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.