Notes from Prague

This weekend, I am attending the Prague Conference on Political Economy. It’s being held at the Cevro Institut, which is housed in a beautiful court-yard structure. The Institut’s director, Josef Sima, describes it as a free market college where students can explore the writings of John Locke, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises. The students there are to be envied and one wishes Prof. Sima well in his endeavours to make the Cevro Institut a European centre of classical liberalism.

Among the talks and papers delivered, here are some of the highlights:

* Terry Anderson of the Hoover Institute gave a stimulating presentation arguing that the notion of externalities ought to be expunged from environmental policy discussions. In its place, we should speak of rights. If a farmer’s cows, for example, pollute a lagoon owned by a nearby fishermen, the question to ask is whose rights have been impinged? Anderson makes an intriguing proposal, but one wonders if this doesn’t simply move us from one set of controversies to another, this time involving the definition of rights.

* Peter Boettke of George Mason University advanced the notion of defending anarchism on the basis of a positive (i.e., factual) analysis of how social co-operation arises and optimally evolves. Prof. Boettke - if I understood him correctly — set this approach forth as an alternative to defending anarchism as a moral imperative. Not sure if one can so neatly set aside the moral issue, since Boettke’s proposal must assume the desirability of  social co-operation  – namely, that it is something we ought to promote.

* The best question raised at the conference: if one could choose a utility function, would it be rational to choose one with a conscience?

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