Why Ann Coulter doesn’t understand libertarianism

Alexander McCobin President, Students For Liberty
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It seems Ann Coulter is upset that students laughed and booed at her remarks during the 2013 International SFL Conference. She is now trying to deflect the libertarian critique of her social conservatism by claiming we were acting purely upon “groupthink.” Unfortunately for Ann, her latest message reveals her misunderstanding of libertarianism almost as much as her comments during our conference revealed her misunderstanding of the basic principles of justice and reasonable discourse.

I can think of no more thoughtful and debate-prone group than the young libertarians in Students For Liberty. If Coulter had taken the time to attend one of the 92 diverse sessions we ran at the conference, she might have heard students debating the relationship between libertarianism and abolitionism, the proper limits of open immigration, standards for intervention in foreign affairs, and much more. If she had looked at Students For Liberty’s table when walking out, she would have seen one of the 175,000 copies of our latest book, After the Welfare State, that we have distributed for free to students around the world to educate them on the dangers of bloated entitlement societies.

Indeed, SFL debates are typically far more substantive than the performances Coulter puts on for the cameras. But here’s the thing: the debates and the divergence in approaches to libertarianism taken by SFL’ers make us stronger in our defense of liberty because we actually learn the nuances of the principles of freedom. What’s more, they make us stronger in opposition to the positions advocated by Coulter that drew libertarian critique (e.g., her opposition to gay marriage and marijuana legalization), which we know are wrong from our study of these issues. We know what’s up for debate, and so we also know what’s not. The justifications for and limits on intellectual property? Up for debate. Racism? Not up for debate. Deciding which government agencies should be abolished, privatized, reformed, or maintained? Up for debate. State-sponsored discrimination against individuals based on their sexuality? Not up for debate. Austrian versus Chicago economics and their responses to Keynesianism? Up for debate. Ann’s claim that liberals are out to destroy the family? That’s so clearly absurd that it’s in stand-up comedy territory.

In an ideal academic world, there are no costs associated with ideas because there’s infinite time: all ideas are up for debate. In the real world, some ideas must be cast aside so we can deal with more pressing matters. And those who get such basic positions wrong are rightly questioned on other opinions that they hold. Ann: Your government-imposed social conservatism is a threat to economic freedom because when you say such obviously wrong things about social policy (in both factual and moral terms), people have good reason to question what you say about economic policy. (What’s more, while you seem to know the names of some famous libertarians, you don’t seem to know what policies they actually support, like Richard Epstein’s position on the Civil Rights Act.)

We young libertarians recognize the connection between social and economic freedom and won’t stand down on either. If Coulter actually cared most about resolving our economic woes, she would offer to make concessions on social issues in exchange for wins on economic issues. Ann: If you care so much about our national debt, why not push for a deal with Democrats on DOMA in exchange for a balanced budget? You and other conservatives would get the economic reforms you claim you want. Liberals would get the social reforms they say they want. And we libertarians would support both sides so all Americans would get a more limited government that respects individual liberty and has a more sustainable economic future. Seems like a win, win, win to me.

Coulter’s comments aren’t substantive analysis as much as they are an attempt to downplay the significance of young people’s shifting beliefs. It reminds me of the joke my college buddies used to rib me with: “Organized libertarians? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” The answer: No. The left and right have encouraged the stereotype that libertarians are so individualist they can’t work with anyone else. But libertarianism is not about isolating individuals from one another. It is about the removal of force from society. Voluntary association is the hallmark of libertarianism, one of the greatest products we have offered to the world throughout history. And we are not only saying that, we are showing that’s the case by becoming more organized, by voluntarily associating with one another to work toward our common end of freedom in a more effective manner than ever before.

Ann: No one orchestrated our response to you at the ISFLC. Our 1,400+ young libertarians independently came to the conclusion that you were wrong on those points and were willing to let you know (in a respectful manner). This is the broader trend of the student movement for liberty. Today’s libertarian students are academically minded, but pragmatically oriented. We are willing to debate the nuances of theory and policy, but rally together in opposition to that which is clearly unjust. We can collaborate with conservatives and still not disparage our liberal allies as though left-wing statism is somehow worse than right-wing statism. We are humble enough to take a long-term approach to our theory of social change, but confident enough to stand up to bullies that try to “put libertarians in their place” as they have done for generations. I don’t expect you and others to understand this for a long time. Your worldview doesn’t allow for it. But if you don’t try to understand us, you are going to be very surprised by what happens in the next 20 years. Feel free to join us at the 7th International SFL Conference in Washington, D.C., from February 14-16, 2014. You should participate in the rest of the conference this time. We’d be happy to help you understand.

Alexander McCobin is the co-founder and president of Students For Liberty.