We were sixteen. We came from eight countries – Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Guatemala, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and the United States. Our ages spanned forty-five years. We were men and women. What drew us to Vienna was a belief that free societies and free markets are inextricably entwined, and that the key to their success is the individual. The colloquium we were asked to participate in was at the invitation of the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna and the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis, Indiana.

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The Austrian Economic Center, a privately funded, politically independent research institute, is committed to disseminating the ideas of the Austrian School of Economics, which emphasizes the role of the individual and competition in the success of a free, prosperous and responsible state. The Liberty Fund is a privately funded educational foundation dedicated to the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals. Those sitting around the table at the Hayek Institute had spent their careers as entrepreneurs, foundation heads, academics and journalists. As a retired stock broker, who later in life took up an interest in politics, history and economics, I was an amateur in a sea of professionals.

In preparation for two days of round-table sessions, we read dozens of papers and books written by economists, politicians and historians, including Margaret Thatcher, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Luca Einaudi and Alan Milward. We discussed the wealth of nations and questioned the material prosperity of the welfare state. We reviewed the economic origins of the European Community and the challenges it faces as it looks to its future. We talked about the difficulty the right has in disseminating their message, at a time when government has grown ever bigger, more intrusive and less accepting of new ideas – when dependency threatens the freedom that has allowed individuals, markets and societies to thrive.

While some at the table consider themselves libertarians, I dislike labels. Such words purport to be defining, but are, in fact, confining. Better to work with ideas and not feel that because one is a member of an organization, a tribe, or this political party or that, one must conform to what that group’s message may be. (One of us suggested that elections might turn out differently, if people voted on principles, on ideas, rather than for or against a specific party or individual.)

Speaking for myself (and using my definition of terms), I am conservative in my desire to preserve the government we have, one based on three separate, co-equal branches – a limited government that operates under the rule of law and that protects private property, our natural rights and those rights enumerated in our Bill of Rights. I am conservative in that I want to preserve those social institutions that underlie our values and are reflected in our culture and traditions, principles of universal truths that are critical to people living harmoniously, especially family and community civic organizations. I am conservative in that I believe in civility and respect. I believe in the Golden Rule. But I am progressive in that I would like to see us regain the liberty we have lost, to free ourselves from a dependency on government, to take more responsibility and to be accountable for our successes and failures. I am progressive in that I believe in competition, whether it be for goods and services or education, that the consumer benefits when many seek his or her commerce. I am progressive in that I believe innovation and progress stem from an individual’s willingness to take risk, and that he or she does so because of the potential for profit. I am liberal in that I believe individual freedom is the ultimate goal of men and women, especially to anyone who has felt the yoke of oppression. I believe that power concentrated in centralized government, no matter its claims to do good, risks rendering people dependent and, thus, less able to fend for themselves. I am liberal in that I believe colleges and universities, in denying a podium to those with whom they disagree, violate a right guaranteed by our Constitution.

I am realistic in that I recognize that politics is a blood sport, that elections are about power. To gain power, politicians on the left promise gifts of material goods and services, while those on the right promise abstractions, like liberty and freedom, and I know that the latter is a more difficult message in an age of entitlement. I am realistic in that I understand the difference between promises of equality of opportunity and promises of equality of outcomes – that the former is critical to fairness, while the latter is a dream that can never be. And I am realistic in that I know that democracy is under siege by those at home who believe that democratic socialism is a better system than democratic capitalism – that the physical well-being of the people is worth the price of freedoms lost. Also, I am realistic (and concerned) about Russia’s aggression, but I am especially worried about a rising, all-powerful China. In a battle for global dominance, the difference to the world between a democratic United States and an authoritarian China is stark and has real consequences for smaller (and larger) nations around the world. And, I am saddened by the fact that too few of our young study history. We cannot learn from a past with which we are unacquainted.  

I recognize that man is most free when he is left alone – the “noble savage” of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Except I know he is not. He must find water to drink, food to eat, shelter for protection and security from enemies. He is at risk of being robbed or killed by someone, or some group, stronger and more devious. As well, he is ignorant, as there is no one to instruct him. To live in society, to thrive economically, man must surrender some of his freedoms. However, at the other extreme, man is least free when he submits – willingly or unwillingly – to the care and protection to some government or person – a sovereign who, in exchange for obeisance, provides security.

So, it is balance for which we search when we make political choices – how much independence are we willing to give up for a comfortable dependency? Over the past eighty-five to ninety years, we in the United States have relentlessly and insidiously drifted away from independence and personal freedom. Many are happy with the direction we have been moving, but, like the lobster that is ducked into a pot of tepid water before the heat has been turned up, we may find ourselves trapped, like H.G. Wells’ Eloi, unable to extricate ourselves before the water begins to boil. Politicians who promise free healthcare, tuition-less colleges and a guaranteed basic income may be well-intentioned, but that doesn’t make them right. We all know that nothing is free, so we are told that dollar costs will be borne by the wealthy. What is left unsaid is that costs are also measured in freedoms lost, and those costs cannot be passed onto another. Increased dependency means less independence. How valuable is your freedom and independence? No two people will answer that question the same. What is important is to understand that freedom is not free, that dependency has a cost that cannot be measured in dollars, euros, rubles or yuan. 

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In our elevation of the individual, we reject the movement, common among those on the left (especially in academia), that Western society should tilt toward “social justice.” “Social justice” is based on the Marxist precept that the world is divided into oppressors and victims. That vision of a singular moralistic world view is what the ancient Hebrew tribes practiced and what caused the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages to condemn non-believers to Hell and damnation. It was the attitude of New England Puritans who punished women as witches. It was that same divisive, intolerant view of mankind that had the Nazis see the world in terms of either pure or inferior races. And, we see it today in the Islamic view that one is either a follower of Allah or an infidel. These were some of the issues we discussed and debated, based on our readings and our life experiences. We spent a total of nine hours in formal discussions and talked informally over two lunches and three dinners that went late. We were fortunate to be in Vienna, a city that produced two of the most prominent economists of the Twentieth Century, whose works are still read by those who appreciate the connection of free markets to political liberty: Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992).

Why do institutes like the Liberty Fund and the Austrian Economic Center take the time, make the effort and spend the money to conduct these sessions for those who are already believers? Why do participants travel so far to be with like-minded people? The answers have to do with the passion we feel for the cause of freedom – to be re-assured and to be re-invigorated. Every thinking person has moments of doubt. When one spends his days combatting a political and cultural tide that has moved inexorably toward centralization, and away from the shores of individual freedom, it is easy to become wearied. We who speak and write on these subjects need to be re-charged. For we are proselytizers for a cause that says the greatest gift man has ever been given are his natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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Vienna is ancient and beautiful, with the Danube running through it. It is filled with unique and attractive buildings; some, like St. Stephens, date back almost 1000 years. It is a city of surprises. It is claimed that one can walk underground from the banks of the Danube to the Vienna State Opera on the Ringstrasse. First known as Vindona, Vienna was where, in 180AD, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius died. Seven hundred years later, in a clash with Bavaria in 881, the name Vienna first appeared. As Jim McKay would have said, it is a city that has“known the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”Throughout the centuries, the City has been besieged and occupied by the Hungarians, the Ottomans, the French and the Germans. It was from Vienna that the Hapsburg family controlled the Hapsburg, Austrian and Austro-Hungarian Empires for over four hundred years. Vienna is rich in culture, especially music. Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn all lived here. It is where the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud first used dialogue to help treat mental illnesses. For over four hundred years, the Spanish Riding School has had skilled equestrians riding white Lipizzaner stallions in the Imperial Hofburg – the once winter home of the Hapsburg family. Today, Vienna is vibrant, with cafes and coffee houses lining tourist-filled sidewalks and streets restricted to pedestrians. Yet a dark cloud of anti-Semitism has periodically visited the City. Jews were expelled in 1421, and their rights were restricted in 1637. However, by late 19thCentury many had returned, and Vienna became one of the most prominent centers of Jewish culture in Europe. But it didn’t last. In 1938, Austria was annexed by Hitler’s Nazis, in what became known as the Anschluss (a joining). The Jewish people fled, were killed or were sent to concentration camps. Their absence is still felt. In 1923, Jews represented 11% of the city’s population, today about 0.5 percent. Anti-Semitism has not died.

Despite that blemish, Vienna is a beautiful city. I was honored to have been invited to attend what was a fascinating and informative round-table discussion and, in doing so, to make good friends.

The views expressed on AustrianCenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.