By Mark Narusov
It is probably safe to say as a fact, without bothering to do surveys or questionnaires, that Sciences Po is politically a predominantly left-leaning institution, without the overt censorship that characterizes a lot of American universities but with an inevitable bubble having formed around a few minds. That might explain why the talk by Gaspard Koenig, a classical liberal writer who jokingly refers to The Economist as his Bible, organized by Think Libéral’s Reims campus branch on the 23rd of February, was attended by less than a dozen people. It turned out as more of an advantage to the attendees — the speaker accommodated the format of the event and made it to be a lively conversation rather than a lecture with a clearly defined speaker and audience.
Responding to some of our remarks on the question of “what is liberalism”, Gaspard defended a near-absolutist view of free speech most famously articulated by J.S. Mill, an English liberal thinker of the 19th century. Koenig claimed that legal acceptance of the most horrific views in public discourse is, in fact, vital for understanding these views and then intellectually defeating them for good. He also argued that if the authorities forcibly exclude a view from the public debate, the society may simply forget how to deal with certain arguments and what their rebuttal is, and people, however paradoxically, in the long term become more prone to being taken in by these views. A fellow student also pointed out that the reason why the results of the British referendum on the EU and of the American presidential election appeared so surprising and in such discord with the polls was the phenomenon of voter shaming that prompted a few to vote but not justify or defend their vote in public, where their ideas could be promptly dealt with.
A participant said that in part because of the attitudes of some teachers at Sciences Po, she had a mostly negative view of classical liberalism — or “neoliberalism” — presented not as a successful alleviator of poverty but rather as an ideology of the powerful, serving their wealth and privilege while aggravating inequality. Koenig cast doubt upon the appropriateness of the term “neoliberalism”, posing the question of whether an ideology can actually exist without an underlying political theory and its vocal upholders. Later in the conversation, Koenig claimed that it is wrong to focus on inequality rather than on poverty, rhetorically asking “what are you deprived of when you are poorer than someone?” He added that there is a problem with a left-wing analysis of economic conditions that refuses to define poverty as an absolute rather than a relative variable, thereby making discourse about poverty focused on redistributing wealth from the rich rather than lifting the poor out of their misery.
Talking about the history of liberal thought, Koenig pointed out that the thinkers behind the French Revolution, specifically Sieyès, did not use or even know about the distinction between political and economic freedoms. He subsequently defended the main ideas of the classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek who famously claimed that more state involvement in the economy inevitably leads to more state intervention in other spheres of life, thereby endangering a given society’s freedom. Koenig, providing proof for the claim, stated that there is a French law that specifically outlaws speech that challenges the monopoly of the government on the social security system. He recalled how he had to write an “attestation de la moralité” on behalf of a friend who — because of this law — got taken to court over their remarks on the French welfare system.
Later, Koenig also spoke about the work he does as the founder of the liberal think tank “GenerationLibre”, generally positioned on the left on social issues and on the right on economic policy. According to him, think tanks, not newspapers, are arguably the most important actors in influencing the government’s policy and the terms of the debate. Think tanks produce detailed and comprehensive policy proposals that will influence a politician more than arguments about the basic philosophy upon which the policy is supposed to be built.
Probably one of the most interesting moments of the meeting came when Koenig argued in favor of a universal basic income from classical liberal premises on human nature and the functioning of society. While leftists like Benoît Hamon, stress the importance of solidarity with those in need, Koenig’s argument focuses on the concept of the UBI as a potentially liberating force — freeing the people from the government’s bureaucratization as well as liberating the poorest from their conditions of dependence on the collective. A few people did not deem this view consistent with liberal attitudes towards welfare programs, and a fellow student challenged Koenig by claiming that UBI is, at least in one respect, indistinguishable from other forms of welfare in that it takes away incentives for individuals to seek employment and economically contribute to the society’s growth. Koenig referenced chapter 12 of the book “Capitalism and Freedom” by Milton Friedman for further exploration of the liberal case for UBI.
Koenig finished off by claiming that the market is indeed the mechanism to implement efficient solutions to problems that arise in numerous realms of society, for example finding “interesting” the idea that a market for migrant visas can alleviate the suffering that was brought by the current refugee crisis through destroying the revenue source of refugee smugglers.
Leaving aside judgement of the actual content of the event, I think it is safe to say that hearing a viewpoint that is radically different from those dominating the student body of Sciences Po is an unambiguously beneficial opportunity, that I was delighted to seize.