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A Virgin Libertarian’s SFL-Immersion Experience

By: Contributor - Oct 15, 2014, 11:47 am
Tom Palmer of the Atlas Network signs copies of After the Welfare State for student attendees. (EsLibertad Facebook)
Tom Palmer of the Atlas Network signs copies of After the Welfare State for student attendees. (EsLibertad Facebook)

EspañolI don’t know much about libertarianism. I assume that comes as a surprise, given that I am a full-time employee of the PanAm Post, but my interest in the job is more journalistic than political.

That being said, I am fascinated by all types of political thought, and I have become increasingly interested in libertarianism over my past two months on staff.

When the opportunity came to attend the 2014 Students for Liberty (SFL) Latin America Conference in Guatemala City, I didn’t hesitate. I figured the three-day event, hosted by Francisco Marroquín University, would be the ideal crash-course in all things libertarian.

It wasn’t exactly what I expected.

As a non-libertarian, and inherent contrarian, I was hoping to write something critical about the conference itself — the moral shortcomings of the lectures or the logistical mismanagement of the event’s organizers. But the conference actually went well, especially given the fact that it was organized by college students. SFL for Latin America (EsLibertad) is only three years old, and this is only the second year the event has been held.

Apparently last year’s conference didn’t go so smoothly, as Humberto Rontondo has acknowledged. The SFL coordinator for Peru and member of the SFL Latin America executive board says they “made a lot of mistakes, and were not as successful” as they wanted to be.

But they managed to turn things around. The 2013 conference topped out at “around 100 attendees,” but this year’s drew over 600.

As well organized as the conference was, though, it wasn’t without its faults: the majority of the presentations were dry, and it was hard to keep one’s enthusiasm up, even for the most ardent liberty lovers.

After the first few speakers, I realized I had come to the wrong place in my search for rudimentary libertarian enlightenment. This was graduate-level stuff, not the introductory course I was looking for.

But I figured there must be something for the freedom novice, so I stepped outside the lecture halls and into the hallways. It was here on the sidelines where I found what I was looking for, including two days traveling with coordinators and libertarian academics.

A quick Google search would have saved me a lot of time. As far as I can tell, libertarians just want for people to be left alone, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else. They abide by two basic principles: non-aggression and individual responsibility.

But libertarianism is not as interesting as the libertarians themselves.

Felipe Munizaga, a professor of political science at the University of Chile and a conference speaker, comes from a family that was active in socialist politics. He puts it this way: “A libertarian is someone that lives by one primary rule: the rule of non-aggression. This means that an individual cannot impose [his] will on others in matters that only affect the individual.”

As far as individualism is concerned, Munizaga says nothing else exists: “The masses, the collective, are all fiction. The individual is the only thing that is real. The nation, society, the development of the state are all creations that prevent the individual from living his own life.”

Humberto, like a surprisingly large number of people I spoke with, once considered himself socialist, but a course in Austrian economics set him on his current trajectory. He offered what was undoubtedly my favorite explanation of the entire conference:

“Conservatives want to tell you whom to marry, but will let you spend as much money as you want on the wedding ring. [Progressives] will let you marry whomever you want, but will only allow you to spend so much on the ring. Libertarians don’t care whom you marry, and don’t care how much you spend.”

Milica Pandzic, an SFL executive board member and regional director of Panama, is of Croation descent. Her grandparents fled when communism took root after World War II.

When I asked Pandzic to give me her best pitch for libertarianism, she quoted Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset: “Libertarianism is the most noble political system, because it allows you to coexist with your enemy.” In her own words: “It allows all of us to live in peace, even though we think and act in very different ways.”

What I found most fascinating about all the discussions I had was how apolitical libertarians sound when they are explaining their views. They seem far less interested in politics than in the philosophy of living life.

I closed out my interviews with 23-year-old college student and SFL Guatemala coordinator Elfego Solares. He moved to Guatemala from California by himself when he was 14, to improve his Spanish and be closer to his grandparents. And what does he want to be when he “grows up”?

“I want to be happy … And happiness for me means doing what I want, when I want to do it, and with whomever I want to do it with.”

Fergus Hodgson edited this article.