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Austrian Economics Centre

Bermond Scoggins – To be, or not to be, optimistic | Week 6

Bermond Scoggins, 20 February 2017

The Free Market Road Show is a month away. Spirits are high; noses to the grindstone. The office is a flurry of activity – with a constant stream of incoming and outgoing phone calls and emails.

I imagine the same can be said for government departments and embassies around the world, albeit for very different reasons. During a time of such rapid change, it does make it interesting to be research assistant, especially in a world, to put it euphemistically, as ‘colourful’ as today’s.

This week’s events, notably the resignation of the U.S. National Security adviser, the alleged connection between Presidential staffers and Russian intelligence officers, and the assassination of the North Korean dictator’s self-exiled brother, resemble drunkenly scribbled bar napkin plotlines from John le Carré or Graham Greene.

These developments reminded me of a few lines from Voltaire’s Candide, when Cacambo asks Candide what is meant by the term ‘optimism’. Candide, in his witty style, replies “[i]t is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.” Of course, Voltaire also wrote that “[a] witty saying proves nothing”. Regardless, I imagine many are optimistic in today’s political climate, who are willing to brave these slings and arrows, in the hope that it will all resolve itself.

From the backwaters of Pennsylvania to the hallowed halls of Congress, the Forgotten People and their Washington representatives remain optimistic that White House boorishness, the overtures to Russia (a destabiliser of liberal democracies), and the President’s comments of a moral equivalence between Russia and the U.S., constitute nothing more than a necessary inconvenience on a path to renewed prosperity.

In Europe, many voters are receptive to their own peculiar brand of nativism, protectionism, and illiberalism – as demonstrated by the popularity of the Front National in France’s presidential election.

The calls to return to a nationalistic order, eschewing the liberal system that has given us our peace and prosperity, demonstrates a remarkably naïve and optimistic view of history – spuriously believing that history cannot repeat itself.

In a book of Hayek’s collected essays, I was amused to read that in 1983 he delivered a lecture lamenting that

…people in Germany are no longer so convinced that they owe everything to the return to a free-market economy. Old feelings about anti-trade, anti-competition, and anti-internationalism are again coming to the fore. I am no longer quite sure whether German liberalism is sufficiently deep seated…

Phillip Stephens, in his February 9 article in the Financial Times, echoes Hayek by writing “[w]hat was not predicted was that the rich democracies would turn against their own creation, and the question would become whether they could manage the insurrections within”. While the ‘insurrectionist’ impulses Hayek observed during the 1980s proved moot, today’s impulses seem stronger than ever. To overcome them, we ought not be quite so optimistic.

But, art still remains, and much of it. I attended Mass at the Hofburgkapelle, graced with the voices of the Vienna Boys Choir, and roamed through the exhibits at Vienna’s Museum of Modern Art (MUMOK). While the world of politics can make you an irredeemable cynic, art can remind you of all that is, and can be, good in the world.

Vienna Boys Choir at the Hofsburgkapelle

With the statue of Emperor Josef II at the Hofburg

A section of the permanent collection at Vienna's Museum of Modern Art

Bermond Scoggins – Repetition, repetition | Week 5

Bermond Scoggins, 13 February 2017

My research on the current revival of protectionist rhetoric, from President Trump to Marine Le-Pen, led me to survey the major philosophical arguments for free trade. Despite all major philosophical schools supporting free trade, from Kantianism to utilitarianism to the doctrine of double effect, protectionism still manages to persuade many of its moral superiority.

As I was compiling research notes, I was taken by the thoughts of John Rawls. Courtesy of his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, Rawls’ major contribution to political philosophy was his conception of the ‘original position’ and the accompanying ‘veil of ignorance’. In the original position, people determine the principles under which they will be governed – from a position of equality among free and rational persons.

However, no one knows their place in society – class position, wealth, personal abilities etc. From behind this veil of ignorance, Rawls proceeds to develop the principles he believes persons in that position would decide upon – one, crucially, being free trade.

On free trade, Rawls believes that “persons engaged in a particular industry often find that free trade is contrary to their interests… but if free trade is desirable from the point of view of equal citizens… it is justifiable even though more specific interests suffer”. Within the constraints of the veil of ignorance, not knowing whether they would be winners or losers from trade, individuals would know they would be more likely than not to benefit. Protectionism is therefore irrational.

My time sifting through academic papers and opinion pieces has reinforced for me two ideas. Firstly, if liberal principles are to endure the vagaries of history they require constant and robust repetition. Secondly, that, as the famous phrase goes, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. It is vigilance against the slow erosion of cultural and political freedoms.

This must also be coupled with an awareness of the adamantine allure of tribalism and iconoclasm for ill-defined notions of equality or liberation.

Amerling's "The Three Finest Things"

During my cultural excursions, I came across Amerling’s Three Finest Things at the Wien Museum Karlsplatz – a museum exhibiting the City’s history and culture. The painting refers to the saying, wrongly attributed to Martin Luther, that the three finest things are wine, women, and song.

Being preoccupied at the AEC with the grand battle of ideas made me appreciate its humorous simplicity. After a fashion, the struggle for liberty is a struggle for those three fine things… or the choice to live life as a tee-totalling celibate who does not own a radio.

In addition to visiting the Museum, I went down to Haydnhaus, Joseph Haydn’s final residence, and, through the kindness of a charming benefactor, saw a performance of the Barber of Seville at the Volksoper.

With Brahms' portrait at Haydnhaus

The Volksoper

Bermond Scoggins – The Spring of Our Discontent | Week 4

Bermond Scoggins, 6 February 2017

After a long absence, snow has returned to Vienna.

The snow in Burggarten

Goethe's Statue

With the Free Market Road Show fast approaching, which will explore “the world after Brexit and Trump”, the AEC needs to keep pace with the current political developments as they unfold. In my capacity as research assistant to Senior Fellow Federico Fernandez, I have been closely following the news in London, Washington, and Europe as a whole.

An issue of vital importance is whether the widely held principle of free trade will endure, albeit with a few bruises, or atrophy, with a tide of protectionism initiated by the clarion call to “buy American, and hire American”.

The question of whether it’s all hot air, partly hot air, or not hot air, is presently unanswerable. On the Rumsfeld index, our knowledge of future US policy is hovering somewhere between “known unknown”, that is, we know we don’t know, and “unknown unknown”, we don’t know what we don’t know.  The broadest explanation for this uncertainty, discussed by figures like Charles Krauthammer and Michael Gerson, is the President’s ideological vacuity and pendulum-like political instincts.

In witnessing these grand political shifts, it is worth reminding all that will listen (a shrinking number), that the principles of free trade and limited government have guided humankind to a previously unimaginable stage in human history – resulting in widespread liberty, prosperity, and peace. All the luxuries we enjoy on a daily basis have historically relied, and continue to rely, on a devotion to those principles.

In making sense of the confusion, in the so-called “post-truth” age of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, it is always best to turn to history, and remember Cicero’s words that

[t]o be ignorant of the past is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?

Perhaps the present political climate will make us all students of history, or am I guilty of wishful thinking?

As a side note, my reading this week has led me to explore the ideas of Eric Voeglin and Wilmoore Kendall, and deepened by understanding of Hayek and Strauss.

My excursions around Vienna featured such places as the Haus der Musik, an interactive museum devoted to both Austria’s illustrious musical history and the science of music, and the Naturhistorisches Museum. However, the true cultural highlight, perhaps for the entire trip, was seeing the Vienna State Opera’s production of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet – conducted by Placido Domingo.

The opera was heart-wrenchingly beautiful, and, enhanced by a good seat, I felt again opera’s intoxicating effect. Knowing the story made it no less painful, and when those curtains finally fell it made all of reality seem mediocre and monotonous. As it usually does, art of that quality clears away the cobwebs and reminds you of your highest virtues and noblest desires.

A view of the Vienna State Opera

The solution to the world’s woes may be as simple as picking up a history book and going to the opera.

Bermond Scoggins – A week long history lesson | Week 3

Bermond Scoggins, 30 January 2017

The office has been relatively quiet this week. The AEC’s director, Barbara, and Senior Fellow, Federico, left for Miami on Tuesday for a Free Market Road Show event.

Other than assisting in various tasks around the office, I have spent my time working on my research project. I am investigating the phenomena of an authoritarian resurgence (of which populism is part) and the ideological challenge it may, or may not, represent to liberal democracy and to the values of limited government, free markets, and individualism.

The return of authoritarian practices in countries that never fully developed liberal democratic institutions is the first avenue of research. The second involves making sense of the dissatisfaction with liberal democracy in countries with strong liberal traditions. Is dissatisfaction ideological, translating into a permanent repudiation of liberal democracy, or visceral, merely a temporary expression of economic dislocation? These are the topics that I have been mulling over.

In the course of my research I came across the work of Roger Scruton. He asserts that to be a conservative – within the context of the Anglosphere and its liberal heritage – is to defend the collective achievements of Western civilization. This position acknowledges that the creation of the good is slow and dull, and ultimately fragile, while its destruction is fast, easy, and exhilarating. Therefore, conservatism, and more broadly, a defence of liberal democracy, will always be at a rhetorical disadvantage to the exciting utopian promises emanating from such diverse characters as well-intentioned academics luxuriating in their offices to paternal demagogues bellowing at mass rallies.

I have begun to appreciate the difficult task faced by classical liberal, libertarian, and conservative think tanks. Not only must they advance rational and empirically founded arguments, much of the time involving the minutiae of policy, but also share in the responsibility of staving off the revival of harmful ideas – the phenomena Moises Naim terms “ideological necrophilia”,  the obsession with dead ideas.

On a somewhat lighter note, I attended the Vienna English Theatre’s production of the famous Anthony Shaffer play Sleuth. A fantastic tragi-comedy that features only two actors, the play revolves around an aristocratic middle-aged mystery writer, named Andrew Wykes, and a younger man named Milo Tindle. The line that kicks off the story’s events, delivered so nonchalantly by Wykes, will forever be etched into my memory; “so… I understand you want to marry my wife”. The much handsomer Tindle is… you guessed it, Mrs. Wykes’ lover. From there on it becomes a magnificent catastrophe.

After the performance of Sleuth at Vienna's English Theatre

As a final, offhand note, Vienna’s goulash is fantastic. Just look at my expression.

Digging into goulash

Bermond Scoggins – Towards the Examined Life | Week 2

Bermond Scoggins, 23 January 2017

By now I have acclimated to Vienna, to her narrow streets and, most importantly, to her winter weather. I think it has been made easier by my being constantly stimulated at the AEC. Research tasks, ranging from the meaning of ‘Brexit’ to the economic and political consequences arising from Brussels’ regulatory leviathan, are more than enough to distract one from the cold – even for a Perthite (and no, not the type of mineral).

In addition to research, much of my time at the office has been spent assisting in the preparations for this year’s annual European Resource Bank Meeting (ERB) – the largest annual congress of free market think tanks in Europe. Sitting in on a conference call, taking the minutes, and writing memos with suggestions, is par the course.

Last weekend was spent working towards the insurmountable task of viewing the entirety of Vienna’s art collection. Of course, it is the journey, and not the destination that matters – according to T. S. Elliot. Seeing other visitors just glance at a piece of artwork and move on reminds one of that important fact.

I visited two important museums. The first, the Albertina, houses an impressive collection of Impressionist paintings, with Kokoschkas and Picassos among the highlights. Kokoschka’s In the Garden was particularly enjoyable. Being a former palace, the Albertina also featured elegant staterooms from the Hapsburg era that made for a delightful stroll through history.

After a brief stop for a Viennese pretzel, I walked over towards the Museum District to see the Leopold Museum’s extensive collection of works from the Vienna Secession. Gustav Klimt’s Life and Death is particularly noteworthy for its allegory that fear should not be woven into life. The meaning may serve as a gentle reminder to various political commentators and groups that fear mongering is not any sort of answer to the uncertainties of the world and that we should, to quote the poet Richard Wilbur, “Go talk with those who are rumoured to be unlike you”.

Kokoschka's "In the Garden"

Hapsburg Rooms at the Albertina

Klimt's "Life and Death"

To conclude, working at the AEC and thereby living a life of ideas has afforded me the luxury of reading extensively. Be it current social developments in the latest publications or detailed arguments in the tomes of past thinkers, the complexities of the world become slightly simpler, life less daunting, and its passage less fearful. Much like In the Garden’s seated girl, whose companions’ whispers represent the awakening of adolescence and the truths of adulthood, each article and chapter read can reveal to its reader new vistas of understanding.

Trying to follow my own advice

Bermond Scoggins – A Waltz through Vienna | Week 1

Bermond Scoggins, 16 January 2017

Hopefully I can be forgiven for thinking of Orson Welles’ The Third Man as I roamed through the cobbled streets of the Innere Stadt the morning after I arrived.  Save for the occasional luxury hotel the city has changed very little from the days of the film. The riveting thriller, set in destitute post-war Vienna, begins with the narrator saying; “I never knew the old Vienna before the war, with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm.” Almost seventy years on I can attest to the fact that the “old Vienna” is very much the Vienna of today with its Baroque and Gothic elegance. It is easy to see from where the Viennese artists and intellectuals drew their inspiration – the city is a muse.

My first day of exploration began with Sunday Mass at St. Stephens Cathedral. Upon entering you are humbled by the majesty of its high columns and religious icons. As Mass began I was greeted by the music of Haydn made all the more transcendent by the wafting smoke from a swinging thurible. It is as close I think I will ever get to divinity and to the answers to all the unanswerable questions. But what better way to try than by visiting the former Viennese practice of Sigmund Freud? After Mass and getting lost along the way, I arrived at the Sigmund Freud Museum.

After reading of the importance Freud attributed to dreams and his depressing departure from Vienna on account of the Gestapo I decided that art would be my palliative. Vienna seems to have been established on the principle that a city can never have too many paintings. Many of its finest works are located at the Kunsthistorisches Museum – a palatial building beside the beautiful Maria-Theresien-Platz only dwarfed in grandeur by its priceless collection. After only an hour or two of gazing at the works of Titian I realised that it was dark. At four in the afternoon. So concluded my day of sightseeing, to be followed by my first day at the Austrian Economics Center (AEC).

Outside St. Stephen's Cathedral, near the AEC offices

Next to Freud's Bust at the Sigmund Freud Museum

Maria-Theresien-Platz, between the Art and Natural History Museums

Upon my arrival at the AEC I was thrust into the exciting preparations for the Center’s upcoming Free Market Road Show. The Road Show is supported by the tireless work of AEC Director Dr. Barbara Kolm, Senior Fellow Federico Fernandez, and Head of the Office Britt Schier. The Road show travels to thirty European cities promoting libertarian values by bringing together economists, politicians and business leaders each year to discuss current economic problems and propose solutions. In conjunction with Road Show preparations I will be writing a paper for the AEC’s Student Book Project over the next seven weeks. Following discussions with Federico Fernandez, I am currently in the process of sketching an outline for a paper exploring the troubling phenomena of an authoritarian resurgence in world politics and the proliferation of liberal democratic counter-norms. The AEC’s extensive library of libertarian literature will aid me in my research.

At the office with AEC Senior Fellow Federico Fernandez

I am inestimably grateful to Ron Manners, Paul McCarthy, Kate Wagstaff, and the Mannkal team without whom none of this would have been possible.

Until next week.