February 21, 2017 Print

Photo by Robyn P. Harberger, Design Director at Students for Liberty.

Each year, the International Students For Liberty Conference (ISFLC) recognizes an alumnus of the year, granting the award to a former student who has made a significant contribution to advancing freedom. This year, Students for Liberty (SFL) presented the Alumnus of the Year Award to Dr. Tom G. Palmer, Atlas Network’s George M. Yeager Chair for Advancing Liberty and executive vice president for international programs. Palmer’s award was part of a full weekend of Atlas Network participation during the historic 10th annual ISFLC.

Tom G Palmer and Alexander McCobin
Dr. Tom G Palmer and Students For Liberty co-founder Alexander McCobin. Photo by Robyn P. Harberger, Design Director at Students for Liberty.

Clark Ruper, Atlas Network’s director of development and former vice president and chief operating officer of SFL, explains why he holds Dr. Palmer in the highest esteem as the most deserving SFL Alumnus of the Year:

On Feb. 18, Students For Liberty honored Atlas Network’s Dr. Tom G. Palmer with its Alumnus of the Year Award at the 10th annual International Students For Liberty Conference (ISFLC 2017). He shares this honor with many deserving recipients from past years, but I can attest that no one more deserves the honor more than Dr. Palmer. Many of his deeds have been conducted behind the scenes, and he is not one to boast, so it is worth taking a moment to reflect and appreciate how Tom has influenced the lives of so many over these past 10 years.

I am fortunate to have been witness to Tom’s impact on the student movement for liberty, as I was the first full-time employee at SFL starting in 2009, and going on to serve as vice president from then until 2015 when I joined Atlas Network. So I can say with confidence that no other individual, outside of the co-founders Alexander McCobin and Sloane Frost, played as important a role in the growth of the international student movement for liberty.

In the early days, most D.C. professional libertarians thought we would be another flash in the pan. They would pat us on the head and offer their best wishes, but we knew they were skeptical. Dr. Palmer, though, believed in us from the very beginning.

Tom was a constant source of inspiration, ideas, and hands-on advice in those early days. He edited our first business plan. He traveled to speak at all of our conferences. He even introduced us to major donors, putting his own reputation on the line to ensure we had the resources we needed to be successful.

In the spring of 2010, Tom came to us with a crazy idea: SFL should publish a book. Particularly a book on the writings of economist Frédéric Bastiat, in conjunction with a campaign that Atlas Network was running to spread his ideas. We had never attempted something so bold — and, as the only staffer, I would be the one figuring out how to make it happen. I was terrified, but Tom raised funds for it and connected us with editors and printers to help us in the process. It was not an easy process, but it was well worth the effort.

The final product, The Economics of Freedom: What Your Professors Won’t Tell You, was one of our greatest successes. It ended up being the first in a series of six books we would publish with Atlas Network, distributing more than 1 million copies in total to students in the United States, with more than 30 translations and republications conducted by Atlas Network partners around the world. It also led to one of my favorite SFL stories, where I was eating dinner in a D.C. restaurant near a campus and a student I had never met approached and said “You’re Clark Ruper right? I know you from Facebook. You’re the one who published The Economics of Freedom, right? Thanks so much, I just joined the new libertarian student group and I love it.” Conversations like that would never have happened without Dr. Palmer.

As our European, Latin American, Brazilian, African, and South Asian SFLers can tell you, Tom’s greatest feat was facilitating SFL’s international expansion. We held international ambitions from the very beginning, when a Ukrainian student attended the first SFL Conference in 2008. But the project did not begin in earnest until we launched European Students For Liberty in 2011. To be honest, I tried to stop the expansion at first. I worried that we had no idea how to conduct operations overseas, and we had our hands full defending liberty here at home.

But smart SFLers outvoted me, and it turns out Tom had already been planting the seeds long before we came along to harvest the fruit. He had been distributing books and organizing seminars to identify talented individuals who could lead our efforts there. Atlas Network then provided funds for the first European Students For Liberty Conference in 2011, and Tom delivered the closing keynote. The success of that effort encouraged us to repeat the same strategy on every continent, with Tom leading the way every time, scouting ahead to identify the students who would go on to become great champions of liberty.

This story is getting a little long, so I won’t get to share the other 20 examples or so that come to mind. No matter what, Tom was always there to help us through the hard times and push us to reach ever higher. Today, thousands upon thousands of Students For Liberty leaders are fighting for freedom on every inhabited continent. It has been an honor to work alongside Dr. Palmer and he has inspired me to devote my career to helping others advance the ideas of liberty around the world. I and every member and alumni of Students For Liberty owe him our deepest gratitude.

Thank you Tom. Upwards and onwards!


Atlas Network sessions at ISFLC 2017

Dr. Palmer offered a cautionary presentation about the rise of violent, fascist identity politics around the world during a breakout session titled “A New, Old Challenge: Global Anti-Libertarianism.” He identified three symbiotic ideological trends operating in the world today that oppose libertarian principles of peace, liberty, and toleration: the identity politics and zero-sum mentality of the politically correct social justice movement; populism and a yearning for an authoritarian regime led by a strongman; and radical political Islamism. Although each of these trends opposes the others as rivals, they feed on each other by sharing common operating principles of collectivism, statism, and compulsion.

Manifestations of these movements are appearing all over the world, Palmer pointed out, from the populist alt-right and the reactionary social justice warriors in the United States to fascist political parties and leaders in Russia, Hungary, Slovakia, Greece, and elsewhere, to terrorist organizations that twist religious principles for their own political ends. These movements are increasingly organized and operate from an intellectual base that explicitly rejects the ideas of liberty. “They do not want to live and let live,” Palmer said.

He has also expanded on the ideas from this session in an article and a podcast interview for the Cato Institute, where Palmer remains a senior fellow and director of Cato University.

“The moral goodness of liberty needs to be upheld, not only in head-to-head encounters with adversaries, but as a means of stiffening the resistance of classical liberals, lest they continue retreating,” Palmer wrote. “Freedom is not an illusion, but a great and noble goal. A life of freedom is better in every respect than a life of submission to others. Violence and antagonism are not the foundation of culture, but their negation. Now is the time to defend the liberty that makes possible a global civilization that enables friendship, family, cooperation, trade, mutual benefit, science, wisdom — in a word, life — and to challenge the modern anti-libertarian triumvirate and reveal the emptiness at its heart.”

Alexander Skouras, Atlas Network’s director of external relations, led a panel discussion about the many perspectives that Atlas Network partners have in their work advancing liberty around the world. He was joined by panelists Dalibor Rohac, research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C.; Pagona Stratoudakis, executive director of Ladies of Liberty Alliance (LOLA) in Washington, D.C.; and Ayesha Bilal, chief operating officer of Policy Research Institute of Market Economy (PRIME) in Pakistan.

As a student conference, ISFLC is filled with many students who have not yet had much experience stepping outside their comfort zone in standing up for the freedom of others who face radically different sets of circumstances throughout the world. Rohac outlined the threat that populism poses in Europe and throughout the world today, a phenomenon on both the left and right that enables angry popular majorities to override checks and balances, eliminate political opposition, destroy free speech, and enable authoritarian corruption. Stratoudakis focused on how messaging can make all the difference in attracting women to the liberty movement, connecting to the emotional component of how policy affects people’s lives and moving beyond the echo chamber of abstract policy debates. Bilal explained how PRIME must focus on economic freedom in the conservative and religious social culture of Pakistan, campaigning for tax reforms, tracking the government’s fiscal performance, and encouraging entrepreneurship in a climate that tends to favor state intervention as the first course of action.

Clark Ruper brought his experience as Atlas Network’s director of development to a workshop on fundraising for student groups. Although it was scheduled alongside many other interesting breakout debates and speeches, 25 student leaders showed up to learn the less-than-glamorous details of fundraising. Ruper covered many ins and outs of creating a proposal, researching potential donors, securing meetings, and making asks. But his biggest piece of advice was to “make a plan, put it on paper, work the plan, and don't be afraid to be told ‘no.’ If you are not hearing ‘no’ often, you are not asking often enough.”