Erudite, scholarly, and unfailingly polite
To Sean Gabb on the Occasion of his Sixtieth Birthday
One of the unanticipated pleasures of my adult life has been the diverse number of intellectuals, scholars, and liberty lovers, from all over the world, that I’ve met, and often befriended, through various libertarian and Austrian economic events, seminars, and connections, since the mid-1990s. The singular and intriguing Sean Gabb stands out in my mind as an excellent example. I don’t know if I had previously heard of Sean when we first met at the inaugural meeting of the Property and Freedom Society in Bodrum, Turkey, in May 2006. Well, we call it Bodrum, but historical-minded Sean insists on calling it by its proper name, Halicarnassus (in his delightful account of that first meeting (see below)).
From the moment I met Sean, I was impressed with his eloquence and knowledge. And, as a typical American with American insecurities, a bit in awe and even intimidated (still am). Sean styles himself as an “English nationalist” type of libertarian, exuding quite rational anti-American biases (he wrote once on Facebook that “I regard America as the source of most evil in the world”), and at the same time pushing for a British or European understanding of liberty. Unfailingly polite and erudite, there was underlying all his words an English sensibility and perhaps even sense of superiority (he unabashedly proclaims England to be the best nation on earth—good for him!).
Sean is one of the few exceptions to a rule I’ve long observed: that it is generally rare to find a libertarian who is also deeply learned as a standard scholar, and it is also rare to find a deeply learned scholar who is solid on political and economic matters. Libertarians tend to have a more sound general perspective on politics, the state, and economics, but they are not usually the top recognized scholars in the field, for various reasons. And if you read some of the top-notch scholars in law, history, politics, and so on, they know their fields very well and deeply, but will invariably mangle something because their mainstream views on economics and the state contaminate their analysis.
On occasion, there are exceptions to this tendency—someone who is sound on political matters, i.e., a principled, radical libertarian, and also a seriously scholar and deeply learned in his field. It’s always a pleasure to come across such a person. Sean Gabb is this type of libertarian-scholar. I’ve always admired and appreciated this about him, and have enjoyed and learned from both his fiction and non-fiction writing and speeches. And, since I’ve gotten to know him better over the years since 2006, I’ve come to realize how important a figure he has been for the liberty movement in the UK over the last several decades. For a little sampling of Sean’s fiction, non-fiction, and speeches, I offer a few eclectic suggestions drawn purely from some of my personal favourites (yes, I’ll spell it this way just to make him smile)—
- Sean’s imaginative novel The Break;
- his talk “Libertarian Toryism” from the inaugural meeting of the Mises UK in London in 2018);
- “Be of Good Cheer: Christmas Greetings from Sean Gabb” (2008);
- his contribution to Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s 2009 Festschrift, “Hans-Hermann Hoppe And the Political Equivalent of Nuclear Fusion”;
- his poem “An Ode to Timothy Starr, A Libertarian Who Supported the War with Iraq” (2004);
- his various recounting of various PFS meetings, including “The Inaugural Meeting of the Property and Freedom Society: An Incidental Record” (2006); “The Second Meeting of the Property and Freedom Society” (2007); “The Third Meeting of the Property and Freedom Society, Bodrum, May 2008: A Brief Record” (2008); “Reflections on the 2010 Conference of the Property and Freedom Society” (2010); “Notes from the Eleventh  Conference of the Property and Freedom Society” (2016); and “The Twelfth Conference of the Property and Freedom Society” (2017);
- “The Paris Atrocities: The Most Probable and Bankrupt Response of our Own Government” (2015);
- “In Defence of the British Empire” (2010; audio);
- “Libertarianism: Left or Right?” (2012);
- “A Case for the English Landed Aristocracy” (2014);
- “Death to America?” (2016)
- and, a personal favorite—the title alone is delicious—“Let Us Leave the EU – but not yet! Europe and the New British Constitution” (2013).
On the more human side of matters, I’ve been touched by Sean’s abiding affection and loyalty for his departed friend, the English libertarian Chris Tame, and also his obvious adoration for his lovely wife and child.
A few fond memories of my time with Sean. On our first meeting in Turkey, we sat together for hours on a boat trip in the Mediterranean and he patiently tolerated my incessant questions and somewhat boorish pontifications; he was even kind enough to recount this somewhat fondly and charitably in his article about the PFS meeting.
One thing that has always delighted me in libertarian conferences is that everyone is individualistic and focused on ideas; I’ve never yet seen anyone be offended when a foreigner criticizes the other’s country or government. If a Frenchman or German criticizes the US, the Americans nod along, and vice-versa. So I always have loved Sean’s obvious disdain for the US, and how up-front he is about it. But he’s so unfailingly polite, in that British—or, as he would probably prefer to say, English—way, that once when I mentioned to him how obvious it was that he “hates” America and Americans, he was taken aback that someone would interpret him this way, and in the speech he delivered the very next day, he seemed to go out of his way to try to say a couple of kind words about America or Americans (to my delight).
Last year, Sean and Keir Martland formed Mises UK (formally: “The Ludwig von Mises Centre For Property and Freedom”) and held the inaugural meeting in London, in January 2018. A group of us American libertarians who knew Sean and Keir from PFS meetings—me, Doug French, Jeff Barr, and Lee Iglody—decided to attend, and we talked Hans Hoppe into flying over and meeting us, to lend support Keir and Sean’s new venture, and to have fun in London. We five ended up having a great “guy weekend”—visiting pubs, museums, mingling, and Hans and I didn’t even have to speak, which makes attending a conference so much more fun. The conference was a single-day event, and the talks were held in a somewhat small, very packed conference room at the hotel. I had taken a nap because of the jet lag and missed the beginning of Sean’s speech, so I walked into the room about 20 minutes late, interrupting Sean and causing a bit of a stir. In my hurry to duck down and find a seat in the packed room, I failed to shut the door behind me. Sean, a bit annoyed, paused, and said, “You could shut the door, Stephan,” stirring laughter in the room. I was a bit mortified and said “excuse me” (which I’ve sense learned doesn’t mean “sorry” in England, but is more like a criticism you hurl at someone being rude, as in “excuse me!”), and Sean paused, and said “you are excused.”
We are all in Sean’s debt for his tireless contribution to the cause of liberty these past decades. Sean, I’m glad to have met you and learned from you over the last thirteen years, and to count you as a friend. Happy Birthday!