The Only Conference Worth Attending: A Personal Account of the 11th Conference of the Property & Freedom Society
By Keir Martland
(10th September 2016)
In an age when most conference speeches are almost automatically uploaded to Vimeo or YouTube, why bother going to the conference in person? Surely, it is so much more enjoyable to watch the conference speeches in the comfort of your own living room from your laptop, one per night for about a week? Conferences are generally awful. The speakers can be dull. The room might be ugly. The chairs might be uncomfortable. The food – if there is any – might be inedible. There is never any entertainment. Why bother going?
This holds up pretty well for most conferences, but not for the annual conference of the Property & Freedom Society, hosted by Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Dr. Guelcin İmre Hoppe at the gorgeous Hotel Karia Princess in Bodrum, Turkey. As Dr İmre Hoppe put it last year in her own speech, the PFS is the Club Med of conferences.
The annual meetings of the PFS are the only conferences designed as if the attendees actually mattered. As I said, other conferences are awful. I could now start a long digression on the particular flaws of all the other conferences I attend, but that would not be very charitable. Instead, I will explain just what it is about the annual meetings in Bodrum that makes them so enormously enjoyable.
First, the format is leisurely. The formal proceedings start late, after a comfortable window for breakfast, and then after a few speeches there is a long lunch break. The formal proceedings then resume and are over with long before dinner, allowing bags of time to read, dress, shower, sunbathe, swim, play tennis, nap, or whatever else takes your fancy. Oh, and after every speech there is a 15 minute coffee break. These breaks are essential, and yet I can’t recall attending any other conference with them. Instead, what usually follows speeches at most poorly organised conferences is a long “Q & A” session, which basically just becomes an excuse for bores to drone on and on while hogging the microphone – and occasionally they might actually have a question! At PFS, this is remedied by the use of panel sessions at the end of every day of speeches, which work much better than monotonous questions and answers. After every speech, Professor Hoppe stands up and reminds everyone of the welcome 15 minute break and attendees stretch their legs, drink coffee or water, or go outside to smoke. At this point the conference room and the one adjoining it becomes filled with conversation – on all manner of topics, not just the contents of the last speech. I will return to the topic of conversations later, but here I will just stress the importance of it.
Second, the food and drink is rather important. When I attended my first meeting of the PFS last year, I was somewhat apprehensive about foreign food, being a northern Englishman and thus destined to live a life of ignorance and chip-butties. To my astonishment, the food was delicious – I won’t say “to die for”, only because that is a stupid thing to say about food – and ever since September 2015 my diet has been heavily modelled on it. Sadly, the range of olives available for purchase in England is somewhat limited, but I make do with whatever I can get. Breakfast at the Karia Princess is always a joy. Most of the meals are a vast buffet, and so what you eat is pretty much up to you, but I find a selection of meats, cheeses, and olives is a glorious way to start the day. The food – and perhaps the Turkish heat – also does wonders for my figure, as both last year and this year, I came back to England on average 4lbs lighter! PFS has also been described by Stephan Kinsella as “the land of successive hangovers”, which I found this year, having turned 18 this July, to be broadly correct. Every evening starts with conversation over drinks at the bar, and I kept telling myself that the gin and tonic would cool me down. Even if that turned about to be false, the gin did allow me to talk rather more easily to some people who until then were complete strangers.
Third, the surroundings are beautiful, inside and out. Whether we are talking about the hotel rooms – incidentally, some urchin kept placing coffee, tea, and Turkish delights on my hotel room dressing table, which was charming – or about the pool area where we all sat for meal times, the Karia Princess is without fault. The entire conference seems to always be organised with not just intellectual rigour in mind, but also aesthetics. And the participants themselves seem to be no exception. Am I veering towards the absurd if I say that the attendees are much prettier than other libertarians and conservatives, or at least that they obviously take better care of themselves and have a better sense of style? Perhaps everything looks better in the sun, especially to an Englishman who only sees it once a year if he’s lucky. The conference is not confined to the Karia Princess, however, as on the penultimate day we all walk down to the marina for the boat trip. Of course, there are too many of us for just one boat, and so there are several, and this year myself, Sean Gabb, Walter Block, Mitzi Perdue, Rahim Taghizadegan and a few others, had the high honour of joining the Hoppes on their boat. The boats all stop near a beach frequented by wild boars, and there is again much conversation, good food, swimming, tea etc. You can derive a certain aesthetic satisfaction from this also – indeed, you’d have to be pretty strange not to.
Fourth, the speeches are of an insanely good standard. It would be cruel to single any of them out, but not doing so might leave open the possibility that I just spent the days smoking, eating, drinking, and talking by the pool, and I that would never do. Therefore, off the top of my head, Professor Hoppe’s speech on argumentation ethics, in which he seemed to me – a mere amateur historian – to add considerably to his previous work and to deliver a number of smack down arguments to his detractors, Rahim’s speech on the history and nature of universities, Dr Block’s university-style lecture on various so-called market failures, Anthony Daniels’ speech on fake illnesses and the insurance industry, and Sean going at Margaret Thatcher with a blow-torch, all stood out as some of the best speeches I have ever heard “live.” My own speech – on the English Revolution of 1688 – seemed to go down moderately well. On reflection, I think I did speak too quickly, even though people told me I did not, and perhaps I should have made it a little more light-hearted considering I was on just after lunch. Professor Norman Stone approached me afterwards, grinning, and said something like, “I thought your speech was disgusting, but really well-delivered!” In the coffee break after that, we stood outside hotel smoking and had a good bitch about some leftist academics, although he had nothing but good to say about the recently retired Professor John Morrill of my own Selwyn College, Cambridge.
Fifth, the conversation is some of the most stimulating you will have all year. The motto of the PFS is “uncompromising intellectual radicalism” and this extents to both the speeches and the conversation over breakfast, lunch, coffee, and dinner. Again, it feels rude to single out any of the conversations from this year, but at the same time I feel the need to illustrate my point. I had lunch and dinner with Walter Block on the penultimate day and then breakfast on the day of departure and much of our conversation was rather technical and legalistic. Walter and I disagree on abortion and immigration, myself taking the more “conservative” positions on the two issues and Walter somewhere between my position and the “liberal” position. Our informal debates, whether on the boat, on the way back from the marina, or at the dinner table, were lively, productive, civil, and both of us argued clearly and efficiently, with use of analogies, precise terminology, and reasonably good logical deduction. If neither of us had changed our minds by the end of our debates, we had at least entertained each other. Brecht Arnaert and I spent much of our dinnertime discussion on one of the first days discussing Hilaire Belloc. On the Gala Night, I had a good chat with Mattheus von Guttenberg about war and peace. Yousif Almoayyed, later in the conference, told me how the citizens of Bahrain are more socialistic than the government. On the boat trip, there was a brilliant discussion of Crusader, Byzantine, and Ottoman history. I also received fascinating insights about marketing from author, businesswoman, and television presenter Mitzi Perdue. On the penultimate night, having discussed immigration with Walter Block to the point of exhaustion, Christian, Arthur, Sean, Walter, and myself, discussed whether libertarianism is on the Left or the Right. During this discussion, not only was I surprised to be the only one at the table arguing for libertarianism as on the Right, but I was astonished to see Walter and Sean agree on so much. Perhaps it is time to start calling the Director of the Libertarian Alliance, “Sean Moderate Gabb.”
Last, but not least, PFS is fun. That seems to me to be the main difference between PFS and every other conference in existence. Yes, the speeches are better. Yes, the food and drink is better. Yes, everything is prettier. Yes, the conversation is stimulating. But when you take a more holistic view, the PFS is just good fun. Where else can you, while tucking into pudding, feel a wet sensation on your left leg and find that Walter Block has splashed you while doing the butterfly? Where else can you sit around with Hans-Hermann Hoppe et al laughing about the recent sordid sex scandal from British politics? Where else can you be interrupted during conversation with new friends by two massive parrots? Where else can you see financial expert Andy Duncan so drunk he would kiss another man on the forehead? At what other libertarian conference can you laugh at Americans, prompted by other Americans? At no other conference is there such a perfect intermingling of libertarianism and conservatism, of businessmen and academics, of different ages, religions, and nationalities, all united in one thing: the pursuit of truth, justice, and beauty. I expect there was initially some worry, in light of the political situation in Turkey earlier this year, that attendance would be low and that the mood of the conference would be sour. This was most certainly not the case, and while I’m about it I’ll wish Professor Hoppe a belated happy birthday.
In short, for a while I was sad to leave and go back to England. But the withdrawal symptoms will soon wear off, I guess.