San Francisco Libertarians Michael Edelstein, Aubrey Freedman, Marc Joffe and myself recently met for about an hour with Young Americans for Liberty development director Piyali Bhattacharya. She showed us a presentation on her laptop about YAL, describing the organization and highlighting its growth and what kinds of things it does, and we asked her lots of questions. Here are some points from that presentation and from Piyali's answers to some of our questions:
YAL has 300 chapters, each of which creates its own constitution that is approved by the national organization so long as it does not conflict with YAL's mission. My impression is that most or all of the chapters are student groups based on college campuses.
YAL has 26,000 members, 4,000 of whom are dues-paying members and pay $10 a year which gives them access to materials
The group has been growing rapidly, with membership and fundraising both on a steady upward curve
YAL has 5 full-time paid staffers, including Piyali. She is paid $40,000 a year; she said the development director is paid $60,000 a year, and that none of them is paid a lot of money. Salaries are not publicly listed on the group's website ( www.YALiberty.org
), but she said that the information would be made available to anyone who asked.
YAL has 7 part-time regional directors who are paid around $1000 per month. These individuals travel around to campuses and help start new chapters.
YAL has state chairs in 30 states, including California (Adam Weinberg, based in the Sacramento area). These individuals are volunteers who have typically been with the group for a while and are often recent college graduates
The group also has four interns per semester (presumably volunteers working out of a national office)
As a non-profit, YAL is both a 501c3 and a 501c4 organization, meaning that donors can choose to make either tax-deductible donations which can't be used for political activities (501c3) or non-tax-deductible donations which can be used for political activities (501c4)
YAL conducts monthly national events such as its "Choose Charity" event (presumably encouraging people to support voluntary charity as an alternative to coercively funded government programs)
YAL has had a presence at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) at least a couple separate times, and played a role in garnering Ron Paul his straw poll victory at the 2009 event with a historic 31% of the votes cast
Individual YAL chapters choose which events to engage in. Common activities include building mini Berlin Walls and gulags on campuses in order to teach about the dangers of tyranny, building "debt clocks" to highlight the national debt, participating in local Tea Party events, and petitioning against war.
YAL has a $1.7 million national budget for 2012 (up from $1.1 million in 2011). All of YAL's donations come from individuals (there are no institutional donors).
There is no democracy or other bottom-up governance in the organization. The national board consists of the paid staffers, who do not hold regular meetings, but discuss things informally. Ultimate organizational power is in the hands of founder and executive director Jeff Frazee (former Ron Paul national student coordinator and presumably one of the paid full-time staffers). Piyali said that if she or others hypothetically disagreed with his decisions, they would quit.
The organization sees itself as occupying a unique niche in the libertarian movement by being engaged in politics and looking to change the system from within (in contrast with Students for Liberty, which Piyali described as not being interested in electoral politics)
YAL does not have a formal set of issue positions, but generally adheres to Ron Paul's focus on limiting government spending and taxation, opposing unconstitutional wars and overseas military involvement by the U.S. government, and a sound monetary policy, while seeking to end federal involvement in social issues so these issues are decided at the state or local level (Paul provided seed money to start the organization -- Piyali told us the amount but I did not catch it)
Some YAL members (including Piyali herself) are pro-life, others are pro-choice; many disagree with Ron Paul's somewhat unlibertarian position on immigration, favoring more of an open borders approach; "probably 99%" oppose the War on Drugs and favor at least some degree of legalization; members range in views from constitutional conservatives to mainstream libertarians to perhaps a few anarchists.
Piyali was very polite and professional, and did not get defensive about any of the tough questions we asked. She offered envelopes for donations, but was low-key about it and did not pressure us. Michael said that he viewed YAL much more favorably than he had, now that he knows more about it. I expressed an interest in donating to individual YAL chapters that are engaged in what I refer to as "methodologically radical" activism, such as civil disobedience or other "guerilla" approaches that fall outside the establishment-oriented, by-the-book ways of doing things. Right now there unfortunately appears to be no ready means for donors to support individual YAL chapters on an informed basis, but perhaps my inquiry will spur improvement in this area. ANALYSIS/CONCLUSIONS
Young Americans for Liberty seems competently-run at present, and poised for further growth. It is not as radically libertarian as it could be or probably ought to be, either ideologically or (especially) methodologically, but neither is it doing or advocating anything un-libertarian that came to our attention.
My main concern is that YAL seems rather *too* "professional" and establishment-oriented in its approach to politics, which makes it vulnerable to its libertarian perspective being eroded over time as a focus on "success" pushes the long-term goal of freedom toward the back burner and its successes along with the naturally corrupting influence of politics gradually attracts more "careerist" types and people whose views are not necessarily very libertarian to the group's leadership. I did not get a sense that the organization's leadership views itself with a grassroots "rEVOLutionary" spirit. Training of volunteers appears to be long on practicality and short on ideology.
One slide in Piyali's presentation about training that YAL conducts referred to teaching participants about "The Real Nature of Politics". When I asked what this meant, she mentioned some nuts-and-bolts type campaign skills; but while that kind of thing may be useful for engaging in politics, it doesn't address the underlying nature of the beast. Understanding the real nature of politics (and therefore having the discernment necessary to engage it effectively from a libertarian perspective) means understanding that governments as they generally exist in the world today are organized systems of oppression and looting, based on a foundation of violence and aggression, and that politics are the means by which competing interests in society struggle for control of these coercive apparatuses.
While it is arguably necessary for libertarians to engage in politics, both as a means of damage control and in order to bring about real change that devolves power back to the people rather than seeking to wield it in furtherance of one agenda or another, we would be wise to recognize that it is largely a dirty business which needs to be regarded with a healthy dose of wariness and skepticism. Talk of "working within the system", which seems to be part of YAL's organizational self-image, does little to reassure.
A few further related concerns are:
(1) YAL, like many libertarian groups, appears to be too narrowly focused on its own organizational objectives, and not strongly enough focused on the larger goal of seeking freedom by whatever means are both opportune and in keeping with our principles. This could hinder it from working as closely as it might with other groups such as Students for Liberty which share a similar mission, as well as with other libertarian groups like the Libertarian Party. Piyali described S4L as not being interested in electoral politics while YAL is, and that the groups' leaderships have different goals, but I have to question the extent to which these things are true or unavoidable. To the extent such obstacles may exist, I would suggest that the cause of liberty would benefit by seeking to overcome them and develop a greater sense of solidarity as being part of the same movement and seeking to work together and help each other stay libertarian and advance libertarianism.
(2) In building a mass organization designed to "train future leaders" without practicing bottom-up governance along democratic, republican, or consensus-based lines that empower its grassroots membership, YAL is failing to set a good example by structuring itself as a model for how governments ought to operate. As media visionary Marshall McLuhan observed, "the medium is the message"; while it may not necessarily result in disaster, there is a fundamental disconnect and tension inherent in a group whose mission is to bring about a bottom-up society but which internally practices top-down governance. Given the important distinction between coercive and non-coercive organizations I wouldn't say it quite rises to the level of hypocrisy, but a libertarian organization seeking to prepare young people for occupying positions of power in society ought to be particularly concerned with seeking to "practice what it preaches" by empowering members, being open and transparent, and keeping any "leaders" strictly accountable.
(3) I see no meaningful safeguards in place attempting to guarantee that YAL will continue to exist as a strongly libertarian organization in the future, and no indication that the group's leaders are aware of the dangers that engagement in politics poses to its sustainability in this respect.
All that being said, I don't think YAL is any worse than most other libertarian groups when it comes to recognizing and avoiding these dangers (sad as that may be), and they appear to be doing good work right now. As an organization engaged in spreading libertarian ideas among young college students, and getting those students plugged into freedom activism, YAL is engaged in work that is critical for our future. Starchild is a libertarian activist in San Francisco. Piyali Bhattacharya the Development Director of Young Americans for Liberty