Despite the big snow storm that hit Washington, D.C., last Thursday, the annual 2014 Students for Liberty Conference went on as scheduled at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington. It was an awesome experience. I don’t know what the official attendance was but it seemed to be to be in the neighborhood of some 1,400 people, most of whom were libertarian students. Libertarian electricity was in the air and there were also lots of libertarian adults there getting their batteries charged up.
The Future of Freedom Foundation sponsored what we called a “conference within a conference,” which consisted of seven presentations on “Civil Liberties and the National Security State.” It turned out to be one of the best programs we have ever had in our 25-year history.
Why did we focus on that theme? We figured that most of the other presentations at the conference would focus on economic issues or social issues (e.g., the drug war). After all, I think it’s safe to say that most libertarians are initially drawn into libertarianism because of economic issues. The welfare state and regulated society have been an absolute economic disaster for people, especially for the poor. A genuine free-market way of life is the key to rising standards of living and economic prosperity, especially for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
As most FFF supporters know, ever since our inception and especially since 9/11, FFF has taken a leading role in the libertarian movement in the defense of civil liberties and in opposition to militarism, empire, and the national security state. The fact is that the warfare state constitutes the gravest threat to the freedom and well-being of the American people. Yes, I know, U.S. officials and U.S. warfare statists portray the warfare state as being the great friend and protector of the American people. But that’s only because they need to do that to ensure that people continue supporting this monstrous, cancerous growth on the body politic, a growth that is even more deadly than the welfare state and regulated economy.
For the last two years we have conducted a panel at the Students for Liberty conference on the critical importance of civil liberties to a free society. In the past, we have had a conservative join us on the panel. That was Bruce Fein, who served in the Justice Department under Ronald Reagan.
This year, we decided to spice things up at the SFL conference by expanding the number of presentations and employing liberals (or progressives) as part of our program. The result was about half our speakers were libertarians and about half were progressives.
Why do we do that rather than simply use only libertarian speakers? Because it’s informative and also intellectually enjoyable to see how pro-civil liberties conservatives and progressives present their defense of civil liberties as ardently as libertarians do.
The fact is that people on the left and even on the right (Fein is a good example) are oftentimes better exponents of civil liberties than libertarians are. We aren’t so much concerned about their overall philosophical perspective or views on economics (which normally favor welfare-state socialism) because that’s not what they’re talking about during their presentations. They’re talking about civil liberties and the national security state.
That was why we brought a combination of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to our 2007 and 2008 conferences on civil liberties and the Constitution in Reston, Virginia. (The videos of those conferences are all worth watching.) And it’s why we had two college civil liberties tours featuring liberal Glenn Greenwald, conservative Bruce Fein, and libertarian me, along with conservative-libertarian Jack Hunter serving as moderator.
All of our speakers did at the SFL conference an absolutely stunning job in making the case for why civil liberties are so critically important to a free society and explaining how the national security state infringes on those freedoms. I cannot begin to tell you how great all these presentations were.
The breakout sessions began with Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who is ranked among the top 500 lawyers in America. He gave a brilliant and really entertaining talk. He was followed by Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent and author of the new, widely acclaimed book The Brothers. Another fantastic talk! That was followed by Sheldon and me, who delivered a Libertarian Angle (our Internet show) live to the audience. That was fun! In the afternoon, Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer for the ACLU who litigated the first successful challenge to the Patriot Act, gave an awesomely informative talk about the war on terrorism. Then came libertarian Robert Higgs, who delivered his customary no-holds-barred libertarian critique of the warfare state. The breakout sessions concluded with great presentations by John Glaser and John Horton, two libertarians who have achieved tremendous success in advancing libertarian foreign policy views through radio and print media.
The big show was our panel in the main ballroom. The panel consisted of Academy Award winning director Oliver Stone, who directed such films as JFK, The Doors, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, Natural Born Killers, and many more; Peter Kuznick, professor of history at American University and Oliver Stone’s collaborator on the great series they did for Showtime called “Untold History,” which is now available for viewing on the Internet; and Jeremy Scahill, whose fantastic film “Dirty Wars” has been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. Moderating the panel was Shelby Coffey, the vice-chairman of the Newseum in D.C., who previously served as an executive producer at ABC News.
The program began with a 10-minute film clip from Chapter 10 of “Untold History,” which focused on the origins of the national-security state and the consequences of America’s having embraced the warfare-state way of life. And then came the discussion and a fascinating critique of the war on terrorism and U.S. foreign policy under Bush and Obama and their severe infringements on civil liberties.
What made the discussion so interesting is that it was coming from three people who are on the left. I am sure that there were many wide-eyed libertarian students who were listening to a withering critique of President Obama’s infringements on civil liberties and to a severe critique of the national security state. The panel was interrupted by audience applause several times.
Most of what the panelists were saying was precisely what libertarians say about civil liberties, foreign policy, and the national security state. But liberals oftentimes bring a different slant on these particular issues, which we wanted to expose the students to.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t a bit of controversy. Confirming my belief that students are among the most dangerous creatures that God has ever put on this earth, in the Q&A session three students from Latin America challenged Stone on his support of Latin American socialist dictators. They presented him with a long, eloquent, respectful letter pointing out the deep economic suffering brought on by socialism and the horrific human rights abuses brought on by Latin American dictators, including democratically elected ones. The students also directed a question to him along these lines.
You’ll get to see Stone’s answer when we post the videos of all the talks on FFF’s website, which should be within the next two weeks. A major supporter of FFF put it best, “FFF hit a home run with this panel and it was also good to see Oliver Stone being put on the defensive by those students.”
Thanks to the Students for Liberty for another great conference and for letting The Future of Freedom Foundation participate in it. And thanks for all the great supporters of The Future of Freedom Foundation, including the Smith Family Foundation whose generous grant made our “conference within conference” possible.