Stan Alcorn

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On a hot Saturday afternoon three weeks into summer vacation at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, more than 70 students and a smattering of professionals filed into a physics lecture hall to begin a week of academic lectures, discussion groups, and nightly open bars. The occasion was an exploration of “Journalism and the Free Society,” one of 13 free seminars this summer to be put on by the Institute for Humane Studies, a libertarian nonprofit organization. Participants had come from as far as Mongolia and as nearby as Philadelphia, all looking for a chance to socialize with other young journalists and develop their journalistic skills.

The reasons the IHS bankrolls free seminars and spends upwards of $400,000 on student scholarships and fellowships are more complicated (full disclosure: I’m receiving one such fellowship). “There is no IHS party line,” Seminar Director Kevin Williamson told the quiet lecture hall. “We’re not here to convert you to any way of thinking.” He then distributed a survey to determine our level of agreement with a variety of statements: “The best way to increase economic growth and create jobs is to cut taxes.” “Wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes than they do now.” “Private property should be protected and respected as much as possible.” At the closing session the same survey would be distributed, measuring whether the attendees had embraced the libertarian agenda of small government and free markets.

Many progressives I know often associate the “L” word less with liberty than with the political right. Following the money reinforces this impression: the IHS draws funding from sources such as the Scaife Foundations, known for their support of right-wing causes, and conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation. But it would be an oversimplification to agree with essayist Bob Black that “a libertarian is just a Republican who takes drugs.” The thesis of Black’s article “The Libertarian as Conservative” may have rung true when it was penned in the middle of the Reagan presidency, but the “small-‘l’ libertarians” (in contrast to the political party) I met at the IHS conference were typically anti-war, pro-choice, and pro-gay-rights. As has been argued in Campus Progress before, progressives may be replacing social conservatives as libertarians’ strange bedfellows.

According to IHS’s Marketing Director, Keri Anderson, the group sought “to bring in open-minded students who want to engage in these [libertarian] ideas–whether or not they agree with them.” As seminar attendees shook each other’s hands, memorized each other’s nametags, and asked the requisite questions–“Where are you from?” and “Where are you working this summer?”–the consequences of such a mixed coalition took form. Politics aside, everyone would leave with a new network.

Each seminar day started with an increasingly sparsely attended 8 a.m. breakfast. By 9, it would be time for the first of four daily lectures, typically that of economist and former AEI Research Fellow Mario Villarreal. His lectures introduced basic ideas of opportunity cost and using statistics in news pieces, albeit with an emphasis on “free market” solutions.

The majority of the 20 presentations were given by working journalists, several of whom made no mention of “personal liberty” or the “free market” at all: The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Dan Biddle told stories of corrupt judges from his years in investigative journalism; Carolyn Lochhead conducted a lively question and answer session on her rise from covering ladies teas in Louisiana to presiding over the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Washington bureau; Reason‘s editor-in-chief, Nick Gillespie, broke us into small groups, asking each to critique the “world” created by a different magazine, from Vanity Fair to Ty Pennington At Home.

Other journalists spoke from more overtly political positions. Dom Giordano’s lecture, delivered in the meandering, interactive style of his talk-radio show, touched on his filling in for Bill O’Reilly, as well as the relative newsworthiness of Paris Hilton getting out of jail and the new immigration bill (on his show, he ultimately came down in favor of the former). Columnist Deroy Murdock was avowedly libertarian, saying of his work: “Much of what I do is making the case for free enterprise, making the case for the free society.”

Murdock’s second lecture expressed the conference’s mix of the professional and the political, covering two topics: “Networking and the Golden Rule” and “Libertarian Citizenship.” Outside of the lectures and discussion groups, the focus was solidly on the former. Whether over soccer and basketball games during the afternoon “free time” or over free Coors Light and popcorn at the nightly “social,” discussions were as likely to center around movies, mutual college friends, or journalism as anything related to the “Free Society.” By the end of the week, cliques had formed and at least one spontaneous late-night dance party had erupted in the dorms.

During the last meal in the Bryn Mawr cafeteria, I compared my experience with IHS to the Campus Progress conference I attended two summers ago. I’d seen memorable speeches but hadn’t met anyone who would, say, engage me in an argument over the merits of legalizing crack cocaine (as one IHS staffer did). Here, I thought as we milled around to each other’s tables to say our goodbyes, was a conference that brought people in contact not only with ideas, but with each other. In this respect, at least, progressives might have something to learn from libertarians.

Stanley Alcorn graduated from Yale University in 2007 and will be spending this summer as an IHS Journalism Intern at the Orange County Register.