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Liberty: Ambiguous; Passion: Unmistakable

On a cold February weekend, over 1,500 young people traveled to Washington from colleges and universities across the world for the 6th annual International Students for Liberty Conference, by far the largest gathering of libertarian-leaning youths on this year’s calendar. Representing 50 states, dozens of foreign nations, and an infinite series of points on the political spectrum, the students were drawn together like filings to a magnet by an ambiguous term: “Liberty.”

What exactly is liberty? If you’re over a certain age, it’s easy to dismiss the term as one of many patriotic trappings trotted out around the Fourth of July. “Liberty,” like fireworks and quotations from Jefferson, is heard everywhere for a day or two, and then quickly slips from the lexicon until the next celebration of America, or visit to a certain corroded copper giant in New York Harbor.

Yet for people born after 1980 or thereabout–the “millenials,” if you must use that overplayed buzzword–“liberty” is a political mindset, a personal outlook, and a way of life, all rolled into one, with more than a dash of disregard for convention and a throwback to the age of rugged individualism. And sometimes it even contradicts itself.

Consider the political diversity of the breakout sessions that occurred at the conference during one timeslot on Saturday afternoon. In one session, policy wonks listened intently as an economist from the Cato Institute discussed global trends toward economic freedom. At the same time, a few conference rooms over, a panel tackled the War on Drugs–about as popular a conflict for these attendees as the Vietnam War was at Woodstock. Upstairs, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan made the case for the Republican Party (again, far from a beloved organization) as the vessel of liberty-oriented politics, while an event with John Stossel that evening would feature Gary Johnson, standard-bearer of the Libertarian Party in 2012.

From conservatism to anarcho-capitalism, marijuana legalization to financial deregulation, gun rights to gay rights, and foreign policy to feminism, the students and their interests ran the gamut. Yet “liberty” remained the common rallying cry, allowing the attendees to look past their differences, at least for the time being.

Despite the ambiguity in ideology, one thing was unmistakable: these kids care. Not in the way that the quintessential college protester “cares” once a year, when an organizer hands him a sign and asks him to skip class and chant outside the state capitol. Not in the way that a “liberated” freshmen calls her friends to action by tweeting about injustice and wearing a cute T-shirt calling for an end to genocide. Not even in the sense that campaign volunteers–the door-knockers and phone-callers–care about a candidate or cause.

These students have profound concerns, however varied they may be, about the state of our country, and have put months or even years into their studies of economic and social thought. And if you give them a half-hour, they’ll happily lay out their prescription for restoring liberty–there’s that word again–with conviction, and will cite Hayek, Friedman, Rand,  Burke, and dozens of others as they see fit. They’ll preach to you. They may even make you feel uneducated. But they’ll leave no doubt in you’re mind that they’re engaged.

The Students for Liberty conferees represent some of the most dedicated and active agents of change of their generation. They’re certainly not Democrats, and they’re not Republicans either–although some will tell you they’d like to reform that party, while others would rather blow up the two party system altogether. And they’re not going away–in 6 years, the ISFLC has gone from a cozy gathering of 100 to a convention rivaling CPAC in size, scope, and perhaps one day, in influence.

Is this passionate activism a good thing? Of course it is–regardless of how you feel about the politics of “liberty.” According to the stages of a nation’s decline made famous by the Scottish thinker Alexander Taylor, complacency among the citizenry is the turning point–the moment abundance becomes taken for granted and the will to fight is lost, the slide toward apathy, dependency, and bondage begins. Despite our electorate increasingly favoring candidates who support a large welfare state (disturbingly including a large amount of young people), these kids sent a message that their generation will not be the one that becomes complacent and content with the status quo.

So what is liberty? For the young and political, it’s an umbrella term for individual empowerment and free markets, but beyond that, it’s whatever these students make of it. And it’s a goal–one for which they are well prepared to fight.

Interested in getting young people involved in the political discussion? Join us today at 12PM ET for a tweet-up with Charlie Kirk, a 19-year-old social media wunderkind. Use the hashtag #WDWTU.

Kevin Palmer

Staff writer at Franklin Center. Contact me at kevin@watchdogwire.com

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