THESE ARE NOT encouraging times for libertarians on campus. Studies show millennials' political views are much more reliably liberal than those of the population at large, and college students increasingly lean to the progressive left. In 1981, about 20 percent of freshmen described themselves as "liberal" or "far-left" (as opposed to "middle of the road" or "conservative"); today, more than a third do.
Students and professors who dissent from leftist orthodoxy often keep their views to themselves, for fear of suffering social or reputational harm. That can make it difficult for libertarians to identify each other. Some of the most elite colleges in the country maintain academic departments that teach, with a quasi-religious fervor, that capitalism is the root of all the world's problems. The activist left increasingly views free speech with skepticism or even outright hostility.
The right, meanwhile, occasionally makes overtures to libertarians; young conservatives tend to be much more in step with libertarians on issues such as drug legalization and gay marriage. But many conservatives aren't interested in discussion either. They invite the same provocative speakers to campus over and over again for the deliberate purpose of angering rather than persuading their progressive classmates. The Trump era has exposed the conservative movement--young and old--as much too willing to embrace populism, protectionism, and political incorrectness if doing so succeeds at "owning the libs," as critics of this strategy have derisively nicknamed it. And conservatives are often no less inclined to harness shutdown tactics than their counterparts on the left: Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychology professor whose war on political correctness has made him the philosopher king of the young right, occasionally threatens to sue his critics for defamation.
Campus activism in the Trump era is a battle between two extremes: an uncompromising, take-no-prisoners leftism at odds with the principles of intellectual diversity and free speech, and an obnoxious, trolling conservatism that seems perfectly happy to self-destruct as long as it annoys a few progressives on its way out. Yet even as campus political culture has deteriorated, some surprising bright spots have emerged. Among those is the rise of a professionalized global student libertarian movement.
STUDENTS FOR LIBERTY (SFL) traces its origins to the summer of 2007, when Alexander McCobin, then a student at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to organize a small roundtable of...