Interview: Alexander McCobin of Students for Liberty

Students for Liberty is one of the fastest growing student political groups in the nation. Alexander McCobin is the group's Executive Director and recently, HeadCount had the opportunity to chat with him about the organization and why social issues relating to personal liberty and smaller government seem to be a growing concern among young people.

Tell us a little about Students for Liberty?

Students For Liberty (SFL) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide a unified, student-driven forum of support for students and student organizations dedicated to liberty.  The origins of SFL can be traced back to the summer of 2007 when I was a Koch Summer Fellow at the Reason Foundation, sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies.  Other Koch Summer Fellows ran pro-liberty student organizations on their campuses, so I organized a roundtable discussion on best practices for student organizations dedicated to liberty.  That roundtable discussion drew a dozen people and was so successful that afterward, several of us decided to expand the concept into a 30 student conference in the Northeast.  When we held the follow-up conference in February 2008, we drew 100 students from 42 schools in 3 countries.  Since then, SFL has grown to 425+ student groups with thousands of members around the world.

Does SFL align with any specific party and do you advocate for any specific policy changes?

SFL is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.  As such, we do not endorse or oppose any political party, politician, or legislation.

Do you think the popularity of the Tea Party has drawn more attention to some libertarian concerns, especially economic freedom?

I think a lot of libertarians would really question whether there has been more attention paid to libertarianism as a philosophy.  The Tea Party movement does seem to have a lot of legitimate motivations: general distrust of government, opposition to big government, concern with excessive government spending, and related issues.  However, because the Tea Party movement is so decentralized and the members of the Tea Party movement are so disparate, it’s obvious that many of its members are not really libertarians.  There are many Tea Partiers who are strong libertarians who oppose government intervention in the economy as well as government intervention in the social lives of individuals.  However, there are also Tea Partiers who oppose government intervention in the economy while encouraging government intervention in social issues.  To the extent that the former group is educating the latter group on the inconsistencies of their beliefs, I wish them the best.  It is not clear whatsoever to me, though, that the Tea Party movement is a victory for libertarianism as a consistent philosophy.

However, I do believe that it’s obvious that success of the Tea Party Movement is due entirely to its libertarian leanings.  The issues upon which the Tea Party has sought to brand itself and upon which it has gained support have been entirely libertarian (in the sense of seeking to limit excessive governmental power).  The fact that there are rifts within the movement is not an indication that the opinions of either faction are decisive influences on the movement itself.  That so many people are being motivated by libertarian intuitions is a positive thing in my mind.  The crucial step is to take them from intuition to principled defense of liberty, opposing big government as a concept rather than just pet economic issues.  If this happens, then libertarianism and justice will be advanced.  If it doesn’t, then the entire Tea Party movement will have been for naught.

SFL seems to be growing very fast. Can you discuss the organization's growth over the last year and why you think interest has increased?

SFL was founded at our first official conference in February 2008 with 100 students from 42 schools in attendance.  Today, we have over 425 pro-liberty student groups in our network with thousands of students actively promoting liberty on their campuses.  Each year since that first conference we have excelled to the point where we look upon the previous year, which was successful for its own time, and think, “that was nothing compared to where we are now.”  It really is amazing to consider how quickly SFL has grown and the significance of our success in such a short amount of time.  What it amounts to is an indication of the interest in and support for libertarianism amongst the young generation today.  Our generation has been incredibly supportive of libertarianism for a long time, but they didn’t have an outlet to express that interest or develop their opinions.  SFL simply provides them with the infrastructure and resources to express their beliefs and take their advocacy to the next level.  It may be that interest in libertarianism has increased over the past few years due to either (a) Ron Paul’s 2008 Presidential run, (b) disillusionment with both Bush and Obama, or (c) a generally increasing libertarian sentiment in young people that is becoming more pronounced as young people get older and so gain more power.  I tend to think it’s a combination of all of them.  Today’s youth are more libertarian than any generation before them, and with such a large amount of our political understanding being shaped by the big government failures of Bush and Obama, we are going to see libertarian ventures gain more popularity, including presidential runs by figures like Ron Paul and the success of organizations like SFL.

Your speech at the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) drew a bit of controversy after you applauded CPAC for inviting GOPride to the conference and stated that "freedom does not come in pieces" - can you explain what you mean by that?

I was invited to speak at the 2010 CPAC on a panel titled “Saving Freedom Across America” to discuss my work as SFL’s president and the success SFL has had over the past year.  During the time I was preparing my remarks, a friend commented on how CPAC had stirred controversy by allowing a gay organization to become a co-sponsor.  While some of CPAC’s traditional supporters like Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University decided to boycott the conference because of this decision, CPAC stood steadfast in its decision.  Considering the amount of criticism CPAC had received for the decision, the title of the panel being about saving “freedom”, and the symbolism of CPAC’s decision, I decided I would do the least I could: thank them for it.  I believe that whenever people stand up for liberty in a principled manner, they deserve credit.  In this case, a conservative organization stood up for the underlying principle that sexual freedom can coexist with economic freedom, and that deserved recognition.

In my speech, I said that, “The typical student’s response is to be socially tolerant and fiscally responsible.”  What I meant was that when you talk to most students about their political beliefs, that’s the answer they give.  If they call themselves conservative, they usually say they care most about economic issues but are really socially liberal.  If they call themselves liberal, it’s because they don’t want to be called homophobic or racist, but they really also think that excessive taxation and big government are bad things.  Our generation is a libertarian generation.  The labels of previous generations just don’t know how to deal with that.

When I said that “Freedom does not come in pieces, it is a single concept that must be defended at all times,” I meant exactly what I said.  Everyone invokes the term “freedom” today, but they invoke it only for the issues where they want to be free to act as they personally choose.  When someone else does something of which they do not personally approve, the notion of freedom seems to be entirely lost.  However, the concept of freedom is not something that comes piecemeal to human beings.  You are either free or you’re not free.  There is no logical or practical compartmentalization that is possible.  To deny freedom in one area of a person’s life is to limit his/her overall freedom logically and to threaten his/her freedom in other areas practically.  What we need to do is begin calling out groups who claim the term of freedom only for the issues they care about and sacrifice freedom for people they feel uncomfortable with.  Only then will we be able to preserve a sincere notion of freedom.

*The full video is available here:

It seems like mainstream conservative and Tea Party leaders, while constantly denouncing big government and advocating personal liberty,  aren't budging on some social issues like gay marriage and drug policy reform. What are your thoughts on this?

I am not a conservative.  I am pro-liberty.  I believe that traditional conservatism, which supports limited government in economic issues and big government in social issues, is hypocritical and contradictory.  However, the conservatism of today is no different in this sense than the conservatism of 20 years ago.  The only difference is that the threat of communism (historically incarnated by the USSR) is no longer looming over our heads, and so libertarians no longer have an excuse for looking the other way out of a mistaken logic that “once we win on economic issues, we can deal with social issues”.  The current political divisions are not new in any sense.  They are old and worn out.  However, the young people of today do not fit neatly into the old categories of “left” and “right”.  They defy traditional labels and reject traditional groupings of issues that have maintained the political dichotomy.  The future is very bright for liberty in my mind because students today are able to see past the maligned groupings of issues from previous generations and instead advocate groupings based on principles, such as liberty.

How can students get involved in Students for Liberty?

SFL works with students all over the world and offers a wide variety of programs and resources that appeal to students.  To get started, they should check out our website at or register for the 4th Annual International SFL Conference at  Sign up for our list-serve, start a student organization, attend a conference, or just let us know you’re interested in these ideas.  SFL is run by students who have been in your very shoes: passionate about liberty but unsure of what to do.  We are here to help you become a strong advocate of liberty because we believe in these principles and want to support others who believe in the principles as well.  Whatever we can do to help, we will.  Shoot us an email at [email protected].

Anything else you want to say?

Our biggest event coming up is the 4th Annual International SFL Conference at George Washington University in Washington, DC from February 18-20.  This event will be the largest gathering of pro-liberty students in the world with speakers such as Dr. Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics at George Mason University; Megan McArdle, writer for The Atlantic; and Gary Johnson, former Governor of New Mexico.  The conference will also feature a special filming of the STOSSEL Show where John Stossel and David Boaz (Cato Institute) field questions from students and discuss the future of liberty in the US.  To participate, go ahead and check out