Monday, April 16, 2007

Liberty and Society Conference.

Well I'm back from an interesting weekend in Sydney. Got to hear some fascinating speakers, meet some great people, and generally have a good time. This included eating a lot of good food (those who know me won't be surprised to realise that I ate a helluva lot - constantly piling my plate high and going back for more) and drinking plenty of red wine! All on the house of course :) Yes. I am a glutton!


Friday Night: After navigating my way through the airport, a couple of train trips and a short walk I arrived at the Centre for Independent Studies in good time for the welcome dinner. This was my first chance to meet the people attending the conference. There were about 30-35 of us including 5 New Zealanders. I started consuming quite a lot of red wine which I continued to do throughout the dinner! The speaker at the dinner was Tanveer Ahmed - a fascinating speaker. He discussed issues related to muslim integration and of the forging of one's identity. He discussed ideas of the conflict between first, second and third generations of immigrants such as how the first generations often desires to cling to the traditions of the old world, attempting to limit their children's interaction with white Australians. He pointed to how their strong opinions leads to differing forms of extremism among the later generations. A lot of the speech reminded me of one of my favourite novels: "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith in which these issues are thoroughly explored through one of the novel's strands - the depiction of one muslim Bangladeshi's family having emigrated to England. (I know I've kind of gone off on an aside here but everyone should read this book - it's fantastic - I've read it twice and will no doubt do so a few more times in my life!) After the dinner some of us headed out to the Crow's Nest Hotel Bar not far away. I stayed an hour or so before retiring for bed.
Saturday morning saw Nick Southwood talk to us about the political philosophy of classical liberalism. It was a wonderful session: since I'd already looked at many of the issues in a first year philosophy paper it was easy to get a handle on. He's a big fan of John Stuart Mill - and used him to get to the crux of the issue a few times: the fundament of classical liberalism being the harm principle, that anything goes unless it causes harm to others. Quite self-explanatory really - although defining harm can be quite tricky. It was quite a wide ranging talk on the theories of the philosophy of liberalism and managed to encompass a fair amount - such as the ridiculousness of utilitarianism. In the second half of his session he talked about groups - whether liberalism would allow one to sign up to a group that forced one to endure or do certain things - providing there was an exit strategy. This provoked a very healthy discussion - especially when we were in our breakout groups. One group came up with the extreme example of forming a snuff club whereby a member would join on the monday, agreeing to be shot on the friday, and waiving the right to an exit strategy. Nick seemed to think that one couldn't consent to homicide. I asked him if this meant there was a limit to liberalism, and if so how one would decide where to draw the line. He couldn't answer. Anyway - the hypothetical philosophical puzzles was one of the highlights of the weekend! It reminded me that I did enjoy the 2 philosophy papers I have done (Stage 1 - Philosophy and the Good Life and Stage 2 - Bioethics) and maybe I should do some more!
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After a big lunch it was over to Jason Potts for the economics session. Having not done any economics at uni or school, and having only skimmed the readings for this topic, I was a little daunted by it. Jason certainly did end up using quite a lot of jargon I wasn't used to, and I will admit to being a little bored by his section. He did suggest something about everyone ignoring Keysian economics - or in other words about half of what they learn through the educational system. Jason is very strongly libertarian and is of the view that the market will solve everything. The market came across as Jason's God. He even extends this to the privatisation of education which was an idea that provoked a lot of debate. Many people, myself included, could not countenance such a radical change. In response to our comments regarding 'what about the poor?' he seemed to think that they could just take out huge loans on their 5 year old child's future educational needs. He certainly disagreed with some of us who thought a limited amount of paternalism in the education sector was justified. I certainly began to wonder about his sanity when he somehow got onto the idea that we could and should privatise pandas! That if you wanted to save the pandas you could just buy them. Hmmm Jason - what if some people wanted to make pandas extinct and they had the money to buy them. Would this make it right? Anyway, where and how does one buy a panda? There is certainly an argument for right wing economics having the potential to be good for conservation but this was just loony. And yes I do know it was just a silly non-serious example, but I still question his sanity! I found myself shaking my head at him a number of times for his "the market will solve everything" approach. I thing perhaps Wolfgang Kasper would have been a preferable lecturer for this section by what others have said.
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Saturday Evening saw a great dinner at a Thai restaurant and yet more red wine! It was great that throughout the weekend I got to constantly sit with different people at meal times, and in breakout groups, getting to meet a big percentage of everyone who was there. There were a lot of incredibly intelligent, interesting and vibrant young men and women. It was also good that the lecturers were available throughout the weekend giving those who wanted it, the opportunity to talk to them further. After the dinner many of us hit the pubs and clubs for a night of fun and frivolity...good times :) That is, apart from the fact that I ended up not being able to manage to meet up with a great friend from primary school in England (who I haven't seen since then), Thara Mogwe. We were both pretty disappointed that we were unsuccessful in this quest. I also ended up watching some of the NZ-South Africa cricket match - so as not to wake my room-mate I ended up jumping on a friend's bed for a while, I wonder if Jamie Simpson will delete the photo he took which reveals me in my boxer shorts!
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Sunday's lectures arrived after very little sleep, I found it extra difficult to jump out of bed, but still managed to sneak in ten minutes for another good ole traditional breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, tomato, pancakes etc. I shovelled it all down with plenty of orange juice like the glutton that I am! Unfortunately I did leave my shampoo at the hotel! Anyway - Sunday morning's lecture was delivered by Daryn Jensen and it was to do with the state of law. I say 'to do with' as my mind glazed over for good portions of it as I half nodded off a few times. It probably would have been interesting though! The second half of the session was good however as we went off into our breakout groups and analysed the State of Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 with relation to some real-life situations, and whether they could have been charged under the Act. This of course led to a discussion about how far liberalism should extend into law - whether or not hate speech legislation for example can be justified.
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The afternoon session (after another good lunch) was a real highlight. Peter Saunders discussed issues of the Welfare State and social policy. He provided a number of absorbing facts that highlighted the problems of welfare dependency in Australia (and New Zealand). There were some amazing statistics about how much the economy has grown, the country become richer, and yet significantly more is spent on welfare than ever before. He also pointed out things like how about half of the money we pay in tax comes straight back to us. He also introduced some interesting concepts I hadn't considered before - such as negative income tax. There are a number of problems in the huge amounts spent on welfare but the challenge is coming up with solutions. The question was even asked whether the welfare state could and should be dumped entirely (including any state funding of education, health etc) which naturally got a couple of positive responses from a few people; one of whom described this situation as "my idea of nirvana". Peter himself though is not really a classical liberal himself, merely right-wing, and hence has broadly similar views to myself on these issues. It was also mentioned about how cutting down the welfare state would get a public reaction about how the right-wing 'doesn't care' about the poor etc - when it is in fact right-wing policies that tend to benefit the poor. But this line of reasoning often comes up against the brick wall of public ignorance and prejudice.
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So - the end of the conference...I'd had a great weekend. I met a load of wonderful people, had some stimulating conversations, had some good meals, checked out a bit of the Sydney night-life, and all in all would highly recommend to anyone interested in politics, political philosophy, economic thinking etc. And it's not just for liberals...there were people there who are involved in the Australian Labor Party and the Greens, and it wasn't as if the whole forum was completely dominated by libertarians either. The conference solidified my thinking in many ways, extended it in others, and introduced me to some completely new ideas.

2 comments:

MikeE said...

Glad to hear that you enjoyed it, I loved it when I went over last year.

Who were the other Kiwis that went?

andrewfalloon said...

Jamie Simpson (former head of Young Nats) was another of the kiwis.