It’s 3:45 p.m. on a Saturday, and at the Grand Hyatt in downtown Washington, D.C., a conference room is packed with college students. It’s standing room only, and there’s barely enough of that for all the 18- to 25-year-olds who are trying to jam into the space, which is already noticeably warmer than the rest of the hotel and has begun to smell a little ripe. College students don’t care. In 15 minutes, Republican congressman Justin Amash is going to defend the existence of government to a room full of anarcho-capitalists.
Let’s backtrack. This weekend, about 1,500 college students and recent graduates descended on the Hyatt for the International Students for Liberty Conference. There are libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, would-be seasteaders, recalcitrant Republicans, Ayn Rand devotees, and just about every other possible iteration of the so-called liberty movement, a big-tent designation for activists galvanized by typically libertarian issues, including opposition to drone warfare, support for marijuana legalization, ending the Federal Reserve Bank, decreasing U.S. military presence overseas, and protecting individuals’ freedom to do just about anything they want. They run an ideological gamut, from Michael Malice, a writer fond of saying that you can’t vote your way out of tyranny (and who, as far as I can tell, thinks all government is immoral), to John Ramsey and Preston Bates, who run a super PAC dedicated to helping libertarian-leaning candidates win elections as Republicans.
As the GOP’s support from college students and recent grads is floundering, it’s important to remember that the grassroots, nationwide liberty movement that Ron Paul helped spearhead is alive and kicking — Students for Liberty had its first conference in 2008, with 100 students. Since then, it’s grown exponentially, and that’s not a fluke. If the Republican party as we know it wants to exist in 20 years, it should take notice. It’s complicated, though, because there’s no way you can win all the different factions.
Amid the smorgasbord of ideologies in the liberty movement, Justin Amash is uniquely poised as an intermediary between the Grand Old Party and the growing contingent of people in their twenties who might care about monetary policy even more than marijuana.
The display hall at the conference was a microcosm of just how divergent this movement is. It’s got your free-market standbys — Cato, AEI, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Foundation for Economic Education, etc. The NRA is there, too, and so is the Marijuana Policy Project. But attendees could also check out the booth from the Seasteading Institute and learn about the project to build Galt’s Gulch–type libertarian communities on the high seas, free of petty bureaucracy and governmental intervention. Or they could chat up two brothers, Zach and Josh Harvey, who just started a bitcoin-consultation business. Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer, all-online currency that’s particularly appealing to libertarians because of the obvious absence of central banking (as well as the invulnerability to inflationary monetary policy). It’s most famously used to buy drugs, since exchanges are, besides instantaneous, untrackable, at least according to the Harveys. About $300 million worth of bitcoin is floating around, and there will never be more than 21 million bitcoins. (One bitcoin is currently worth about $26.40.) It’s not just getting spent on designer painkillers, though. WordPress and Reddit both just started accepting payment in bitcoin, and there are a number of small businesses that take it as payment, including a new website that lets you order pizza online using the currency. Apparently if you can’t end the Fed, you can just ignore it.
Another group that accepts bitcoin was also exhibiting: the Free State Project, a group of “liberty-minded” people who are trying to recruit 20,000 people to move to New Hampshire and vote to make the state a libertarian paradise. You can use your bitcoin to pay for admission to the Free Staters’ annual festival. But if you’re old-fashioned, you can just use gold or silver, too.
And that’s why the liberty movement should baffle both the Left and the Right. It’s got utopian anarcho-capitalist types — the types who refer to Cato and Reason as Stateo and Treason — and it’s got, well, Cato and Reason. Maybe that’s why it’s so remarkable that, to the extent that it’s even possible, Amash seems to fit in.
He has a few things going for him already: a reputation for tech savviness (he posts on Facebook about all of his votes, and he just had a Twitter spat with Jay Carney) and status as a rogue libertarian member of the Republican caucus, known for bucking leadership and defending defense cuts. Of course, one straightforward Republican is never going to change Michael Malice’s mind about the morality of anarchy, but Amash, a pro-life Christian, obviously has a good rapport with the libertarian students in attendance at the Liberty Conference.
Most attendees tend to view the Republican and Democratic parties with equal contempt. “I think the Republican party still represents the best opportunity for bringing liberty to the political system,” Amash says, and they’re listening. His talk is punctuated with applause — when he praises the sequester, when he mentions his fight with Carney — and after laying out a simple criticism of the president and a defense of his membership in the GOP, he announces that he’d rather take questions than ramble on. A line forms instantly, and the first question is about asset restructuring — this isn’t CPAC. Why didn’t he endorse a presidential candidate? Why did he vote for the Defense of Marriage Act? Is the GOP brand fixable? Where is the Republican party moving on social issues?
Amash is eminently unflappable. He explains that though he supported Romney, he wanted his endorsement “to mean something.” He says that he’s received “implied threats” because of his willingness to break ranks with his colleagues and that he doesn’t get invited to fancy dinners. He explains that he supported funding the court case to defend DOMA but doesn’t support a federal definition of marriage. He argues that the rest of the GOP — the establishment, old-guard types — are the extremists and that he’s the commonsensical moderate. And he says that the party’s libertarian wing is its future.
The most interesting question comes from a young man who starts off by thanking the congressman for posting about his votes on Facebook. The comment elicits immediate applause and whoops. After that dies down, the questioner continues:
“There’s a strain of libertarianism — people believe that the state is completely immoral and that we shouldn’t have any involvement in it,” he says. “I disagree with that, and as a congressman you probably disagree with that as well. What would you say — ”
Amash cuts him off: “Or I’m really sneaky.”
The crowd laughs, whoops, and applauds. A few leap to their feet.
“Touché,” says the questioner. More laughter. “What would you say to the people who believe in that, and that we should not work within the system to try and fix it?”
“Well, I don’t know how to convince the people who don’t want to work within the system,” says Amash. “We have a system here. The Founders of the country certainly believed in working through a political system. That’s why they put it in place.” He defends the American system as the best protector of liberty. And he concludes by arguing that anarchy would eventually end in some sort of government anyway.
Nobody whistles or jumps up and down, but there’s a smattering of applause.
The last question is the kicker. It’s from Peter McCaffrey, a Kiwi living in Canada who’s been involved in libertarian politics since he was 18 and ran for New Zealand’s parliament twice.
“In the short or medium term, the strategic approach seems to be to try and get a bloc of 20, 25 senators, who will basically will be able to block anything from either side of the House,” he says. “So I guess the implied question would be, do you agree, and when are you going to run for the Senate?”
There’s applause — lots of applause — and even though Amash’s answer is very political (he’s keeping his options open, and winning a Senate seat is hard), one thing is clear: These kids seem to love him just as much as leadership wishes he would go away, and that means that an Amash-for-Senate bid could be very interesting. It also means that, thanks to Amash’s courtship of a bunch of libertarian college kids with long hair who have bowties and old Ron Paul T-shirts stuffed in their closets, this weekend might have made the GOP tent a little bit bigger.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.