can be sure that we will always be seriously unhappy every four years when a new president is elected. Whether we get a Bush, Obama, Trump or anyone else, we will always be unhappy.

Rainer Zitelmann holds doctorates in History and Sociology. He is the author of 21 books, which have enjoyed particular success in Asia. His recently published The Wealth Elite is a study of collective behavioral patterns resulting in the economic success of Ultra-High-Net-Worth Individuals. It is the first book that aims to fill academic research gaps on wealth creation, applying rigorous academic research methodology to behavioral patterns that result in economic success.

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