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The World’s Biggest Libertarian Student Organization Comes to Miami

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“Students for Liberty” is the world’s largest libertarian student organization. On October 14/15, 500 delegates from 50 countries gathered in Miami.

On October 14, the event kicked off with an interview between Students for Liberty CEO Wolf von Laer and John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods Market. Mackey studied philosophy and religion for several semesters while working part-time at a vegetarian consumer cooperative. In 1978, he and his girlfriend founded a vegetarian supermarket, SaferWay, which evolved into Whole Foods Market two years later through a merger. He recounts how, after starting the company, he initially lived on $200 a month, and since he had no place to live, he and his girlfriend slept in the store. Since there was no shower, they had to wash in the sink. But he has fond memories of those days: He was in love, starting the business was a great adventure, and he didn’t actually need money privately. Later, he became very wealthy, taking the company public on the NASDAQ technology exchange and, in 2017, it was acquired by Amazon for $13.7 billion. Today, Whole Foods operates more than 500 stores in the US, Canada and the UK.


Capitalism enthusiast, vegan and animal rights activist

Whole Foods was the first grocery chain to commit to animal welfare. Mackey was influenced by animal rights activist Lauren Ornelas, who criticized Whole Foods’ animal welfare standards at a shareholder meeting in 2003. Mackey gave Ornelas his email address, and they corresponded on the issue of how the company treated ducks in particular. Mackey became concerned with the problems associated with factory farming and decided to switch to a mostly vegetarian diet that included only eggs from his own chickens. Since 2006, he has been living on an exclusively plant-based diet. He advocates stricter animal welfare standards. A vegetarian, supporter of animal welfare and enthusiastic fan of capitalism – I like that, because I am all of those things myself.

Mackey is an ardent proponent of capitalism. “Capitalism is the greatest thing that mankind has ever done,” Mackey declares during the event. The number of people living in extreme poverty, he reminds us, has dropped from about 90 percent to less than 10 percent since the capitalist era began 200 years ago. 

He wrote a book on the subject of Conscious Capitalism, and triggered a shitstorm when he published an article against Obama Care in the Wall Street Journal in August 2009. He did not only offer criticism, he also made ten suggestions on how to reform America’s ailing healthcare system. But his solution was not  more government – as with Obama – but more market. Left-wing groups called for a boycott of his businesses. 


Wolf von Laer pays tribute to the modest, soft-spoken entrepreneur for his courage in taking political positions. But Mackey himself says he would no longer write such a political article after his experience in 2009, because the response to it was so damaging to his business. That’s how it is today, and not only in the Unitd States: Political statements from business people are only tolerated if they are critical of capitalism or “woke.” Otherwise, there is the threat of a shitstorm and boycotts, as was the case against Whole Foods. “Cancel Culture” is the name given to this anti-culture, which is nothing less than an all-out attack on freedom of expression.

Drug legalization – a dividing line between libertarians and conservatives

Libertarians are caught between two stools – by European standards, they combine both right-wing and left-wing policy positions. On the one hand, they are enthusiastic supporters of capitalism and stridently anti-socialism, against the welfare state and redistribution. On the other hand, they are vehemently in favor of LBGTQ rights and drug legalization, for example. The drug issue marks a dividing line between conservatives and libertarians, according to a panel discussion on “It's Time to End the Drug War.” One participant, who used to oppose drug legalization and now supports it for all drugs, says the turning point for her was realizing that what she personally liked or disliked had nothing to do with what should be legal and what should be illegal. The panelists taking part in this discussion at Students for Liberty agree that state has lost the war against drugs, and legalizing drugs will lead to fewer drug deaths and less crime.


“What has happened in Venezuela could happen anywhere”

The convention moves on to another topic: Why are more and more countries in Latin America sliding into socialism? Daniel DiMartino, a Venezuelan who fled the socialist country – along with a quarter of the population – and has now lived in the United States for six years, speaks of an “epidemic of envy” in Latin America. But he also criticizes conservative governments who, when in power, have not seized the opportunity to introduce the kind of radical free-market reforms that truly change people’s lives. He cites Maurico Macri in Argentina as an example.

He does, however, think that the U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, despite the fact they so often come under criticism – also from libertarians – are correct: The sanctions, he is convinced, have helped to force the Venezuelan government to make correct its course, and this has in turn helped to improve the situation for normal people somewhat. The socialists’ claim that U.S. sanctions are to blame for Venezuela’s problems is wrong. In fact, he says, the opposite is true.

Martha Bueno, whose parents fled Cuba and who now lives in Miami, warns young American supporters of socialism not to be overconfident that what happened in Venezuela could not happen in their country. As she explains, Venezuela was a democracy and had one of the highest standards of living in the world. And, she reminds us, Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. She is convinced that no one ever would have believed that the socialists could run the country into the abyss, robbing it of its freedom and prosperity, in such a short space of time. But that is exactly what happened. And, she warns, it can happen here too, in the United States.


Conclusion: It was worth coming to Miami, to this event with so many interesting discussions. Wolf von Laer, the CEO of Students for Liberty, has succeeded in building the organization into the world’s largest network for libertarian students. The annual convention, to which fewer students can come than one would wish, partly because of the costs involved, is not actually the most important thing Students for Liberty does: that would be the thousands of events the organization holds with students around the world every year.

Rainer Zitelmann is the author of the book Hitler’s National Socialism.

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