Sunday, August 31, 2008

My Summer "Vacations"

Tibor R. Machan

Every summer since 1989 I have flown to Europe where I take part in a seminar on political economy organized by the Institute for Economic Studies, Europe, a classical liberal think tank in France. The objective is to familiarize students from around the globe with the principles and implications of classical liberalism-libertarianism by way of lectures by several scholars from different disciplines.

Initially students came mostly from the former Soviet bloc countries. More recently they have come from across the globe. These week-long seminars take place in various countries and are attended by about 35 students each. The language varies—some are held in French, some in English. The lecturers are philosophers, economists, historians, and legal theorists.

Aside from these seminars I also lecture around the USA and numerous countries, such as South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina, the Republic of Georgia and Armenia, mostly covering elements of liberty. What has appealed to me about these venues is just how interested and intelligent are the students who attend. Although the focus is on the free society, a great deal of time is spent on considering alternatives and challenges. While the faculty is largely in agreement about the superiority of the libertarian alternative, there are numerous disagreements as well, certainly many details to be ironed out. And, of course, there are always the traditional questions about whether it is even possible to reach firm conclusions in a complex field such as political economy.

Most of the seminars amount to a brain storming session—every lecture of about 45 minutes is followed by a Q&A for which questions are carefully prepared by the students and this then gives rise to many challenges and follow-up discussions. Even once the formal sessions are over, there follow exploration of the related ideas.

Although on and off someone jokes about these being indoctrination sessions, in fact there is wide open contribution from a great many political and economic positions. If they aren't introduced by students, the lecturers will discuss them, usually with scrupulous fairness--what's the point of dealing with critics whose views are distorted? Even those who make no bones about their commitment to certain principles have no trouble playing devil’s advocate. Aside from the several classical liberal thinkers who are routinely examined, such as Hayek, Mises, Rand, Rothbard, Friedman, Locke, Smith, Schumpeter, et al., the ideas of many others such as Habermas, Sen, Rawls, Dworkin, Sunstein and the like are also explored.

I am extremely eager to take part in these seminars and for a variety of reasons (not excluding the fee I receive, which is, however, quite modest). For one, getting classical liberal ideas seriously considered is the best way to give them a chance in time to be tried out in practice. My own thinking about the issues can always use the challenge from thoughtful and seriously interested young people. I get a chance to travel and even visit the few members of my family still living in Europe. And there is also the opportunity to see how different places across the globe deal with various common and diverse human problems.

There is, of course, no guarantee that even the most competent discussion and defense of classical liberal ideas will lead to concrete results. But the chance of it is far greater when the ideas get a good run for their money.

I cannot pretend, and would not even be tempted to, that I am indifferent to the success of classical liberal-libertarian ideas, that all this is merely some kind of academic exercise to me. As far as I have been able to discern, these are the best ideas when it comes to understanding and shaping a decent, just human community. Not that it is highly likely that they will triumph but just the chance that they might is enough to keep those like me going, hammering away on the task of changing minds and hearts.

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