A look back at the most inspirational liberty event of the year

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You never know where your next big idea will originate — a dynamic speaker, a moving video, an interactive workshop, a chance conversation. Inspiration can arise from almost anywhere, and a primary reason that Atlas Network organizes Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner every year is to facilitate an environment in which there are as many opportunities as possible to learn, connect, network, and be receptive to new ideas from colleagues around the world.

This year’s big event included more sources of inspiration than ever before, with speakers, panels, and workshops that explored practical strategies for navigating public policy, research methodology, engagement, messaging, fundraising, and much more — all from an array of unique global perspectives.

Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner serves as the culmination for participants in Think Tank MBA, Atlas Network’s flagship training program within Atlas Leadership Academy, which brings leaders within both new and established think tanks throughout the world together for a 10-day strategic planning curriculum. Think Tank MBA participants completed the “Campaign Challenge” course, during which groups chose a topic and created a campaign to influence public policy around the issue. Participants also began practicing their 60-second presentations for the John Blundell Elevator Pitch competition. The program concluded on Tuesday, Nov. 10, coinciding with the start of Liberty Forum, where Alvaro Salas, founder and executive director of Democracy Lab in Costa Rica, won for his elevator pitch that artfully wove his personal story of overcoming an early life of hardship together with his dedication to advancing the ideals of freedom and liberty in Costa Rica.

The conference kicked off with Atlas Network President Alex Chafuen’s reflections on the life and legacy of founder Sir Antony Fisher, who would have turned 100 this past June, and with an announcement of the 2015 Sir Antony Fisher Award by Ed Feulner, long-time leader of the Heritage Foundation. This year’s Fisher Award was presented to the Fraser Institute, an Atlas Network partner based in Canada, for its book What America’s Decline in Economic Freedom Means for Entrepreneurship and Prosperity, which explains the relationship between entrepreneurship and economic freedom, and their role in economic recovery.

After this opening celebration, the annual event swung into full interactive mode, with concurrent sessions of speed networking, generously sponsored by State Policy Network, and the brand-new “Un-Conference” workshopping sessions. In a fast-paced format, participants quickly met new freedom champions from partner think tanks around the world, and had a chance to hear new perspectives about the challenges associated with their work spreading the ideas of liberty and transforming public policy. In the Un-Conference, representatives of 10 organizations had an opportunity to bypass the one-side nature of most conference presentations by engaging directly with other participants. With the help of trained facilitators, attendees and presenters worked together to take think tank projects to new levels of ambition and effectiveness.

The first day of Liberty Forum continued with Think Tank Shark Tank, in which four graduates of Atlas Leadership Academy stood before an audience of over 300 and pitched their next big think tank project, having only six minutes to compete for a $25,000 grand prize, generously sponsored by the Rising Tide Foundation. These innovators are the leading minds in the global freedom movement. This year, the panel of think tank luminary judges selected Admir Čavalić of Bosnia and Herzegovina-based Multi as the winner, for his “Balkan Liberty Fest” project proposal. The Balkan area has a long history of regional conflict, suffering under a half-century of communist rule and four years of brutal war. “Balkan Liberty Fest” will be an annual, three-day event to discuss the ideas of liberty and the future of regional countries, with a strong message for change.

That same afternoon, a distinguished group of think tank leaders took to the stage to speak about the secrets of their success, and the pitfalls that must be overcome in order an impact on the world of ideas. Luis Ball, an Atlas network board member, served as moderator for a panel that included Ed Feulner, former president of the Heritage Foundation (United States); Cristián Larroulet of Centro de Emprendimiento e Innovación (Chile); David Nott, president of the Reason Foundation (United States); Michel Kelly-Gagnon of the Montreal Economic Institute (Canada); and Darcy Olsen, president of the Goldwater Institute (United States).

Property rights are fundamental to free and prosperous societies, so Atlas Network’s 2015 Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner devoted a “Big Ideas” session to “Property Rights in Action.” There, attendees were able to hear from three leaders of Atlas Network partner organizations currently working to secure property rights, especially for land ownership, in South Africa, India, and Honduras. Moderator Joe Lehman, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, led a discussion with Eustace Davie of the Free Market Foundation (FMF) (South Africa), Barun Mitra of the Liberty Institute (India), and Guillermo Peña Panting of Fundación Eléutera (Honduras), who all provided insight into how the concept of property rights has evolved from thousands of years ago into modern times, and explored how those rights can be secured in innovative new ways through modern technology.

That afternoon, conference participants had the opportunity to ask a panel of philanthropists what they look for in funding opportunities, and what groups could do better to earn lasting support. Moderated by Atlas Network Director of Outreach Stephanie Giovanetti Lips, the panelists included Roberta Herzberg of the John Templeton Foundation (United States); Nikos Monoyios of Eagle Valley Ranch (Greece); and Peter Lipsett of DonorsTrust & Donors Capital Fund (United States). Acclaimed photographer Judd Weiss also led a special photography workshop to coach think tanks in how to create dynamic images that cast their work in an entirely new light.

The “Ukraine at a Crossroads” session provided a detailed snapshot of this country in transition, with panelists Yulia Tychkivska and Vladimir Fedorin, cofounders this past July of the new Bendukidze Free Market Centre. The 2014 deposing of former President Viktor Yanukovych has provided an opportunity to reform Ukraine’s struggling economy, which currently ranks 162nd out of 178 ranked countries on the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. Little has been done since then, however, to shore up Ukrainian property rights, strengthen the rule of law, lower government spending, or open markets to international investment.

Watch the full India Awakes documentary

One of the most inspiring stories of the prosperity that arises from economic freedom can be seen in the documentary India Awakes, produced by Atlas Network partner Free to Choose Network. When almost an entire society begins to rise from poverty and approach prosperity, it’s important to understand how and why it happens. India Awakes, screened before a ballroom filled with Liberty Forum attendees, explores the story of how a country mired in poverty for hundreds of years has seen a dramatic change of course in the space of only a couple of decades. After the screening, three participants in the film’s creation participated in a panel discussion: Tom Skinner, executive producer; Dr. Tom G. Palmer, Atlas Network's executive vice president for international programs; and Barun Mitra, founder and director of Liberty Institute in India. The full documentary is now available to watch online, on the Free to Choose Roku channel, YouTube, Vimeo, and The filmmakers hope that by appealing to the hearts and minds of viewers, each production will have a long and influential shelf life.

Instilling a new generation with a solid appreciation for the ideas of liberty is a crucial strategy for achieving greater freedom and prosperity in the future, so Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner takes time each year to focus on the young people of the global liberty movement. Atlas Network board member Linda Whetstone announced the 2015 winner of the $3,000 Smith Student Outreach Award, European Students for Liberty, which provides support to students in Europe, educating the next generation of leaders in the global liberty movement. The annual European Students for Liberty Conference (ESFLC) offers students the opportunity to learn, exchange ideas, and build strategies to advance liberty in Europe.

The virtues of liberty are often intuitive for many of today’s young people, as they struggle to reconcile their individualist tendencies with top-down ideologies of any stripe. A panel titled “Motivating Millennials: Can the Freedom Movement Win Over the Next Generation?,” provided insight into the best strategies for engaging the next generation in the broader free market movement. Panelists included Gloria Álvarez of Movimiento Cívico Nacional (Guatemala), Christiana Hambro of Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) (United Kingdom) Milica Kostic of European Students for Liberty (Serbia), and Jared Meyer of Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (United States).

If self-control is necessary for free societies, is it something that people can learn? Moderator Tom G. Palmer, Atlas Network’s executive vice president of international programs, led a discussion in how people acquire the habits of self-control and rational thinking that make freedom more viable. Panelists included Jim Waters of the Waters Foundation (United States); Tom Keelin of (United States); and John Tierney of the New York Times (United States).

A passion for liberty is essential, but it's not enough. Successful organizations need ambitious and talented people who are committed to working together to achieve breakthrough success. Moderator Roger Ream of the Fund for American Studies (United States) led a discussion on how to find and retain a dream team of employees, which should be one of every think tank leader's biggest priorities. Panelists included Kristina Rasmussen of the Illinois Policy Institute (United States); Arpita Nepal of Samriddhi, the Prosperty Foundation (Nepal); and Bettina Horst of Libertad y Desarrollo (Chile)­.

Liberty advocates are sometimes left at a strategic disadvantage when proponents of proposals to raise the minimum wage pretend they hold the moral high ground. The truth, though, it’s anything but moral to deny an individual the freedom to contract, and to decrease their economic opportunities. Atlas Network Senior Fellow Deroy Murdock led a discussion in how liberty advocates can seize the moral high ground on this issue and articulate a path to prosperity that puts workers and their rights at the center of its message. Speakers included John Tillman of the Illinois Policy Institute (United States); and Mark Skousen, economist and founder of FreedomFest (United States).

A highlight of every year’s Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner is the annual Liggio Lecture, named in honor of the late Leonard Liggio, Atlas Network's long-time executive vice president of academics, and now in its third year. This year, constitutional scholar Randy Barnett explained how constitutional interpretation in the United States has been subject to an ideological divide for generations, but a growing legal movement of institutions and scholars is devoted to restoring the U.S. Constitution to its rightful position as the defender of individual liberty.

Knowing how target audiences consume and interpret information is key to the success of the liberty movement. Thanks to Atlas Network’s Lights, Camera, Liberty! program, partners all over the world are working together to tell powerful stories through video and film. Atlas Network hand-picked a selection of five short videos for a film festival of shorts chosen from among the most successful that have come out of the Lights, Camera, Liberty! program. This year’s winning film series was Love Gov, produced by Atlas Network partner the Independent Institute. Love Gov features Scott “Gov” Govinsky, a character who personifies the federal government as an overbearing boyfriend who imposes his “good intentions” on an idealistic college student, Alexis. Each episode follows her relationship with “Gov” as his intrusions wreak comedic havoc on her life professionally, financially, and socially. The lighthearted approach of the videos speaks to audiences on a personal level.

Atlas Network partner the Institute for Justice (IJ) also debuted a new short film, dramatizing the devastation that families face when somebody they love is dying and they can’t find a bone marrow match. Titled Everything, the film explores the lengths to which a family might go to persuade a reluctant donor to follow through if they had a chance to interact. John Kramer, vice president for communications at IJ and executive producer of the film, completed the Lights, Camera, Liberty! program in 2014, and used his new filmmaking skills to develop the script for Everything, spearheading the casting and production of this touching narrative that puts a personal face on the real-life struggle faced by thousands of dying leukemia patients and their families every year.

Every year, the conference culminates with Freedom Dinner, where this year’s keynote address was provided by renowned scholar and Templeton Leadership Fellow Charles Murray. Markets and civil society are buried under a mountain of regulation, and politicians have no incentive to slow the deluge. How can people extricate themselves from this web of regulation? One potential solution is to engage in widespread civil disobedience, argued Murray. “The federal government only gets away with it because there’s no pushback,” he said during his speech. Overcoming the regulatory state requires people to resist government encroachments, and if enough people do so, bureaucratic enforcers won’t be able to keep up with prosecuting all the people who refuse to comply.

The evening also included an announcement of the winner of the Templeton Freedom Award, won by Atlas Network partner the Acton Institute for its Poverty, Inc. documentary. The 91-minute film, which draws from more than 200 interviews filmed in 20 countries, unearths an uncomfortable side of charity we can no longer ignore and exposes the international industry that has arisen to exploit global poverty.

One of the liveliest events of this year’s Freedom Dinner was the auction of a first-edition copy of Atlas Shrugged from the personal collection of the late Leonard Liggio, Atlas Network’s long-time executive vice president of academics. Atlas Network board member Gerry Ohrstrom won the historic volume for a bid of $10,000, which will go toward funding Atlas Network’s many programs that support the cultivation of free-market think tanks worldwide.

As much as this summary covers, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. It’s impossible to track the countless personal stories and connections that conference participants experience during their time together, but those are the moments of inspiration that change the world. The global freedom movement’s most inspirational event of the year proved to be a resounding success again in 2015, so make plans now to join again next year. Liberty Forum will take place Sept. 24–25 in Miami, Fla., just after the General Meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society (Sept. 18–23) which the Atlas Network team is honored to be organizing as well. Freedom Dinner 2016 will also take place in New York City at a time to be determined.