FLC077, Record of Libertarian Alliance Conference, Sean Gabb, 15th November 2002

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Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet

Issue Number 77
15th November 2002

A Brief Note on the Libertarian Alliance
Conference in London,
9th-10th November 2002
Sean Gabb

I have never known exactly what to think about the National Liberal Club in London. Sometimes, with its faded grandeur, it puts me in mind of an aristocratic palace in Rome after the first sack in 410—not by any means yet a ruin, but still somewhat past its best. Other times, with its expanses of glazed turquoise tiles, it just reminds me of a huge Victorian urinal. But whatever fanciful comparisons I may be inclined to make, the Club is undoubtedly a fine place. A friend was kind enough to propose me for membership last summer, and I really should organise myself to send it back with the rather small amount of money required by way of membership fee.

Certainly, it is a fine place for holding a libertarian conference. It is easy to find, spacious and comfortable, filled with pictures and statues of all the worthies from the English liberal tradition, and is most reasonably priced for its central location. We held a very successful conference there in 1999, and it was the obvious place for holding the most recent.

This being said, I shall not do my usual job of summarising the speeches and describing the attendant circumstances. Unlike in Prague last autumn and in Paris last spring, I was otherwise engaged during most of this conference. My wife and I had building workers at home on Saturday morning, and we had a lunch appointment on Sunday. I doubt if I was able to attend more than a third of the conference. Even while I was attending, moreover, I found myself busier with private meetings and conversations than with listening to the speeches. This is a shame, as many of the speeches were excellent, and I am told that I missed some of the very best. I will therefore not describe or comment on those I did hear. Perhaps others who were present may feel inspired to record the proceedings. I am not able.

What I will do, however, is discuss what is the purpose of these conferences. Now that we are formally married, the Libertarian Alliance and the Libertarian International have decided to hold two conferences per year—one in London, the other in a European city. We have the organisational ability to hold these. But in the age of the Internet, it is worth asking why we have decided to commit so much of our scarce time and money to continuing a tradition that probably originated in the synods of the early Church—meetings of officials and scholars, that is, in an age when regular communications between the like minded were impossible over long distances. Why conferences now? There are three obvious answers.

The first is that a conference allows people to discover new facts and to hear new arguments that might otherwise have remained unknown. I am grateful to Terence Kealey, for example. In his speech on the funding of science last Saturday, which I chaired, he said as an aside that one of the crucial advantages to Britain in the Great War was the long preceding age of agricultural free trade. This had produced a small but efficient agricultural sector, employing under ten per cent of the male workforce. German agriculture, on the other hand, had been comprehensively protected since the 1870s, and still employed more than a quarter of the male workforce—men who could not be spared for the forces without the risk of starvation. This is a fact that turns on its head the usual claims about how agricultural free trade put Britain at risk of defeat in the two world wars: so long as we could keep the sea lanes open, we were able to commit more men to the war effort than Germany, in spite of our smaller population. I might have discovered this for myself. But it is something I took home with me that evening, and will in due course share with my students. So here is one advantage of attending conferences.

The second advantage—and this is probably the larger of the two —is that they bring people together regardless of the speeches. I cannot say how many friends I have made at conferences, or how many I usually only see at conferences. Even with Internet connections, there is no substitute for personal meetings. This is particularly the case when governments are more and more cooperating with each other in taxing and regulating their subjects: we need some coordination of our response, and this is best done when the responders are personal friends used to discussing the world round a dinner table or over coffee.

The third advantage is that conferences are a good place for newcomers to learn how to speak. Though the Internet has for the moment brought the written word back into greater importance, the electronic media still makes ours overwhelmingly an oral culture. Arguments are still won and lost via the spoken word. Few people take naturally to speaking in public—and this is especially so for European libertarians who speak to each other and to their opponents for the most part in English—and it can be very helpful to have the opportunity to practise modes of delivery before an audience of the friendly, or even of friends.

The fourth advantage is that they impress outsiders. Regardless of the quality of speeches, the mere fact that an organisation can hold a weekend conference in central London, attended by speakers and other participants from all over the world, is a good advertisement. If the speeches are any good, so much the better. But it is the holding of the conference that really counts.

And so, conferences are still worth arranging, despite all the work involved and the risk of financial loss. But I am sure that more could be done with them afterwards than we in the Libertarian Alliance have so far managed. For many years, we have as a matter of course published conference speeches. We have also taken photographs of them. However, improvements in and the cheapening of technology give us means of recording that were once available only to very rich organisations. Since I am by default the technical expert of the Movement, I am not making this into what my colleagues call a "why don't you" article—this being a smug suggestion that others already hard pressed should take on duties that I am neither inclined nor competent to take on myself. I am wondering what I could do to make our conferences even more successful.

One obvious innovation is that we could record conferences. Chris R. Tame has been doing this for years, and Gerald Hartup sat dutifully through as much as he could of last weekend's conference with a microphone pointed at the speakers. The problem with this sort of recording, though, is that the quality is usually poor, and nothing is ever done with the tapes. But suppose we were to spend a hundred pounds on a good digital recorder, and make sure there were a microphone permanently live on the speakers' table, and another on the floor of the conference? We could then get high quality recordings of all the proceedings. These could then by uploaded to a computer, edited into the right shape, and either uploaded to our website, or burned to compact disc for distribution to our subscribers and the media and other interested parties. Excepting the digital recorder, I already have all the hardware and software needed to do a good job of this. Indeed, now that I have upgraded my computer memory to 768Mb, I probably have more than is needed to do a good job.

Slightly more ambitious, but not much harder in the technical sense, we could buy or hire a digital video camera, and make a documentary about the next conference—excerpts of speeches, interviews with speakers and participants, and overhearings of private conversations. Television companies have been doing this for years, as it makes for cheap broadcasting. Undoubtedly, we could not produce the same consistent quality as a production company—but we could do a fairly decent job. Again, the result could be burned to compact disc, or to DVD—as soon as the prices come down next spring, I will upgrade my computer again.

These two suggestions require us to buy or hire more equipment and to learn how to use it. But the next requires only the equipment we already have. Over the past few years, Brian Micklethwait and I have been converting the entire archive of Libertarian Alliance publications to pdf files, for uploading to our website. It would take very little effort to revise the website and burn the whole of if to compact disc. Most members of the Executive Committee now have compact disc writers. Working separately, it would take a couple of evenings for us to produce a hundred copies. These could then be sold or given away at a conference. Now I think of the idea, we could produce the things anyway, for sending out to schools and university libraries. It is not always convenient to look them out on the Internet, after all.

That we did none of this at last weekend's conference is wholly my fault. I should have taken more interest in its planning than I did. But we have six months to go till the next conference. That one, I have no doubt, will be just as interesting as the one just held. It will also, I promise, be technically more sophisticated —and therefore will be more widely discussed and appreciated.