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Alexander McCobin on Ron Paul, Objectivism and Co-founding Students For Liberty
With Anthony Wile - October 07, 2012
The Daily Bell is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Alexander McCobin
Introduction: Alexander McCobin recognized the formal principles of his beliefs after reading Atlas Shrugged, a birthday present from his father in 9th grade. Throughout high school, Alexander participated in Lincoln-Douglas debate, which allowed him to study philosophy and particularly writers who advocated the philosophical principles of liberty. While an undergrad, Alexander began the University of Pennsylvania Libertarian Association to promote the education and discussion of libertarian ideas on campus and expand his horizons regarding the power of the message of liberty. With a friend he founded non-profit Perspectives Debate, Inc. to create and promote debate opportunities to high school students. In the summer of 2007, McCobin interned at the Reason Foundation and in 2008, McCobin co-founded Students for Liberty, which has grown from one conference at Columbia University into an international organization with hundreds of groups. He is currently a third-year graduate student at Georgetown University pursuing his Ph.D. in philosophy with areas of interest in political philosophy and business ethics.
Daily Bell: Give us some background on yourself. Where did you grow up? What did your mom and dad do?
Alexander McCobin: I'm from York, Pennsylvania, home of York Peppermint Patties, York Air Conditioning, York Barbell and Harley-Davidson. My father was a bank examiner for the FDIC until he retired a few years ago. My mother has had several professions ranging from being an auditor of York Hospital to substitute teacher to now working for the county.
Daily Bell: Tell us about Students For Liberty.
Alexander McCobin: Students For Liberty is a US-based 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. Founded by five students from five universities, what was originally supposed to be a one-time, 30-person conference now includes over 800 student groups across the world representing tens of thousands of students.
In the 2011-2012 school year, Students For Liberty (SFL) ran 12 US regional conferences for over 1,500 attendees, organized 38 webinars for 1,800+ students, printed 100,000 copies of our second book, The Morality of Capitalism, to distribute to students for free, launched European Students For Liberty as our first serious international expansion and hosted the first-ever four-figure libertarian student conference with the 5th Annual International SFL Conference. (Full details are available in our 2011-2012 Annual Report.)
For the 2012-2013 school year, we have plans to grow SFL even more with 15 US regional conferences, 5 European regional conferences, 125,000+ copies of our third book, After the Welfare State, and over 200 student leaders who go through SFL leadership training and are responsible for running SFL's key programs and starting new pro-liberty student groups around the world.
Daily Bell: You were influenced by Atlas Shrugged. Tells us how that happened.
Alexander McCobin: In ninth grade I joined the high school debate team and began to engage political philosophy on a regular basis. So for my birthday, I asked my dad for a number of books on the subject, like John Locke's Second Treatise and John Rawls's Theory of Justice. In addition to giving me these books, my dad also gave me Atlas Shrugged and said that if I was going to read these other works, I should read Atlas Shrugged, as well. It took me a month over that summer to read the book, but by the time I finished it, I thought to myself, "This is what I've always believed put into words."
Daily Bell: You participated in Lincoln-Douglas debate in high school, which allowed you to study philosophy and particularly those who advocated the philosophical principles of liberty. Can you expand?
Alexander McCobin: Lincoln-Douglas debate is a values-based debate or, as I always interpreted it, a philosophically driven debate (in contrast to policy debate). I went to a public high school that had a speech and debate team but went through four advisors in four years and only attended a few local tournaments a year. I fell in love with the activity right away, and it soon became one of the most important activities in my life. After I qualified to states my freshman year, I began attending debate camps, traveling every other weekend to tournaments on my own, including national-level competitions, spending hours in the local college library to do research for my cases, and was soon spending more time preparing for debate than on my actual schoolwork.
To become a better debater, I read as much as I could, which included political and moral philosophy across the spectrum. After my dad introduced me to Ayn Rand, I began reading Tibor Machan, Robert Nozick and other libertarians and would often use their arguments in my cases. I was one of the lone libertarians in the Lincoln-Douglas world; other debaters would make fun of me for citing libertarian authors (good friends of mine, though). For context, in Lincoln-Douglas there are five National Forensics League resolutions each year for students to debate, and you have to defend both sides of the resolution at a tournament. This meant I had to not only find but utilize the best arguments against libertarianism in-round if my position required me to do so, and I got to analyze the way libertarianism would play out across a plethora of issues.
In continually reading different political philosophies, analyzing the strongest arguments for and against each theory, and applying those philosophies to diverse topic areas, my support for libertarianism grew as I continued to see the philosophy defeat alternative theories over and over again. It was through that research, reflection and application of the theory that I developed my belief in and commitment to the philosophy of liberty.
Daily Bell: You started the University of Pennsylvania Libertarian Association to promote discussion and education of libertarian ideas on campus and expand your horizons. Can you elaborate?
Alexander McCobin: When I went to college in 2004, I was already committed to libertarianism. Naively, I went to Penn expecting to meet other objectivists and libertarians who would share my views and help me become a better advocate of liberty. There was a web page for an objectivist club, but I found out during my freshman student activities fair that the group was defunct. Things went downhill from there.
Over the next two years I didn't meet a single other libertarian and began to feel so isolated and alone that I thought to myself, "Alexander, if you're the only person on this campus who thinks this way, you must be crazy. Give up and become a socialist." But, I decided to take a chance to see if there were other libertarians out there and started the University of Pennsylvania Libertarian Association. Within a year, we were one of the largest and most active political groups on campus with over 200 members on our list-serve. Other libertarian students (and professors) had always been there. We just had no way of identifying one another until there was a student group to bring us together.
There is something unique and deeply important about student groups. Even more than the lack of a safe space, the lack of a student group for liberty on a campus is the lack of an identity on that campus. Creating a student group can do more good for and make a greater impact on spreading the ideas of liberty than anything else you can do at a campus.
Daily Bell: In the summer of 2007 you were an intern at the Reason Foundation, working on privatization efforts around the U.S. Tell us more about that.
Alexander McCobin: I spent that summer as an Institute for Humane Studies Koch Summer Fellow, a program that places students at think tanks to see what public policy is like and provides educational opportunities to learn more about the intellectual underpinnings of a free society as well as career development over the summer. I had been rejected the year before, actually, so was thrilled to get in that summer. I was placed at the Reason Foundation's office in DC, and spent most of my time doing research on privatization efforts across the US as part of a project to create a map of all US privatization efforts, as well as writing on the subject, such as publishing an article on prison privatization co-authored with the scholar I worked for, Geoffrey Segal.
Daily Bell: You also ran a nonprofit organization to promote youth debate education to underserved students in the greater Philadelphia and mid-Atlantic region. What was that like?
Alexander McCobin: Debate is one of the most important influences in my life. I honestly don't know where I'd be without debate. It is one of the most worthwhile activities a student can participate in; it teaches critical thinking, writing skills, speaking ability, a broad understanding of current and philosophical issues and a love for ideas. Studies have shown that students who participate in debate are far more likely to get accepted to college and succeed in life. Yet when I was in high school there were no debate camps in the Philadelphia area and few to no resources for students to become engaged in the activity unless their school happened to have a strong team. And that was if their school even has a debate team. Many schools don't have debate programs at all, preventing students from accessing this incredibly valuable experience, especially the most in-need students who can benefit the most from the rigorous education debate provides.
So over the course of my college career, a good friend of mine and I started and grew a Philadelphia-area summer debate camp into a nonprofit organization, Perspectives Debate, Inc., that sought to help underserved youth in the Philadelphia and Mid-Atlantic region access and benefit from debate by starting debate teams at Philadelphia public and charter schools, organizing debate tournaments, providing scholarships for in-need students to attend other tournaments, running training programs and even helping them apply to college. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to watch students grow through our programs. Students would write to us, "I learned more in one week at this debate camp than in all of my years at school." One of our students from a Philadelphia Charter School was even admitted to Penn, a rare thing in Philadelphia. Perspectives was my start in organizing and management, and there were more lessons I took away from that than I could even begin to describe here. Again, by the end of college, I was sacrificing schoolwork to build Perspectives because I saw so much value in what we were doing.
Daily Bell: You graduated from Penn with a B.A. in philosophy and economics and an A.M. in philosophy and spent the following year working as a Koch Associate at the Cato Institute focused on marketing and development. What was Cato like?
Alexander McCobin: It was like being wrapped in a warm blanket. Honestly, going from Penn, where, even with an active libertarian student group, I was constantly on the defensive for my views, to working at the premiere libertarian think tank with others who not only shared my views, but were the leading thinkers developing libertarian public policy, was an incredible experience. It was nice to be constantly surrounded by other libertarians, something that few people get to experience. I pushed off going to grad school for a year to do it, to gain the experience of working at Cato and build up Students For Liberty.
Daily Bell: You are now a third-year graduate student at Georgetown University, pursuing your Ph.D. in philosophy with areas of interest in political philosophy and business ethics. Have you spoken to the Georgetown folks?
Alexander McCobin: Given that I worked at Cato for a year prior to Georgetown, my beliefs weren't exactly hidden. In fact, there are a few good stories about that:
1. I audited a graduate class at Georgetown while working at Cato to prepare myself for the program. During the first week, we went around the table to introduce ourselves, and I told everyone I was working at a think tank at the time. When asked which one, I told them Cato, and that was that. The following week, before she started class, the professor looked at me, in front of everyone, and went, "Alexander, I just have to ask: Are you really a libertarian?" After I answered in the affirmative, she said, "Oh, okay." And we had a great semester.
2. During Prospect Weekend, I was sitting at lunch with several other prospective students and the Director of Graduate Admissions and once again mentioned I was working at Cato. One of the other prospects looked up at me with wide eyes and said, "Hold on... you're not a libertarian are you?" I said yes, and he responded. "Okay, but you're not an objectivist are you?!?" When I said yes again, we proceeded with the lunch without mentioning it again. It wasn't until we were walking back to campus that the Director of Graduate Admissions commended me for sticking to my guns and said he thought more graduate students have been influenced than many probably realize.
3. I was sitting in the graduate lounge during my first year and somehow the topic of Ayn Rand came up. A fellow first year commented, "Come on, there's no such thing as a rational Randian, is there?" I had remained silent up to this point but then cleared my throat and piped up, "Well, there are people who would say neither term applies to me, but I consider myself to be one." (For clarification: I actually consider myself an objectivist, not a Randian, and think there's an important difference in the terms.)
I should note that in all of these stories, the other individuals are people I greatly respect and consider friends. I think the academy's opposition to libertarian thinking comes largely from a lack of being around or engaging actual libertarian thinkers. Since I started my graduate studies, several libertarian graduate students and professors associated with the department have entered as well, so I am no longer the token libertarian.
Daily Bell: Your favorite figures in liberty are Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick and F.A. Hayek. Why Nozick and Hayek?
Alexander McCobin: Nozick is one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, hands down. Anarchy, State and Utopia is a must-read for any libertarian and presents one of the most cogent challenges to anarchism out there. I read him for debate in high school and have been a fan ever since. I actually didn't know who F.A. Hayek was until the summer after my sophomore year of college when I went to my first IHS Summer Seminar and realized there are ways of becoming libertarian other than reading Rand. Again, Hayek is just a brilliant individual who must be studied by anyone who wants to understand the way society develops and functions.
Daily Bell: You have said, "After my first two years of college, I nearly gave up on my libertarian principles because I thought I was alone. It wasn't until, by luck, I discovered others who believed in the same principles as myself that my passion to advocate for liberty was reignited." Why would you give up on libertarianism because you felt alone?
Alexander McCobin: It's tough to maintain your principles when you're the only one defending them. It's only natural that you question if you are the one who is rational or irrational in the face of strong opposition. In fact, if you don't reflect upon your views and are willing to consider that you could be wrong, I don't think you're being fully rational. What matters most is being able to stick to your principles when you confirm they're right, and finding a way to have the strength to continue believing in your principles when things seem overwhelming.
For me, the lack of any other individuals who agreed with me at such a great school like Penn made me both worry that my reasoning had gone wrong somewhere and that even if libertarianism was correct, there was no hope for its future, and so I would have to sacrifice my future to defend it. Finding other libertarian students both confirmed that other intelligent people were libertarian, so I wasn't crazy for holding these views, and that there were real people who were libertarian, young people, so there was the potential for a future for these ideas.
Without question, the Penn Libertarians was a critical moment in saving me from giving up, and then providing me an opportunity to learn how to become an even stronger advocate of liberty rather than stagnate in my intellectual and advocacy skills.
Daily Bell: You've written that Students For Liberty exists to prevent other students who believe in liberty from feeling alone and to empower them to pursue liberty whenever possible. How does SFL provide "empowerment"?
Alexander McCobin: SFL's entire approach to training, leadership development, and organizing involves empowering students, which we have spent years developing and continue to spend teaching to students. However, the short answer is this: Students have the potential to change the world. They are not powerless like many others in society want them to think. They do not need other people to tell them what to do to make an impact. It's a perspectival shift from the standard youth view of taking orders from older individuals and basing their life decisions and goals on what others tell them they should. We have the capacity to envision and create a freer, more prosperous world if we simply take on the responsibility to do so.
Daily Bell: You've also written, "Seeing SFL grow from a flicker of an idea into an incredible organization has only reaffirmed my passion for liberty and my belief that by bringing students together in a common effort for liberty, we can change the world." What kind of change and how?
Alexander McCobin: To become freer.
Daily Bell: Are you drawing students who have an affiliation with Ron Paul?
Alexander McCobin: When I was an undergrad (up until 2008) and asked other students what brought them into libertarianism, the most common answer was Ayn Rand. Nowadays, it's Ron Paul, with Ayn Rand finishing in a strong second. A lot of SFL'ers got started with libertarianism thanks to Ron Paul. What SFL does is help them take it a step further, show them that social change requires work in many areas and many leaders, which they can be.
Daily Bell: What did you think of Ron Paul and his campaign?
Alexander McCobin: I'm a fan. I think Ron Paul has done a great job bringing people out of the woodwork, showing how strong the support for libertarian ideas actually is and introducing the concept of libertarianism to people who have always held that disposition but didn't know there was a word for it.
Daily Bell: There is a new generation of students growing up in the US. Are they more pro-liberty?
Alexander McCobin: Absolutely. I think we're seeing the growth of the libertarian generation right now, the basis of a Second Wave Libertarianism. Those of us born in the 1980s and afterward grew up with the Internet, with gay friends, friends who use drugs, friends who are going off and dying in war, with an increasingly globalized world based on free interactions of individuals, seeing the harms of government intervention in the economy that led to the 2008 financial crisis and the corruption in governments responding to the crisis.
At the same time, we have conservatives and liberals showing young people that they don't belong to either of those sides. George W. Bush turned young people away from conservatism by exacerbating its worst parts and Obama is doing the same for those who may have thought they were liberal.
This is the most libertarian generation that has ever existed and they are learning that they are libertarian (philosophically). As this generation gets older and starts to have a greater influence over society and the libertarian movement, there are going to be meaningful ramifications. It's an exciting time to be a young libertarian.
Daily Bell: What are their concerns, do you think?
Alexander McCobin: If you mean what issues they care most about, I think that's the wrong question to ask. It presumes that issues come before philosophy but that's wrong. Most young libertarians care most about advancing the philosophy of liberty above any particular issue. They care about all issues because they affect the liberty of individuals but they are not prioritizing economics of social issues or saying that one issue should define everything.
We surveyed the attendees at the 2012 International SFL Conference for the top issues they were most concerned about and the most striking result was that no issue was significantly more important than any other. The top-ranked issue only received 15 percent of the responses, and most issues received at least 5 percent. What this means is that this generation doesn't care about liberty because they care about a particular issue; they care about liberty because it is the right political philosophy.
The kind of thinking that asks what issues young people care most about comes from prioritizing particular interests over a consistent worldview. This is a perspectival shift on how to approach the political process that could have wide-ranging ramifications if this generation continues to build the student movement for liberty. What this also means is that young libertarians are not prioritizing a particular "type" of issue over any other. It is not the case that economics are more important than social issues for them or that civil liberties can take a backseat during wartime. Issues like the national debt, gay marriage, entitlement programs, civil liberties and more are all top concerns.
Daily Bell: What are your concerns?
Alexander McCobin: Liberty, in all areas, for all people, in the short and long run.
Daily Bell: How do you see the world evolving?
Alexander McCobin: The world is becoming a more libertarian place, and today's young people are leading that evolution. SFL isn't just a US organization. European Students For Liberty has over 100 groups and is running five regional conferences of its own. I was just in Belo Horizonte, Brazil a month ago for the first Estudantes Pela Liberdades Conference with over 100 students in Brazil. SFL has Charter Teams around the world starting libertarian student groups and preparing more young leaders of liberty. Our success is not given. It will take a lot of work but we actually have a chance to create a free world in our lifetime.
Daily Bell: Let's talk current events. What's your take on the EU? Where is it headed?
Alexander McCobin: I'm not sure. I'm an outsider so I rely heavily on SFL's leaders in Europe for information on what's going on. Things look precarious. But there is such a strong commitment to preserving the European ideal in so many countries that they may be willing to sacrifice their actual interests for this ideal. What I can say is that European youth are becoming increasingly libertarian as a consequence of what the older generations are doing.
Daily Bell: Is the world headed toward some kind of great depression? Is it being engineered?
Alexander McCobin: Atlas Shrugged was a warning, not a prophecy. Given the growing commitment of my generation to fixing the problems given to us by older generations, I remain optimistic that we can correct things before they get to that point.
As for whether the crises we've experienced and the threats to liberty taking place are being engineered, I think it's obviously the case that there is no grand conspiracy orchestrating this. It's contradictory to argue that the government is both generally incompetent and inefficient and then argue it's capable of pulling off the greatest cover-up in history. I also think that if you assume the enemies of liberty are doing evil intentionally your misrepresentation of them will lead you to improper solutions. We have to understand that the enemies of liberty do so with good intentions and require responses with good intentions.
Individual policies and governmental actions are planned, yes, but the series of problems and challenges people face around the globe are not "engineered" and trying to respond to them as though they were will fail because it will miss the real problem.
Daily Bell: What's going on in America? Are there green economic shoots?
Alexander McCobin: Yes, the growing student movement for liberty.
Daily Bell: Who will be the next president? Does it make a difference?
Alexander McCobin: I don't like to make predictions because things could easily change and I don't pretend to be a politico. However, I do have several steak dinners riding on Obama and think my odds are pretty good. To amend a quote from my favorite movie, "My interest in whether Obama stays or goes is purely a sporting one."
Daily Bell: How would you characterize the US today? Authoritarian?
Alexander McCobin: No. The US is not as free as it could be and there are many things wrong. But there are actual authoritarian regimes around the world where SFL's students are in much more dangerous situations and have far more of their liberties being restricted.
If we are going to succeed in changing things, we have to be honest in our criticism of the status quo. We generally have well-respected freedom of speech, the ability to criticize government, the ability to travel where we want, the ability to work in any occupation we want, the free flow of goods and services between individuals and the expectation of peaceful leadership transfers when political interests lose what are extremely legitimate elections.
We are facing bad policies in the US and threats to our liberties, no question. But they aren't as bad as in Venezuela, Zimbabwe, China, or any real authoritarian regime. To suggest otherwise makes others take our cause less seriously.
Daily Bell: Are things getting worse or better?
Alexander McCobin: I think they're going to get worse in the short term. The system is set up to ensure that. But for the long term, when today's youth start to gain positions of influence in society, I am very optimistic.
Daily Bell: What can young people do to make it better?
Alexander McCobin: That's easy: Get involved with Students For Liberty. Visit our website at www.studentsforliberty.org to access our resources, connect with other pro-liberty students and participate in our leadership training programs to become a more effective advocate of liberty. We have 15 regional conferences going on around the US this fall and 5 in Europe, where we'd love to have both students and alumni come out.
And put February 15-17, 2013 in your calendars when the 6th Annual International Students For Liberty Conference is taking place in Washington, DC, featuring John Mackey (CEO of Whole Foods), John Stossel and over 1,250 of the world's best libertarian student leaders.
Daily Bell: How do you see your future? What do you intend to do?
Alexander McCobin: I'm not sure yet. I'm keeping my options open. I am working on my Ph.D. in philosophy so maybe I'll end up teaching. I love my work with Students For Liberty and would love to stay in the libertarian nonprofit movement. But I also have thoughts about going for-profit once my time at Students For Liberty is over. For now, I wouldn't trade what I'm doing for anything else in the world and intend to remain with Students For Liberty for a while.
Daily Bell: Any books or articles you're working on?
Alexander McCobin: I am working on my dissertation proposal, a new theory of Corporate Responsibility that challenges both the Stakeholder and Shareholder theories. If it gets approved, that will be my main area of writing for a long time.
Daily Bell: Any books, articles or websites you want to draw our attention to?
Alexander McCobin: Students For Liberty's website, www.studentsforliberty.org.
Daily Bell: Any final thoughts?
Alexander McCobin: I have the privilege of working with the most impressive young libertarians ever, who I believe are going to change the world. Students For Liberty has been able to grow as quickly as we have because of their dedication to the ideas of liberty. What is unique about the student situation is that they have the time and the passion to promote these ideas but they don't have the resources. For anyone out there who has the passion for these ideas but doesn't have the time or opportunity to spread them to more young people, yet wants to see that happen, I would ask that you consider providing students with the resources to do so by making a tax-deductible donation to Students For Liberty at www.studentsforliberty.org/donate. And thanks for this opportunity.
Daily Bell: Good luck and thank you for sitting down with us.
The Daily Bell
When we asked Alexander McCobin, "What did you think of Ron Paul and his campaign?" he responded:
"I'm a fan. I think Ron Paul has done a great job bringing people out of the woodwork, showing how strong the support for libertarian ideas actually is and introducing the concept of libertarianism to people who have always held that disposition but didn't know there was a word for it."
This is our perspective, too. Ron Paul has come under a great deal of criticism of late for a variety of reasons. But we have pointed out that the real benefit of his campaign had little to do with legislative intentions and much to do with education.
Many are disappointed that Ron Paul's campaign essentially self-destructed. If you look at the arc of the man's history, though, it is apparent that what he enjoys is communicating ideas, not legislative wonkerism.
Even his political career has involved a kind of educative context. He has refused to vote for anything he considered unconstitutional. In doing so, he has illustrated the context of his political impulse – he wants to make a point more than he wants to climb in the ranks of the GOP.
There are always people like Ron Paul, though not many of them. Right now it's suddenly fashionable for some libertarian factions to bash Ron Paul but we have a suspicion that history will be kind to him.
As for Alexander McCobin, we sense the same educational impulse combined with organizational skills and real sense of mission. Congratulations on the growing success of Students for Liberty. We hope in your lifetime you continue to contribute to the great work of building freedom supported by such people as Ron Paul and his mentors, Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises. You're off to a great start.