a Liberal meeting that kept all its promises

Posted on August 16, 2023


Liberal thinking and its promoters are very much alive and active in France and beyond.

For those who doubt it, the recent edition of the Aix-en-Provence Summer University provided striking proof. Thanks to the joint efforts of IREF and IES-Europe, this meeting of liberals, which for a long time took the name of Summer University of New Economists – first edition in 1978! — was once again held in the sunny city of Aix-en-Provence and the welcoming premises of its Faculty of Law on July 20, 21 and 22.

Back to those three days.

The liberals are always present

First good surprise: the number of participants.

It is too often thought that the liberals of France could fit in a phone booth (an expression that will soon have to be explained to the children of the smartphone generation…) This is false. More than 150 people followed the conferences and debates throughout these three days, despite four years without a Summer University – the covid largely explaining this break – and absences linked to the summer period.

Second pleasant surprise: the young people are there.

It is certainly with great pleasure that we find well-known faces, regulars at the Summer University who have devoted a lifetime to the deepening and dissemination of liberal ideas — the Henri Lepages, Jacques Garello, Philippe Nemo , Max Falque, Mario Rizzo, Jean-Philippe Delsol, Steven Davies, Jean-Philippe Feldman, George Selgin, David Schmidtz, Enrico Colombatto and many more. But it’s an equally great pleasure to discover new faces. And, for many, young people.

Beyond the crossing of generations, it is the diversity of origins that surprises.

Here, the economist rubs shoulders with the philosopher, the jurist, the historian, the sociologist, the scientist and the businessman. But still, taking advantage of the work of IES-Europe which since 1989 has been traveling across Europe to introduce young students and young think-tanks to liberal thought, the French exchange with the Italian, the Polish, the Romanian, the Ukrainian , English, Moroccan, American, Egyptian, Czech or Swiss. One cannot help but think of the letters written by Voltaire on his return from England, in which he marveled at the openness and tolerance he had observed in a country steeped in the principles of freedom.

The atmosphere, you will have understood, was therefore as festive as it was summery.

It was no less studious for all that, due, among other things, to the quality of the speakers who, in turn, shared their analyzes of the theme chosen for this new edition of the Summer University.

I have already mentioned some of the “old hands” among these speakers, but we have also benefited from the contributions of many researchers of younger generations.

To limit myself to the French, we had the chance to listen to Pierre Bentata, Nathalie Janson, Yorick de Mombynes, Emmanuel Martin, François Facchini, Nicolas Lecaussin, Renaud Fillieule, Nikolai Wenzel, Elisabeth Krecké, Antoine Gentier, Daniel Dufort and Erwan Queinnec again.

How to handle crises

But what was the central theme of this Summer University?

It was undeniably topical: how to manage the crises affecting our societies, and how, if possible, to prevent them!

Huge theme! We obviously think of the covid crisis, financial crises, the public finance crisis, monetary crises, issues related to the environment, energy, global warming, or even cultural crises (paternalism, wokism , integration, etc.), or to the crises that could be caused by the development of new technologies such as artificial intelligence. Each of these crises — proven, potential or imagined — was the subject of a session and debates animated by the speakers, fed by the questions of the participants.

It is impossible in a few lines to give an account here of the richness of these exchanges.

Fortunately, detailed reports are already available online, and the texts of most of the interventions will be published in the next issue of the Journal of freedoms. The video recordings of the debates will also soon be available on the IREF and IES-Europe websites. Something to occupy our fall and winter evenings!

Three lessons

For the impatient reader, however, here are three of the many lessons I learned from these debates.

The first is that one must know how to recognize a crisis situation.

Knowing how to confront risk rather than ignore it is a trait of the liberal spirit. Unfortunately, denial is becoming a European specialty. We try to hide the crisis under the rug. We act as if the risk could be erased with a wipe of the sponge. This is what we have seen for example with the now famous “whatever the cost”. Acting in this way obviously solves nothing and announces more severe and more general crises to come.

The second lesson, linked to the first, is that the crisis is a call for decision-making.

The words “crisis” and “discernment” share the same root. In a way, it is through crises that we assert our will, that we redefine our motivation, that we chart a new course compatible with our long-term objective. The crisis can be salutary if we know how to identify its root causes and if we have the courage to learn from them. Dreaming of a world without crisis is no more than that: a dream! Better to learn to face them with serenity.

Which leads directly to the third lesson.

To properly manage a crisis, and possibly know how to prevent it, you need adequate knowledge. However, this knowledge is not limited, far from it, to the knowledge of experts – a knowledge which is moreover very different from what we too often imagine. To effectively face the crisis, it is necessary to be able to implement local knowledge; we need a decision-making framework that promotes personal and collective initiatives; we must also — this was our first point — admit that we will inexorably make mistakes, but that these will allow us to build better solutions. A recommendation from Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom came to mind often during these debates: Think globally, act locally! Solutions to global problems will require local initiatives.

This is why a liberal society, respectful of individual freedoms and the principle of subsidiarity, and not paralyzed by the precautionary principle, will be much better equipped to avoid and manage crises.

And it is also for this reason that we have taken a certain comfort in noting throughout this Summer University that, far from being in crisis, the liberal current is very much alive and very strong. There is no doubt that the next edition of this summer meeting will confirm this momentum so necessary for the future of all.

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