Sometimes I interview people in Starbucks…

Chuck is from Toronto, lives in Toronto, and I met him in this Toronto Starbucks. He spoke to me reminiscing about his experiences of moving to Alberta in the 1970s to work in the oil sands. Here’s he discusses the wildlife, scenery, working conditions, and his fond memories.

Here’s his response to my question about negative perceptions of the oil sands.

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Beer and Bureaucracy, Churches and Chocolate, Waffles and Western Civilization

After two years of graduate studies at the university, I felt that I did not have a sufficiently good education to merit the degree of Doctor in Philosophy. I confided my worries to one of the professors, who said: “What would you like to have in education?” I said: “I should like to know two things—first, what the modern world is thinking about; second, how to answer the errors of modern philosophy in the light of the philosophy of St. Thomas.” He said: “You will never get it here, but you will get it at the University of Louvain in Belgium.
                                     — Fulton J. Sheen, Treasure in Clay  

ISI Summer Seminar at Samford in Alabama

ISI Summer Seminar at Samford in Alabama

I arrived to the Brussels airport on Sunday morning. From there, I found my way to the train and purchased a ticket to Leuven where I would meet my friend Dan, who is studying there, and who I met at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute First Principles seminar this past summer at Samford University in Alabama. At the closing picnic, he and I had struck up a conversation, along with Vinny, who was studying at Leuven with Dan, too. We hit it off quickly discussing existentialism, phenomenology, and mysticism. They both encouraged me to consider studying at Leuven and to, at the very least, visit. So the seeds planted during that one conversation in Alabama were now bearing fruit in Belgium.

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Human Action versus Behaviourialism: Can Praxeology and Experimental Economics be Reconciled?

Here is my presentation on Human Action and Behaviouralism that I delivered at the Toronto Austrian Scholars Conference on November 2, 2013 at the University of Toronto.

Break the Conventions. Keep the Commandments – Highlights of the Chesterton Conference

Before arriving to Reno, my only impression of it had been what I had gleaned from a couple of scenes in the film Sister Act. I landed in the Reno-Tahoe airport after arriving from Birmingham. A local in the airport advised me against my plan to take a cab and find a hostel for the night.  She said, “Reno’s hurtin’ bad. Take a free shuttle downtown and you can stay at a hotel for $35.” Praise God for putting locals in every single city I visit.

I took the shuttle to Circus Circus hotel and was told that the room would be $47, plus tax and plus some additional fee. For a hotel room it wasn’t bad, but I thought that I could do better. When I said I might go down the street and compare prices, they dropped the price $10 and I checked into the hotel.

I had arrived to Reno two days early for the 31st Annual G.K. Chesterton Conference taking place at the Silver Legacy Hotel and Casino. After settling into my hotel, I strolled the streets of downtown Reno observing the hotels, restaurants, movie theatre, and street names.

On August 1, I woke up and soon after phoned Joan and Michael who agreed to host me during the conference. I arrived to their home on Wednesday afternoon. Asked if I’d like a drink, I said yes and Mr. Cassity offered to make me a martini! As we drank our martinis we discussed liberal arts education, great books, tradition, conversion, conservatism, travel, and more. Mrs. Cassity made a delicious dinner and served wine. I was well taken care of by my Chestertonian host parents.

The next day, they offered to take me to Lake Tahoe. I am so glad that they did. It was a beautifully scenic drive. They told me that their children can ask themselves in the same day whether they’d like to go skiing or golfing. The Cassitys told me about Mark Twain’s visit to the region in 1861. Of Lake Tahoe Twain wrote:

“At last the lake burst upon us–a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft three thousand feet higher still! As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole world affords.”

We had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the lake. I had a beef dip with mushrooms and cheese and au jus, a favorite food of mine lately. As we took in the gorgeous view, we discussed current affairs.

“Now betting and such sports are only the stunted and twisted shapes of the original instinct in man for adventure and romance…” – G.K. Chesterton

After returning home, Joan and I prepared for the conference. Then, we drove to the venue. Walking through the Silver Legacy Casino en route to the conference room was an interesting experience. Chesterton would probably get such a kick out of conferences being held in his honour in Reno, of all places! Joan and I arrived to the conference with plenty of time to register and browse the various tables that were set up to feature various organizations, initiatives, and books for sale.

I approached one very eye-catching display for Titanic Heroes. “Tell me about your display,” I said to the young woman waiting to greet passers by arriving early to the conference. An impressive young woman named Cady explained that she and her brother Benjamin had taken an interest in studying the Titanic. “Here is my new book,” said fifteen year old Cady holding up a copy of her just-published book A Titanic Hero: Thomas Byles. It’s the story of “One man…one ship…one night that was to be remembered forever. Thomas Byles, a Roman Catholic priest on board the R.M.S. Titanic, had the saying, ‘Give what you have,’ instilled into him from a very young age. His training, commitment, and love for others culminated into one shining example of fortitude in the face of danger. This book, historical fiction, narrates the life of Thomas Byles.”

Cady and Benjamin and the other three Crosby siblings are a shining example of homeschooled children. Since they are homeschooled, they have plenty of time to participate in speech and debate, publish books, and to “cultivate titanic virtue” by sharing the stories of Titanic heroes through their presentations across America.

The conference kicked off with an introductory lecture by Dale Ahlquist, the president of the American Chesterton Society. He encouraged attendees at the Reno conference to “put their money on the Chesterton table” and to support the Society by buying Chesterton books and even the “CHE-STERTON” t-shirt. The Chesterton Society has plenty of quirky rituals and this is exactly what a good society requires. From allowing whoever experiences the greatest series of unfortunate events throughout the conference to drink from the “cup of inconvenience” and then be awarded the “mug of consolation” to having an annual clerihew contest where the prize-winning four-line biographical poems are recited and celebrated at the final banquet.

There are bracelets that say WWJD? which stands for What Would Jesus Do?
Perhaps we ought to have bracelets that say WHJD? for What Has Jesus Done? – Pearce

Next, Joseph Pearce delivered a lecture titled, “The Humor and Humility of Chesterton.” Pearce’s message celebrated tradition and repudiated what he terms “DWEM-ism”, which represents the contempt held by progressives for “Dead, White, European, Males.” Joseph Pearce asks, “Can a person help that they are dead? Can a person help that they are white? Can a person help that they are European? Can a person help that they are male?” Of course not. Hating tradition is like racism. This is Pearce’s message and it is a very sincere one. It comes from a man who was formerly aligned with a white nationalist party in England before his conversion. Pearce’s conversion from racism to Catholicism was greatly motivated by his reading of Chesterton. Pearce is now a tremendous apologist for the faith, an excellent biographer, and active in promoting homeschool education, the great books, and liberal education.

The following day, there were many excellent lectures given by: Cameron Moore, PhD at Baylor University; Ralph Wood, Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University; Jason Jones, President and Founder of Whole Life America and Producer of the film Bella; Mark Shea, Author and Master of Blogosphere; and Kevin O’Brien, President and Artistic Director of Theater of the Word Inc. Needless to say, the conference far exceeded any expectations that I had. The lectures were top-notch and paid good tribute to Chesterton. Key themes of the lectures included: transcendence and mystery, wisdom and humility, the goodness of existence, paradoxical truth and conversion, and wonder and awe.

My favorite speaker was Jason Jones who delivered one of the most extraordinary speeches I have ever heard. He began by joking that he is a Chesterton fan “more like a twelve-year-old girl feels about Justin Beiber.” For Jones, reading Chesterton also played a significant role in his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Jason was raised a scientologist, but rejected scientology in eighth grade and became “a hardcore Randian objectivist” until his early thirties. Jason grew up in south-side Chicago, surrounded by anti-Catholic bias.

I knew that Jason Jones had helped to produce Bella, a pro-life film released in 2006. Jones said to us, “As of today, 581 women who were going to have abortions saw Bella, changed their minds, and let us know.”

He said that receiving text messages informing him that another woman has chosen life for her child is the very best part of his job. All of these details become even more beautiful in light of Jason’s conversion story.

Jason was sixteen. It was two days before his seventeenth birthday and a Saturday morning after a Friday night high school football game. His girlfriend came into his bedroom, “the room of a boy” and informed him that she was pregnant. “There I was with my girlfriend and we needed a strategy,” recalls Jason. The plan we came up with was this: On my seventeenth birthday, I could drop out of school and join the army. She would wait for me to come back.”  His parents were supportive and the principal was happy to sign the papers. And so that’s what Jason did. He piled his belongings into a pillow case, along with a razor that he didn’t yet need and went to join the army so that he could support his family upon his return.

One day, a call came in and Jason took the phone, though he knew he wasn’t meant to leave his station. His girlfriend was on the phone and she was crying, “like I’ve never heard a woman cry before. And the only way that I can describe it is that her soul was crying. She kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Then, her father picked up the phone and said, “Jason, I know your secret and your secret is gone. I took Katie to get an abortion.”

Just then, someone came and hung up the phone and told Jason to get back to task. Jason, angry and shaken, said, “Sir, call the police. My girlfriend’s father just killed my child.” In reply the man said to Jason, “Why would I call the police? Don’t you know that abortion is legal?”

Jason did not know.

Jason was a poor student, but he says that he knew then that life began at fertilization. He was heart-broken. When he had the opportunity to phone his girlfriend back, he said to her, “Katie, I promise you that, even if no one cares about abortion and if it takes me the rest of my life, I will end abortion for you and our daughter Jessica.”

Jason and Katie know that the abortion ended the life of their daughter because when the abortion was done, the abortionist then said to Katie, “By the way, your baby was a baby girl.”

With Dale Ahlquist and Jason Jones, holding an autographed copy of Chesterton’s book on Rome.

Since this experience, Jason truly has dedicated his life to striving to end abortion and to help create a culture of life and build a civilization of love. He converted to the Catholic faith and now has six children. He is producing more life-affirming films, directing the organization I Am Whole Life, and travelling the world advancing respect for the sanctity of all human life from the moment of fertilization until the moment of natural death.

Conversion stories are awesome. They make the most beautiful stories because they bear witness so wonderfully to the path of salvation history consisting in passion (suffering), death (dying to self), and resurrection (new life in Christ).

On Friday evening at the Chesterton conference, there was the world premiere of the film Manalive, based on Chesterton’s novel by the same title. Manalive is the story of Innocent Smith, a character who is tried for such crimes as burglary, desertion of a spouse, polygamy, and attempted murder. If I may excerpt from Wikipedia, here is a summary of the wonderous Chestertonian paradoxes in the film:

“[Innocent Smith] fires bullets near people to make them value life; the house he breaks into is his own; he travels around the world only to return with renewed appreciation for his house and family; and the women he absconded with are actually his wife Mary, posing as a spinster under different aliases so they may repeatedly re-enact their courtship.”

After watching the film, I thought: I am a “cradle Catholic” yet I think I ought to convert to Roman Catholicism. I imagined myself taking Rite of Christian Initiation for Adult (RCIA) classes. Of course, life is a continuous experience of conversion, of return to God. Chesterton’s wit and wisdom adds wonder to the experience and reminds each reader that he is also “the man who with the upmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.”

On Saturday the conference sessions included a lecture by Nancy Brown on The Plays and Poetry of Frances Chesterton, a session by Julian Ahlquist on Chesterton and Aliens, a small group discussion on the economic ideas of distributism, and finally a closing lecture by Dr. Andrew Tadie contrasting Chesterton and H.G. Wells.

There was 5:00pm mass on Saturday evening celebrated at St. Thomas Aquinas Cathedral with the Most Reverend Randolph Calvo, Bishop of Reno.

Then, everyone returned to the casino to a ballroom where the closing banquet was held. There were jokes, toasts, songs, drama and musical performances, clerihew readings, a live auction (a signed Chesterton book was the top prize), plenty of wine, and lots of other fun.

The conversations that evening at my table centred around the presidential election, Austrian economics versus distributism, summer travels, music, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Catholicism, and our favorite Chestertonian aphorisms. It was an absolute delight to dine with young people who light up while discussing Chesterton because of how instrumental he has been in helping them to see more colourfully. Chesterton helps souls become poetic optimists. Chesterton writes:

“The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in light of the supernatural.”

I look forward to reading more works by Chesterton.
To everyone, I recommend his book Orthodoxy.

G.K. Chesterton, pray for us.

This blog post is dedicated to Joan and Michael Cassity in gratitude to them for having hosted me in their home and for having shared many wonderful conversations during the 31st Annual G.K. Chesterton Conference in Reno, Nevada. God bless you!

Tu ne cede malis: Reflections on Mises University

This past week I attended Mises University, a weeklong summer university in economic science. The sessions covered theoretical and applied economics, including epistemology and methodology, pricing, entrepreneurship, comparative economic systems, welfare economics, law and economics, industrial organization, environmental economics, money and banking, political economy, and the history of economic ideas. Hosted since 1986 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Mises University brings together knowledgeable professors and keen students for a week of immersion in the Austrian School of Economics.

I became interested in the Austrian School after attending an Institute for Humane Studies summer seminar last year during which I volunteered to read Leonard Read’s essay “I, Pencil” aloud during an opening session. That week, I also read F.A. Hayek’s essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society“. What was impressed upon my economic views through reading these introductory texts was akin to the influence that reading Plato’s Apology and the Simile of the Cave had on my elementary philosophical views. In both cases, the central message is that there is a need for humility that stems from the recognition of the limits of human knowledge.

When confronted with the recognition of his own ignorance, Socrates could have resented the limitations and stopped philosophizing or tried to philosophize beyond his scope of ability, to transcend the limits. But he did not stop and instead realized that insofar as “whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know”, he had grasped the beginning of wisdom.

What attracted me to Austrian School Economics is its a priorism, that is to say, its beginning with deductive first principles, the most fundamental of which is the action axiom. We begin with a true premise: humans act. Any attempt to refute this axiom would be a contradiction because refutation is an act. I became intrigued with Mises’s magnus opus Human Action, of which I have only read excerpts. Still, what led me to Mises University is the idea of economics not as a “dismal science”, as Thomas Carlyle termed it, but rather a science of human action, and thus a humane discipline intersecting with and relevant to the various liberal arts.

My first night in Auburn I had a dream about a random shooting on a train. It was obviously a result of my recent transportation combined with all the news about the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. From the Greyhound terminal, I had shared a cab with a student to the campus. The student and the cab driver discussed other shootings in recent memory and the cab driver kept repeating, “And to think, this guy in Colorado was going for his PhD.”

Using the Catholic mass app on my iPhone, I walked two miles and found St. Michael the Archangel Church where I attended Sunday mass. To be each week at once in a different church and in the same Church is an awesome thing. It’s also very comforting to find a Catholic church in a new city. It’s like finding a Starbucks. Every Catholic church contains the Blessed Sacrament and every Starbucks has complimentary wifi. So when I ritualistically genuflect in church and order a caramel macchiato at a Starbucks, I never feel too far from home.

As I walked through the streets of Auburn, I noticed so much football paraphernalia. Everywhere I went I saw Tigers-themed merchandise. As I peered in a window, someone stopped to say to me, “Football is a religion here.” Every day of Mises University I passed the football stadium, which has a capacity for 87, 451 people.

Traveling across the United States, I find that it is more common here for students to wear clothing with the names of their colleges or college football teams on them. Students here seem to derive a greater sense of identity from their colleges than Canadian students. It is not uncommon to ask a student where he or she is from and to receive the name of a college rather than a hometown or state. As for me, my inclination is to first call myself a Western Canadian, then to say I am an Albertan. When this is meaningless to them, I specify that I am from the “Texas of North.”

After mass, I went to Waffle House. It was packed. There I met a Chinese student named Sonya who is studying environmental engineering at Auburn. We decided to share a table when one became available and enjoyed one another’s company over brunch. She told me many interesting things about China. Her father works in the civil service granting fishing licenses and her mother is a retired banker. I told her that she is brave to leave her country for her first time to study in America, especially since she is not even returning home for a visit. I asked if she is an only child and she said, “Of course. And every one of my friends is an only child.” Sonya is from Shanghai. I didn’t resist asking her views on the one child policy, which she said she considers understandable given the population of Shanghai. I found this particularly bizarre given that not a minute later she asked me what I thought about animal testing in scientific experiments. She had been shocked to learn of students killing mice in pharmecutical experiments. I cringed when we discussed manipulating human populations, but not mice populations.

Then, we discussed education. She said that there is a lot of pressure in China because there is one exam that students take to determine what university career they will pursue. “The government determines you program of studies based on your score. If you don’t do well on it, you have to wait a full year to take it again,” explained Sonya. She continued, “The reason that Chinese parents often send their child to the United States is not because they have money, but so that their son or daughter can study whatever he or she wants.”

As we were paying our bills at Waffle House, Sonya asked if I had ever heard of the Tiananmen Square Protests. “Yes, I studied that,” I told her. Sonya said, “Well, my parents never told me about it and I never learned about it in school. I learned about the events at Tiananmen Square from Wikipedia two days after coming to the United States. If you search the Internet in China, the Web will only yield pages that say there is no information relevant to your search.”

After saying goodbye to Sonya, I returned back to the Cambridge dormitories at the University of Auburn. Soon after, my roommate Lorraine arrived. She and I decided to go for a walk. Lorraine studies German and History. I was impressed that she too had decided to come to a weeklong intensive seminar on economics, a field outside of her own program of studies. While my summer may seem extraordinary, it is not particularly exceptional relative to the summer adventures of many of the other students I am meeting along the way. It is not uncommon for me to meet people who have attended half a dozen conferences, travelled across the world, studied multiple foreign languages, and who are dedicated, well-rounded, and ambitious people. They inspire me tremendously by raising the standard of excellence.

The first night of Mises University kicked off with a lecture by Dr. Robert Higgs titled “Warfare, Welfare, and the State.” Employing lots of religious metaphors to criticize the state, he said at one point, “Even a shepherd keeps his sheep only so that he can shear and kill them.” This was quite a different use of the sheep metaphor than what I had heard in mass that morning. The psalm had been Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. […] thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Needless to say, I was very struck by how I had heard a similar metaphor to symbolize two very different points in the very same day.

After this talk, I approached Dr. Tom Woods and mentioned what I described above. He told be he had been to mass in the Traditional Rite and so had not thought of it. I asked him what he thinks of Murray Rothbard and how he reconciles Rothbardian views on such things as children and rights with his Catholic faith. Woods told me that he had met Rothbard and said that Rothbard was changing his positions later in life, becoming more conservative, and that he even considered joining the Catholic Church. Woods insisted that one should not “throw the baby out with the bath water” when it comes to thinkers who hold inconsistent or even highly objectionable views.

The following evening Woods gave a lecture during which he said it was his aim to “inoculate [us] against the cult of anti-Rothbard.” As when a priest gives a homily that resonates in such a way that you feel it was written for you, this talk was an important wake-up call. Though he was addressing a broader factionalism within the libertarian movement, for me Woods was warning against being hastily dismissive of thinkers whose ideas I have not studied in depth or whose ideas I have not given the respectful consideration they deserve. Although, I still believe that you can learn a lot about a thinker by what he or she says about “the least of [our] brothers and sisters.”

On Monday morning Dr. Joseph Salerno gave an excellent lecture on “The Birth of the Austrian School”. He explained that there were two dominant theories in classical economics: cost determined by production and cost determined by scarcity. The key problem with these theories is that they failed to account for human want. Carl Menger, the father of the Austrian school, contested the cost-of-production theories of value and pioneered the theory of marginal utility and economic analysis centred around the idea that value truly lies in ability to satisfy for human wants. Dr. Salerno pointed out that when we say about a person, even a small child: “he knows what he wants” or “she knows what she wants”, we have a budding entrepreneur. Good entrepreneurship is the ability to successfully predict future wants and often develops from an individual considering his or her own wants and extending those to others and to the future.

The next lecture was delivered by Dr. David Gordon. He explained that Mises thought that economics could contribute to the field of epistemology. People are purposive. Every actor uses means to achieve ends. Gordon told us that Mises defined action as involving “felt dissastifcation.” You act because you want to change things for the better. All actions involve choice.

After this lecture, I had lunch with a student named Darren who just completed his bachelors degree in the United Kingdom. And it so happens that he wrote his undergraduate dissertation on praxeology, relying primarily on the work of Ludwig von Mises and other Austrians. Over lunch we aimed to distinguish between actions and instincts, correlating means and ends with purposive action and causes and effects with instincts and teleology in nature. We discussed whether nature is causal or purposive and whether rationality is implicit in human action. We also confronted the challenge of discerning the point at which a person begins to act.

Other lectures throughout the day were on the topics of: subjective value and market prices, the division of labour and social order, and Austrian capital theory. During the afternoon I overheard David Gordon recommending an Eric Voegelin book to a student. Afterward, I asked him about it and he began to tell me stories about Voegelin, whom he knew personally. I enjoyed listening to him and when he asked how I had heard of Voegelin, I told him that I have taken classes with Barry Cooper, whose name he recognized, although he has not met him. Voegelin keeps coming up throughout my travels this summer, enticing me to immanetize my reading of his six-volume Order and History.

I began to wonder whether Voegelin had a connection to the Austrian school of economics. A quick search led me to a Voegelin View article that discusses Voegelin’s
relationship with the Austrian School. Voegelin was invited to seminars hosted by Mises that he attended with F.A. Hayek and other students. Voegelin would have been about nineteen years old.

It struck me that, while Voegelin took an interest in the economic ideas within the developing Austrian School tradition, he found the focus to be somewhat narrow. Austrian Economics was not accounting for complexities factoring into the realities of human action that Voegelin considered essential to understanding the political order.

In a letter to Hayek, Voegelin wrote:

I think that I can agree with you on almost everything you have said. There is however one point where I should suggest a certain qualification of your argument. I do not believe that the problem is one of the economic system and state intervention exclusively, but I am afraid that the evolution of the religious state of mind towards collectivism not as an effect but as a cause of economic evolution plays important role in the structure of modern civilization. – Eric Voegelin to Friedrich A. von Hayek, April 14, 1938

Voegelin confirmed his position saying: 

I read your article The Intellectuals and Socialism. Reading it I had the same impression that I had when I examined Road to Serfdom. We are approximately concerned about the same problems and we are dissatisfied by the same grievances. As I see it, we differ on the interpretative issue. You understand the difficulties of socialists intellectuals observing the economic contrasts and maybe ethical between socialism and liberalism. For me, this contrast does not approach the issue deeply enough. You know my prospective from our discussion and from my lectures. I think that it is impossible to deal with the contemporary problems of intellectuals without taking into consideration the religious scenario, the “Gnostik” problematic. I have the impression that you come closer to this problematic in your work Counter Revolution of Science than in your economic interpretations? – Eric Voegelin to Friedrich A. von Hayek, February 5, 1951

As mentioned above, it struck me that Voegelin took such an interest in economic ideas but found them to be lacking important dimensions. It also struck me that Voegelin stayed in touch with his friends from Mises’s seminars. As I attend seminars hosted by the Mises Institute and read books by Voegelin and visit with people who knew him, I am starting to see more and more what it means for there to be a tradition of scholarship and how much politics and political philosophy has to do with friendship.

I recall a conversation I had during a meal with my friend Ross who I had met at a Liberty Fund seminar. Ross said, “I am tired of discussions where man is considered solely as human capital. I am a man!” he declared light-heartedly, yet sincerely and pounding his fist theatrically on the table.

And so I would sneak up to the Massey Library at the Mises Institute to read excerpts from Voegelin’s Order and History. A few paragraphs was a sufficient dose to enrich the Mises sessions with a broader perspective rooted in philosophical anthropology. I read the line: “Government is an essay in world creation.” Throughout the week I reflected on this single line the most. I found myself again asking: In what way are we made in God’s image and reflecting on the human experience of tension between being co-creators and sub-creators.

When I read this, I remembered what Cooper says about essays:

“An essay, as I understand it, tries to push an argument to its limit, with a minimum of qualification or second thoughts, and in a mood of considerable speculative confidence. An essay presents a perspective rather than new information. Much of the argument is, therefore, allusive.” – Barry Cooper, The Restoration of Political Science and the Crisis of Modernity

Spending the week with anarchists who consider government both unnecessary and evil, I reflected on the extent to which government is an attempt to imitate the divine ordering of the cosmos. It’s a poor imitation, counterfeit even, but it strives toward a resemblance. What we see in governments is plenty of ‘speculative confidence’ without the restraint that should follow from a recognition of limits.

Samuel Gregg writes:

The Catholic vision of the state underscores the legitimacy and limits of government authority. From the standpoint of Catholic doctrine, the authority of governments is derived from the divine and natural law. But the same state is subject to the demands of revealed and natural truth: the state is neither the source of truth nor is it above the truth.

On Tuesday, Walter Block offered a lecture titled “An Austrian Critique of Mainstream Economics”. Block is a well-known Austrian scholar and anarcho-capitalist. He worked at the Fraser Institute in Canada for many years. He follows Rothbard in many respects, but differs from him in some important ways too. Block describes himself as a devout atheist. He began his lecture with an overview of praxeology saying, “We don’t test things; we illustrate them.” Block was “converted” to libertarianism after attending a lecture by Ayn Rand and to anarcho-capitalism after attending a lecture by Murray Rothbard. Since many thinkers count meetings with key thinkers in their day among the most influential moments of their intellectual and personal development, I made sure I had a few conversations with professors one-on-one or with a couple of other students.

One afternoon I had a conversation with Block. We discussed Catholicism, libertarianism, the divine right of kings, self-ownership, abortion, and ordered liberty. Discussing ordered liberty, Block asked the question that he is known for asking and that seems to be the primary measure of his judgment: “Are they real libertarians?” He had asked this to me after I had told him about the Acton Institute. “What are they adding to liberty with this order business?” he asked skeptically. I explained that they are interested in promoting a free society and also discerning how to live out that freedom in accordance with truth.
“But what if I don’t want truth? I like falsehood. Two plus two is five,” challenged Block.
(Do you ever find it interesting how everyone seeking to rebel against this particular equation always comes up with the answer five? Not three. Not six. Or any other number. They are conformists in their attempts at rebellion.)

Block had stately clearly that libertarianism is not a philosophy of life. All that it tells you is to avoid harming others. It doesn’t tell you that Mozart’s music is beautiful. But why not harm others? I asked. He tried to argue that harming someone would involve a practical contradiction based on Hans Hoppe’s argumentation ethics. This is the same argument used for self-ownership. But to disagree with the harm principle does not by itself involve doing any harm to someone. And disagreeing with the concept of self-ownership does render argumentation impossible.

I greatly enjoyed my conversations with the professors throughout the week. However, I did not find myself converted by any of the economists. Unlike those who went from persecuting capitalists like Saul persecuted Christians, I must say I have had no similarly dramatic Road to Damascus conversion along the Road to Serfdom.

It was not an uncommon question throughout the week by fellow attendees whether I was a “cradle free-marketer” or whether I came to the ideas after reading Atlas Strugged or watching Ron Paul videos. I reflected on my parents’ example. They are both entrepreneurs. They have worked from home my entire life. My dad worked in oil and gas before inventing a product. My mother has always been spontaneous and creative. I reflect on her taking me to garage sales a lot when I was young and encouraging me to barter. I recall having garage sales and selling lemonade and cookies. I also recall making my first “investment” at age 11 in a babysitting certificate program with a small loan that I would pay back to my mom with the income from my first couple of jobs. In my early teens, I had photographic business cards that I would give to parents after playing with their children at the park to drum up babysitting business. I recalled fundraising hundreds of dollars for the Terry Fox Run annually and going throughout my neighbourhood asking for donations after rehearsing my fundraising pitch with my dad.  Throughout my whole life, my parents have been modelling entrepreneurship and encouraging creativity.

Hearing so many socialist conversion stories had me counting my blessings. Working at the James Joyce Irish Pub led me to observe and reflect on what it takes to run a small business. I learned about how Anne and Gerard took a lot of risk, but had a clear goal to start the pub. Knowing their story and learning from how they ran their business meant that my part-time job was a lot more meaningful than I may have realized at the time.

My experiences at Mises University were also a cause for reflection on what it meant to grow up in Calgary, Alberta. While among anarchists who resent patriotism and think all borders unnecessary and imaginary, I still could not help but realize that I am who I am because of the particular environment in which I grew up and now live.

I found myself wanting to defend Canada, especially when the speakers would say that the Canadians have “some explaining to do” for all our socialism. We are more economically free than the United States now, I would say referring to Canada recently surpassing America in an Economic Freedom Index. Then, I would boast about Canadian federalism. How does the supposed power of the states in the U.S. compare to the provincial jurisdiction of healthcare and education in Canada now? I thought to myself: I’m not particularly patriotic, but suppose that I wanted to take some pride in my country. What is there of which I can or should be proud?

Some of the best parts of Mises University were the conversations that I had with fellow students outside of the intense periods of scheduled lectures. One evening I had several particularly good conversations about Catholicism. (I am meeting so many young converts!)  With a small group I discussed Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hobbes, Dostoyevsky, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Burke, Mises, Fulton Sheen, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, and others over the course of the evening.

One young man with whom I spoke and who is converting to Catholicism from being a Baptist told the group that he has read Augustine’s City of God in its entirety and recommended it strongly to all of us. Another student who I met studies at Harvard and told me about his classes with Dr. Harvey Mansfield. “We spent fifteen minutes discussing the first words of the Republic,” he said. I smiled remembering that I too had had similar experiences being guided through the opening lines of Plato’s Gorgias (“War and Battle”) and of Plato’s Republic (“I went down”). My late-night conversations with these dedicated students was such a gift. I count myself blessed to have been in their company.

On the final day of Mises University we had a barbecue dinner at the Institute. Everyone was outside, laughing, telling jokes, eating burgers and coleslaw and cookies. Several of the professors’ families, including many young children, had arrived for this final dinner. It was good to see. As everyone gathered around for the closing ceremonies, I cherished the experience. For a bunch of individualists, it seemed we hadn’t done too bad a job at being a community.

This blog is dedicated in gratitude to James Forward who sponsored my attendance at Mises University. 

A few thoughts on conference etiquette

“Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honor.”
– Emily Post

Attending numerous conferences renders one particularly perceptive to the unique kinds of manners and conduct that can be typically observed at such gatherings.

Recently I attended a political conference and inspired by a few observations I made, I would like to share a few thoughts on conference etiquette.

Arrival: When arriving to a conference there is usually a registration desk. Regardless of how much you may expect to be recognized and greeted by name, it is a courtesy to take the initiative to introduce yourself upon arrival. This way you help expedite the registration process and make it easier for those at the registration desk to find your name tag and confirm your attendance on their list.

Dress Code: Sometimes the conference organizers inform attendees of the dress code. If not, it is appropriate to ask the organizers. Otherwise, err on the side of professionalism. Sometimes I like to look at photos of the same conference or event from previous years to get a more exact sense of how people dress for the particular occasion. If you find yourself making excuses to yourself for your attire, chances are that you should change.

Business Cards:
Everyone who attends a conference should bring business cards -enough cards for every conference attendee even. A key purpose of conferences is networking and exchanging business cards is a great way to make connections. When you receive a business card, you should receive it graciously. This may mean taking note of the design or some interesting piece of information on the card and making a comment or offering an affirmation. Then, the card should be respectfully placed in a pocket or cardholder. Cards should not be carelessly left behind on tables, the floor, or the buffet table. At the earliest opportunity, write a note about the individual you met on the back of their card. Perhaps note the key topics of your conversation or the most interesting things you learned from them. Then, when you return home from the conference, send them an email to follow-up and thank them for the pleasure of meeting.

Language: Avoid jargon and acronymns. Both jargon and acronyms can serve to exclude people unfamiliar with the terms and also tend to carelessness in speech. There is a way to explain words that may not be known by everyone rather than patronizingly defining them. By taking the time to explain what you mean, people will be attracted by your inclusiveness and thoughtfulness.

Research: Conference programs are generally released in advance and usually you can predict what kinds of people will be there. It is a good idea to research the panelists, keynote speakers, attendees, and organizations involved. This will make introductions smooth and you can have a solid frame of reference for most conversations.  People are flattered when you recognize their place of work, their research interests, their latest media appearance, and especially anecdotes from their biography. Be careful not to lead on to just how extensive your research has been or to how sharp your memory is. This somtimes comes across as creepy.

House Rules: The recent conference that I attended invoked the “Chatham House Rule.” Essentially, this rule was summarized: “What is said here, stays here.” Curious about the origin and nature of this rule, I did some research.

The Chatham House Rule reads as follows:

“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

It is important to respect the conference rules because how you honour or dishonour the rules will be a reflection of you. It is especially helpful to know the spirit of the rule so that you can adhere to it accordingly. All of this is especially good to bear in mind in light of new technologies that grant us the opportunity to publish instantly. As the adage goes: “Think before you tweet.”

Questions: At most conferences there is an opportunity to ask questions publicly. In this excellent article How to Ask a Question Peter Wood laments that we seem to have lost the art of asking good questions. He begins his article explaining what happened when the floor was opened for questions at a debate:

“The questioners by and large had no questions. Instead they offered up prolix piles of words that led nowhere in particular. Some sought to show off what they mistook as their own superior knowledge. Others scolded. A few got lost in their own labyrinths. The closest we came to a question was the j’accuse rhetorical jab more or less in the form, ‘Don’t you agree that you are an ignorant buffoon?’

Some of the questioners were deliberately abusing their opportunity. That’s bad manners and an erosion of the civility that is needed for worthwhile public debate. But a good many of the questioners simply didn’t know how to ask a question. They were caught in the fog between wanting to communicate something that seemed to them urgent to declare and the need to ask.”

When asking a question at a conference, I recommend beginning by stating your name and where you are from (city or university or company, for example). Avoid providing an oral resume. Far too often individuals spend two minutes describing how qualified they are to ask the question before finally taking a full minute to ask it. When asking a question, remain standing at the microphone until the question has been answered.  Avoid the most specific references in questions that are outside of the parametres of what has been the focus of discussion. For example, it seems odd when, after a session on the principle of religious liberty or the global financial crisis, people stand up and ask very particular questions about Latvia and Pakistan. Share your personal and niche interests when you mingle, not during question period.

Speakers: When you are the speaker at a conference, arrive early. It is good to arrive early enough to visit with conference participants and perhaps to join them for a meal. Then, it will also be appreciated if you can stay for a short while after to address individual questions and to receive compliments! Making time for participants when you are the speaker in this way will show that you respect your audience and are willing to go above and beyond showing up to speak and collect a fee or honorarium.

Speakers should definitely avoid apologizing during their presentations and confessing to a lack of preparation. A speaker should not say “in conclusion” or “I have only a few minutes remaining” when he is only halfway through his presentation. This makes the audience anticipate a speedy end to the presentation that they would otherwise likely be far more attentive to sit through were the speaker to make no reference to time.

The chair of a panel or the master of ceremonies should always greet the speakers who they invite to the podium with a handshake. It is important for the chair to take this initiative and for the other speakers to respond the gesture. The podium should never be left unattended. Applause should occur consistently before and after each speaker and it is the role of the chair to model this to the audience. Applause should be held until the speaker arrives to the podium to be greeted by the chair. Even when the chair and a speaker are friends, hands should be shaken rather than a hug or any other reception at the podium.

For more resources on public speaking and leadership, check out Toastmasters.

Moderation:
At conferences there tends to be buffet meals, plenty of socials, and lots of occasions to go out for drinks. It is typical to not feel even a bit hungry or thirsty throughout such a conference. However, consider how moderation and a little sacrifice can serve to cultivate discipline that can sharpen your conscientious dealings with others. Intentionally foregoing some of the luxuries at conferences is a good way to stay focused on the purpose of the conference and to be sensitive to others.

Intensity: Conferences are intense experiences. They provide opportunities for tremendous growth personally, professionally, academically, and even spiritually. Aim to strike a balance between total immersion and a bird’s eye view.

Reflection and Goal-setting: After a conference has ended, take the time to reflect on your experiences. Write down your observations, memories, highlights, etc. Then, set goals. What actions do you resolve to take inspired by this conference? Do you intend to attend the same conference again? Are there similar ones that you can attend? What were the highlights? How will you transform your experience into action? How has the conference shaped your character?

Happy conference-going!