Libertarians vs. Progressives: The New Campus Divide

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on November 30, 2014.

Libertines versus puritans.  Frat boys versus scolds.  Players versus pausers.  There is some age-old division among people who treat rules merely as reference points as they proceed to break them, and people who are eager to create a world in which others must follow a strict code of rules.  Rule-breakers versus rule-makers.  Of course, it is not quite so simple.  Often the would-be rule-breakers lead rather conventional lives; and often the would-be rule-makers singularly fail to live up to their own strictures.  Hypocrisy thrives on both sides of the equation.

This division is as alive today as it ever was and one place to find it is the contemporary college campus. In one of its most striking forms, it is visible as the stand-off between students caught up in the campus “hook-up culture” and the feminist crusaders against campus “rape culture.” Both phrases misappropriate the world “culture” for something that transpires only on the margins of society, but the mislabeling serves a purpose.  It suggests that students recognize that their individual acts are part of a larger social scene. 

The party of rule-breakers, of course, have their own rules.  For example, when my colleagues and I were studying Bowdoin College, we came across a play, Speak About It, performed during student orientation, in which the novice students were urged to explore to the maximum the sexual opportunities the college makes available.  The basic theme was that hooking up is great fun and that all the strictures on sexual behavior the students may have grown up with were now abrogated.  But with this sexual license came some meta-rules.  The play concludes:

Whatever you decide you want your relationship with sex to be about there are opportunities out there. Whether you want to have sex or you don’t, you’re looking for love or a one-night stand, you’re gay or straight or somewhere in between, it’s all possible. And whatever happens remember to be safe, get consent, and watch out for your friends.

The party of scolding rule keepers, likewise, have their own exemptions and get-out-of-jail-free cards.  In March 2014, for example, University of California-Santa Barbara women’s studies professor Mireille Miller-Young achieved some notoriety by stealing a sign from a group of pro-life demonstrators and then assaulting the 16-year old student who demanded her sign back.  The altercation was caught on video, which led to charges of “criminal battery” against the professor.  But Miller-Young’s explanations of her action, included in the university police department’s official report, capture the rules-are-for-other-people spirit of the thing.  She explained, “I’m stronger [than the girl holding the poster] so I was able to take the poster.”  The report continues, “Miller-Young went on to say that because the poster was upsetting to her and other students, she felt that the [right to life] activists did not have the right to be there.”  She also held that she was setting “a good example for her students,” that she had a “moral right” to act as she did, and that she was a “conscientious objector.”  

So self-styled rule-breakers such as the “opportunities-are-out-there” Bowdoin students have their own rules for the right way to live free of society’s strictures; and the self-styled rule-makers such as Professor Miller-Young express contempt for the rule of law.  The moment you try to pin down these divisions into simple and neat categories is the moment you will lose sight of its fluidity.  But let me give it an anthropological try.

American college students these days seem to divide by moral temperament into two very different cohorts.  On one hand, a large number of students prize the freedom to do and say what they want and deeply dislike the constraints of external authority.  On the other hand, a large number of students prize social control as an instrument of justice and are deeply committed to a regime of close regulation of their fellow students’ behavior.  While there are, of course, students who fall into neither camp, they are relatively few and not very conspicuous.  The outliers include adherents to traditionalist religious groups, self-professed conservative students, and students single-mindedly focused on career preparation. 

Of the two large and conspicuous cohorts, one may be thought of as “libertarian” and the other “progressive,” but these labels are only approximations and in some respects inaccurate.  They suggest more in the way of ideological clarity than either cohort really possesses.  The libertarian side includes a large contingent of young people who aren’t so much checked in to libertarian ideology as they are checked out of larger social and political issues.  And the new generation of campus progressives are more radically anti-freedom than their predecessors and a lot more willing to forego the search for knowledge for the excitements of immediate power.

To say that these cohorts are in stark opposition is also misleading.  They do diverge, but they are rooted in the same soil.  On matters such as the legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage, acceptance of sexual minority lifestyles, and—more abstractly—personal autonomy, they are almost indistinguishable.  And this makes it difficult for observers to see the real differences between the two cohorts.   

A Libertarian Moment?

It has been widely reported that American college students are more libertarian than ever before.  The observation is supported to some degree by polls.  For example, libertarian heartthrob Ron Paul dominated the youth vote, winning 31 percent in the South Carolina primaries in 2012; 48 percent in Iowa; and 46 percent in New Hampshire

The gold standard of student attitudinal surveys, UCLA’s HERI (Higher Education Research Institute) annual survey has yet to recognize that “liberal” and “conservative” fail to exhaust the range of possibilities.  But HERI does ask questions that might be good proxies of libertarian attitudes.   A 2009 HERI survey of college seniors found that attitudes towards legalization of marijuana had shifted from freshman year to graduation:  32.3 percent of students at college entry favored it, versus 53.4 percent at the end of senior year. Likewise, 59.3 percent of students at college entry favored same-sex marriage, versus 63.8 percent at the end of the senior year.

But let me immediately add the caveat that favoring legalization of marijuana and establishment of same-sex marriage don’t by themselves define libertarianism on campus. They merely suggest the power of libertarian arguments to sway opinion. 

For context, a Public Religion Research Institute poll in 2013 reported that 7 percent of Americans overall are “consistent” libertarians, but another 15 percent “lean libertarian.”  In August of this year, the New York Times Magazine ran a long essay by Robert Draper asking, “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?”  Draper offered no hard data but noted that “libertarian-ish” Rand Paul had come out ahead of “all other potential Republican candidates” in a recent survey of millennial voters.

The polls are suggestive but it seems no one has tackled systematically the question of just how many college students fit into the libertarian-leaning category.  Depending on the diagnostic question (marijuana?  same-sex marriage?), the percentage might be 70 to 80 percent of college students.  But “leaning” doesn’t mean “all in.”  The hard core of the libertarian movement on campus is probably better captured by the students who join libertarian organizations.  The two main ones are Students for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty, which grew out of Students for Ron Paul.  Both are growing rapidly.  Young Americans for Liberty boasted in February, “Since our founding just five years ago, our network has ballooned to include more than 500 chapters; 7,000 dues-paying members; and 162,000 activists.” Students for Liberty, by contrast, explains that it “does not utilize a strict membership model,” but operates as something “more akin to a coalition.”  This network includes a variety of clubs under rubrics ranging from “Austrian economics reading groups” to “small ‘l’ libertarian associations.” 

It is easy to see why, when it comes to gauging the scale of libertarian attachment among college students, it is hard to come up with solid numbers.  That said, the phenomenon itself is plain.  Step onto almost any college campus and start striking up conversations, and you will soon find yourself among people whose views are strongly flavored with “small ‘l’ libertarian” views and some who are full-on supporters of the movement. 

Blue Jays

Most seem to be drawn to the lamp of freedom to make their own lifestyle choices unhindered by laws meant to restrict the options.  That seems to be what “libertarian-ish” and “small ‘l’ libertarian” mean.  These are students who have a strong sense of personal autonomy, but not necessarily an ardent admiration for the magic of free markets; or a swelling interest in the ideas of John Locke, a burgeoning enthusiasm for the views of Murray Rothbard or Ayn Rand, or a keen appreciation for the anarchist gurus of the Occupy movement.  The large “L” Libertarians are there too, and are to be seen staging colorful events such as YAL-oween at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the “graveyard of civil rights” at Elizabethtown College and numerous other colleges.

The small “l” libertarians, however, are larger in number and more indicative of the spirit of the times.  These folks are “libertarian” today in the way that blue jays are bossy. They simply want what they want. Relatively few are prepared to offer a cogent explanation of their views, and fewer still can summon meaningful arguments against contrary positions. Those are indications, of course, of how liberal education has been hollowed out in the colleges.  Students pick up the campus zeitgeist easily enough; attitudes and values come across; but the kinds of reading and instruction that would equip students to make meaningful sense of the larger debates about civic order in our self-governing republic have become rare.  If students want that kind of education, they can seek it out in specialized courses, but the average student never encounters it at all.   

The rise of this blue jay libertarianism cross-cuts and contradicts several other trends.  Our colleges more than ever preach the importance of “critical thinking.”  But the blue jays aren’t really interested in pecking out hidden assumptions or weighing alternative views.  They are comfortable with their certainties.  A student at Williams College recently told me that in the college debate league, everything is open for debate except legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage.  Those subjects aren’t debatable because “those matters are settled.” 

Where else have we heard that?  “Settled science” is, of course, one of the rhetorical sledgehammers wielded by those who argue that man-made global warming is upon us and that the time for debate is over.  In his last State of the Union address, President Obama added his own authoritative judgment, “The debate is settled.  Climate change is a fact.”   No matter the details, we need to move at once to remedy the problem.  The declaration that some issue is “settled” is always intended to foreclose further discussion.  Of course, if an issue were truly “settled,” no one would need to declare it so.  We don’t have public figures announcing that the speed of light in a vacuum is “settled” science or that the freezing point of water is settled.  That’s because they truly are settled. 

We now seem to be hearing that more matters of social policy as well as science are settled, not in the sense that we have arrived at answers that convince all reasonable people, but in the sense of something like, ‘We will make life difficult for you if you express disagreement.’

Such threats are sometimes explicit but often merely implied, and they succeed to a surprising degree to enforce conformity of opinion.  But they reveal a fracture in the small “l” libertarian view of things.  How can those who elevate the principles of volition and personal autonomy as the highest good of the social order make peace with a regime based on exclusion of dissent and stigmatization of dissenters?

One possible answer is that the blue jays are less “libertarian” than they have been given credit for.  Mark Bauerlein in his post mid-term elections essay, “Are Democrats Losing the Youth Vote?” offers such an assessment.  Observing the erosion of support for Democrats among voters under age 30, he notes that young people are “just as liberal as ever on social issues,” such as same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana, and “more likely than older generations to say they support activist government,” but that they have adopted “a laissez-faire posture in moral and private matters,” that Bauerlein calls “a soft libertarianism that makes individual preference king.”  This attitude “blunts lasting commitments to any political organization” and breeds “mistrust of institutions of any kind.”  He sees in this “a new kind of constituency, fluctuating and unpredictable,” socially liberal but subject to gusts of enthusiasm for other ideas and the candidates who embody those ideas.   

The blue jays in this view are more like leaves in the wind than principled supporters of anything in particular. What’s “settled” at one moment might be unsettled the next.  Bauerlein’s strongest points are his emphasis on the elevation of “individual preference” and the broad mistrust of institutions.  These look like some form of libertarianism, except that they veer away from ideas about individual rights, including the rights of ownership, and they fail to touch the ideals of “spontaneous order” that are central to the libertarian vision.  “Preference” is to “right” as sand is to bedrock:  not a very good foundation.  And “mistrust” is to “spontaneous order” as dissolving is to crystallization:  not much of a positive outcome.   

Progressive Hostility to Individual Rights

Blue jay libertarianism would appear to be at odds with the attitude of the other great cohort of students today:  the “progressive” students who favor harsh impositions on speech and behavior to achieve greater “social justice.”  The spirit of the censor has been welcomed back to campus.  It has three distinct manifestations:  the impulse to keep representatives of disfavored views off campus; the readiness to label some speech as so intrinsically dangerous that it should be accompanied with “trigger warnings”; and the determination to create a version of lynch law for students accused of sexual assault. 

When Scripps College in California disinvited George Will in early October for writing a column in which he criticized the new procedures that gut “due process” protections for the accused, it brought all three into alignment, a perfect syzygy of political correctness.  Will was disinvited; his views were stigmatized as making students feel “unsafe;” and the new regime of expansive definitions of sexual assault was vindicated. 

Considered in light of incidents like the Scripps disinvitation, the contemporary college campus looks like a pancake swimming in the syrup of politicized sensitivity.  Intellectual exchange and intelligible debate are flattened and then drenched in self-congratulatory rhetoric about the need to suppress hate speech, protecting the “victims,” and all the while advancing “critical thinking.” The censors are primed to jump on anything that suggests deviation from the approved positions on race, sexual preference, and feminist doctrine.  Identitarianism rides roughshod over all other concerns, intellectual and moral. 

This side of the picture of campus life today is too well publicized to need much elaboration.  We can pick the incident of the week to capture it.  Recently it was a group of students at Dartmouth assaulting Texas governor Rick Perry with scabrous questions focused on anal sex.  The political point was to dramatize the students’ disagreement with Perry’s views on homosexuality.  The tactic was to destroy the “decorum” of the occasion.  At least that’s what one of the perpetrators, Emily Sellers, explained in her article in the Dartmouth student newspaper.  What’s most striking about Ms. Sellers’ defense is the utter absence of contrition and her explicit rejection of “decorum” as an ideal.  She and her fellow activists set out to destroy the possibility of civil exchange, and having more or less succeeded, retired to bask in their victory. 

It is an attitude that seems to be part and parcel of the new progressivism.  When one of the student divestment activists who led the takeover of Swarthmore’s board of trustees meeting was (mildly) chastised by the college president, she replied in a headline (without the asterisks) “F*** Your Constructive Dialogue.” Offenders against the rules of civilized discourse on campus are generally proud of their offenses, which they conceive of as hammer strikes against patriarchy, heteronormativity, petrol-capitalism, or whatever.

Non-aggression Pact

The differences between the libertarians and the progressives on free speech are stark and look made to order for conflict.  The libertarians on campus treat individual rights as the bedrock of liberty.  The progressives are at war with individual rights as an obstacle to achieving their version of social justice.  This applies to dozens of progressive causes.  Due process and the presumption of innocence for men accused of an ever-expanding definition of “sexual assault”?—gone.  Individual property rights for those who might decide to use their land or their possessions in a way that impedes the sustainability agenda?—doubtful.  The free expression of religious beliefs if these views derogate homosexuality or sex outside marriage?—banished.  The free expression of ideas that cut against progressive views?—obsolete.

All these instances would seem to provide a clarion call for the libertarians to turn out in defense of individual rights.  But the silence is deafening.  Where are the libertarians?  Decorating Ron Paul pumpkins for Halloween.  And where are the libertarian-ish blue jays?  Apparently too busy with the party scene to notice that some of them are being set up to appear before the campus Title IX tribunal for sexual assault. 

There is a very large gap between the energy and commitment of the libertarian just-relax cohort and the progressive social justice cohort.  The latter are marching around campus carrying mattresses on their backs to protest “rapes.” The rapes may or may not be instances of coercion, since the favored definition has been expanded by the protesters to include sexual encounters in which both parties eagerly proceeded but in which the woman failed to provide “affirmative consent,” in the form of explicit, positive, unambiguous words.  As Jed Rubenfeld put in his New York Times article, “Mishandling Rape”: 

Under this definition, a person who voluntarily gets undressed, gets into bed and has sex with someone, without clearly communicating either yes or no, can later say — correctly — that he or she was raped. This is not a law school hypothetical. The unambiguous consent standard requires this conclusion.

One might think the libertarian-ish cohort would be appalled by this rejection of personal responsibility for their voluntary actions on the part of the women who freely participate in these sexual encounters.  Perhaps many of the libertarian cohort are appalled.  But they aren’t saying much.  The evaporation of due process and the presumption of innocence are disappearing on campus with very little pushback from non-progressive students.  The libertarian-light brigade aren’t carrying mattresses, but their alternative amounts to lying on them in the privacy of their dorms dreaming this will all go away. 

A friend suggested to me that the ennui of the libertarian students might reflect their sense that the college would side with the progressives anyway, so why bother?  But that seems less an explanation than a description of how deep their apathy goes.  Faced with the growing power of moral scolds, outraged defenders of psychological “safety,” avengers of heterosexual male lust, and histrionic dramatizers of identity-group grievance, the great cohort of student libertarians can barely rouse themselves to answer any of this.  The burden of work is carried by outside organizations such as Reason and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. 

My own political views are better classified as conservative than libertarian, but I have sympathies with libertarians who take a principled stand against the race-class-gender ideologues who now dominate the positions of power on most campuses.  But why has the movement proven to be so toothless in confrontation with those who are determined to supplant individual liberties with an authoritarian regime based on group identity? 

One possibility is that knowledge of civil rights has fallen to the point that many libertarian-ish students simply don’t understand that their “rights” extend beyond the realm of what they might want to ingest and whom they want to have sex with.  The right to confront your accuser; the right to see the evidence against you; the right to legal representation; and the right to a fair trial might warrant a place in the list of individual rights students should care about.

At a deeper level, students ought to demand an education that is as free as possible from political and ideological impositions.  At public universities, this might be phrased as a “right,” but at all colleges and universities it is the foundation of genuine liberal education.  And because it is centered on the ideal of the individual mind in pursuit of truth through critical examination of competing views, it is an understanding of higher education that should have profound appeal to both libertarians and the libertarian-ish fringe. 

The passivity of this cohort when faced with a hard core challenge by those intent on replacing liberal education with illiberal social control is, in that sense, a troubling mystery.  One way to resolve it is to conclude that the “libertarian moment” in higher education is mostly an illusion. Is it possible that the small “l” libertarians are themselves not really libertarian at all?  Could they be simply the crowd that follows where the progressives lead?

I’d like to think that there is more heft to the libertarian moment than that, and it simply hasn’t yet found its leaders or its voice.  The history of confrontations between the party of liberty and the party of social control, however, is marked with many occasions where the champions of liberty came to the field with too little too late. Cromwell wins. The maypole of Merrymount is razed.  Prohibition wins.  Eventually people tire of Puritanical control and restore some ordered liberty.  But the wait is long and very unpleasant. 


Image: "Protest Against DSK at the Cambridge Union Society" by Devon Buchanan // CC BY-SA

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