One of the most encouraging things happening to the British pro-free-market and libertarian movement is the outreach work being done by the Institute of Economic Affairs, to students at British universities and in British schools. In this IEATV video Steven Davies and Christiana Hambro describe what they have been getting up to in this area. They are a bit stilted in their delivery and demeanour. Steve Davies in particular is a rather more relaxed, animated and persuasive public performer than this short video makes him seem. I get the feeling that there were retakes, as they negotiated car doors and seatbelts when on camera. But if any of this inclines you to be put off, don’t be, because the process these two excellent people are talking about in this video is definitely the genuine article.
They mention the Freedom Forum. This has, says Davies “rapidly become the biggest gathering of pro-liberty students and young people in the UK”. The latest iteration of this, Liberty League Freedom Forum 2014, is happening next weekend and its detailed timetable has just been announced. If this get-together was just a one-off annual event with nothing else related to it happening, that would definitely still be something, although I do agree with those who say that the title of these things is a bit of a mouthful. But LLFF2014 is a great deal more than just an annual event, being but the London manifestation of a much bigger program of intellectual and ideological outreach to universities and to schools throughout the UK.
Recently I dropped in at the IEA, where Christiana Hambro and her IEA colleague Grant Tucker made time to tell me in person about what they have been doing. I also picked their about people who might be good to invite to talk at my last-Friday-of-the-month meetings. For me, the most interesting thing that they said to me was in answer to my question concerning to what extent their outreach activities were piggy-backing on the earlier efforts of the Adam Smith Institute, efforts which have been going on for many years, under the leadership of ASI President Madsen Pirie. What Christiana Hambro and Grant Tucker said was that when it came to outreach to universities, then yes, their work does depend on earlier ASI efforts. University economics departments are tough nuts to crack open with contrary ideas, and the best way to get to universities is by working with free market and libertarian student societies, rather than relying on the intellectual hospitality of academics. The ASI has done a huge amount to encourage such groups over the years, and without such groups what the IEA is now doing in universities would have been harder to accomplish.
But in schools, it has been a very different story. The ASI has done plenty of work in schools as well over the years, but what Christiana Hambro and Grant Tucker said to me was that basically, in schools, the IEA’s outreach operation is basically operating in virgin territory, with economics pupils all of whom have heard of Keynes, for instance, but none of whom have ever heard of Hayek. Another way of putting that might be to say that when it comes to preaching free market economics to British schools, this is a town that is plenty big enough for the both of them.
Schools are also different from universities in often being much more open to different ideas than universities are. Universities are dominated by people who take ideas seriously, but this can have the paradoxical result that many universities and university departments become bastions of bias and groupthink, all about deciding what is true and then defending it against all heretical comers. Schools, on the other hand, some at least, are more concerned to persuade their often indifferent pupils to care, at all, about ideas of any kind, which, again rather paradoxically, makes many such schools far more open to unfamiliar ideas than many universities. A teacher may be a devout Keynesian, even a Marxist. But if these IEA people from London can help him stir up his pupils’ minds by showing economics to be an arena of urgent and contemporary intellectual and ideological conflict rather than merely a huge stack of dull facts mostly about the past, then he is liable to be very grateful to these intruders, even if he flatly disagrees with their particular way of thinking.
Present at this Liberty League Freedom Forum that is coming up next weekend, which I will be attending (just as I attended LLFF2013 last year), will be some of the products of all this outreach. Someone like me has heard most of the featured speakers before, some of them many times. But many of the people at LLFF2014 will be hearing talks from people only a very few of whom they have ever encountered before. Here are some of the topics which they may find themselves learning about: Public Speaking and Networking, Doing Virtuous Business, How To Be A Journalist, and (my personal favourite) Setting Up A Society (i.e. a school or university pro-liberty society).
As for me, no matter how many times I hear Steve Davies speak, I am always keen to hear what he has to say about something new, and this year, I am particularly looking forward to him answering the question: “But who will build the roads?” In my opinion, when Libertaria finally gets going, somewhere on this planet, defence policy (often regarded as a big headache) will be very simple. Just allow the citizens of Libertaria to arm themselves. But, building “infrastructure”, while nevertheless taking property rights seriously (instead of merely taking seriously the idea of taking people’s property from them to make infrastructure) will, I think, be much more tricky. I look forward very much to hearing what Davies has to say about this.
Too bad that his talk clashes with the one about Setting Up A Society. I’d love to sit in at the back of that one also, and maybe I will pick that one on the day. That such clashes will happen is my one regret about this event. But you can see why they want to do things this way. As well as big gatherings, they also want small ones, in which new talent feels more comfortable about expressing itself, and flagging itself up as worth networking with, by other talent.
I recall writing a blog posting here a while back, in which I described a talk I heard the IEA’s then newly appointed Director Mark Littlewood about his plans for the IEA. Right near the end of that piece, which I think still stands up very well, I wrote that: “there is now considerable reason to be optimistic about the future of the Institute of Economic Affairs”.
There still is, and even more so.