After a short flight from Pennsylvania to Alabama, I arrived to the Birmingham airport. There I was greeted by Chris, a program officer at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). We drove to the Samford university campus where the First Principles of Freedom Summer School for the Thoughtful Conservative was to be held. Since I arrived early, I seized the opportunity to complete the assigned readings for the seminar. It was exciting when all of the other participants began to arrive to Samford though because then I got to listen to their Southern accents.At registration, ISI gave us about a dozen books, hard copies of the texts that we had been reading in PDF formats and few additional texts pertaining to the American founding, conservatism, and liberal education.It was during this warm reception that I first met Dr. Rich Brake, the National Director of Education for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
Then I returned to the dormitory to meet my fellow participants.Most of the students at this conference are from the South and I was the only foreigner. My new friends gave me an immediate taste for the spirit of the South. My roommate Taylor and her friend Mary belong to the same sorority and they asked me if “Greek Life” is a part of Canadian university culture. Not really, I said. “Well, if you are not Greek in the South,” they explained, “then you practically have no life.” Mary said, “I joined for political reasons.” They informed me that they both spend about $3500 annually for membership in their sorority, which they explained is the most well-reputed sorority on campus and the one whose students have had top grades for twenty years. I was shocked that sorority dues were that expensive, but Taylor and Mary said that this is their only expense at university since they have been awarded scholarships. They said that approximately 25% of the university population belongs to a sorority or fraternity and that these are the only people who have any authentic social life on campus. “It’s more than good parties,” they insisted. “It’s about reputation, grades, opportunities, scholarships, and even future political connections.” All of this fascinated me. “Furthermore,” they said, “the sororities and fraternities are completely racially segregated and that’s the way everyone wants them to be.” Seeking a point of reference, I asked: “So, it’s like Mean Girls?” referring to the 2004 film. “Pretty much,” agreed Taylor and Mary, “Except we’re not mean.” All of this I learned in my first ten minutes with Southerners.
As we got ready for the evening activities, I was mildly intimidated by both the candor and poise of the young women, but thankfully I was here to attend a conference and not to be “rushed” before a panel of punctilious judges.In the evening, Dr. Brake gave a lecture “On the Conservative Intellectual Movement in America.” To begin, he posed several
questions: What does it mean to be a conservative? What kind of culture are the Americans seeking to conserve? What does conservatism have to do with the acceptance constraints and limits? Does reverence for the Constitution mean that American conservatives are paradoxically seeking to conserve a revolutionary act? Dr. Brake spoke about prudence, custom, and tradition; he spoke about Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London coming together in Philadelphia; and he spoke about the three main factions of conservatism that he considers to include: traditionalists, libertarians, and anti-communists. For several decades, anti-communism was the glue that bound traditionalists and libertarians together. Will the conservative factions be united to counter the ‘soft despotism’ of which Tocqueville speaks and the ‘road to serfdom’ of which Hayek speaks? Dr. Brake then emphasized what conservatism is not. He said, “It is not an ideology, it is not a cult of personality, it is not relativistic, it is not utopian, and it is not centralized. After all, he explained, a conservative is simply someone who sees the glass 10% full.”
Speaking of glasses, ours were always filled with lemonade since Samford is a Baptist university and a dry campus. The environment made me recall the phrase ‘Bootleggers and Baptists’ which refers to “opposite issue positions lead[ing] to the same vote. Specifically, the criminal bootlegger favor prohibition because decreased supply generally equals a higher profit margin for the criminal bootlegger. The preacher favors prohibition, citing religious reasons. Both the criminal bootlegger and the preacher vote in support of prohibition.” I had been vaguely familiar with historical temperance movements and the issues surrounding prohibition. Being on a Baptist campus brought this history to life to the extent that I felt I was grasping the political and religious culture through some participation in it.In the morning, I awoke to the sounds of bells tolling. I realized how much I love waking up to the sound of bells. Better than any ring tone or alarm, bells inspire me to wake up quickly. Every time I heard the bells ringing I felt as though I was being summoned to some purpose. And whenever I heard the bells ringing, it was as though dignity was being added to the day.
The first lecture on day one was by Dr. Scott Beaulier, a professor of Economics at Troy University. He spoke on F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. After each session, we had a question and answer period with the professor. The second morning lecture was by Dr. Art Caden, professor of Economics at Samford University on Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Both sessions were excellent. In the afternoon, we discussed the sessions and the texts in small groups. During the session on Hayek, I raised question about Walter E. Williams’ forward to Hayek in which he discusses the need to make “unassailable arguments for personal liberty” and says “Any part of the socialist agenda can be shown as immoral under the assumption that people own themselves.” I asked about whether or not Hayek shared Williams’ conception of self-ownership as the basis for property rights and free markets. I also suggested that many conservatives would contest self-ownership (at least in the way the idea is being advanced now) and that these people are conservatives, not socialists. Are our lives an extension of our right to property? Or, are our rights to property an extension of the rights that we have first in virtue of our existence?
When discussing Adam Smith, we discussed the question of whether there is a necessary link between patriotism and protectionism. But the favorite excerpt that we read from Smith concerns his ideas on education. We could see that a lot of his ideas are relevant to contemporary education policy. Inspired by this session, my friend Alex and I made this short video during our free time one afternoon.
In the evening, we had a special guest lecture with Stephen Moore, member of the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board and Founder of the Club for Growth on “The Future of Economic Freedom.” He began his lecture by telling us that if we want to be the smartest person in any room, we should read the Wall Street Journal daily. He also said that a study has shown a relationship between reading the Journal and increased income. During his lecture, I felt like I was at home in Alberta. He spoke about the Bakken region in North Dakota where there is currently a major oil boom. Job hunters are flooding the region, cost of housing is sky-rocketing, and North Dakota is now the state with the lowest unemployment rate in America. He spoke to us about “fracking” and said, “To be against hydraulic fracturing is like being against a cure for cancer.”
From the little that I have studied on the topic recently, I find that the investors and financial advisers I read say that you should pay yourself first and the entrepreneurs and business owners I read say that when you’re an entrepreneur, you’re the last person to get paid. Both cases involve paying oneself. Most students are lacking advice from both investors and entrepreneurs and so they think not about paying themselves, but about receiving a regular paycheck or fixed salary. It is important to find good mentors who encourage entrepreneurship and investment and who point out the foolishness that “Liberals love jobs, but they hate employers”, as Stephen Moore said to us.
The following day, Dr. Donald Prudlo gave a lecture on Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community and Dr. Rich Brake gave a lecture on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Dr. Prudlo’s lecture was excellent and reminded me of the lectures at Acton University. He encouraged us to think about the questions: What is an individual? What is a person? What is society? He reminded us of Edmund Burke’s quote: “Society is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
I raised the question: How do we promote a culture of associations rather than allegiances? referring to a distinction that Nisbet draws. How do we cultivate virtues rather than the mediocrity that is fostered in a system of bureaucracy? Dr. Prudlo said, “We need to make people feel bad and let them fail sometimes.” It is important to celebrate virtues and successes and to recognize failure for what it is and to acknowledge that it exists.
We also discussed the idea of modernity beginning with William of Ockham (Richard Weaver holds this view) and the extent to which nominalism is the foundation of the modern project.
During our discussions on Tocqueville, we asked: What is the relationship between democracy and utilitarianism? Why did ancient democracy not tend to utilitarian morals? Someone quoted Thomas Jefferson who said, “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”
We also discussed the extent to which democracy leads to homogeneity.
Tocqueville explains that when the majority is sovereign then many, of course, will want to join the majority to exercise to comprise that body which wields the sovereign power.
I recalled a story of when I was in high school on the Graduation Committee. I was conducting a survey to determine which song would be the preferred graduation song of the majority of students. One student asked which song had received the most votes, which song was the most popular. When I informed him that my telling him the answer would not be very productive to the survey, he said with resignation, “Add me to the majority.” I think this revealed something interesting about many people’s participation within a democracy.
Another evening we had guest lecture by Luther Strange, Attorney General of Alabama. He spoke on the lawsuit that he is helping to file against the Obama administration on the HHS mandate on the grounds that the mandate violates religious liberty. During the question and answer period, I asked a question about whether he thought that the religious liberty arguments could go too far and extend to allow acts that we now consider criminal. He said that such cases are cases for the courts, that they can exercise judgment on these particular cases. He himself said that he would rather consistently err on the side of religious liberty.
A definite highlight throughout the week included lunchtime conversations with faculty members and many of the interesting and engaged students. I was pleased to meet Dr. Brickey LeQuire who studied Social Thought at the University of Chicago and whose dissertation was titled “Political Theology in Eric Voegelin’s Philosophy of History”. My conversations with fellow students inspired me to greater dedication to my studies. I am so pleased to have met so many students who are passionate about ideas, and so much so that they devote a week during the summer to learn through reading, lectures, and discussion.
On the last night of seminar we had a BBQ and played some basketball and kickball. It was a lot of fun. I am grateful to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute for all of the excellent work that they do to support students in studying and advancing liberty for the sake of truth.