A Report on “Capitalism: Unlocking Human Potential”

I recently spoke at the annual pro-capitalism conference co-hosted by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism (CISC), and I want to say a few words about why this conference is so important and why, once again, it gave me a huge shot of optimism.

The four-day conference, this year themed “Capitalism: Unlocking Human Potential,” involved eighty exceptionally bright students from all over the world, who had been selected from a large pool of applicants. In addition to various lectures and a debate covering the nature, morality, history, and practicality of capitalism, the conference included several unstructured breakout sessions dedicated to exploring any questions, concerns, or ideas on the students’ minds. These breakout sessions were especially fruitful, as the students were encouraged to challenge anything they were hearing that didn’t make sense to them—and they did. Many clarifying conversations ensued. In the evenings, the conversations continued at a local pub. Minds were in motion all day every day.

And, as always, the faculty at this conference included libertarians and Objectivists, a mixture I regard as ideal for facilitating thought and discussion about the moral and philosophic foundations of capitalism, about whether such foundations objectively exist, and, if so, about what they are and how we know it.

The conference began on Thursday night with a meet-and-greet followed by a few administrative notes. The next morning, Lawrence Reed kicked off the series of lectures with “Seven Principles of a Free Society,” focusing on, among other things, the importance of equality under the law and of the perfectly normal, natural, and desirable inequality that follows from it; the importance of property rights and ownership vs. the tragedy of the commons; and the importance of thinking deeply, broadly, and long-range when considering political policies. Mr. Reed’s lecture was filled with fascinating true stories demonstrating his points, and it provided a perfect opening for all that would follow.

Next was my lecture on “The Source and Nature of Rights,” in which I discussed the life-and-death importance of rights; what exactly rights are; and how the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness can be derived from reality via observation and logic and thus do not depend on “God,” revelation, or faith. (My presentation was an abbreviated and extemporaneous version of “Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights.”)

After lunch, C. Bradley Thompson spoke about “Self-Interest Rightly Understood,” clarifying the nature of self-interest and distinguishing it from acts of predation, which are often associated with self-interest but are in fact acts of self-sacrifice. Dr. Thompson showed at some length, for instance, that Bernie Madoff’s multi-billion dollar scams, far from serving his life and happiness, rendered him so miserable that he says he is happier in jail than he was while “living it up” as a free man with all his stolen money.

Next, Andrew Bernstein lectured on “The Trader Principle,” showing that this principle is broader and deeper than the idea that if people want material goods produced by others they must produce something with which to trade. Dr. Bernstein showed that the trader principle applies also, and more fundamentally, to spiritual goods and trades—exchanges of value for value regarding knowledge, respect, gratitude, friendship, love, and the like.

That concluded the lectures for Friday—but not the discussions. We then had dinner and later gathered at the pub, all the while talking, questioning, integrating.

Saturday morning I kicked off with a discussion of “Rights-Protecting Government and Objective Law,” in which I focused on the essential nature of government, the difference between rights-protecting and rights-violating government, the necessary elements of a rights-protecting government (police, courts, military, budget department, treasury, legislature, etc.), and how such a government could be funded completely voluntarily.

That was followed by my debate with Max Borders on the question “Is Moral Diversity an Asset or a Liability when Making the Case for Capitalism?” Mr. Borders and I debated this same topic a couple of years ago (see here for a transcript of our earlier debate and here for a condensed version of the same), and the organizers at FEE found the discussion so thought-provoking that they asked us to debate it again. So we took off the gloves, as it were, and went another round on this issue, touching on some of the same arguments we’ve made in the past, but also making new points in support of our positions. This debate, like our earlier one, was a lot of fun, and it certainly got everyone thinking in terms of fundamentals.

After lunch, Andrew Bernstein returned to the stage to discuss one of his favorite subjects, “The History of Capitalism in the 19th Century.” This was a riveting presentation of some of the great producers of that period (Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, et al) and of the rights-protecting political environment that unleashed their potential, enabling them to innovate, produce, trade, hire, expand, and ultimately improve the lives of everyone touched by their talents.

Next, Max Borders spoke on how “Power Corrupts,” which, as he acknowledged at the outset, was an extremely depressing lecture, showing how illegitimate power not only corrupts but also breeds further corruption. The real-life examples in this lecture of how political corruption ruins people’s dreams, businesses, and lives were truly wrenching. Fortunately, Mr. Borders returned later to discuss a more uplifting topic as well as a crucial component of the solution to endemic corruption: entrepreneurial chutzpah.

Andrew Bernstein spoke next on the question “Is Money the Root of All Evil?”, and he answered with a resounding “No!”, demonstrating that money is a tool of exchange, arising from and necessitated by the fundamental virtues on which human life and prosperity depend: rational thought and productive action.

Thus concluded the lecture portion of Saturday, and off to dinner and the pub we went for more discussion, debate, clarification, integration.

Sunday morning, Max Borders started the day with “Entrepreneurship and Creating Value,” in which he surveyed various ways in which entrepreneurs not only create value but also creatively circumvent life-throttling aspects of illegitimate government. This lecture was heartening, as it showed not only that thinking people are capable of constantly creating new ways to produce wealth and prosperity, but also that they often are well underway with their new innovations before statist politicians and bureaucrats even discover that someone has formed a new thought. (D’oh!)

Finally, Lawrence Reed returned to the stage and told more deeply moving true stories, this time about freedom fighters who exemplify the dedication to freedom and the moral courage on which civilized society ultimately depends. In one story, for instance, Mr. Reed told of the Polish cavalry officer Witold Pilecki who volunteered in 1940 to be arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz in order to discover what was going on there; after issuing several reports to the Polish government from within Auschwitz, Pilecki escaped from the concentration camp in 1943 and, at that point, believe it or not, his remarkable story had barely begun. (See Mr. Reed’s article about Pilecki here.)

The final event of the conference was a faculty question and answer panel, which was as lively as the rest of the conference had been, albeit a bit lighter (see the image above).

Among the myriad reasons I love this conference is that the students tend to be supremely active-minded, genuinely interested in the role of ideas in defending liberty, and utterly insistent on ideas making sense. Another reason is that I invariably meet bright students who are interested in writing for The Objective Standard—some of whom eventually do (e.g., Ross England, Joe England, Thomas Eiden, and Mitchell Feinberg). I met several students who expressed such interest again this year, and I suspect you’ll be reading some of their TOS articles in the near future.

Yet another thing I love about this conference is that FEE and CISC manage to run the whole thing seemingly flawlessly. Having organized and run conferences myself, I know how difficult it is to make them run smoothly. I also suspect that there were hitches along the way with this one. But for those attending and speaking at this conference, everything seemed to be perfect. And that is the result of great competence and skill on the part of those who put it on.

My hat is off to everyone who had a hand in organizing and running this event. Here’s to your excellent work—and to many more FEE-CSIC events in support of capitalism. Goodness knows we need them.

Kudos also to the students for taking liberty seriously and for being willing to challenge the status quo in defense of it. The philosophic, moral, and economic principles necessary to defend a free society are today available to anyone who is willing to think. The students at this conference demonstrated that they are willing.

To enact a successful revolution in support of liberty, we don’t need to convince everyone to embrace the principles on which freedom depends. We need only engage a bright, active-minded minority who is willing to think and to fight on principle. These students are part of that growing minority. And I am convinced that they will create a future of freedom. Thus, even as the political landscape darkens, I am more optimistic than ever about the future.


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