A Virtual Classical Liberal conference program

The theme of this conference is “Getting over the advantage line”.

This is for people who can’t get to the live Mont Pelerin Society program. Most of the themes of the live program are duplicated, and there are some additional strands.  The aim is to “get over the advantage line” by adding something extra to the great ideas of classical liberalism. Of course not everything in the supplementary papers is original; the same applies to the paper at MPS. This program is dedicated to the proposition that there are some good old ideas that can add weight to the liberal scrum and there are some good new ones that have not had a run yet.

Some of these were foreshadowed at the Mont Pelerin meeting in Christchurch (1989) but have not made much headway since that time. In the commentary on some papers on Popper there was the suggestion that his ideas on objective knowledge and the contents of thought mount a challenge to some obscurantist fashions in the theory of literature and cultural studies, so this contribution may ultimately be as valuable for the cause of freedom and humanity as his unification of the ‘two cultures’ and his defence of democratic principles in The Open Society and its Enemies

More can be said on Popper’s theory of metaphysical research programmes, and Bartley’s exciting innovations in the theory of rationality and ‘metacontexts’. Exegesis of these theories has scarcely begun and as their logical consequences are unpacked the results are likely to provide massive support to the liberal cause.

 Twenty years later it is probably time to move these thoughts forward.


First up, instead of registration, some historical material for background and perspective. Something from Jacques Barzun on the way we have come from Dawn to Decadence over the last 500 years. Some local input on intellectual currents in Australia during the 20th century, and the ferment of ideas at the turn of the 20th century, mostly of a socialist or collectivist nature despite the fact that Australia had only recently yielded first place to the US as the most rich and egalitarian nation in the world. Something on the near death of liberalism and the Liberal Party in Australia, demonstrated by the resort to conscription for Vietnam which planted the seeds of electoral disaster for the conservative parties in the 1980s and 1990s.  


Plenary session 1. Speakers at MPS treat the French Enlightenment and the Scottish Enlightenment.

The Virtual Program offers a paper Advancing the Philosophy of Classical Liberalism to indicate the power of the non-authoritarian or “non-justificationist” turn launched by Karl Popper and consolidated by William W Bartley. 

Abstract. Classical liberalism is a non-authoritarian creed. It draws its strength from the non-coercive power of reasoned argument, in contrast with systems that depend on brute force or on intimidation by intellectual or moral authorities. 

The survival and progress of liberalism depends on a free market in ideas, free of the cramps on trade (in criticism) that are imposed by cartels, monopolies and various forms of protectionism in the mind industry. 

This paper suggests that true lovers of freedom have always been forced to work against the authoritarian grain of Western thought. This is because the dominant intellectual traditions, rationalist and irrationalist alike, are based on “true belief” or “justified true belief” theories of knowledge and rationality. Not surprisingly, these ‘”true belief” theories sponsor True Believers who propagate dogmatism and intolerance in science, in politics, in religion. 

The paper describes how Karl Popper and William W Bartley have offered a non-authoritarian, “critical preference” approach as an alternative to “true belief”. This calls for the reformulation of some leading questions in epistemology and in politics. 

Given the historical preponderance of authoritarian theories of  knowledge the traditions of  critical thinking, tolerance and limited government  are truly remarkable  developments.  They  are  also highly  fragile  which accounts  for  their  tendency  to break  down  during  times  of emergency such as war. This situation can  be expected to improve with wider understanding of  Popper’s non-authoritarian theory of knowledge and  Bartley’s contribution to the ancient problem of rationality and belief. 

These ideas are illustrated with a number of case studies. The first is the apparent contradiction in the views of Popper and Hayek on rationality. The second is the resolution of  some tension between the “Humean” and “Kantian” elements that Kukathas identified in his study of Hayek,. The third is Jan Lester’s use of the Popper/Bartley approach in Escape to Leviathan and the fourth is a rejoinder to the deconstructionists in the theory of literature.

Second paper, strictly for nerds, a challenge to methodological dualism and strong apriorism in the Austrian economics program, in favour of “fallible apriorism” expounded by Barry Smith.

Abstract. This paper argues that the best way to develop the economics of von Mises is along the lines of “fallible apriorism” rather than the strong program of apriorism advocated by Rothbard and his followers. This position is supported by Popper’s epistemology which can be described as “conjectural apriorism”. Barry Smith presented his views as a part of the Aristotelian framework that he detected in Menger’s work. This framework is practically identical to the “metaphysical research program” that Popper developed in dialogue with the physicists. The outcome of the Popper/Smith program is a form of methodological monism that supports the main lines of the causal realist program initiated by Carl Menger.

This means that people doing good economics can simply claim that the best argument for a theory is its capacity to provide explanations and understanding of economic phenomena, and to stand up to various forms of criticism. Austrians do not need to insist that the validity of their economics depends on a special method which is different from the methods of the natural sciences. And it can be argued that those economists who are trying to emulate the methods of positivism and empiricism are on the wrong track, but not for the reasons claimed by the Austrians who advocate strong apriorism.

Third paper. A Window of Opportunity that was Lost.

A paper on the failure of convergence of three lines of thought that could driven a multidisciplinary program in economics and the other social sciences. This program would have sponsored testable and policy-oriented work as an alternative to the institution-free and untestable mathematical exercises which engaged a high proportion of the resources in the economics profession after WW2.

Session 2. Human Nature, after Freud etc.

Here, a reminder of the program in linguistics, psychology and pedagogy advanced by the Buhlers in Vienna, and Ian D Suttie’s reform of Freudian psychoanalysis. More recently the strong reciprocity line from Bowles and Gintis.

Panel session.

The MPS has a Panel Session on reconciling tradition and the modern. This is where the Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson will speak. The Virtual Program treats race and equal opportunity with Sowell on the international experience of affirmative action; Hutt on the rise of apartheid; the story of “equal pay” for native stockmen in the North of Australia, enforced by the central wage-fixing authority, which started slide into welfare dependency for Aborigines; Mal Brough’s speech exposing the disastrous outcome of welfare dependency in remote Aboriginal communities; and any one of several inspirational orations by Noel Pearson.

Session 3. “Libertines Discuss the Moral Order of Society”.

A panel discussion involving Adam Smith, Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, Karl Popper, Lord Acton, Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher.

Please note, this was a very difficult panel to convene. Karl Popper will leave if any one smokes, von Mises may walk out if anyone is a socialist, Ayn Rand refuses to talk to people who are religious or do not believe in Induction.

Session 4. What have we learned from the GFC?

 Thomas E Woods on Meltdown.

Jeffrey  Friedman’s review of the literature for Critical Review.

Session 5. A Generation of Economic Reform in Australia.

Keith Hancock on the history of protectionism in Australia, Leo Dunbar, the forgotten man of the reform movement, on The Austrian Key, showing how the ideas of the Austrians support three prongs of the deregulation program (reducing tariffs, labour market reform and privatisation).  John Stone’s 1985 speech Deregulate or Perish.

The missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of reform is the labour market. Some progress was achieved but this has been rolled back with major concessions to the trade unions after the election of 2007. The biggest problem is the widespread acceptance of several myths about industrial relations and the role of the trade unions.


Instead of the bus trip to a sheep station,  some cultural orientation to Australia with a selection of  briefing notes, sketchs, art works, images and icons of Australian culture,

In sports, the Don Bradman Museum, the displays of sporting memoriabilia at the MCG and the SCG, introduction of Les Darcy, Phar Lap, the surf lifesavers, U-tube clips on wood chopping, the spectacular high marks of Australian football, etc.

Advertisements for the Park/Niland family.

Plenary session 6, new threats to liberty and the private sphere.

The Dangers of Democracy: Defusing the Dreaded Demographic Transition. Note the two forms of democracy (limited under the rule of law vs majority rule) and the need to put in place the first before welfare dependents and/or other dissident elements achieve a permanent majority.

Plenary session 7, New Developments in Economics.

Peter Boettke (1997) on the wrong turn taken to formalism.

Synergy of Popper and the  other Austrians

Critique of Game Theory – the wrong games. Should have studied a ball game like cricket or baseball. That would point to the function of (i) plans and intentions, (ii) learning and innovation, (iii) organization and leadership, and (iv) legal, social and cultural institutions.

Proposal for the two-track economics degree; one track with the full complement of maths, the other focussed on the economic way of thinking and situational analysis so graduates are equipped to move immediately to collect the low-hanging fruit by institutional analysis without need of mathematical ladders. Units of maths could be picked up post-grad when people find out precisely what they really need.

Session 8. Science and the future.

The MPS has Kealey who will presumably build on the important insights of his previous work. We will focus on some aspects of the Australian experience in rural research where we have been particulaly well served, despite the state domination of the R&D effort. Making Research Pay (the Australian experience), and an interview with Jim Vincent, a great rural researcher. A sample of fundamental work which meets the Kealey requirement, being supported at least in part by the Meat Industry Research Committee. And a profile of another significant teacher and researcher who also introduced me to the works of Karl Popper.

Session 9 The Path to Development

A Peter Bauer Memorial Lecture by William Easterly. No text in hand, refer to previous publication and Blog.

Link to Tyler Cowen, learning the wrong lessons from the Marshall Plan.

Refer to Marcatus and Enterprise Africa projects.

The role of private education in the Third World – see the Ed West group.

Tribute to Stanislav Andreski’s books on SA and Africa.

Session 10   The Historical and Cultural Agenda

Capitalism and the Historians (ed) Hayek

Learning the wrong lessons ( see Cowen on the Marshall Plan), Hutt on the conditions in the factories, X on the Native Stockworkers Pay Claim, Higgs on the Great Depression, Woods on the Financial Crisis, Barzun on the explosion of the universities.

11. The need for a long march through the Philosophy schools.

Positivism as the great obstacle to better economics.

12. Holding the Thin Anti-Red Line

13. Presentation of Prestigious Critical Rationalist Scholar Awards.

14. Announcement of the football team to represent the Liberal Order vs The Historicists.

Front row: Mises, Thatcher, Popper: second row Kant and Hume: lock, Shelley: halves, Peter Sterling and Alfred the Great: backline Barzun, Buhler, Wellek, Suttie: fullback, Pericles: on the bench, von Humboldt, Nathan Hindmarsh, Carl Menger, Boadacia, Lord Acton: coach, Pete Boettke with assistance from Jack Gibson and Wayne Bennett: Manager, Greg Lindsay: running errands and carrying things, John Howard and Rafe Champion.


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