To those of you who don’t know, Alexander McCobin is the current executive director of Students for Liberty internationally, and was one of the organization’s two original founding students. In only a few years, Alexander, along with many other determined students, have made Students for Liberty what it is today, an indispensable fixture within the student liberty movement. In addition to being a true driving force within the student liberty movement, Alexander is also a graduate student at Georgetown University pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy.
This Q&A will be the first installment of the Student Profile series which I wish to continue throughout the year, highlighting individual students experience, achievements and insights into the student liberty movement.
Alexander’s answers appear in full and unedited.
- What is your idea of a “free society?”
On one level, that’s an easy question as an ideal free society would be one where no individual or entity initiates force against another. But on another level, that question is one of the most difficult concepts to fully explicate, and is one of the questions I am spending my time as a graduate student working on. But an important point to any legitimate notion of freedom should be that it applies to all people and all realms of their lives, including social freedoms to choose how to live one’s life and economic freedom to choose how to provide for one’s life. But these are not separate concepts. They are the same thing. The division of the concept of liberty has been one of the most powerful intellectual moves in the attack on freedom.
- How did you first get exposed to the ideas of liberty?
While I believed in liberty throughout my life, I didn’t recognize the formal principles until my birthday in 9th grade when my father gave me a copy of Atlas Shrugged. It took me a whole month over the summer to read, but once I finished, I said, “this is what I have always thought.”
- If you were first of a different political alignment, were you won over quickly once you were exposed to the ideas of liberty? And what arguments did you find most compelling?
Atlas Shrugged put into words and clarified everything I had always thought.
- What intellectual figures were most influential to your views on liberty?
Ayn Rand really was the major intellectual figure that guided my intellectual development throughout high school with some inklings of Locke, Bastiat, Nozick, and Machan in there. I first learned about Austrian Economics in the summer after my sophomore year of college (2006) during an IHS Summer Seminar. I actually had no idea that people could come to the ideas of liberty via any author other than Rand up to that point. Once I started to learn more about the discipline, though, it started to have a profound impact on my intellectual development, and F.A. Hayek in particular has become a pivotal influence on my life ever since that summer. For me, philosophy is the underpinning to any importantly defensible position on social structures or guides to action (admitting to my bias, I am a graduate student in philosophy). Philosophy is the origin of any defense of liberty as intrinsically valuable. Economics and political science are addenda and deepen the types of arguments available for liberty, but the root justification of liberty is in its intrinsic value and the grounding role it plays in human interaction, which means a complete defense of liberty must begin with philosophy.
- What is Students for Liberty? How did it begin?
For me, it all started when I began my undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania. When I set foot on campus in the fall of 2004, I expected to engage the marketplace of ideas with a diversity of views, lively discussion and debate, and almost assuredly other individuals who believed as I did in both social and economic freedom. However, for the first two years on campus, I didn’t meet anyone of the sort, not a professor, not a student, no one. I began to go through serious intellectual doubt about my beliefs: if I couldn’t find one other person on this campus of brilliant minds that agreed with me on my views, I must be absolutely crazy to have them! I honestly nearly gave up and took up socialism just because I figured it would be insane for me to be the only person who believed in liberty. All that changed, though, when I attended an Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) Summer Seminar in 2006. That was the first time I met other libertarians and saw in person that students and even professors believed in these ideas. That seminar gave me the energy to go back on campus and start the University of Pennsylvania Libertarian Association. Upon founding the organization, students started coming out of the woodwork. On a campus where I had never engaged another libertarian in 2 years, I was suddenly meeting dozens of libertarians. All it took was an organization on campus to serve as a rallying point. However, starting and growing the group was very difficult. There was no national organization with a handbook on how to start a student group for liberty. There were no books available for our reading group. There was no speakers network to find people to invite to campus. We had to make it all up as we went along, and so, we of course struggled as a result. This was my beginning.
SFL, the organization that it is now, began almost 3 years ago, during the 2007 IHS Koch Summer Fellowship. I was interning at the Reason Foundation and spent the whole summer surrounded by 70 other incredible libertarian students, many of whom ran their own student groups for liberty. Seeing this as an unparalleled opportunity to actually talk about student organizing and learn from other student leaders who cared about liberty, I put together a roundtable discussion where fellows could talk about best practices, common problems, and abysmal mistakes we had made in our organizations to create a dialog on student leadership for liberty. Approximately 12 students showed up and it was a tremendous success. So much so that at the end of the roundtable I asked the group: “What do you think about making this a little bigger, say 30 students over a weekend?” There was a general consensus that such a project would be valuable, but little enthusiasm amongst the attendees for taking on such a project… except for Sloane Frost, who came up to me afterward and said: “Let’s do it”.
From there, we went ahead and began planning what we were then calling the Northeast Students For Liberty Conference, a weekend event in New York City that we only expected to draw approximately 30 students from around the Northeast region. Initially it was just Sloane and myself, but we soon brought on two other Koch Summer Fellows and added a fifth member to the Executive Board thanks to Facebook (we didn’t meet Ricky Tracy in person until the day before the conference, actually). Dr. Alan Charles Kors was one of my professors at Penn, so we invited him to be a Keynote Speaker and he generously agreed. Somehow (to this day I still don’t know how we pulled it off), we managed to confirm David Boaz from Cato early on as a Keynote as well. With those two names confirmed, a rough strategic plan, and the initial make-up of the Executive Board, we went ahead and started making Facebook posts and telling organizations about our intention. Amongst the nonprofit world, we received tremendous support for the concept, but also critical skepticism at the feasibility of drawing 30 students to the event. However, we soon started to get emails from students in Michigan, California, Ukraine, who all wanted to attend the conference. And as applications began to pour in, we realized that this event was going to be much larger than we had initially anticipated. So we dropped the Northeast part of the name and began planning for 100 students. When we realized we actually were going to have to turn some students away because we couldn’t get enough space at Columbia University for more than 100 students, we knew something was going on. We were filling a demand no one else was even touching on: supporting students on campus in their effort to organize for and promote liberty. So, 2 months before the conference was to begin, I made a bold suggestion on our weekly conference call (the 5 members of the Exec Board would talk by phone for approximately 3 hours each Sunday to plan the conference): that we take the idea of this one time conference and turn it into a nonprofit organization with year-round resources for students. We spent a long time debating the merits and our ability to implement such a bold idea, and ultimately decided that given the incredible interest in the conference, the dedication of the attendees to making it, and the importance of building a student movement for liberty on campuses, we had to do it. So, on Sunday, February 24, 2008, during the closing ceremonies of the first SFL Conference, we announced that we would be forming an organization: Students For Liberty. Since then, we have been constantly expanding and serving newly identified needs of students dedicated to liberty.
- What made you decide to start it up?
At all phases during the founding period (the roundtable discussion, the Northeast Conference, the larger conference, the organization), our motivation was to provide a forum for students to come together and advance their efforts to promote liberty. We wanted students to empower themselves to make a difference on their campuses, to not only look for an outside organization or older individuals to give them a hand, but to have students realize that we are able to make a meaningful difference and that we have the tools to create a successful movement already. It was that desire to see students teach one another (and in so doing teach themselves) how to be effective leaders of liberty that drove us at all times.
- Starting out, what were your expectations for the group?
Our expectations were extremely low. In fact, we didn’t really have any expectations when starting up. At each stage of the founding, we just tackled the most obvious need. When I put together that first roundtable discussion, I thought that would be it. When we started planning the 30-student conference for the Northeast, we thought that would be it. When we realized the conference was going to have to be a little larger than 30 students, we thought that was exciting, but it wouldn’t do much more. Once we realized that we needed to start an organization with year-round resources for students, we should have realized just how big this would become, and we may have had grandiose dreams, but they were just dreams that we didn’t really take to be something we could bring about in any near future. We’ve always just tried to tackle one problem at a time, provide one service being demanded by students, which has led to another obvious demand to meet, followed by another, and as we have successfully taken on these individual problems, our hopes and expectations have grown with the organization.
- Are there any interesting stories related to its founding, or early years?
The first day of that first conference is something I will always remember. All the members of the Exec Board arrived in New York City the night before to finish preparations for the conference, and we went to sleep on the floor/couches of our Columbia member’s common room looking for a good night’s sleep before the chaos of the conference began. We were woken up at 6am, though, by one student from the South calling to ask: “Is the conference canceled?” We looked out the window and realized that a blizzard had hit NYC while we were asleep and the city was a mess. We had put too much effort into preparing that conference to just cancel it, though, so we immediately began to call every single attendee and nonprofit representative to let them know the conference was still going to be held and encourage them to come. It was a very stressful and frantic start to the first day because we not only had the added work of contacting everyone to overcome that snowstorm, but we had to carry boxes, flyers, coffee, and all kinds of other materials through 2 feet of snow to set everything up. Our side of the story is just background, though. The incredible part is how students reacted to the snowstorm. While we were most worried about students canceling, students were most worried about finding ways to attend the conference by any means possible. Students from California had their flights to NYC canceled, so instead flew to DC, took a train to New Jersey, then a bus to NYC. Students from Michigan drove 18 hours straight through the blizzard to make it on time. Only a handful of students canceled, but almost everyone, both students and speakers, were able to make it on time out of sheer will and perseverance in the cause of liberty. Seeing the dedication of those students overcome any obstacle in their way to take part in the first SFL Conference inspired us in a way that I can’t describe. The perseverance of those students cleared away any doubt there may have been about turning the conference into an organization: these students were willing to take on a blizzard to be part of this event. There needed to be more opportunities and more support for these amazing students than a onetime event.
- What sets Students for Liberty apart from other student liberty minded organizations?
Before Students For Liberty, there was no other national pro-liberty student organization. There were great organizations that educated students about liberty and introduced them to the wider liberty community, but there were no resources for pro-liberty students to learn how to start a student group or effectively promote liberty on campus. Since the first SFL Conference in 2008, there has been a dramatic rise in interest in student outreach for the cause of liberty, with many new organizations and projects directed at supporting pro-liberty students. There are too many of them out there to contrast SFL with each of them, and I think that every organization and project directed at supporting pro-liberty students is a good one. The more support we can give students, the better, and a diversity of organizations working in that effort is only beneficial to the cause of liberty. What defines SFL are two principal things, though: first, SFL is focused on a broad-based strategy of educating students about the ideas of liberty and developing leaders of liberty at all levels in all fields. We do not exclusively care about getting students involved with politics, academia, public policy, business or anything else. Nor do we care about names or specific ideologies. We work with and support student groups ranging from Students For Liberty to College Libertarians to Young Americans for Liberty to Campus Objectivists to Economics Clubs to single issue groups. We want to work with and educate students across the political landscape about liberty and help develop leaders of liberty in all areas. However a student wants to promote liberty, we want to empower them to do so. Second, SFL is entirely student-run. From our founding, we wanted SFL to be an organization run by students and for students. Once someone has been out of school for 10 or 20 years, it’s difficult to relate to the student experience and provide the most appropriate resources as a result. To ensure we are meeting the needs of students, we want to make sure we are run by active students and recent alumni. What’s more, having students run SFL is an expression of our philosophy of empowering students to be leaders of liberty. We want students to realize that they can do incredible things and make a difference in the world if they just put their mind and energy into it. SFL is an example of just that.
- What direction do you see Students for Liberty going in?
Expansion… in all directions. In particular, this expansion will involve greater training in student leadership and greater on-the-ground support for students. The Campus Coordinator Program is illustrative of both of these priorities. Until now, SFL has focused on supporting students virtually – through phone calls, emails, and our website – relying on conferences for physical interaction. CCs will serve as local leaders of the student movement for liberty to provide the kind of support you can only give on the ground. The reason we’re doing this is to both grow the student movement for liberty around the CCs to reach an unprecedented size, as well as to provide a new layer of leadership training to take the potential of high-quality students and transform it into actuality.
- Why should people care about having a free society?
Freedom is the most fundamental value to existence. All moral and empirical concerns derive from human freedom.
- Do you see the fight for liberty as a fight between left and right? Or is the struggle for liberty something different?
Liberty is not a left or right issue. For that matter, the left-right political spectrum is not an accurate representation of political philosophies. I recommend people check out F.A. Hayek’s “Why I Am Not A Conservative” for what I believe is the best encapsulation of this issue.
- What is your vision for the near and long term future? And what is the best way for young liberty minded students and young people in general to realize that future?
My vision is one that focuses on the long-term. I am incredibly optimistic about the potential for creating a free society in the future, and think we should focus on that. However, I am very pessimistic about the short-term. Things will keep going as they always go in the near future. What we can do, though, is focus on the long-term and create the foundations for a free society to come about in 10, 20, 30 years. We should look to the short term as a preparation phase: time for us to solidify our intellectual views, develop strong individuals to lead the movement, create organizations and strategic alliances that will benefit liberty in the long run. By laying the groundwork and slowly establishing a solid foundation we can stand upon, we can make an impact and create a free society in the long run.
Liberty needs leaders. What we need students and young people to do more than anything else is be willing to stand up for liberty. Don’t limit yourself to reading these works and developing personal theories. Learn how to organize others, persuade individuals to our side, and be an advocate of liberty for the sake of inspiring others. I believe there are two things that change the world: ideas and people. The enemies of liberty don’t have the ideas, but they have strong people on their side. We have the right ideas, but we need many, many more advocates of liberty. Students and young people dedicated to liberty need to be willing to not only talk about liberty, but to take action to see a free society become a reality.
- What do you see as the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of the liberty movement?
Our greatest strengths are our ideas and our students. Clearly I think we have the right ideas, proven by philosophy and illustrated by history. We can never forget that we are in the right and that we are on the side of what is good and just to give us the strength to carry on. And while it may just be my position in SFL or personal bias, I think the youth that are coming up in the cause of liberty are the greatest assets we have. In general, today’s youth are the most pro-liberty generation history has ever seen. And amongst today’s student leaders of liberty, we are seeing an unparalleled level of talent, energy, enthusiasm, and reflective dedication to the cause of liberty. Obviously, I cannot effectively make comparisons to past generations since I did not live through those times. But I would be willing to speculate that we have more high-potential and dedicated leaders coming into their own to defend liberty today than liberty has seen in a long time.
The two biggest weaknesses of the liberty movement, though (and they are big ones), are leadership and vision. When I say we lack leadership, I am not diminishing the importance of the people and organizations currently leading the liberty movement. There are a handful of incredible leaders in the cause of liberty who are running the great organizations and think tanks that we all know and love. But the number of great leaders and great organizations we have defending liberty are far too few. We don’t need one great think tank or a dozen great organizations. We need hundreds, if not thousands of organizations and we need thousands if not hundreds of thousands of strong leaders of liberty to take the helm of those organizations and efforts. Liberty will not be won by a single individual. It is something that will require widespread support and a plethora of defenders to succeed. That is why I talked above about the importance of students learning how to lead. We students are the future. The question is: will we be ready to actually make that future a freer one? The only way that will happen is if we empower ourselves to become leaders to change the world.
The second weakness right now is a lack of vision. I mean many things by this, but will roughly group the issues into three categories: dismissal of basic marketing, problematic alliances, and excessive internal discord. Defenders of freedom can agree upon fundamental principles all they want and say the same phrases and words as one another. But without a vision of how to change society and what that process of change will look like, we’re not going to get anywhere.
Marketing: I have been amazed at what I consider to be a blatant contradiction in those who defend capitalism and marketing in theory, but refuse to employ the basics of marketing 101 in their defense of liberty. We cannot expect everyone to think exactly the same and to think in the purely logical, rational manner that many libertarians describe. Our ideas are right, but it takes more than being right to get people to agree with us. Emotions, demographics, willingness to listen and understand the opposing views, focus on long-term persuasion rather than trouncing someone in a single debate, these are all important facets to persuading people to our ideas that have been diminished by some of our forebears. We need to take seriously not only our ideas, but how our ideas are presented and interpreted. And once we have an understanding of how people perceive us, we need to work on changing that perception if it is negative. The image of libertarians has been severely damaged by the inaccurate stereotype that we are all crazies sitting in basements who would rather espouse logical deductions than engage society in thoughtful discussion and action. That is just one consequence of the irrational expectation that everyone think a particular way. Liberty needs a better, more accurate, and consequently more uplifting presentation than it has been given by some in the past.
Alliances: I recently reread Hayek’s “Why I Am Not A Conservative” and was struck by the opening where he includes this quote from Lord Acton: “At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often different from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has sometimes been disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition.” At one level, it’s refreshing to know that the tribulations we are facing right now in the liberty movement are not new, but at another level, it’s disheartening to think that we have been unable to get liberty to stand on its own. Some people are not friends of liberty, but pro-liberty individuals have considered it advantageous to align with them. Liberty advocates need to rethink that strategy because we have seen the damaging repercussions of such alliances: libertarians being grouped in with racists, homophobes, and a few crazies (not mutually exclusive). In the process of trying to win particular issues, true defenders of liberty have been silent on others, particularly social freedoms. We should not stay silent. We should defend liberty in all its contexts and respects, aligning with others ad hoc, on particular issues where we agree, but not sacrificing our principles in the process, not staying silent on what freedom truly means, even if that requires us going up to those with whom our movement’s forebears chose to align and saying: “we are not of the same kind.”
Internal Discord: There is obvious internal discord within the cause of liberty. To some extent, the movement seems to focus on the divisions within more than our divisions with the true enemies of freedom. It’s easy to understand why the older generations care so much about these rivalries: we have seen much of liberty lost over minute redefinitions and a failure to hold on to protect the original meaning of a name. The loss of the term “liberal” to statists is something that still pains many of us today and is surely in the back of everyone’s mind who likes to impose a litmus test on the name “libertarian”. But that is no reason for us to obsess over the 5% difference between those of us with a fundamental belief in liberty instead of the 95% we have in common. Today’s youth needs to overcome those divisions of the past and create a new, stronger movement that works together. To head off a possible misreading of my point here: I do not mean we should silence dissent. On the contrary, I believe disagreement and debate is a hallmark of our cause and something we should encourage in the right forums. But having those debates and disagreeing on a few applications of principles does not mean we must be enemies and not work together when we are fundamentally of the same ilk.
The cause of liberty needs a strong vision and a common effort to create a society much greater and much freer than any we have ever seen before. All of these weaknesses, though, I think are those of older generations. I have seen so many students and young advocates of liberty agree with me on these weaknesses and I have seen so many working to overcome them that I have high hopes they will become weaknesses of the past. This is not to disparage the incredible things done by those who started and grew the modern libertarian movement for we would not be here if it was not for them. But we will not have a libertarian movement 20 years from now if we do not learn from both what they did right and what they did wrong. As I have said, I am pessimistic about the short-term. I think things are going to get worse before they get better. But I am incredibly optimistic about the long-term. So long as we keep our passion and defend liberty vigorously, but intelligently, I think we will one day see A Free Academy, A Free Society transform from a slogan to a reality.
- Any funny, interesting or important stories from your own personal experience in the liberty movement?
I thought the CPAC incident a few months ago was pretty funny… I mean, the absurdity of it all (particularly the other speaker’s reaction) was just hilarious. I’ll let the video speak for itself.
- Anything else you want readers to know? Any other specific achievements you are proud of?
During my sophomore year, I applied to and was rejected by the Institute for Humane Studies Koch Summer Fellowship Program. During my junior year, I applied to and was rejected by the Cato Institute’s internship program. I ended up being accepted to KSFP and being offered a job at Cato the year following each rejection. Instead of taking these rejections (too) personally, I used them as motivation to better myself and figure out what I really wanted to do. So if you get turned down for an internship somewhere you really wanted, you never know what might happen… maybe they’ll offer you a job the next year.
Questions and Introduction by: Danny