Capitalism and Freedom and Booze

Every year, in June, the Competitive Enterprise Institute hosts a gala dinner in downtown Washington, and the basement ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Washington temporarily becomes the focal point of American libertarianism. If a fire broke out, half of the nation’s Hayek scholars would be wiped out, poof, just like that.

I’ve attended the dinner for years, and expected 2011’s party to be one of the most optimistic yet. Two years of fretting about the Obama administration’s diktat: Over. The Republican Party: More libertarian, more devoted to undoing regulation than ever. When Lydia DePillas wrote about CEI two years ago, in this magazine, she found a movement and an organization under siege as global warming skepticism faded from the mainstream and business groups decided rent-seeking was a better strategy than full-out opposition. Go and read that article, because it seems quaint now, and cap-and-trade legislation is about as politically possible as tax credits for NAMBLA.

I walked into the pre-dinner reception and ran right into G. Gordon Liddy, relaxing with a glass of red wine. He agreed; things were looking up. “It’s a good time for our side and a bad time for their side,” he said. Behind him, snacking on duck prosciutto* and beef satays, were staffers at basically every beltway libertarian group or free mark – Cato, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, the Marijuana Policy Project, the Chamber of Commerce, the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, the Atlas Society, the Institute for Liberty. As luck would have it I got seated next to Lin Zinser, director of outreach for the Ayn Rand Center; I was curious what she thought of the newly energized liberal campaign to remind conservatives that Rand was an atheist who really, really didn’t like Christianity.

“Oh, something like that happens every few years,” she shrugged. “It comes up and it fades away. That’s just not something people are going to worry about when they’re so much more worried about the economy.”

Every year, CEI presents the Julian Simon prize to someone who’s contributed to the cause of freedom writ large. Simon once bet Paul Ehrlich that the prices of five commodities would fall, not rise, over a period of time; the award is a clear leaf with veins of all five elements running through it. The award went to R.J. Smith, a movement veteran who’d been at CEI for decades, and who, early in his career, argued that the best way to preserve the environment was to leave its upkeep up to private owners.

“We appear to be on a road to serfdom paved with green bricks rather than red bricks,” said Smith, accepting the award, “and this is because the government owns 40 percent of all land in America. You can’t maintain a free society if government owns all the land, and all the resources. We are returning to the age of the king’s land, the king’s forest, and the king’s wildlife, and we may have to become robin hoods to survive.”

The solutions were easy to see. American’s energy problems had a simple cure. “Requiring nothing more than a drill and water pressure, hydraulic fracking can shatter the limits to growth.” The land use problem would need fixing via “a massive privatization of America’s land and resources.”

That was the tone of the event: Bold visions. There was very little talk of legislation; there was talk about first principles, and the Tea Party, and a unique moment in American politics. The keynote speaker was Daniel Hannan, the member of the European Parliament who, thanks to the popularity of his YouTube speeches blistering the Labour government and the EU, is probably the most internationally famous member of that body.

“I think I was the only elected British conservative at the time to be against the bailouts,” said Hannan.

A tablemate leaned over and asked me, sotto voce: “Is he, like, the Ron Paul of Europe?”

“I was talking to a very senior member of my party and the time,” continued Hannan, “and he said, ‘okay, it’s you and Ron Paul.’”

My tablemate gave a thumbs up.

“’You’re the only people!’” said Hannan, quoting the party big. “Ten days later a poll came out and I was able to send an email to this very senior member of my party and say: Look! It was me, Ron Paul, and 80 percent of Britain!”

Hannan won the crowd over easily. CEI, he said, was one of the conservative groups responsible for the Tea Party revolution: It had “sowed dragon’s teeth,” and finally saw that paid off. The speaker only lost the crowd a little when he attempted to analyze Barack Obama’s opinions toward Britain.

“There’s a number of possibilities,” said Hannan. “Dinesh D’Souza has a very interesting book about this, where he says it’s anti-colonialism – he basically sees himself as writing these historic wrongs.”

That got groans in my section; admittedly, my section was a bit heavy with members of the press. But Hannan won folks back by getting to his point.

“In repudiating what Britain stands for now, he’s also repudiating that bit of your constitution, that bit of your constitutional make-up, that also came from Britain.”

Big applause. No one disagreed with that.

*Full disclosure: I also ate the duck prosciutto.