Christophe Piton: An insight into the ethics of liberty

Publié le 10 juillet 2011 par Objectifliberte
By Christophe Piton (Institut Hayek)

This is the text of a talk held at the Université Libre de Bruxelles on February 25, 2006 at the Libertarian International Spring Convention.

The idea for this talk occurred to me after reading Ludwig von Mises' Notes and Recollections, and I will often refer to this book in which Mises told the early years of his carreer, after World War I, and described the intellectual, social and political atmosphere of Vienna between the two world wars. Indeed the situation he was confronted with is very comparable to that which exists in France nowadays. World War II started at the end of the period covered by Mises' book, and although we certainly are not under the threat of another world war, I thought that maybe, since this atmosphere depressed Mises very much, by sharing his experience with you I could cheer up some of us. I wish to give you an insight of the importance of the intellectual reality which in fact I find much more deciding than human actions, which are merely consequences of the ideas held by people.

I) Why are ideas so important ?
The first question we should ask ourselves is: "why are ideas so important ?". We all generally acknowledge that it is better to be right than wrong, that it is better for a society to be composed of more liberals than socialists, and so on. But I feel that ideas are much more important than we usually think. Above all, when I observe people in their daily lives, I realize that we all tend to give our convictions much less importance than I hope you will acknowledge they do have after hearing this talk.
a) Prosecutions of the defenders of freedom
We, friends of liberty, know perfectly well that it may be quite dangerous to express one's ideas. Our intellectual tradition is full of examples of remarkable individuals, who suffered fierce prosecutions from those who traditionnally tend to be hostile to individual freedom, namely: the State and its agencies, but in fact any kind of organisation or person who exercises a power of coercion in the name of a given group of people.
Ludwig von Mises'life probably offers one of the most conspicuous examples of prosecutions suffered in the name of individual freedom. Indeed he was regarded as an enemy both by nazi and communist totalitarianisms. As a Jew, he was obviously under a great threat from the nazi authorities, but there is more. During his last years in Europe, Mises worked as an advisor to the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, and for one of the public agencies designed to implement the dispositions of the Treaty of Versailles. His study of monetary systems and his knowledge of economics in general made him a defender of the system of the gold standard. The senior managers of the Austrian Central Bank were definitely opposed at the time to maintaining the convertibility principle. The reason is indeed very easy to understand: the gold standard imposes a rigorous discipline on central banks. Any irresponsible central bank policy must have dire effects either on credit or on the value of money. On the contrary, without this common reference to gold, the inflationist attack on property is much more discreet: by slowly opening the credit tap, the value of money is progressively diluted (especially by reducing the value of term contracts), the value of property is slowly reduced, and the conspicuous financial effect for the individual consumer is an immediate degradation of the foreign exchange rate. Sooner or later, obviously, the result is that consumers perceive a degradation of the purchasing power. The explanation for this is merely that you cannot alter the nature of pure gold, whereas you can always alter the nature of a money which, in the final analysis, is guaranteed solely by the pledge of the monetary authorities... What Mises noticed is that the discipline of the gold standard was impossible to maintain because it would have brought in broad day light the misuse of certain public resources that were conveniently hidden in the accountancy of the central bank. You imagine that this did not gain him the favours of the managers of the central bank, who were but functionaries who served their lord and master: the Austrian State.
Hated by the senior officials of the Austrian State, Jew in a time of antisemitism, liberal, advocate of responsibility, defiant vis-à-vis the State, he had fierce enemies in the Austrian regime, in the nazi party, and even in Russia. After his expatriation to the United States, where he arrived in June 1940, his personal belongings were seized by Stalin, who personnally asked Hitler if he could have his library and works sent to Russia. He wanted them studied and probably refuted... It is more than probable that - if they are still alive - the poor chaps trying to refute Mises' economic theory are still working quite hard to prove the superiority of marxist economics over the bourgeois economics.
The general impression that emerges from the Notes and recollections is a very tragic one. This book explains how Mises' knowledge of economics as well as his strong moral sense showed him that the collapse of Austria had become inevitable. Precisely, says he, because the wrong ideas had spread in society. The lesson we must learn from this testimony is that any improvement of the economic and social reality is impossible as long as the wrong economic and moral ideas prevail.
I wish to draw your attention to the fact that it is partly thanks to men like Mises, who left his country to preserve his life and continue his intellectual work, that we nowadays enjoy our freedom. Indeed, after the war, in 1947, Hayek founded the Mont Pèlerin Society, in order to gather all the intellectuals who were friends of liberty, to preserve this precious heritage that we can trace back to the most ancient times. The mere presence in a society at a given time of individuals holding and defending certain ideas can definitely have an effect on the social and political events.
b) "Ideas are mightier than the sword"
The reason for this is expressed by the famous sentence: "Ideas are mightier than the sword". There is much more in this statement than the expression of a naive confidence in the "superiority of the spirit over the matter". This aphorism is not a mere mystical gobbledygook, but the expression of a genuine sociological knowledge, that many philosophers and thinkers have tried to explain.
I shall carry on with the example of the Mont Pèlerin Society since it is familiar to us all, by saying that it is certainly thanks to its members that the blue revolution embodied by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan could take place in the 1980ies. Hayek, thanks to the repute he gained after his intellectual contests with Lord Keynes, but also after winning the Nobel prize, and thanks to the net of pupils and colleagues he had woven all around the world, influenced profoundly public decisions in the United States and in the United Kingdom. We still live in a world that is changing as a result of this impulse given by those men who had no power, no money, no armies, no atom bombs. Indeed Stalin, when he mocked the pope by asking how many divisions he commanded might have made a huge strategical mistake: I don't mean that the popes are always right. I mean that they occasionnally, and especially in the case of this exceptional man whose loss we had to grieve over only a few months ago, pope John Paul II, can have a very strong influence over the nations which might be less visible and less triumphant than military power in the short run, but which can be much more efficient in shaping social reality in the long run.
Both Mises and Hayek lay a particular emphasis on the effect of academic thinking over the course of events: indeed the economic powers of a central bank, the military power of an army, the wonderful possibilities opened by political organization and public policies change the life of a society. But the direction it will take and the succession of events will depend precisely on the ideas held by those who take the decisions. Mises' central idea, throughout his Notes and Recollections, is that Austria collapsed because all his ruling class was convinced that Austria could not sustain itself on its own. He implies, in fact, that the Anschluss was the result of the desire of the Austrian leaders to give up their independence (or their refusal to assume their responsiblities). As said Thomas Mann: nazism just didn't crash in Germany like a meteorite: the Germans wanted it. We tend to reduce nazism to racism. I think it is a mistake: nazism could meet political success because it gave a stupid but simple explanation to the problems of Germany and, above all, thanks to - or rather because of - its central moral principle, which is precisely the refusal of any moral principle under the notion of Führerprinzip. In short, the Führerprinzip told every German citizen that the Führer was the one who would take all responsibility for his people. This is most appealing to people weakened by rapid and unaccountable changes in the social reality to which they are accustomed. I don't think that the Germans voted for Hitler because they were fiercely antisemitic - although some of them probably were - but because the Jews were a convenient group to exercise hatred against. There are human cultures for which I have no sympathy. But I don't think that suppressing them would really make the world a better place: only actions and the ideas that are their principles can be immoral, not the individuals themselves. Men are natural beings: they tend to obey natural laws. But on occasion, when they become unable to recognize natural law (very often as a result of fear), they commit mistakes and crimes.
In short, it can be said that ideas change the world because they are unaltered by the events: freedom is freedom is freedom. As long as there will be people to defend it, it will have chances to emerge. But this idea is not new: Jesus expressed it when he said that "the kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof". And Voltaire too, to ridicule the censors of his books portrayed them as an oriental despot ordering to stop any new idea by "binding it hand and foot, so that it could be punished according to the delight of the Muphti". Ideas cannot be stopped, unlike armies, and the success of ideas are very numerous: the independence of the European colonies in America and Africa and Asia, the fall of the Soviet regime, etc. The conclusion we must draw from this is that elections and battles are first won or lost not in ballots or on the battlefields, but in public opinion.
c) For a new idealism
Hayek mentionned very often the belief in the power of ideas that prevailed when he was a student in Vienna. This is the reason why he resented the "kindergarten atmosphere" of American university campuses (he wrote this in 1962) he was confronted with later in his carreer. I think we need to regain confidence in the power of the idea of individual freedom, because modern scientific studies show that ideas have changed the world: therefore I propose to adopt a new idealism.
To that end, ideas should be taken seriously: they must be guidelines and frames to interpret the world. Many students of French business or commerce schools join my bank each year for their internship, and I can assure you I pity them: they are never taught a coherent set of ideas to interpret the world. Their view of social problems is that any problem arises out of a defect in social organisation, and that by putting everything "back to his place", and by giving every individual what he is supposed to need, any social problem can be solved. This is what Hayek described as the "spirit of the Ecole Polytechnique". They naturally scorn individuals because they speak as if all human beings needed the same things at given moments of their lives, and indeed, holding such ideas, they can't really love mankind, starting with themselves. These poor students never received a decent economic training: they know some names of economists (usually Keynes, sadly) but they never study the principles; their knowledge of law and legal matters never raise to any kind of general ideas regarding legal philosophy. The only thing that matters to them is to solve the problems of their daily lives thanks to money, and of social life thanks to regulations, taxes and authoritative policies.
The philosopher Alain wrote that there is one way to make our ideas true, which is to observe the world through them. There is much wisdom in this statement, for indeed the actions of men are the basis for all their actions. I mean that we plan our actions according to a set of ideas and conceptions that determine not only our perception of reality, but also our reactions to reality. In order to improve our understanding, and therefore our adaptation to reality, we must bring our hidden ideas to conscience and criticize them, to improve them. In Popper's words: to "test" them. Man is indeed perfectible, but if we want to improve our ideas, we must make a conscious individual effort.
I mean that, whatever our individual preferences, we should always endeavour to interpret reality according to a conscious set of general ideas. But we should always bear in mind the ideas of Karl Popper, which provide a fundamental epistemological background for the friends of liberty, and indeed we can say that the epistemology of Karl Popper is the only one compatible with freedom: the truth cannot be proved. It can be found from time to time, we can meet it in the course of our lives, but there is no scientifical method to prove that a scientifical statement is true. To summarize, we must "test" our own ideas in a critical process that is the same as scientists use to increase scientific knowledge.
II) What kind of ideas can be successful ?
Not every idea can be successful. Unfortunately, the history of the world shows many examples of scientifically refuted ideas that were successful. Socialism, of course, is the first that springs to mind. Therefore, the criterion for the success of an idea cannot be the truth, and if ideas are successful, if people adopt them, it must be because they respond to different expectations than intellectual ones. I will try and study three principles which, in the past, have secured the success of certain set of ideas.
a) Individualism
Any idea that respects the principle of individualism can be successful: because individuality is a reality, and one which has grown in significance in the history of mankind. Each human being, especially in societies like our own where individuals are increasingly different from each other, has a "divine spark" (to quote Aristotle) that he or she wants to preserve and express. Individuals are unique. It doesn't mean that we are all exceptional persons whose deeds will be hallowed and retold throughout the centuries, nonetheless we must still agree with the fact that no other person than ourselves can tell with certainty what is good for me, and at which moment.
We should not forget that socialism met success in Europe mainly because of World War I, and in a reaction to nationalisms: at the time, socialism was a response to the human need to socialize according to one's preferences. The trenches' society was an awful one: no independent action was possible, and men were told who their friends and their enemies were: they could not talk to those they wanted to talk to. Human friendship is a very strong impulse: every individual needs to have his or her net of acquaintances. A progress in the development of the individual mind is the possibility for every individual to chose his friends and connections where he or she feels fit: outside one's family, outside one's gender, outside one's generation, outside one's country or religious group. This was completely impossible in the nationalistic and hierarchic universe of the trenches. How would you have reacted, if you were in the situation of a soldier in the trenches, taught to hate his neighbour because he was German or French or Belgian or English, to speeches explaining that under a socialist society, people would work in a community, without this permanent need to defend themselves against the others, and so on ? indeed all those peasants and factory workers who were suffering in the trenches had no real political idea and were much more concerned with their families than with the glory of their nation: so the idea to give up all rivalry between men was obviously an appealing prospect to all these individuals that had been deprived of a fundamental right: the possibility to try and live again amongst friends.
Of course, socialism is unsustainable. Of course it is a mistake. Nonetheless the psychological fronteer between the contractual freedom and the spontaneous fraternal impulse is somehow unclear to uneducated people. The difference between us and the socialists seems to be that although we, liberals, recognize the importance of social links between men, as always, we want to give them rules and principles. In liberalism, the impulse of human love is moderated and regulated by the principle of human dignity and individual freedom and property. In this field as in many others, it seems that what we call socialism is merely what happens when people see a desirable goal, and try to reach it without any method, and frequently by resorting to violence. Keynesianism is an example of this statement: it can be argued that the Keynesians want to do everything to make as if the economic system was working smoothly. They don't think of the consequences of the policies they support, but since they know that there is no unemployement in a healthy economy, they will use any means at their command to create the impression that their economy is working: they are not really intelligent, and they don't understand what an economy actually is: they regard the economy as if it were a phenomenon that is independent of the individual wills and deeds of human beings.
b) Newness
The idea must appear new and bring something that must be regarded as an improvement of the existing situation. But in itself it is not sufficient. It is counter-productive to try and convert an individual to liberalism or libertarianism if you haven't first understood what kind of problems he or she wanted to solve by supporting an idea we know is erroneous.
Hayek advocated a new "liberal radicalism" and he admitted that the socialists met success because they had had the courage to be utopian, precisely because a utopian picture of society gives the spectator an intuition of what a society from which all the unpleasant features of the existing one have been removed could look like. On the anarcho-capitalist side for instance I think we have a kind of utopia that maybe respond to Hayek's wishes.
The ancient rhetorics recognized that a speech must respect three principles to convince the audience: movere, docere, delectare. To affect people, to teach and to charm them. Indeed the rhetoricians of Ancient Greece and Rome knew that reason was not the right way to convince people. People want to be surprised by the speaker, they want to hear new ideas (even if I doubt a new idea can ever exist, but this is another matter). Therefore it is simply pointless to try and explain that: "by reducing taxes and that by controlling governement expenditure according to appropriate ratios of GDP, we will end up in a situation in which mastered inflation would stop the value of money being altered by undue variations of the monetary mass", and so on. We must not focus on what is practically possible if we want to convince people: we must give them enthusiasm. I don't mean we should give the people the illusion that everything will be easy and quick, as did Lord Keynes, but we should advocate a society of free individuals, a society without a boss or a nanny State.
For instance I read lately an article by David Friedman where he described how people acting on their own could decide to build a dam on the basis of free individual choice. The system he described is based on the consultation of the individual citizens, and on the free choice to join a collective enterprise. In this system, the principle of coercion simply doesn't exist: no State or local council can impose decisions on the citizens: the project is subject to the approval of everybody, and the money is raised on a contractual basis. I happen to work in a bank and for several associations. I realize how complicated it is to have a contract signed by more than two parties, and to manage six people, so I doubt the system advocated by David Friedman can actually be put in practice: it would cost as much to organize the collection of signatures and contributions as to build the dam proper, so it clearly is not possible to set it up. But several friends of mine like this idea, and the point is that it gives them a hope that a better society can emerge along the lines of the liberal principles if they are applied up to their utlimate consequences.
c) Sincerity
In this connection I recognize how right Ayn Rand was to insist upon the importance of the impression actions make on individuals: what liberal principles make people feel when they hear talking about them is as important as what is actually said. In fact the question is: what kind of principles give the people the strength and courage to go ahead, and "to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" ? What is the kind of speech people will be grateful to you for delivering ? The answer is quite simple: only a speech based on the principles of human nature, and therefore on natural law. Therefore socialism was a success amongst the masses inasmuch as it echoed as a call to the human nature. Socialism is a false doctrine that seemed to give a natural and fundamentally good human instinct a way of satisfaction, the falsity of which can be demonstrated by logical means, of course (especially when socialism is applied to the economy), and also by a scientific observation of reality: each time it is put in practice, it ends up in the destruction of society, which is a net of freely chosen or freely accepted alliances, contracts, friendships, or partnerships of any kind. Socialism simply didn't keep his promise: resorting to the instinctive human love is no basis for a civilized and wealthy society. It creates a social chaos that demands the intervention of power and violence to reestablish a peaceful situation by imposing on the individuals an order they haven't contributed to design.
I call this third condition of a successful idea "sincerity": indeed to make an idea successful in the long run, it must adress the nature of the individual as well as be logically coherent to avoid the counterproductive effects of economic errors. The promise of material advantages might not be sufficient (it is true that liberal societies provide wealth and comfort, but an effort is necessary to do so, which people are naturally reluctant to make: Keynesianism is appealing because it promises easy money, and it is much easier to adress the natural laziness of a human being than his motivation to do extraordinary things).
There are other criteria, and many different ways to express them, but these three seemed the most important to me, and I mentioned them as examples. Those of you who wish to study these questions further can use the moral theory of the Bible and of the Quran for instance, or the moral examples of primitive history or of mythology to find archtypes of human feelings and desires and needs. In fact the more we know the human nature, the more we will be in a position to apply the principles of our liberal tradition to all those aspects of the human soul, and therefore to spread our ideas and win the people's hearts.
III) Ways and means
I mentioned "ethics" in the title of my contribution, because ideas must be held and put in practice by people to be efficient: therefore every friend of liberty must, in one way or another, make it a personal duty to embody the ideas of liberty, and to act upon them. The ethics of liberty can be summarized by Hayek's words: "Each liberal must be an agitator".
a) Perfectioning
In order to be able to spread our ideas, it is very important not to stick to a given version of our doctrine. Liberalism is certainly not a doctrine that describes a perfect state of society. If we move from one country to another we might soon discover that the political and social circumstances are not the same, and that the impediments against freedom differ from those we were accustomed to in the previous country, therefore, although we defend the same freedom, we must from time to time change our arguments. I think we should regard the history as the progress of individual freedom: I do not mean that the advancement of individual liberty is inevitable but that it should be our criterion to appreciate political and historical events. In the course of our lives, we realize time and again that a situation in which we used to feel all right becomes unbearable after a given time: social situations are in perpetual change, like our personalities. Therefore, we have to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a free or unfree society. Societies are on trends towards more or less individual freedom, but they never are perfect or impossible to improve.
As an example, when Hayek became a teacher of political economy at the university of Freiburg in Breisgau, in 1962, he explained to his students in his inaugural lecture that in the course of his career, each time he moved to another country, he had to fight on different intellectual frontiers: he was famous in Germany for his monetary explanation of the trade cycle, but when he moved to England, he met an extreme form of monetarism that he regarded as erroneous, and he emphasized the role of real elements in prices fluctuations. The point is that there is only one liberty, and many ways to betray it. Therefore we cannot rely on a single liberal theory and indulge ourselves in limitating our ideas by turning them into intangible statements. I don't think classical liberalism is inconsistent with anarcho-capitalism or libertarianism. Their fundamental impulse is obviously the same, but the circumstances - and the receptiveness of the audience - may make it more productive to speak from a classic liberal point of view, or from a libertarian one, for instance.
To bear this in mind can prevent severe disappointments. History shows that, for instance, the bigger companies, which are generally regarded as supporters of liberalism, are not by nature on the side of the friends of liberty. When they reach a given size, companies tend to lose their creative impulse, and it happened several times in history that capitalists, whose job was to manage great companies, became hostile to liberalism, and preferred to intrigue with the State in order to obtain comfortable monopolies and privileges. Many directors of steel companies supported the nationalist Government of the emperor before and during World War I. Many senior managers of the greatest companies of German chemical industry, for instance, supported Hitler enthusiatically. If I started giving French examples, we would still be there tomorrow, but the so-called "capitalisme d'Etat" ("State capitalism"... what a horrid and nonsensical expression !) has been a commonplace of French politics, at least since the policy advocated by Colbert in the seventeenth century. So if we want to avoid to support parties that are not really friends of liberty, we should exercise our minds to recognize the betrayals of our ideas, and give up the habit of thinking that some categories of people or companies are, by nature, supporters or enemies of a free society.
It is a duty to eliminate error by the scientifical kind of efforts I mentioned earlier. I do not mean that we should all go to the university and become economists, philosophers or biologists. I mean that the first duty of any individual is to submit himself to reality. In the socialist camp, obviously, this moral command is seldom respected. This is probably the reason why Hayek describes socialism as the result of a human hybris, a fatal conceit. In France, the first requirement to become a top civil servant seems to be a deliberate ignorance of reality and a capability to struggle against it endlessly: in spite of the terrible results of all the French public policies over the last decades, we carry on recruting in the same "Grandes Ecoles" like the ENA (National School of Administration), the Ecole Polytechnique or Sciences Po (Institute of Political Studies) the same mandarins to perpetuate the ruling nomenklatura, whose members are taught an endless respect and confidence in the almighty State. After graduation, the lucky students have opportunities to try and solve the problems of the nation by their most inefficient action within the national committe for integration (Commission Nationale de l'Intégration), the Commission for State Modernization (Commission de Modernisation de l'Etat)... Do not laugh: it DOES exist... Maybe in a couple of years our great intellectuals will propose to radically simplify the State by creating four ministries: one could suggest to set up a Ministry of Truth, to rewrite history to suit the occasion (don't laugh: French MPs have recently passed a bill to impose the way schools should teach colonial history), a Ministry of Peace, which will function to wage war, a Ministry of Love which will maintain law and order, and a Ministry of Plenty to take care of the homeless and the unemployed... No doubt one of our civil servants will soon come with the idea that a social theoretician called George Orwell in a treatise headed 1984 has designed a wonderful organisation to solve all our problems ! The capital sin of those bureaucrats is that in spite of their conspicuous failure they refuse to see the reality, and carry on trying the same solutions.
Such behaviour, should prompt us to do the exact opposite and study history, economics, political science, philosophy, social science in general, in order to know the reality better, and to get rid of our wrong opinions by confronting them with facts. It is an unpleasant task, but one that everyone should undertake; but in the end, critical awareness becomes a second nature and does no longer require painful efforts. But I insist: there is more to knowledge than academic knowledge. To try new solutions at the office as much as possible, to open the old files, to question the organization of the company we work for are very simple examples, that usually require more individual courage than academic work, and that can provide great satisfaction. We should all choose a discipline, as a kind of spiritual exercise to reinforce our minds, so that we become capable to readily admit our errors, and to try new solutions to solve the problems. In short, we cannot allow our minds to fall to sleep. (In theological terms, this would be a "sin against the Holy Spirit".)
b) Socializing
Human beings cannot do otherwise than to live in a society to satisfy their needs: living in a society is a vital necessity because the scope of action of a single individual is very limited. Therefore, each human group must have an order to allow a peaceful cooperation of its members. Hayek explains that there are only two principles of organisation in human groups: freely chosen links like contracts which result in a spontaneous and non-violent order, or coercion which results in a violently constructed order. Since we need to resort to collective actions to preserve our lives, each of us has to choose between creating associations dedicated to the pursuit of common goals on the basis of free will, or waiting until he or she is given orders. The first solution is typical of free men and women, whereas the second is typical of a slave. A free society starts with you and me, here and now: people call the State to the rescue whenever they are too lazy or too ignorant to solve their own problems with their own means. The conclusion is quite simple: the State will be powerful in proportion of the weakness of society, and vice-versa. It depends on each of us to allow society to fall to bits or to strengthen it.
To illustrate this statement, we can refer to Tocqueville's observation that there was a great difference between the conception of democracy in France and in the United States: in the United States, whenever a citizen had a problem, or a project the achievement of which required the efforts of several people, he would mobilize his means and ask several other citizens to help, so that within the framework of a free association, they could either for a financial interest or for their mutual benefit, undertake an appropriate action; whereas in France, the reflex of the citizens was to call the State to the rescue (perhaps should I remind the audience that Tocqueville lived in the first third of the 19th century... it is incredible how slowly mankind changes, isn't it ?). Freedom is not an economic or a moral issue designed for political debates: the demand for freedom - and its subsequent advent - can only arise amongst people who are used to take care of their own problems on their own.
Socializing must become a habit. We should have the reflex of sharing our knowledge. Whenever we read an interesting book for instance, we could make a summary, and ask some of our friends to do the same. Organize regular meetings, sport activities. Ask people to contribute to a common goal: it does indeed work. For instance, I play at the theatre with a group of amateurs, and I started organizing rehearsals to improve on our regular courses. Quite naturally, in the course of our meetings, I started talking about the capitalist ball, liberal activism, and suchlike. People who were not interested in politics started asking me questions. There were some civil servants amongst them, and I was pretty surprised to see that most of them nodded in approval... It was not a political occasion, but since I had taken an initiative within our group, I had gained some authority and recognition, and people listened to me with interest. It seems to be nothing. But who knows ? perhaps some day one of them will ask me for a good book to read, and then... These are but simple examples, and there are endless possibilities for each of us to explore: we must regard the world as a playground for our individual creativity.
When Jesus said: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you", he was not promising extraordinary things or a new kind of magic powers. I think he meant that we usually underestimate our chances of success, and that we too often think we have been defeated before even starting our efforts. I think he meant that the only way to obtain something we desire is to get information about it first, then to look for it, then to find the right connection or partner. But no social link can be bound if we regard others a priori as hostile. Therefore, we must endeavour to apply the same principle that made Hayek "hardly ever attribute to opponents anything beyond intellectual error", as Professor Schumpeter once said.
If you read the speech opening the first meeting of the assembly that was to become the Mont Pèlerin Society delivered by Hayek in 1947, you'll realize how the individual links woven by Hayek with many of the attendees were as important as their academic work. A comparable phenomenon happened in the 18th century, when the philosophers who advocated the ideas of the Enlightenment used to correspond throughout Europe with each other in spite of censorship. The emergence of liberal ideas is largely due to their work, that prepared public opinion for major changes: but nowadays, who knows about the République des Lettres ? We remember the politicians and generals who led the revolutions, passed the laws, won the battles. But who remembers these discreet philosophers and scientists who, in the dark, contributed to the advancement of knowledge and freedom ?
c) Preaching
All our initiatives will secure what the Romans called auctoritas, a word we translate by "authority"; but we tend not to give this notion quite the same importance in social and political life as the Romans did. People around us usually recognize our efforts. Therefore, the more we will engage ourselves in social action (profitable or not: profit is not a relevant criterion in this connection), the more we will gain recognition from other citizens, and the more they will be willing to listen to us, and to take our opinions seriously.
I advise you not to try to convert, because people might resent it and perceive it as an agression: I never converted a socialist by a rational argument; but sometimes, in a moderate speech, I sometimes have managed to raise an interest for the ideas of liberty amongst my interlocutors. Pointing out the contradictions of socialism, State intervention, and so on is the most efficient tactics: sow the seeds of doubt in their minds, and let people gently come to the truth. Our point is not to reach a given objective defined in advance, but to contribute to the evolution of the general intellectual climate.
I mean that the power of ideas that Hayek and Mises had in mind is a reality, although we may never see politicians putting them in practice. In any country the Government must in one way or another comply with public opinion. Even the bloodiest dictatures must, in one way or another stick to it: this is the reason why they fight so fiercely against those who hold too conspicuously views they do not approve of. Our ideas about Government will change the world, provided we publicize them in person, and even though those who govern never seem to change and to improve their political options.
In short, I think this belief in the power of ideas is very comparable to religious faith. The only difference here is that the theoreticians of our cultural tradition have scientifically studied the social process, or at least described it in an academic language, so that we can have the certainty that the mere fact of writing texts, talking about our ideas to the people we meet, and simply putting in practice the principle of private initiative do make the world a better place. Any period in history is characterized by a given intellectual atmosphere: when we hear a song we have never heard before, we can guess whether it was composed in the seventies or in the nineties... well, most of the time, I think... Therefore, each time each of us speaks about freedom in physical interpersonal exchanges, he or she tends to shape this intellectual climate, even though a couple of years may elapse before we see an actual improvement of public policies or legislation.
I wanted to talk with you about these matters because the more I read the biographies of liberal philosophers, the more I know the personal situations they met, the more I realize that they all went through the same situations most of us go through in their lives: rejection from colleagues and friends, doubt, despair. Nonetheless they did carry on their fight with their limited means. And Mises and Hayek, although they never were in a position to exercise directly political power, certainly did more for freedom than an individual politician who for a few years managed to pass liberal reforms. They have done something which is much more important, and that must happen prior to any radical liberal reforms like those Margaret Thatcher initiated in the eighties: they have given men tools to exercise their minds to become fighters for liberty. I think what we must do now is to spread their message whenever we have the opportunity to do so. And one day, we may realize that freedom is close at hand, and that we can seize it like a mellow fruit.
    Christophe Piton
    February 2006

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