Reflections on the YAL National Convention 2014

Photo credit to Gage Skidmore

Let the American youth never forget that they possess a noble inheritance, bought by the toils, and sufferings, and blood of their ancestors; and capable, if wisely improved, and faithfully guarded, of transmitting to their latest posterity all the substantial blessings of life, the peaceful enjoyment of liberty, property, religion, and independence.” —Justice Joseph Story

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) National Convention as an official representative of the Independent Institute, which served as a Silver Level Sponsor. Attendees came from all 50 states and from over 200 universities. This gathering brought together over 300 cream-of-the-crop student leaders and activists to George Mason University School of Law’s campus for four days of training and lectures.

As noted by YAL staffer Bonnie Kristian, “They are really into liberty. Some of them might even do something about it.” In all my interactions with these students throughout the entire conference, I can confirm this description is absolutely true. As I explained what the Independent Institute can offer them in academic resources and professional opportunities, droves of students eagerly signed up for our mailing list (although our offer of a free book raffle may also have played a role…), purchased books, and grabbed free swag.

The energy and enthusiasm was contagious, and the effects definitely rubbed off on the older speakers and guests. Prominent figures including constitutional attorney Bruce Fein, best-selling author Thomas Woods, libertarian evangelist Jeffrey Tucker, and former Congressman Ron Paul gave well-received speeches and intermingled freely with their many admirers. This was all but the tip of the iceberg. There was something for everyone at this convention. A small sampling of the topics covered over the course of four days included the latest controversies surrounding the NSA and Edward Snowden (whom the students overwhelmingly supported), defending free speech on campus, and exposing the evils of occupational licensing.

As varied as these issues are, the main theme was Liberty. The prospects of liberty triumphing and becoming mainstream are especially promising when the attitudes of Millennials are taken into account. Kristian and many other astute observers point out that:

Freedom is popular. A recent Reason-Rupe poll confirmed what we’ve seen at YAL for a while: Millennials are the most libertarian generation yet. Yes, libertarian, not liberal.

As the poll showed, two-thirds of young Americans (ages 18 to 29) think the government is wasteful and inefficient. Nearly as many (63%) understand that government regulations favor special interests, not the general public. Strong majorities favor cutting government spending, regulations, taxes, and overall size.

Millennials are also uniquely pro-liberty on social issues like marriage and the drug war, with a majority agreeing that the government shouldn’t dictate what we eat, smoke, or drink. They are also very suspicious of both major parties, with more than half identifying as political independents.

#YALcon14 trended on Twitter (see here for the top 20 tweets) as students, speakers, and sponsors alike highlighted the most exciting parts.

By the weekend’s end, when it was time to fly back to California, I felt honored to play my small part in supporting the next generation of youth activists. Speaker after speaker reminded these students that it is up them to fix what is wrong with this country today and with the right amount of principle and dedication, they have every means to pull it back from the abyss. Despite the immense challenges faced by Millennials, ranging from an increasingly regulatory environment to the out-of-control surveillance state forced upon them by a broken two-party system, a sense of optimism prevailed among the student attendees that were at the Convention.

Since YAL launched its inaugural Convention six years ago, the numbers each year have only grown bigger and bigger. Freedom is popular, and that is reflected among the increasingly diverse attendees who came to this Convention as well as other libertarian events I’ve attended. The future of liberty looks bright indeed as long as this crowd flourishes.


Disclosure: I was a YAL intern from Fall 2012 through Spring 2013 and worked closely with Bonnie Kristian on communications.

Aaron Tao is the former Assistant Editor of the Independent Institute's blog, The Beacon.
Beacon Posts by Aaron Tao
  • Catalyst