Monday, 6 July 2015

Report on the International Society for Individual Liberty’s conference in Bali, 2015

It was billed as a conference on “Market Liberalization.” But in reality, it was far more than that. The International Society for Individual Liberty – ISIL for short, though we disclaim association with any other organizations which may lay claim to that acronym – held its 33rd conference from June 29th to July 3rd, 2015 in Bali, Indonesia.

For the first time as far as I know, the conference venue was, not a hotel or a resort, but an individual’s home. A local friend was kind enough to allow us to use his sumptuous Balinese-style palace near Ubud. In these fine surroundings, we were able to accommodate more than 30 speakers (sometimes with two or three sessions in parallel) and, in total, almost 140 attendees from – if my count is correct – 28 different countries.

We also, of course, did our bit for the local economy. And, in particular, for the workers in the dozen or so hotels in the area, in which members of our group were housed.

Bali is hot, crowded and often noisy. But I love it. I confess to having had a soft spot for Indonesia ever since my first visit all of 32 years ago, when I was lucky enough to spend two and a half months working in Bandung, Java. It’s hard to compare two such different regions of the same country. One Hindu, the other Muslim; one a beach and tourist mecca, the other a workaday city up in the mountains. It’s even harder to make that comparison across a gulf of more than three decades. But Indonesia is still Indonesia. The people are friendly. The mopeds are everywhere. The driving style is anarchic, yet extremely alert. And you can still drink Bintang beer for a reasonable price.

For a diverse but select group of 20, there was an additional attraction prior to the main conference. We included movement luminaries like David Friedman and Leon Louw, ISIL stalwarts such as Ken Schoolland, Mary Ruwart and Jim Elwood, and a variety of academics, radical thinkers, activists and anarchist libertarians of all conceivable stripes.

This was the inaugural meeting of the Bali Society. If there was one word we would choose to use of ourselves as a group, that word would be “voluntarist.” For I think we would agree that all constructive interactions between human beings must be based on individuals’ voluntary conduct, and on contract freely entered into, whether formal or informal.

And at the end, we signed as founder members of the Bali Society. I felt as if I might be signing, just perhaps, a Declaration of Independence or some such epochal document. Will our ideas and our works come, in time, to echo down the ages as the ideas and works of those signers did? I like to hope so.

To the main conference. It’s my usual practice to say something about each of the speakers’ presentations. But in this case, that was impossible. Firstly, because one or two sessions on each day were of the “break-out” kind, with up to three speakers presenting in halls on different parts of the estate. And secondly, because though this was my 15th ISIL conference, it was the first time I had had the privilege and pleasure of being a speaker as well. Meaning that, often, I was concentrating more on what I was planning to say than on what others were saying.

The general standard of the presentations was, I think, considerably higher than in earlier times. Gone are the days when French or Italian professors mumbled into their beards while reading from a prepared script on a subject so esoteric, and in an accent so exotic, that no-one understood a single word. All the Asian presenters spoke excellent English, and all the presentations I listened to had been most professionally prepared, and were given in a businesslike manner and often with panache.

We heard about economics and free markets – a little. We heard about philosophy. We heard about the history of liberty. We heard about visions of the future. We enjoyed a taste of David Friedman’s fountain of good ideas. We enjoyed Leon Louw’s deep insights. We enjoyed Hiroshi Yoshida’s deadpan humour. Even my own presentation on John Locke seemed to be very well received.

But it isn’t only in the lecture hall that ISIL conferences bring people and their ideas together. Over tea, over meals (Balinese food is often excellent, and several meals were included as part of the conference), on a coach excursion to rice fields and a temple, and even – on the rare occasions when time and energy permitted – over a beer in the local bar, friendships were made or renewed. Ideas were formed and articulated. A few jokes were enjoyed. And each of us, whether new or old, came to feel more and more a part of the ISIL family.

The experiment of extending the conference from 4 to 5 days, and starting the first day and ending the last at lunchtime was, I think, a success. The arrangements were made, and the programme moved ahead, for the most part, with metronomic Swiss-watch precision; for which, conference organizer Li Schoolland and her team deserve huge congratulations.

Everyone seemed to get on with each other, too. Indeed, in this respect, I think this was one of the best of all our conferences. No other ISIL meeting in my experience, of course, can compare with Dax, France in 2001; but I think this one is up there, vying for second place with 1999 in Costa Rica.

I did notice one difference between the attitudes of our Asian friends and those of us from the West. For the Asians, democracy – where it exists – seems fresh and new. Things are still getting better after past political and economic troubles. But for us cynical Western greybeards, democracy has already shot its bolt, and new, more radical solutions are necessary.

That said, the conference had a sense of expectation about it. Despite one or two speakers being pessimistic about the situations in their own countries, I sensed a general feeling of cautious optimism. Could it be, perhaps, that somewhere below the horizon in the East, the liberty Sun is preparing to rise? Could it be that the age of evil dictatorships, bad politics, senseless wars, and unjust and burdensome taxes, is at last coming towards its end? We can but hope so. And, whatever we can do towards that end, that will we do.

I will end with a very brief statement of what we stand for, and who we are. We are International. We are Individuals, but we are also extremely happy in the Society of our friends. And we care – very, very much – about Liberty for all human beings.

We are the International Society for Individual Liberty.

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