The Brussels think tank New Direction each year helps organise a Think Tank Central where representatives of various think tanks in Europe, North America and elsewhere get together and share ideas, arguments and evidence. The 2023 Think Tank Central was held in Madrid 21–22 September under the title ‘Advancing Freedom’. One of the main issues discussed at the conference was whether classical liberals and conservatives could work together. In a session on the first day, Dr. James Orr, UK Chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation and Associate Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at the University of Cambridge, and Dr. Yaron Brook, Chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute, explored the differences between those two positions.
Orr argued that conservatism was about what was closest to people, such as the family. Individuals in a civilised society had many ties and attachments, but the weakest one was the nation; it was however not just an aggregate of people happening to occupy a land mass, but rooted in a shared history. True freedom was always ordered, respecting a plurality of authorities. Society was not a wasteland of isolated individuals.
Brook observed that the last 150 years had seen amazing achievements in the West, innovations, economic growth and vastly improved living standards, and this was because traditions had been rejected and human reason been adopted as a guide in science, technology and industry. Unfortunately, the so-called national conservatism was a branch of collectivism, whereas the real opposites were individualism and collectivism.
In a session on the second day, RNH Director Hannes H. Gissurarson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Iceland, commented on the debate between Orr and Brook. He pointed out that the main thinkers in the classical liberal tradition, John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith, had all supported not licence, but liberty under the law. Edmund Burke—who had been quoted approvingly by Orr—had been a Whig, a classical liberal, but he had also stressed the need for collective identity. It was not only important what people could have, but also what they were or aspired to be.
Gissurarson recalled a debate he had had in Sydney in 1985 on conservatism with two distinguished scholars, John Gray of Oxford University and Kenneth Minogue of the London School of Economics. Gray and Minogue had been liberal conservatives, asserting that a competitive market was necessary, but not sufficient for individuals to flourish. Gissurarson had however presented what he called conservative liberalism, which was the classical liberalism of Locke, Hume, and Smith, but with the added insight of Burke, and of Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville, that a free society had to be based on a shared morality and a strong civic spirit.
The two differences between liberal conservatism and conservative liberalism were, according to Gissurarson, that unlike hardcore conservatives, conservative liberals believed that freedom could eventually be extended to the whole of mankind, although possibly some might at present be unprepared for it, and that progress was possible and desirable, at least material progress. The task was, Gissurarson submitted, to combine conservative insights into the human condition and the three classical liberal principles which had proved their worth over centuries, limited government, private property and free trade.
Gissurarson took issue with Orr’s assertion that the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ showed the inadequacy of capitalism. The tragedy of the commons was essentially that open access to natural resources led to their over-utilisation. The way out was, Gissurarson argued, the definition of private property rights to natural resources. This had in essence been done in the Icelandic fisheries, for example, where private and transferable extraction rights had been allocated to fishing firms on the initial basis of catch history. Now, the Icelandic fisheries were sustainable and profitable. Thus, the problem of capitalism could at least sometimes be solved by more capitalism.
Gissurarson also rejected Orr’s assertion that the weakest attachment an individual had was that of the nation. Every individual also had an attachment to the whole of mankind, to the ‘universitas hominum’ of the Catholic Church. While this attachment included the moral right to trade at will with citizens of other states, it mostly required that foreigners should be left alone except in extreme circumstances.
The other participants in the session with Gissurarson were Peter Hefele from the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and Harrison Pitt, Senior Editor at the European Conservative. Pitt’s introductory remarks can be read here. The session was chaired by Croatian MP Marko Milanovic Litre. A highlight of the Madrid conference was the Margaret Thatcher Dinner where Dr. Robin Harris, Thatcher’s former speechwriter and author of a best-selling book about her, gave a speech, where he discussed both her personality and her policies. She was, Harris said, both kind and tough, and she passionately believed in old-fashioned virtues such as hard work and patriotism. At the Margaret Thatcher Dinner, Dr. Barbara Kolm gave the Dragons’ Den Prize for the best free-market project of the year to Ely Lassman of Prometheus Foundation. In Madrid, Gissurarson used the opportunity to have dinners with old friends, including Dr. Kolm, Dr. Brook, Lassman, Robert Tyler, and Terry Anker.