Hundreds of libertarian activists and young professionals recently descended upon the Washington D.C. area for LibertyCon. This conference put on by Students for Liberty provides networking opportunities and a forum to discuss libertarian ideas in a series of panels and presentations. They spanned a wide variety of topics, from the merits and drawbacks of a universal basic income to examining the greatest regulatory threats to the Internet.
One presentation caught the ire of a few Democrats in Congress. This presentation, led by Dr. Caleb Rossiter, a retired statistics professor from American University, argued that there should be a more robust public debate about whether carbon dioxide was the cause of the “climate catastrophe.” Rossiter argued there should be a more dispassionate review of the data surrounding climate science, and be more room for debate about causes and effects.
To Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), this was unacceptable. The pair penned a letter to the CEOs of Facebook, Microsoft, and Google to chastise them for being high-level sponsors of a conference that featured such a presentation. It is worthwhile to note that they did not sponsor that presentation itself, but the conference in general.
It’s quite upsetting that two members of Congress would take time to send a letter making sure private companies get back in line after they sponsored a conference at which one presentation among dozens did not align with these politicians’ opinions on the climate. The conference also featured a debate on the merits of a carbon tax, and included a speaker who made the libertarian case in favor of such a tax.
To be sure, no self-professed libertarian should favor a carbon tax. Nonetheless, this panel demonstrates the openness of LibertyCon and its attendees to engage in an open debate on this issue, something apparently Pingree and Ocasio-Cortez oppose.
In an afternoon speech entitled “Arguments Libertarians Shouldn’t Make” by economist David Friedman, son of the lauded free-market economist Milton Friedman, he argued one such argument is that climate change isn’t real or isn’t caused by human activity. Friedman stated unequivocally that he believes climate change to be real and man-made. This certainly counters Pingree and Ocasio-Cortez’s narrative that LibertyCon was an anti-environmentalist free-for-all.
While it’s clear LibertyCon represented a forum for debate and engagement rather than a single-tracked agenda, it’s still concerning that this letter was sent in the first place. Members of Congress should not chastise private-sector leaders for sponsoring events like LibertyCon that encourage civic engagement of a younger demographic that has historically lacked in that area. This is a veiled form of intimidation.
It’s also ironic that one of this letter’s signatories is Ocasio-Cortez. She is nationally recognized for grassroots campaigning that led her to a shocking political upset victory. She has been willing to challenge conventional wisdom on many issues and does not shy from debate on issues and positions that are considered out of step with the mainstream.
This type of attitude, regardless of the conclusions to which she ultimately comes, will undoubtedly make our national discourse healthier. If any elected official should champion conventions that increase political participation amongst millennials and are willing to take on issues that few others are willing to talk about, it ought to be Ocasio-Cortez.
The fact that members of Congress were willing to write such a letter raises other issues with regards to political speech. Not more than five years ago, the nation found out that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had singled out and targeted politically conservative organizations for increased scrutiny within the agency. Elected officials going after sponsors of political events they don’t like calls to mind some of the same dark themes behind the IRS scandal and should be cause for concern.
Perhaps more concerning than the letter, however, is the introduction of the so-called “For the People Act,” H.R. 1. The legislation, which Pingree and Ocasio-Cortez cosponsor, would force all organizations involved in political activity to disclose their donors. With the IRS’s history of targeting groups for their political affiliation and members of Congress chastising private sponsors of political conferences, it’s not difficult to fathom the chilling effect on political speech that would occur if such legislation was passed into law.
The 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill stated that if an idea “is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.” If members of Congress take issue with certain opinions, they should be willing to fearlessly discuss them in a public forum, as the attendees of LibertyCon did. They should be confident in their convictions and trust the merits of their arguments. Our leaders who swore an oath to defend the Constitution should not only defend free speech, but be the foremost advocates for open discussion wherever possible.