Free Life Commentary,
A Personal View from
The Director of the Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 173
4th July 2008
The Third Meeting of the Property and Freedom Society,
Bodrum, May 2008:
A Brief Record
by Sean Gabb
I dreamed last night of the Hotel Karia Princess in Bodrum. I do this perhaps once a week. Last night, though, the dream was unusually vivid. I was walking down the stone steps from the Migros supermarket, a bag in each hand. On my left, at the foot of the step, the taxi drivers were gossiping loud in Turkish and chain smoking. The sun beat down on me from overhead. I could smell the dust of the road and of the aromatic plants all around. Directly across the road, the Hotel shimmered vast and white.
I cannot remember going in through the revolving doors into the cool, marble interior. But as I write, I can imagine the smiles of the reception staff, and the endless loop of the Third Movement of Mozart�s Jupiter Symphony, and being called over by Paul Gottfried checking his e-mail, or Justin Raimondo, or by one of the semi-permanent German guests.
It is now two years since my first conference there with the Property and Freedom Society. I got the e-mailed invitation out of the blue from Hans-Hermann Hoppe. How he found me and why he wanted me I have never thought to ask him. But his conference was set to happen in the middle of my summer term, and I was minded at first to send a polite refusal. But I discussed it with Chris Tame as he sat in his hospital bed waiting for death.
“You�ve got to go, Sean” he had said, looking up from the list of attendees. “Whatever people say about him—and, let’s face it, all his enemies are envious windf*ck*rs who don’t like us either—Hoppe is the Big Man of the Movement. Now Rothbard is gone, he�s it.” He brushed aside my whines about teaching commitments, and sent me off to book my ticket.
And so, just over two years ago—after a journey that involved the failed theft of my wallet at Heathrow, and a most civilised encounter with a Turkish customs official who found Chris� Swiss Army knife in my camera bag: the Heathrow machines had failed to spot that!—I found myself sat with Hans beside the Hotel swimming pool, sipping chemical cola and discussing the failed war in Iraq.
Since I wrote at some length about the first Property and Freedom Society Conference, I will avoid repeating myself. But I was back for the second—this time with Mrs Gabb. And I wrote about that one too. This year, I was back for the third—this time not just with Mrs Gabb, but also with the Baby Bear.
And it was an astonishingly good time. I will try not to say more than I already have about the Hotel, beyond that it is the sort of place you read about in novels or—always with nostalgia for what is long past—in the memoirs of people who are or soon will be dead. Bodrum can be a hectic place come June. As the temperature goes about the hundred mark, so the population rises from 30,000 Turks to around two million tourists. Within the Hotel, though, all is quiet; all is ordered; all is, without ostentation, civilised.
The Turkish State, sad to say, had this year decided to flash its European credentials by forbidding smoking in enclosed public spaces. And, to my surprise, the police were showing a certain zeal in enforcing the ban. But when you are used to lighting up outside in the high thirties and the pouring rain of London at any time of year, stepping out into the gardens for a cigarette is hardly worth a moan.
It may be the venue—though I doubt it—but I do believe the Property and Freedom Society is an indispensable part of what Americans call the paleo-libertarian movement. If you think libertarianism is defined by wanting to privatise the paving stones while mouthing politically correct platitudes, these gatherings are not for you. These conferences provide a time and a place where nothing is off limits. There are no forbidden subjects, no polite suggestions that whatever is being loudly debated over dinner by the swimming pool might be “inappropriate”. The only rule is the obvious one—that you listen to the other side before making reply.
These are conferences where social conservatives sit down with anarcho-libertarians, where Czechs and Chinese discuss where history went wrong, where English is the preferred language, but a knowledge of half a dozen other languages will frequently come in handy.
They are also conferences useful for what everyone nowadays describes blandly as networking, but what the old Marxists, with a more sinister and accurate turn of phrase, called “cadre building”. It is in Bodrum, every May, that the connections and ideas that will be the future of the libertarian movement are first to be perceived.
I will not bother summarising the actual conference speeches. This year, I made video recordings of everything, and have already uploaded it all to Google Video. Of all the sessions, though, I think most people enjoyed the debate over Ron Paul and what he means to the wider Movement outside America—particularly within Europe. Justin Raimondo and Robert Groezinger were particularly eloquent on this.
My own favourite speech was John Lott on guns. I live in a country, where gun ownership has been made into a crime except for the police and the very rich, and where being caught with a peashooter will probably soon carry the same prison sentence as rape. I liked the relentless piling up of cases and the statistical analyses. I will use them myself the next time I go on television to talk about guns. Should I also say that, however degraded it may have become, I am part of a culture that has more respect for proven fact than for elegant hypotheses?
Hans was profound on the nature of the State. Paul Gottfried was at his venomous best about the roots in American Protestantism of political correctness. Mustafa Akyol and Peter Mentzel were interesting on Turkish and late Ottoman history. I was quite good on the nature of financial markets in the ancient world. But, as said, all the speeches are recorded, and—allowances being made for the air conditioning and the public address system—are pretty well recorded.
Let me return to the cadre building. I knew we were in for a good conference when Paul Gottfried walked into the hotel lobby, his bags carried behind him. He threw a benevolent glance at the Baby Bear and then demanded of me the aorist of χαίρω.
“Εχαίρα? Εχαίρον?” I hazarded. He gave a contemptuous sniff that I really should investigate, and asked if I could help him connect to the Internet. Over dinner, he went into full flow—in two languages denouncing the Germans for their gutless historical masochism. Perhaps they were to blame for 1939: it is at least arguable. But 1914? he sneered. That was at most a no fault car crash. And some Germans are even blaming themselves for 1870!
Then there was Justin Raimondo. I first discovered his writings during the Iraq War, when large stretches of the British and American libertarian movements had come together and agreed what fine things maiming and killing and torturing were when called “assisted regime change”. It was good to find someone even more forthright in his condemnation than I was of the neo-imperialist project. I rather envied the fear and loathing I discovered he could inspire in all the right people. I greatly admired his biography of Murray Rothbard—it is a model of how to summarise and judge the life of a turbulent intellectual. Now we were together in Bodrum, there was all the time in the world for getting to know each other, and for argument and debate.
Narrating all that we covered in ten days as we puffed away in the open would take a short novel. But one recurring argument was over the coming Presidential elections in America. Justin supports Barak Obama, which is fair enough, bearing in mind the only alternatives at the time were a geriatric warmonger and a venomous old harpy. But he also believed Mr Obama could win. I accept I know little of America, but I was unable to agree. “Whatever they tell the pollsters” I kept insisting, “the American people will not vote in sufficient numbers to elect a black man as President. Our only hope of avoiding war with Iran is for the money to run out in Washington.”
Another discussion that stays prominent in my memory is towards the end of the conference. It was late, and there just a few of us sat at a table beside the swimming pool with G�l�in Imre, the owner of the Hotel—since last year, she has been G�l�in Hoppe. After a general conversation, we focussed on happiness. Rather, we focussed on why so many people in the rich world appear to be unhappy. Most people no longer die at absurdly young ages. Most people do not bury half their children cough and sweat their way to early graves. We all have enough to eat. We have soap and water and warm clothes. We have an endless succession of shiny electronic toys to divert us. In another decade or so, what we have now will doubtless seem as inadequate as MSDOS and video cassettes now do to us. But we already live in something approximating the utopia of the early twentieth century science fiction writers.
So why so much unhappiness? Why are the streets of every Western city teeming with plainly bored and aimless sheep of every age and condition? Was it always this way? We agreed that it probably was not. Most of us were old enough to remember a time when there seemed to be more quiet contentment, even though there was much less in the material sense to be contented with.
No one thought to raise the silly old argument that wealth and happiness are and must be inversely related. I can understand that the rich have generally tried to impose, and the poor have too often taken comfort in, the belief that three meals a day and the chance of living past thirty five are to be pitied rather then envied. But I see no reason whatever for sharing the belief. Certainly, some of the people round that table were rather well off, and were not obviously unhappy. Speaking for myself, I have been moderately embarrassed in the financial sense, and moderately comfortable; and I know which state for me is more conducive to happiness.
We did briefly touch on whether mass enrichment has been accompanied by a loss of freedom and of identity. Very few people may want to do any of the things that have been banned over the past century. But everyone is in some sense aware of the immense structures of guardianship that shapes our lives. And everyone to some extent has noticed the rise of a new and utterly malevolent ruling class, that enriches and privileges itself behind a palisade of words about “equality” and “diversity” and “tolerance”.
What more interested us, however, was whether happiness in the long term is not so much about bodily pleasures and material consumption as about being able to follow some self-chosen mission. What mission each person might choose will depend on his inclinations and general abilities. For one, it might be bringing up children in a respectable family home, or building a successful business. For another, it might be collecting classifying every species of butterfly in the Falkland Islands. For someone else, it might be understanding and opposing the ambitions of our new ruling class. Whatever mission is chosen, it gives meaning to life. Anything short of catastrophic failure gives some protection against becoming just another of those depressed, apathetic sheep in the street.
Nothing novel here, of course. But it was a good conversation, in good company. And it was a conversation this part of the world must have heard many times before. The cities of Asia Minor seem to have been places where Epicurus and his philosophy were always particularly honoured.
Yes, it always for me comes back to the ancient world. Modern Turkey, the Ottoman Empire and Byzantium all have much to commend them. But I can never go to the Mediterranean without feeling the endlessly renewed thrill of realisation that it was here where the human race went through the first of its two great enlightenments; and that this particular enlightenment was wholly spontaneous. Miletus, the birthplace of scientific rationalism, is just a drive up the coast. Cos is a ferry ride away. Barely anything remains in modern Bodrum of Halicarnassus. But you can stand on the beach at sunrise, and ask if it was here that Herodotus once stood, looking out to sea and wondering what lay beyond the horizon….
There is much else I could mention about the conference and its attendant comforts—the belly dancers, the boat trips, the visit to Ephesus, and the opportunity for sitting down with intelligent Turks to discuss what it is really like to live in the most dynamic and interesting country in the whole Mediterranean. But I will not do more than mention these things. If you are really interested, contact Professor Hoppe, and try to find out for yourself.
And so, for the third time running, I commend the Bodrum conference of the Property and Freedom Society. Any libertarian or conservative who has not managed to secure an invitation at least once is very much to be pitied.
NB—Sean Gabb’s book, Cultural Revolution, Culture War: How Conservatives Lost England, and How to Get It Back, can be downloaded for free from http://tinyurl.com/34e2o3