The 2021 Freedom Dinner in Miami

Politics - December 18, 2021

It was quite an experience to attend the 2021 Freedom Dinner in Miami 14 December…

Since 2004, every year, usually in late November or early December, supporters of freedom from all over the world have gathered in one of the major cities of North America, for the Freedom Dinner. This is an event sponsored by the Atlas Network, an international umbrella organisation founded by British businessman and entrepreneur Sir Antony Fisher in 1981 to assist and encourage think tanks which explore solutions of social problems by spontaneous cooperation between individuals, without coercion, instead of by relying mainly on commands from above. Fisher had been influenced by the distinguished Anglo-Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek, the 1974 Nobel Laureate in Economics, who had taught that people were ultimately governed by ideas and that the fight for freedom was therefore primarily a fight to change ideas by arguments and evidence: it was to make Adam Smith’s invisible hand visible, to illustrate the advantages, in many cases, of pricing over taxing and to focus on the real consequences of various policy proposals, not only their stated goals. It was with great pleasure that I attended the spectacular and superbly organised 2021 Freedom Dinner in Miami on 14 December.

Mario Vargas Llosa

The keynote speaker in Miami was one of the world’s best-known writers, Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru, the 2010 Nobel Laureate in Literature. He recently published a readable intellectual autobiography, The Call of the Tribe (La llamada de la tribu, 2018), about the tension between man’s tribal instinct and modern individualism, with chapters on Adam Smith, José Ortega y Gasset, Hayek, Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, and Jean-François Revel. (I discuss three of these authors, Smith, Hayek, and Popper, in my Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers.) In the Introduction, Vargas Llosa gives a brief, but fascinating account of his conversations with President Ronald Reagan of the United States and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom. At the Freedom Dinner this year, it was his task to present the first ‘Atlas Network-Cátedra Vargas Llosa Young Journalism Prize’ to a Cuban journalist in exile, Carla Gloria Colomé, for an article on ‘The Eleventh of July in San Antonio de los Baños’. What happened in July 2021 was that in San Antonio de los Baños, near Havana, and in some other places Cubans suddenly coordinated their actions online and took to the streets, demonstrating against the authoritarian regime of the Castro brothers which has turned Cuba into one of the poorest countries in Latin America. The protesters chanted the slogan ‘Patria y Vida’ made famous in a song under the same name by Cuban rapper Yotuel. While the Cuban government used massive force in suppressing the protests, arresting about 700 people and for a while shutting down the internet, it was remarkable, as Colomé notes in her article, that suddenly people were fearless of their oppressors who have lost all credibility. This might be the beginning of the end. At the Freedom Dinner, Yotuel movingly sang his song.

While I listened to Vargas Llosa give his polished speech I reflected on three little-noted facts. One is that bizarrely the two remaining communist countries in the world have turned into monarchies. Inheritance, not elections, determines who governs: in Cuba Raúl Castro took over from his brother Fidel, and in the hermit kingdom, North Korea, the Kim family reigns. The second fact is that the explanation given by the Cuban government for the poverty and backwardness of the Caribbean island, the embargo by the United States, is in direct conflict with Marxist exploitation theory. If the capitalist West were exploiting the poor South through unfavourable terms of trade, as Lenin (as well as Argentinian economist Raúl Prebisch, the author of dependence theory) asserted, then the best thing that could happen to a poor Southern country would be to have trade with the West stopped. But of course the Marxists were wrong. The economies outside the traditional West which have grown most rapidly in the last few decades are those relying on trade with the West, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. The embargo is bad for the Cubans because they are deprived of the mutual benefits of international trade. The third fact I observed when I spent a few days in Havana in 2002. The Cuban Revolution which was made in order to overthrow the almighty Dollar, in fact made the Dollar almighty: in Havana, people would do anything for dollars.

Street Vendors in India

This year, the Templeton Freedom Award went to India’s Centre for Civil Society, based in New Delhi. This award, $100,000, was made possible by the legendary investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton. The Centre for Civil Society, representated in Miami by Prashant Narang, received the Award for its work to protect and expand the rights and opportunities of India’s more than thirty million street vendors. Often harassed by local authorities, they offer indispensable services, with many of them being true entrepreneurs. The choice of the recipient also reflects the international nature and scope of the Atlas Network and its emphasis on liberty as a universal value, no less for the poor than for the affluent, no less in the South than in the West.

Tom G. Palmer

The 2021 Sir Antony Fisher Achievement Award went to Dr. Tom G. Palmer, Vice President for International Programmes at Atlas Network, for his tireless efforts in the cause of liberty, by countless trips to all corners of the world, lectures, interviews, articles, and the publication and translation of books. When I first met Tom at the 1984 Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Cambridge, he had already been an activist in the American libertarian movement for a decade. Since then he has visited Iceland several times, impressing his audiences with his eloquence of speech, breadth of knowledge, and willingness to discuss contentious issues with young people. He is also an accomplished and careful scholar, as his book, Realizing Freedom (2009), demonstrates. There he persuasively analyses and rebuts the arguments of some leading left-wing thinkers, including Gerald A. Cohen who taught both of us at Oxford.

Although Tom’s firm commitment to liberty is always evident, he is an idealist rather than an ideologue. He is very American in that he strongly shares the belief of the Founding Fathers in private property, free trade, and limited government, but he is a somewhat atypical American in another respect. Hayek sometimes complained that many Americans lacked what was in Europe called Bildung and could best be defined as knowledge of other times and other places. But Tom certainly has Bildung. He speaks several languages and takes a lively interest in the culture of other times and other places. He has even read and reflected on the Icelandic sagas and chronicles and he is thus able, for example, to conduct an intelligent conversation about Snorri Sturluson as a pioneer of liberal thought. In the two first decades after the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe Tom was very active there, while in the last few years he he has devoted much energy to assisting embattled libertarians in Africa and the Middle East.

Tom Palmer is one of the most effective speakers of what I would call the conservative-liberal movement (whereas he would himself probably leave the conservative part out of it). He did not disappoint us at the Freedom Dinner. In his thoughtful yet entertaining acceptance speech he said: ‘When we argue for liberty, we should seek, not to crush, defeat, humiliate, or destroy enemies, but to win friends for liberty. The best victory in an argument is not when you hurt the other, but when you hear the other person repeat your arguments six months—or six years—later.’

Linda Whetstone

As I was leaving Miami I received the sad news that Linda Whetstone, who had long served as Chairman of the Atlas Network Board, had passed away in the morning after the Freedom Dinner. At the age of 79, she had suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. Like her father, Sir Antony Fisher, Linda had been a good friend. Tall, slim, energetic, practical as well as passionate, always friendly, encouraging and helpful, she had inspired people all over the world. Dr. Ed Feulner, former President of the Heritage Foundation, aptly commented: ‘Her impact ripples across the globe and is visible in the work of the entrepreneur who can now sell his or her wares on the street without the harassment of corrupt officials, in the bustling private schools for the poor, in solitary academics who know they are part of a worldwide network and can share the greatest books and essays with students in seminars, thanks to her efforts to raise the funds and share the resources and spread the ideas of liberty.’ Linda had with great skill and resolution continued her father’s work. It is now for us to continue her work.