FLC148, The Inaugural Meeting of the Property and Freedom Society: An Incidental Record, Sean Gabb, 14th June 2006
Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 148
14th June 2006
The Inaugural Meeting of the Property and Freedom Society:
An Incidental Record
by Sean Gabb
The Property and Freedom Society stands for an uncompromising intellectual radicalism: for justly acquired private property, freedom of contract, freedom of association—which logically implies the right to not associate with, or to "discriminate against," anyone in one's personal and business relations—and unconditional free trade. It condemns imperialism and militarism and their fomenters, and champions peace. It rejects positivism, relativism, and egalitarianism in any form, whether of "outcome" or "opportunity," and it has an outspoken distaste for politics and politicians. As such it seeks to avoid any association with the policies and proponents of interventionism, which Ludwig von Mises had identified in 1946 as the fatal flaw in the plan of the many earlier and contemporary attempts by intellectuals alarmed by the rising tide of socialism and totalitarianism to found an anti-socialist ideological movement. Mises wrote: "What these frightened intellectuals did not comprehend was that all those measures of government interference with business which they advocated are abortive...There is no middle way. Either the consumers are supreme or the government."
As culturally conservative libertarians, we are convinced that the process of de-civilization has again reached a crisis point and that it is our moral and intellectual duty to once again undertake a serious effort to rebuild a free, prosperous, and moral society. It is our emphatic belief that an approach embracing intransigent political radicalism is, in the long run, the surest path to our cherished goal of a regime of totally unfettered individual liberty and private property. In thus seeking a fresh and radical new beginning, we are heeding the old but frequently forgotten advice of Friedrich Hayek's: "We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a programme which seems neither a mere defence of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty..., which is not too severely practical and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are prepared to resist the blandishments of power and influence and who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote�..Unless we can make the philosophical foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost."
When I read it, this struck me as a fine declaration of intent. Here was a new international libertarian movement that promised not to descend into a clique of efficiency experts for the State, and not to accept the narrowing of the boundaries of debate that is the deal many libertarians strike with our politically correct masters. Even finer perhaps was that I was invited to attend and speak at the May 2006 inaugural meeting in Halicarnassus, otherwise known as Bodrum.
Except I once spent an hour on a runway in Constantinople, I had never visited Turkey, and I was interested to see the country. I was interested because, together with Athens, the Ionian coast was the cradle of our civilisation, and its ruins, I have always read, are a wonderful sight. In particular, Halicarnassus must always be of interest to the historian, as it is where Herodotus was born.
I was also interested because I grew up with a strong prejudice against the Turks. They were the leading representatives of The Other. They had nothing to do with the first explosion of Islam that took Syria, Egypt and North Africa from our civilisation. But they did, from the eleventh century, swallow up all that remained of the East Roman Empire. They took Constantinople. They took Greece. They got twice to the gates of Vienna. They were, until they declined and we progressed beyond all hope of competition, a continual standing threat to Christian Europe. Mention the Turks to me, and I tended to think of the Crusades and the siege of Constantinople, and the Battle of Lepanto, and John Sobieski. I thought of oriental despotism, and bottomless decadence, and Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail. As a European, I thought, and I shuddered.
And I shuddered because the Turks were a threat not in the sense that the Mongol Hordes or the Soviet Empire were threats. They were so threatening because what they had to offer was often so very attractive. They were relaxed in matters of nationality, and they were tolerant in religion. So long as the appropriate taxes were paid and respect given, they allowed each ethnic and religious group to govern itself. That last, heroic defence of Constantinople was undercut by the unwillingness of many Orthodox Christians to pay the cost of remaining in Christendom. I am not sure if the Western powers were able in the fifteenth century to give the effectual help the Byzantine Government was so desperate to obtain. What I do know is that the price of any support was too great for the Orthodox—involving as it did submission to Rome in all matters of doctrine. It was Lucas Notaras, the last Byzantine Grand Admiral, who said "Better the Sultan's turban than the Cardinal's hat".
Under the Turks, the Greek Church remained free to continue its own doctrinal evolution. The modern Greeks tend to emphasise how they suffered under the Turks. They say nothing of how they collaborated with the Turkish invaders against the Venetian rule of Crete. Even the fairly neutered Inquisition allowed by Venice was worse than some Pacha who cared nothing either way about the Filioque. Indeed, one reason why Hungary is the only country in Central Europe that has a large number of Protestants is that it was only recovered by the Hapsburgs from Turkish rule after religious persecution had begun to go out of fashion.
What ruined Turkey was partly the Scientific Revolution and the general miracle of Western Europe, and partly the defects of oriental despotism. Given a bright, energetic Sultan in Constantinople, the wealth and power of Turkey were at once a marvel and a terror to European travellers. But there was none of the constitutional order that sustained Byzantium until the end. Let a fool or a weakling rule in Constantinople, and all security for life and property was at an end.
I knew that the Turks had made an admirable recovery after losing the Great War. They had reformed their laws to imitate the West, and had made a determined—if neither right nor wise—attempt to impose an imitation of Western manners on the people. The Turks I had known in England were generally fine people. And for all my impassioned Hellenism, I had come to despise the modern Greeks—a shifty, disreputable people, like a beggar in the street holding up their often self-inflicted sores for pity. Their constant whining about the Elgin Marbles, and more recently about the Turkish revenge for what they did to the minority in Cyprus, disgusted me. They have turned Athens into a sewer, and seem to derive much of their national income from frauds on the European Union. In London, even the kebab shops are better when run by Turks. One day, I shall consider giving up what is now the affectation of using the Greek names for Turkish places.
But Turkey was The Other. I set out on my journey there with mixed feelings that I have only partly described above.
My first impression of the Turks was decidedly good. In Heathrow, as I was disrobing and feeding my hand luggage through the scanners that are supposed to protect us from terrorism, someone stole my wallet. Since this contained £300 in cash and all my credit cards, I was more than usually agitated. The security staff muttered into their radios and looked panicky, but showed no inclination to do anything for me. It was the Turks also queuing for the flight who jumped into action. Within a minute, they had caught the thief and recovered my wallet. Left to their own justice, they might have kept the lower class Englishman who had "mistakenly" acquired my property and beaten him to jelly. Instead, they handed him to the security people, who promptly let him continue his own journey.
However, for all their supposed thoroughness, the security checks in Heathrow overlooked a certain item I had forgotten was in my camera bag. This should have been apparent to the most casual glance at the scanners. But I managed to travel with it unchallenged all the way to Constantinople. There it was discovered. As the official there pulled it from my bag with a flourish and a twirl of his moustache that reminded me of Hercule Poirot, I nearly fainted with horror. I wondered how many years I might spend in a Turkish prison. Instead, the official took the item, filled out a form, got me to sign it, and sent me on my journey to Halicarnassus with detailed instructions on how to recover my property at the airport there.
As I came through security, I was met by a young lady who had my property for me in a paper bag. She got me to sign another form, then handed it over with a reminder that I should consider packing the item in my main luggage for the journey home.
So much for all that intrusive and expensive security. The only reason, it is clear, why no one hijacks aeroplanes out of Heathrow is that no one particularly wants to.
I could mention that the Turks mislaid my main luggage in Constantinople, and I had to wait for it to come down on the next flight. But these things happen everywhere, and I was filled during my fairly short wait with about a gallon of Turkish coffee while an old man in the airport security told me stories about his grandfather, who was a private soldier on the Ottoman side in the Gallipoli disaster. The only point of difference between us there was that he thought better of Winston Churchill than I did.
The drive down to Halicarnassus took about an hour and was of great interest. Looking out of the window of the special car sent to collect me, I could see the coastal terrain of Asia Minor. I had never realised how mountainous it was, and how relatively easy it must have been for the coastal cities to defend themselves against the larger continental powers inland. Otherwise, there was Don W. Printz, a retired dermatologist and longstanding friend of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. We spent much of the next week together, and our conversations on history, economics, syphilis—he used to be an expert on sexually transmitted diseases, in which I have some academic interest—and related matters, all began on that drive through the dramatic landscape.
Except it is prettier and more relaxed, Halicarnassus looks like any other resort on the Mediterranean coast. Whatever may be their race or religion or general manners, the various nations looking out from the shores of that remarkable sea all seem to possess a similar culture. And it is a most attractive culture—or so it is to an outsider—with its wine and salads and tobacco and relaxed view of life. In this, the coastal Turks are the same as the Spaniards, the Italians and the Greeks. I am told that travelling inland, past those mountain ranges, you will find a progressively alien world. But Halicarnassus might pass for a gentler, more tasteful Hagios Nikolaos. My only reminder of being outside Europe was that I was, for the first time since 1991, in a country where I could not understand the local language.
The conference was to be held in the Hotel Karia Princess. This is owned and run by Gulcin Imre, whose doctoral thesis was on the economics of Ludwig von Mises. The hotel is a splendid place—luxurious yet welcoming. Mrs Imre is fluent in both English and German, and has a good line in intellectual conversation. And I would say this even if she had not been kind enough to buy one of my books and praise it. Her Head of Public Relations, by the way, is a Slovak. A shame Mrs Gabb was unable to attend. She would have loved every minute.
What can I say of Professor Hoppe? Some call him the greatest libertarian philosopher of our age. Others shudder at the mention of his name. Many, I have no doubt, manage both. I had read and admired his book, Democracy: The God that Failed, and many of his articles. I like his general vision of a libertarianism made compatible with the conservatism of the English world— after all, what is libertarianism but a systematisation of the English Way? I am less convinced by the philosophical rationalism he shares with von Mises and others of the Austrian tradition in social thought. I am too immersed in—or perhaps was too early corrupted by—the thought of David Hume. But I found him a charming and tolerant leader of the Property and Freedom Society. And he is, like most foreigners who learn our language, one of the few people who can speak fluent, grammatical English. With a cigarette between his fingers—and they are dirt cheap over there—he is a first class raconteur.
I am aware that I ought now to move to a detailed account of the conference. It was a good one, and I particularly enjoyed the speeches of Paul Belien and Paul Gottfried. Even the short contributions of the panellists told me much of interest about property rights in other parts of the world and about the contributions, actual and potential, of religion to the institutions of civil society. I learnt that, in spite of all I read in the newspapers, Turkey can be expected to become a more truly liberal place for the return of Islam to its politics. But the surroundings were so overpowering, and the conversations over dinner and on the various trips were so interesting, that my enduring memories of the conference have been overlaid by these other things.
I have already mentioned Dr Printz, whom I look forward to seeing again. Then there was Paul Belien, there with his wife Alexandra Colen and two of their children. Dr Belien founded the Centre for the New Europe, which was until recently run by my friend and partner in the Libertarian Alliance Tim Evans. Dr Belien is a Flemish nationalist and his wife sits in the Belgian Parliament. Just before leaving Belgium, Dr Belien was hit with a major smear by the Establishment of the country. he had written the sort of article about the right to keep and bear arms for defence that I write every year or so. Where my articles in England simply get me on the wireless and into the newspapers, this got Dr Belien into potentially serious trouble. Some youth had got a gun and gone on a killing spree, and everyone in politics and the media had decided that Dr Belien was somehow to blame. He had been forced to take the article down from his website, and was now facing the threat of criminal proceedings. I listened to the story with incredulity. I thought England had gone rotten. I was not aware that Belgium was more rotten still. With its laws against free expression, and its systematic discrimination against its most enterprising nationality, the country hardly ranks as a liberal democracy. For what little it may be worth, Dr Belien has the full support of the Libertarian Alliance in defending his right to freedom of speech.
Then there was Paul Gottfried. His speech was a denunciation of the American conservative movement very similar in tone and content to my own of the Conservative Party. We agreed on loathing Tony Blair as a worthless and malevolent creature. Over lunch one day, he expressed a certain impatience with "victim nationalities". He mentioned as examples of these the Irish, the Greeks and Jews of East European origin. His admiration is for strong, self-confident peoples for whom past misfortunes are not the material for present obsessions. No wonder, he has little time for the modern English and Americans. He also gave me what seemed a penetrating insight into the mentality of the Jewish neoconservatives in Washington. I was wrong, he told me, in thinking that these people had any dislike of Islam. They actually felt closer in their general outlook to Moslems than to the Christian Zionists, who are the real authors of the catastrophe that is American policy in the Middle East. The latter they regarded, he said, as "stupid gentiles". Their one point of difference with the former was the existence of Israel. Let that be settled, and the serpentising televangelists might continue baying for a nuclear Armageddon followed by the Second Coming. But the flow of coherent Islamophobia would be turned off like a redundant bath tap.
Then there was Stephan Kinsella, who subjected me during a boat trip around the Ionian coast to a friendly but probing examination of what I thought about Ayn Rand and epistemology. I am not sure if he approved of all I gave in answer. Even so, the surrounding conversation was enjoyable. He was scathing about Objectivism. He noted that David Kelley is an improvement on the official movement. "But when someone has to write 15,000 words on why it is permissible to be nice to others, or to tolerate disagreement" he said, "there must be something wrong with his underlying philosophy".
Then there were all the old friends who were also there—Frank van Dunn, Christian Michel, Josef Šima, Robert Grözinger, and others. But I will not give a full list: it would be the whole conference programme. I say this even though Christian gave one of his most polished and elaborate speeches. I hope he will publish it, as I can recall only its main heads.
Nor will I say much about my own speech. It was my usual idle effort. Until five minutes before I was due to start, I had no idea how to start. Once I had started, I had little idea how to continue. As ever, despite the uncertainty, I kept up a logical flow and finished on time. What I said went down well, and I suppose it was fair enough. One of these days, I am assured, my reliance on inspiration will fail me. I shall stand up, my mouth will open, but nothing coherent will come out. Fortunately, that did not happen in Turkey.
Professor Hoppe gave the closing speech. He explained that he had started a movement that would meet every year, and that would push the libertarian movement towards the open discussion of issues presently thought too controversial to discuss. Obviously, there is the question of border control: is this another statist intervention as harmful as price control? or would the movement of peoples be so free of internal cost in a world without states as it now generally is? Then there are the revisionist histories of the Great War: even today, nearly everyone looks at the events of 1914 as if it were still 1945. Or there is Hitler's War. How monolithic was his dictatorship? How much was its more notable beastliness personal to him and a few colleagues? Would that beastliness have survived him had he lasted until about 1950? Might it have been restrained had there not been that war of attrition with Soviet Russia? Then there is so much about contemporary politics and economics and sociology and religion that is worth discussing in places where the Thought Police do not operate, or where they have other concerns.
After this, there was the boat trip already mentioned. I was told the Aegean was cold in May. But I am a strong Northerner, accustomed to walking out of my house in summer to swim in the English Channel. I threw myself bravely into the clear waters. It took only a week to recover from the sunburn. In the evening, we had the belly dancers. I have a video record of Professor Gottfried dancing along topless. I have none of me. I remained fully clothed—but, having no notes to give her, fumbled most embarrassingly to fit £7 in change into the dancer's bra.
That is all I will say. The next conference will be in Halicarnassus next May. I hope for another invite. I enjoyed this one, and I regret not being able to visit the ruins of Ephesus or spend time in Constantinople. If you are interested in attending, or in supporting the work of the Property and Freedom Society, you should contact Professor Hoppe—and do so quickly, as the conference is already being planned.