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A Report on the “Liberty, Free Markets, and Moral Character” Conference

I just returned from a four-day, sixty-student conference on “Liberty, Free Markets, and Moral Character,” co-sponsored by the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism (CISC) and the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), and I want to report on the immense value of this event.

Photo: FEE

I’ve taught at previous versions of this conference over the past several years, and I’ve always enjoyed it and found the students exceptionally bright and active-minded. (One great perk is that each year I meet at least a few students who begin writing for TOS.) This conference, however, was particularly enlightening in that the principles of radical capitalism and Objectivism were presented along with the ideas of libertarianism, “polycentric law” (i.e., competing governments in the same locale), subjectivism, and Christianity. Although I profoundly disagree with these other views, in each case, the speakers were some of the best I’ve heard argue from their respective positions. The value of these contrasting perspectives being presented at the same conference is that it enabled the students to differentiate and integrate (or segregate) the various ideas with a clarity and depth that otherwise would not have been possible.

After an introductory social event on Thursday night, the lectures began Friday morning with Aeon Skoble’s excellent presentation of the similarities and differences between objective value—as in the things human beings must attain in order to live and prosper—and what economists sometimes call “subjective” value—by which they mean (essentially) that which people act to gain or keep regardless of whether it truly sustains or furthers their lives.

I then spoke on “the source and nature of rights,” contrasting three traditional theories of rights—”God-given” rights, “government-granted” rights, and “natural” rights—with Ayn Rand’s theory of rights. This discussion tied in nicely with Skoble’s presentation, which had laid some groundwork for a few distinctions I sought to make.

Anne Bradley was up next, discussing “a Christian perspective of natural rights,” and she presented as strong a case as I’ve heard for a biblical basis for freedom. Her lecture stood in significant contrast to the ideas I had just presented, and I was glad to have it in the mix, as I think students can best understand what makes sense when they hear the best arguments for the major competing theories and thus can see which, if any, correspond to perceptual reality.

FEE-CISC-2014Skoble then presented again, this time discussing “other ethical bases for liberty,” including utilitarianism and Kantianism. As much as I appreciated the clarity Skoble brought to the issue of objective and “subjective” value, I found his second presentation confusing. He seemed to be arguing that because certain moral theories entail ideas that, apart from the context of the rest of the respective theory, appear to be pro-liberty, such theories are, by that fact, valuable in defense of liberty. (Perhaps Skoble will clarify here if I have misunderstood him.) Although I did not find this presentation clarifying, I think it was nevertheless of some value in setting context for the debate in which Max Borders and I would engage two days later (more on that below).

The next speaker was Tom Bell, discussing “how society orders itself” and providing fascinating examples and analyses of what economists call “spontaneous order”: the ways in which man-made tools and systems—from languages to common law to financial markets—develop without any central planner or overseer. This was essentially a focus on the practicality of freedom—the fact that when people are free to think and act as they see fit, they tend to create social mechanisms that serve human life.

The final speaker on the first day of the conference was Andy Bernstein, who, in his usual passion-infused way, discussed “the trader principle” and its application not only to material values, such as money, french fries, automobiles, and medical devices, but also to spiritual values, such as love, friendship, gratitude, and goodwill toward people about whom we know nothing. This was an entertaining and enlightening end to a series of rich presentations—but the day was not over yet!

Following supper (with reasonably good food), were breakout group discussions of “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read and “Are We Good Enough for Liberty?” by Lawrence Reed, and then a social gathering at the Esso Club (a local ultra-relaxed bar), with beverages of all kinds and great conversations late into the evening.

Saturday kicked off with Andy Bernstein addressing the question, “Is money the root of all evil?”—and showing that, far from being the root of any evil, money is the root of all good, in that it represents the rational thought and productive effort that sustains and advances human life and prosperity. Everyone was wide awake in short order.

Tom Bell then provided some interesting perspectives on “the origins and nature of law.” Although I disagree with some of Bell’s definitions and with much of what he said on this subject, I was happy that he presented these views at the conference. I suspect he is one of the most knowledgeable and articulate speakers who advocates such ideas, and the students can only profit from hearing and grappling with them. Bell’s presentation also provided illuminating contrast to my lecture on rights-protecting government and objective law, which I would deliver the following day.

Next up, Max Borders discussed “how good intentions pave the road to serfdom.” Borders delivered a fascinating and horrifying account of the mechanics of welfare statism and cronyism, showing how alleged “good intentions” (i.e., altruistic intentions) drive the statist machinery ever forward, and how each “success” in this direction further entrenches the problem in a way that makes it appear impossible ever to solve. Needless to say, the students were depressed by the end of this lecture. Fortunately, Borders later suggested some excellent ways to work toward disrupting the statists’ efforts (see below), and I and others provided intellectual tools for undermining their efforts and dismantling the statist machinery by repudiating the morality of altruism and embracing the morality of egoism.

Toward that end, Brad Thompson spoke next on the subject of “self-interest rightly understood.” The essence of Thompson’s lecture was that self-interest does not mean doing whatever you feel like doing or stabbing others in the back to get what you want (à la Bernie Madoff and the like); rather, it means thinking, producing, and trading with others by mutual consent to mutual advantage (à la Jeff Bezos and the like). Which political-economic system bans initiatory physical force from social relationships and thus leaves people free to act on their own judgment for their own purposes? Laissez-faire capitalism does, explained Thompson; thus, if we want to defend capitalism, we must be able to defend the morality unleashed by this system: the morality of self-interest.

Max Borders then returned to the stage to present some fascinating ideas on and real life examples of how entrepreneurship and value creation can disrupt, circumvent, and chip away at statism. Citing examples such as Uber, Bitcoin, and seasteading, Borders explained, in effect, that the entrepreneurial geeks who love freedom are so much smarter and more capable than the governmental goons who seek to squelch it that if enough of the geeks create businesses and systems that work around or disrupt the Leviathan, liberty will advance incrementally despite the wannabe dictators. Although I maintain that this approach cannot succeed in the long run without a proper moral foundation for liberty, I found Borders’ arguments for how entrepreneurship can counter illegitimate aspects of the state very compelling.

Borders’ uplifting speech was followed by breakout discussion groups focused on the lectures to date. These unstructured sessions enabled the students and faculty to explore various questions, concerns, and ideas toward still further clarity on the issues at hand. They also enabled us to get to know each other and form friendships, many of which likely will last a lifetime. More such discussion ensued at the Esso Club that evening, where another social gathering capped another great day.

Sunday morning began with Anne Bradley’s presentation of her views on “the path to flourishing.” Speaking from a Christian perspective, Bradley said a number of things with which I strongly disagree. But I was happy that the students were able to hear her views and to process them with respect to the context that had been set by the entire conference. Differentiation is essential to integration, and integration is the essence of understanding. I also must say that although a “Christian Objectivist” is a logical impossibility, Anne Bradley comes as close as anyone I’ve ever met to approximating the idea. She also deeply understands her field (economics), communicates clearly, and is a delightful person.

Next on the agenda was a debate between Max Borders and me on the question, “Is moral diversity an asset or a liability for the liberty movement?” Borders did not argue that there are multiple valid moralities and that the liberty movement should embrace them all; rather, he argued essentially that there are no valid moralities (because of the alleged “is–ought gap”) and thus that there is no reason to go with only one morality to the exclusion of others. Borders posited that insofar as acceptance of various moralities fosters growth and solidarity in the liberty movement, that’s a good thing for liberty. He said that we need to use whatever works to get people to embrace and advocate the goal of a freer society, and if we claim that there is only one valid moral foundation for liberty we will detrimentally limit the number of people who will join the movement. (I hope Borders will step in here and correct me if I’ve essentialized his position incorrectly.)

I, of course, argued that there is an objectively correct, demonstrably true morality, and that it alone undergirds the principle of rights and the propriety of liberty. I pointed out that other moralities—from altruism to utilitarianism to egalitarianism to the three major religions—invariably reject the principle of rights (see “Libertarianism vs. Radical Capitalism” for details). The only morality that undergirds and supports the principle of rights is Ayn Rand’s morality of rational self-interest, which bridges the “is-ought gap” by showing that moral values are facts in relation to the requirements of man’s life; anchors morality in reality by showing that the only reason man needs values is in order to live and prosper; and proves that each individual should act in his own self-interest by using his mind to identify and pursue the things he needs in order to live and prosper. This principle, I argued, is what gives rise to the very need of the principle of rights: Whereas the principle of egoism holds that each individual should pursue his life-serving values, the principle of rights holds that because that is true, each individual morally must be free to do so.

There was much more to this debate, which spanned the entire breadth and depth of philosophy—from whether there is a mind-independent reality, to whether there is such thing as moral truth, to whether theft necessarily harms the victim’s life, to whether quality of understanding by a movement’s members or quantity of people in a movement is more important to enacting lasting change. I think the discussion was fun and helpful for everyone, students and faculty alike. I certainly learned from it. And I greatly appreciate Max Borders’ willingness to engage and his unwavering professionalism and goodwill throughout the entire process. This is how debates should be done.

I had the good fortune of being the final speaker at the conference. Immediately following the debate, I presented my thoughts on “rights-protecting government and objective law.” Here I argued that we need a rights-protecting government, rather than no government or “competing governments” in the same geographic area, for essentially three reasons: 1. because some people will not respect rights and will try to harm others or steal their stuff, and because in the absence of a government, or in the presence of competing governments, rampant violence is inevitable; 2. because foreign aggressors will occasionally try to harm us and must be stopped; and 3. because perfectly good, honest people can and sometimes do disagree in ways that can come to blows if there is no final arbiter to settle the dispute peacefully. I then discussed the nature of objective, rights-protecting law, and distinguished between genuine rule of law (i.e., man-made law grounded in the laws of nature, such as the requirements of human life) and rule by men (i.e., man-made law not grounded in the laws of nature).

I have only scratched the surface of the value of this conference. The additional points and arguments made in each presentation, the lively and enlightening Q&A sessions following the lectures, the mealtime and social-time discussions, the friendliness and camaraderie among people of different ideas and different approaches in seeking to advocate and defend liberty, and on and on—all made possible by the good people at FEE and CISC—amounted to an experience that could make even highly pessimistic advocates of liberty substantially optimistic about the future.

I want to extend a huge thank-you to FEE and CISC—and especially to the remarkably competent team of young adults who organized and ran this conference. It was truly a model of intelligence and excellence. I also want to thank the students who attended the event for taking liberty so seriously. The philosophic, economic, and educational tools to advance liberty are at the disposal of anyone who chooses to pick them up and use them. All that is needed beyond that is the will—and, from what I saw at this conference, these students have that too.

This conference has made me even more optimistic about the future—and that’s saying a lot.


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