Those Damn Americans: Some Oddities From My Time at the Students for Liberty Retreat

Two weekends ago I went to the Students for Liberty Top Leadership Retreat in Twin Lake Michigan, just outside of Grand Rapids. It was a great trip and I was happy to connect in person with people whom I had spent a long time only knowing online. There were also great talks including a surprise visit from Justin Amash! All great fun, really. What I want to talk about here is some of what struck me as oddities from the young American libertarians whom I had the pleasure of speaking with that weekend.

The Constitution

Those Americans love that damn constitution of theirs. Many talks which would decry this or that government policy or legislation would often end with the exclamation, “and, it’s unconstitutional, you know.” Being but a mere Canadian, perhaps I cannot properly appreciate the importance of this insight, but this didn’t mean all too much to me. My constitution did not have anything to say on civil asset forfeiture, the war on drugs, or gun bans. Perhaps I was therefore incorrect in judging these things to be unjust, immoral, criminal, or inefficient since my constitution did not forbid them. The truth, of course, as even these Americans I’m sure would admit, is that whether or not something is constitutionally enshrined or not is no indicator of its justice. Civil asset forfeiture is wrong regardless of whether or not there are constitutional grounds for it. Under my constitution or theirs, it is wrong. I am reminded of the words of Murray Rothbard speaking at the Libertarian International World Libertarian Convention in 1982 in Zurich, Switzerland:

Libertarianism itself, of course, is international, it’s transnational, it’s cosmopolite. The glorious idea of liberty, of a free market, and a free society is universal. It is not dependent on culture or time or place. For that ideal is based on the nature and on the rights of man, of human beings, wherever they exist.

While the constitution might be convincing to others in trying to persuade them of the justice of our side, I don’t know that such appeals are necessary to people who are already libertarians. Would we not feel the exact same way about some policy if it was indeed constitutional? And doesn’t the constitution have explicitly anti-libertarian clauses as well? What of the infamous Commerce Clause? “[The Congress shall have Power] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes”. Even without debate regarding interpretation, it is clear that this violates some libertarian principles of free trade. What do we say in this case? Imagine a protectionist approaches us and says, “You know, it’s in the constitution that congress has the power to regulate international trade.” What is the proper response? For me, “Who cares?” For libertarians concerned with the constitutionality of some policy, I’m not sure.

I also found it puzzling that it would be decried that the constitution forbids some government policy which has been practiced for years. Does it then? It would seem that the Supreme Court does not think so. And it would seem that that oh-so-loved document has not done the glorious work that we praise it of doing. Let us not forget of the words of the great Lysander Spooner (a figure highly praised by SFL!), “Whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.”

The Union

I was also incredibly surprised by the view of many Americans of the American Union. “I like our union,” I heard. “I think it should continue to exist,” they would tell me. Forever!? This is the question I must ask of them! Would it be such a horror if Hawaii were to try and make it on their own? It is surprising to hear on one hand that some of these students say they are “sympathetic to anarchism” but then turn around and suggest that one of the largest and most destructive states on the planet ought to continue to exist in perpetuity! My uneducated guess is that a bad experience in the 1860s has had cultural reverb leading even my radical friends to fear a repeat.

The implication of their view is one that I do not think they take seriously enough. As the good libertarians that they are, they are war doves. But suppose that Californians had had enough and tomorrow voted in a referendum to secede from the U.S. with 99% voting yes. The California legislature creates a new constitution and builds the proper institutions to implement it and says “sayonara” to the U.S. Then what? Would these pro-union libertarians call upon those ever-impatient war hawks in D.C. to go forthwith and declare war on the Independent State of California? I’m not sure.

Terry Fox

They don’t know who Terry Fox is! Wild! He was voted the second greatest Canadian and they’ve never even heard of him. They couldn’t really even grasp what he had done when we explained it to them. Unfortunately, there’s no American Terry Fox equivalent for me to quip that “we Canadians know about him!” but I feel that if there was one, I would know about him and I would complain.

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