Dr. Wolf von Laer is the CEO of Students For Liberty (SFL). SFL is a rapidly growing network of pro-liberty students from all over the world, with members active in over 110 countries. SFL's mission is to educate, develop, and empower the next generation of leaders of liberty.SFL is the largest libertarian student organization in the world. This is accomplished through a strategy of empowerment, identifying the top student leaders and training them to be agents of change in their communities. What began as a small meeting of young leaders has become an international movement of students with thousands of local student groups and thousands of leaders around the world with operations on every inhabited continent.
About Dr. Wolf von Laer: Dr. Wolf von Laer is the Chief Executive Officer of Students For Liberty. Wolf received his Ph.D. in Political Economy from King’s College London for work focused on entrepreneurship, the political economy of crisis, public choice, and Austrian economics. You can find some of his publications, including a book, several other book chapters, and a peer-reviewed journal article on his website www.wolfvonlaer.com. He co-founded European Students For Liberty and served as its chairman. In his free time, Wolf enjoys improvisation theater and Krav Maga.
What are some fo the bggest challenegs SFL faces as an organization?
Working with our alumni.We have thousands and often we don’t have a firm understanding what every single one is doing. Some of them are doing incredible things and we try to better communicate that to the world. However, there is much more to be done. Alumni work is definitely a challenge.
Hi Dr. von Laer! Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions today. I have few questions for you.
There are so many pro-liberty organizations out there, both for students and for the general population. Many seem to have similar buzzwords in their mission statements, but how exactly is Students For Liberty different from other organizations?
As a student activist for SFL, I know that we have leaders all over the world. It seems like we're always working to educate people on the ideas of liberty through various means (conferences, activism events, leadership training, etc.). Keeping all that in mind, how does SFL measure success?
Finally, just because I'm a millenial, I need you to settle this debate once and for all: Which was the best 1990's boy band: Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC? :)
Thank you again for taking the time to answer my questions today! I hope to catch you at LibertyCon!
Let me give you four reasons: 1. International: SFL spends two-thirds of our budget in the United States and even though I have a strange name and strange German accent that won’t change. The U.S. is our primary focus. However, we have leaders in over a 100 countries. Their stories are inspiring. We have people who take a boat ride for 200 miles to attend a meeting to talk about the ideas of liberty. We have people that have been imprisoned for the ideas of liberty in Nigeria, Hungary, and Venezuela. Our international stories inspire and contextualize the struggle for liberty.
2. Our theory of social change. We need pro-liberty advocates in all spheres of society. Some organizations are quite focused on the political process and we do have many students who decide to become active politically. However, this is not the only way to bring about change. Innovators, non-profits, journalists, academics, and artists have all pivotal roles in spreading the ideas. We are giving students unique opportunities to grow as leaders which will help them in a wide variety of different occupations.
3. Empowerment: Last year, we had close to 500 events with over 30,000 attendees. Virtually every single one of these events is conceptualized and executed by our volunteers. This leads to a lot of creative programs from art exhibits on the importance of the First Amendment, to start-up incubators for businesses, to conferences with several hundred or even thousands of people. Young people can change the world! We provide the structure and the training for people to do great and unique things. Most often parents tell their kids what to do. Universities tell you what to do. We want to know what you want to do and we will help you reach those goals as long as it spread the ideas of liberty.
4. Network-centric. A donor recently described SFL to me as the “Atlas Network of the student world.” Students and groups from other pro-liberty causes can join SFL. We welcome you as a member of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy or Young Americans for Liberty chapter president. You are doing good work and we want to help you to spread the ideas of liberty. We will provide you with training, opportunities, and material to become more effective. Question 2:
It took us nearly a year but we have developed a vision document for 2022. On two pages, we describe what SFL stands for, where we want to be, and what metrics we are focusing on. Check it out here.
I am very proud of the programs and IT team. We receive an organizational health report every two weeks that illustrates our progress towards these goals – broken down by category. Here is a part of one such report that shows how much our students are accomplishing within only two weeks:
- Yet another 5,000+ contacts to our database- 200+ students participating in specific training- 8,500+ event attendees- 4 new Success Stories
Success Stories are our main metric. Our leaders bring about change on campus today, develop their skills, and become leaders in society tomorrow. We are only 10 years old, but our alumni have already started 16 non-profits. Ten of them are part of the Atlas Network now. Last year alone, we had three people on the Forbes 30under30 list in the categories of academia, policy, and journalism. One of our alumni is the founder of a company Silicon Valley that’s now valued over one billion dollars. Our alumni are professors, journalists, business people, non-profit leaders, and much more. We need pro-liberty advocates in every sphere of society to bring about social change, and SFL produces such advocates.
You can read more about SFL Success Stories here: www.studentsforliberty.org/successstories. Question 3:
I am sorry to disappoint you but I don’t have an opinion. I don’t listen to pop-music and my music taste is kinda weird since I enjoy classical and neoclassical music, metalcore/deathcore, and, of course, electronic music.
Fun fact: I used to be a "techno-boy" when I was younger – with blonde-dyed spiky hair and all that jazz. No, I won’t upload a picture. However, I have recently enjoyed neo-Nordic folklore stuff that you hear on the Vikings tv show. Follow me on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/user/w0lfsen
How does SFL make a difference in the world?
By educating tens of thousands of people on the ideas of liberty. We also provide countless opportunities for people to become better advocates. This will lead to a freer future since thousands of SF alumni will continue to make a difference for liberty in their respective fields.Part of how we do this is by hosting awesome events. As you may know, our International Students For Liberty Conference (ISFLC), is now LibertyCon. It brings together over 1.5K liberty activists, academics, journalists, and more from across the globe for a great weekend in Washington, D.C.
You can learn more and register here: https://www.libertycon.com/
What is the most rewarding aspect of being CEO of SFL?
Many, many things.I alluded to the fact that my life was changed by SFL. I have experienced personal growth and learned how I can produce value.Let me tell you a quick story on this first: In 2011, European Students For Liberty was founded. I ended in the same room with some of SFL’s first activists who are now doing amazing work. In the room was...
-Alexander McCobin, SFL founder and current CEO of Conscious Capitalism
-Fred Roeder, SFL’s current Chief Strategy Officer and Managing Director of the Consumer Choice Center
-Gabrielle McCobin (then Gabrielle Shiner), Customer Service and Community Manager of Impossible Foods Inc.
-Eglė Markevičiūtė, Director of GLIK in Lithuania
-And other dedicated activists
Back then we were much younger and in different positions. But we were all in the same conference room at the Institute for Economic Affairs in London, strategizing about how to best advance the ideas of liberty.They were talking about the movements in different countries and people we can connect one another with to be effective agents of social and political change. I felt intimidated in the face of people who were often younger or the same age as me yet so much more knowledgeable and skilled. However, I want to be challenged and SFL did that. I quickly learned that the organization trusted me to do great things. I raised money to run the first-ever training program in Europe and worked with a team to organize an event with 300 people. The organization showed me that I can produce value, and that was fulfilling in itself.Now, I want to give young people as many opportunities as possible. To help them find joy in the ideas of liberty and to connect them with opportunities to grow as individuals. Talking to those who are empowered and successful because of SFL is deeply meaningful to me. It's the most rewarding aspect of my job.I also thoroughly enjoy working with our thousands of donors. These men and women have so much passion for the organization. They deeply care and invest their hard-earned resources into our mission. Working with them and showing them the fruits of our labor is also very rewarding.
Do you think the libertarian movement does a good job branding itself and how might we improve the ways in which we communicate our ideas to people who are not already receptive to them?
This is an excellent and broad question so let me answer it the best I can.Short answer: No. The libertarian image is not that good.FEE actually does a great job in analyzing this and learning more about how we are perceived by different demographics. Libertarians love to be controversial and say things like “taxation is theft." People who are not already libertarian really dislike this. Libertarians will say, “but it is true, Wolf.” And my response is, yes – so what?The question is: do we want to become more effective as a movement or not? that means being more effective in how we communicate the ideas. It also means avoiding the echo-chamber issue.
Let me suggest some ways we can be more effective:(1) We have to be the better people: Explaining the idea and the history of human flourishment isn't enough. We also have to be the better people. Too many libertarians put people off because they depict many things in black and white. We often don't acknowledge the concerns that others have and that can make us come across as dogmatic and unkind. I know this to be true since I used to be like that. This can push people away. In contrast, by listening to others, embodying intellectual humility, and staying respectful when others aren’t, libertarians can win.
-Ideologies opposed to liberty...
Every ideology probably thinks that they have the smartest and most well-read people. While this might be true, the willingness to read thinkers who advocate for bigger government or a less free society is quite limited. To give you one example: currently, all pro-liberty organizations on campus focus on free-speech and so do we. However, few understand that free speech is not a value of many folks on the left anymore. Many libertarians have never read Marcuse’s article on repressive tolerance. How can we be effective advocates without understanding the arguments from “the other side”? We need to be better than that.
-Psychology... How do we come across? How do we persuade others? What are my own shortcomings as an advocate, thinker, and communicator? These questions are important to ponder and will enable humility. For instance, “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt shows one how irrational we all can be when it comes to talking politics and religion. Many other books touch on this topic.(3) LabelsWe need to be aware that some of the words we use have connotations. Capitalism v. free markets, libertarian v. pro-freedom, etc. Different people are receptive to different language.
(4) Character matters
Our goal as advocates should be to hear people say, “My friend _ is a libertarian. He's a really great guy and has some interesting ideas, too."Does someone who is open-minded and not a libertarian want to have a beer with you? If yes, that’s a good sign.
Dr. von Lauer, I think it is unfair to say that libertarianism has an image problem based off the catch phrase "taxation is theft" for a few reasons.First of all, it suggests that this phrase is the go to or only response for libertarians. It isn't and if anything it is limited to a smaller percentage of libertarians who would say this and only this.Second, like many other terms employed by libertarians, you have to go on to qualify it, pin it down, tease out the precise meaning intended when it is used (why is it theft?) with people not familiar with the broad landscape of thought, but that's fine. It is more than fine, it is a plus. Good terms are to start conversations, not end them. And while I do not utilize this phrase, it works that it engages the other person.
I hope this addresses your "so what?". Those who identify as libertarians are made up of thousands of diverse people who utilize different approaches so I just found it a tad disingenuous to lump all them together with one catch phrase and say libertarianism has bad marketing.
Dear Mr. Peterson, Thank you for your comment. Please let me be clear that I agree with the statement. This was just an example to illustrate that sometimes our own memes, slogans, buzzwords that we see in a positive way are offputting to others. This research comes from FEE so I just cited this as an example. Your first point: I hope you are right. I see it a lot within the student movement. Your second point: Yes, provocation and explanation can work together as a tool of persuasion. You are right I should have added a "tend to be controversial". It is just what I see. Are you disagreeing with me that libertarianism (on average) has a bad reputation? Again, I hope you are right and my assessment is wrong. Maybe someone from FEE can shine some light with data on this.
I think it has a bad reputation, sure. I just don't think it has to do with that particular phrase as opposed to strawman claims progressives and coservatives have about us, and regardless of what we do to make a better image the bad one will remain.
What are the differences between promoting liberty in North America (US-Canada) versus promoting liberty abroad?
Every individual, city, region, and country is receptive to liberty in varying degrees and for various reasons.
One may promote liberty in Missouri in a much different way than they do in Massachusetts. That’s just the market reality. Again, every individual is unique.Hayek has taught us about the importance of local knowledge. SFL takes this to heart. Therefore, we empower students to pursue different projects and various types of activism at their respective universities. I am in no position to tell someone in Ohio what campaigns to run or what to focus on if it’s a local issue. This is especially true on the international stage. SFL leaders in South Korea know what pressing issues on the ground that they need to address better than I would.It’s the basic – yet innovative – libertarian idea that individuals in the marketplace know what’s best. This translates into SFL’s grassroots network and how we empower students to be the change they want to see.
The local circumstances and the differences of time and place need different responses. In some countries, you cannot use words like capitalism and freedom because it could get you in trouble. Our students there talk about entrepreneurship or some other topics that resonate with the local audience. There are differences in strategy, topics, demographics, and even terms.
Some general observations: In North America people often take liberty for granted. There is a rich environment with pro-liberty organizations and there are opportunities to learn, network, participate everywhere. Internationally we are often the only game in town.
Furthermore, if you or your relatives have experienced Soviet-style socialism or have seen the Berlin Wall coming down, liberty has often a different quality to you. It is personal and direct. These experiences often make a huge difference in motivation.
Has there been a qualitative difference/improvement in SFL recruits and CC development in recent years?
Yes, we have been improving our quality. Last year, we heightened the criteria for our leaders despite an increase of applications by 25 percent. This translated to fewer yet higher quality leaders.We have become more selective with who we allow into our student volunteer programs. That means SFL has brought on more effective student activists. It has actually increased our reach tremendously and we have seen a spike in events, new members, and a significant increase in media hits for our students.
Hi. Dr. von Laer,
Thank you for all the work you do across the world for our organization.
What roles can we take in our communities to lead by example and demonstrate that libertarianism isn't a country club? Libertarians are often seen as greedy or just a**holes, and many times I encounter Facebook comments that prove that point.
Also, what is one thing you wished more people knew about you or about SFL?
Hello Dr. von Laer,
How has Students for Liberty been active in Latin America, specifically during the ongoing crisis in Venezuela? Further, what are some of the biggest challenges facing the liberty-minded communities in these regions?
Our leaders in Latin America face some challenges that make their activism unique.One of the main issues is that the region has a significant lack of formal education – this includes little-to-no campus life. It also means our main audience is often not well read in the ideas of liberty. In most cases, our audience is focused on short-term issues – like making a living – rather than abstract ideas and academia. So again, we cannot have elevated conversations, but very concrete discussions about how a liberty-oriented policy can increase the general well-being of a society. This translates into simpler narratives, not big dissertations on authors or books.In the case of Venezuela, which has the most hostile political environment in the region, our leaders take a more personal approach. They cannot have big public events or big media appearances. Instead, they take a one-on-one approach. They often host small gatherings by invitation only where the ideas of liberty are discussed in a more intimate setting. They still do some public events, like free speech walls, but they are not publicized. This approach is necessary since the hostility has even landed two of our leaders in jail for only participating in protests.
In Venezuela, basic goods are often impossible to find. Many of our students have to spend a great deal of time finding food, goods to trade, and even cash. These economic challenges affect them emotionally, and it is not rare for them to struggle to find necessary medicine for themselves and their loved ones.
Nevertheless, Venezuela is one of our most successful countries in terms of activism. They are one of the countries with the most local coordinators – 30 leaders that have organized 22 events since June with 666 participants. One of our Venezuelan leaders, Vanessa Novoa, is an Executive Board member and helps with campaigns on a regional level. Other leaders are active blog contributors and editors of the Ama-gi magazine.
Check out this recent story about Jorge a leader of ours in the Huffington Post: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/jorge-jraissati-the-young-leader-of-the-venezuelanus59fbb593e4b01ec0dede40ee
Hi Dr.Von Laer, thank you for doing this Ask Me Anything session. What would be your advice to a young Briton in Brexit Britain? In these troubled times, what would be your advice to young people (from 15 until 80 years old)?
I would focus less on politics and more on improving your own life as well as influencing others around you.People get too hung up on politics and believe that a politician will save them or that the only way to change the world is through politics. That’s just not true, and as believers in the free market, we especially know this. We believe in entrepreneurship. Political media only reports about negative stuff and it can make one depressed. It is more fulfilling to focus on things that you can change.
As for London – they do need to reform their zoning laws, or just get rid of them. I loved living in London but the high rent was enabled by nonsensical zoning laws and other stupid regulations that made it too expensive. There is a lot to be gained by deregulating the housing market.
Hi Dr. Von Laer,Thanks for hosting this AMA! SFL's students seem to be the most hopeful, optimistic kids in the movement. In a world where it's so easy to be negative, how does SFL cultivate an environment of optimism?
Slogans: Peace, Love, Liberty. Don’t Tread on Anyone.
First of all, being selective: I would rather have someone in the organization that only understands a fraction of the ideas but is humble and eager to learn the ideas than someone who has read every Ayn Rand and Mises book but is arrogant and off-putting in his or her social behavior.
Secondly, stressing the beauty of free markets: Just a couple of generations ago we were toiling in mud and barely surviving past 30. Now, billions of people have been lifted out of poverty and can make a better life for themselves and their children. It isn’t a perfect world but we have to sometimes stop and pause to understand just how much free markets have given us. Just reread I, Pencil from FEE to regain a sense of wonder for the world.It’s our job to instill this sense of wonder in others, too!
Hello Dr. Von Laer!
Thank you so much for hosting this AMA session. I appreciate all the work you put into SFL!
What advice would you give to students, currently involved in the liberty movement, who want to make this passion into a lucrative career after completing their education? And what are your favorite books, liberty-minded or otherwise?
Thank you again,
Do a lot of extracurricular activities.Being in SFL is a great start. There is a reason why over 60% of the event-organizing team at the Institute for Humane Studies are former conference organizers for SFL. Our organization is a pipeline to a career in the liberty movement. Try to produce value for yourself and others. Become good at networking (again, with a focus on reciprocity).
The best intellectual book is Socialism by Mises. It is dense but provides you with a firm understanding of the costs and problems that come with every government action. The socialist calculation problem is pivotal to understand why we fight for liberty and free markets.
Viktor Frankl's “Man’s Search for Meaning” is also a fantastic book. Very moving and meaningful!
What are the objectives of SFL's Top 50 Schools and HBCU Outreach? Has SFL been meeting those objectives?
Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU)
Before we started this project we sadly had no representation in the HBCU realm. Now, only within few months, we have several trained leaders who are recruiting many more activists. We have engaged roughly 200 students on 9 campuses in the short time since we began this project.
The ideas of liberty are universal and transcend gender, race, religion, and origin. However, we have to face the fact that black Americans are largely absent from our movement. One way we address that is by reaching out to communities such as the HBCU realm and engaging with students. We try to make a difference here!
Top 50 schools and Ivy LeagueThe top schools are often the ones that are staunchly progressive – they push the most for anti-free speech policies and embody socialist sentiments. We need to make sure that conservatives and libertarians can have a voice on said campuses. That’s the reason why we started this project – to target universities that need intellectual diversity and especially the ideas of liberty.
Since we started this project, SFL has doubled our leadership at the top 50 schools. SFL just recently helped sponsor a gun rights forum at Carleton College that had about 100 attendees!SFL has been making good progress with growing the ideas of liberty at Ivy League schools. We have more than doubled our leadership at the Ivy League schools, and we are optimistic about establishing a sustainable presence on these campuses.
Hi Dr. Von Laer!
I’m curious who your favorite classical liberal philosophers are and why?
Let’s broadly define philosophy. Hayek – because of his breadth of research and the emphasis he gives on complexity, limitations of knowledge, cognition, legal philosophy, and the marvelous price system.
What are some of your favorite books about liberty and why?
These are my favorite:
(1) Socialism by Mises (see above post for the reasons)
(2) Law, Legislation, and Liberty by Hayek because it shows you the importance of a legal framework and an appreciation of spontaneous order (2) What should economists do? by Buchanan because it beautifully delineates economics as the science of human action from economics as a tool for social control
If you're a student leader with SFL and you're curious about student leadership opportunities through FEE, pop over to my AMA! https://community.fee.org/topic/i-m-tricia-beck-peter-head-of-fee-s-campus-ambassador-program-ask-me-anything-friday-december-22nd-12-4pm/#e9224b85-84ec-4cb4-a6f1-a8510122c69c