Capitalism and Morality

Antony — August 1, 2012

Trip Report

I recently attended the Capitalism and Morality conference in Vancouver on 28 July, organized by Jayant Bhandari. Overall this was an excellent event, with a good crowd of about 150 attendees, and a great selection of speakers. The speakers were very high quality, and represented a nice spectrum of backgrounds, including the academic Walter Block, popular philosopher Stefan Molyneux, and people from the world of investment like Doug Casey, and Rick Rule. The crowd was also quite diverse with a wide range of ages, and walks of life represented.

It was very nice to be in a crowd of like-minded people, and having side discussions with other attendees was a great opportunity to share ideas and make contact with other libertarians. Although the speakers all share a similar philosophy, especially compared to the rest of society, it was amusing to see that there were someĀ  differences of opinion expressed, and some pointed questions among them. The main issue for this was whether supporting Ron Paul was productive, or whether politics should be avoided, with Walter Block staunchly defending Ron Paul against all criticism.

The focus of the seminar, however, was on philosophy and ideas, not politics. There were interesting and new ideas presented, even for someone very familiar with libertarian topics. Some of the ideas that struck me as interesting from the various speakers are as follows:

Stefan Molyneux: Mr Molyneux was the first and keynote speaker. His two talks centered around his theory of Universally Preferable Behaviour, which is his theory to establish a rational basis for ethics. He made an interesting point about universality for ethical rules, which can help explain many of the problems with ethics in society today. If you look at ethics from the point of view of someone who wants to take advantage of others, there can be great advantage to promoting “universal” ethical rules for others, but carving out exceptions for yourself. For example, for a government that wants to extract wealth from society, it is best to promote a general prohibition of theft as an ethical norm, but then carve out an exception for the state and call it “taxation”.

Frank Holmes: Mr Holmes’ talk consisted of practical advice for people to help them achieve success. His overall them was to be “self aware” rather then “self absorbed”, and many specific bits of advice such as take initiative and be responsive, recognize achievement, smile and connect with people, be curious, and compliment and encourage often. He also talked about the need to develop both tacit and explicit knowledge.

Rick Rule: Mr Rule, a hugely successful investor in the resource sector, talked about how libertarians can and should use their knowledge to properly assess risks in investing, or any other field. He made the point that we are authors of our own risk, we are responsible for the risks we take on, and thus the biggest risks arise from our own mind. Many libertarians who should have a good understanding of the state still fall into the trap of misjudging political risks based on emotion. For example, third world countries are often perceived as riskier than developed countries, but in reality the most efficient states can be the worst for the investor. His personal worst investing loss from state interference took place in California. Political risks going forward may actually be lower in places that have undergone recent nationalizations, such as Argentina, although that is not the general impression among most investors. He also talked about how government monopoly on regulation ensures failure, while at the same time promoting a false sense of security. An unregulated market with many competing and skeptical people assessing risk would actually be far less risky than the current situation where the government monopolizes regulation, resulting in repeated failures such as Bernie Madoff, and Enron.

Doug Casey: Mr Casey’s talk mostly discussed the concepts of evil and stupidity. He contends that collectivism and statism are not really intellectual problems, but rather are psychological or spiritual problems. He was exploring the idea of whether our rulers are knaves, or merely fools. There is a common expression that power corrupts, but power also attracts corrupt people, and Mr Casey contends that many of theĀ  people attracted to government power have sociopathic tendencies. He also discussed the concept of “phyles” as a way that society could be organized in the future, and as a strategy to achieve a free society. This is a system of organization in which like-minded people form voluntary associations not necessarily bound by geography, culture, or language, but on whatever is important to them, such as a common philosophical outlook. This concept is based on Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age, and Doug Casey recommended that people read the book, a recommendation with which I heartily agree. Mr Casey’s talk was enjoyable for the ideas he presented, but also for his iconoclastic and spirited style, which was very refreshing.

Walter Block: The final speaker was Dr Block, noted Austrian economist, and professor of economics at Loyola University. His talk revolved around the concept of sociobiology, and the problem that human evolution has not prepared us to intuitively appreciate economic reasoning, and, to the contrary, predisposes many people to collectivist ideas. He also discussed some controversial libertarian topics, such as abortion, and whether a libertarian could morally justify being a concentration camp guard. He also talked of his support for Ron Paul as a great promoter of libertarian ideas, and he criticized libertarians who are opposed to Ron Paul.

Overall the event was very worthwhile, well worth the time and effort to attend. It provided me with many interesting ideas, and the opportunity to meet and connect with a good group of libertarians. For anyone who has the chance to attend next year, I would highly recommend that you make the effort to do so.

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