Not all academics are leftists, as a recent classical liberal gathering proves

Left-liberals may dominate universities in the United States, but another kind of liberal—the classical liberal—is finding its way into the fray. Classical liberalism, a word some use as a more broadly reaching synonym for libertarianism, champions economic thought in the vein of Adam Smith and Frédéric Bastiat and the philosophy of personal freedom for which thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson advocated.

Earlier this month at the Charlotte campus of Johnson & Wales University, today’s local crop of classical liberal academics converged for a “Classical Liberals of the Carolinas” conference. Organized by an economics professor through his Center for Free Market Studies (FMS), the event primarily attracted economists, but philosophers, political scientists, and academics of other fields also showed up in smaller numbers.

The weekend was also sponsored by the Bastiat Society, a group of free-market business executives (named for the 19th-century French political economist), and by the Pope Center.

Adam C. Smith, a young assistant professor of economics and the director of the center at Johnson and Wales, conceived the event this spring along with former Pope Center board member John W. Sommer, Knight Distinguished Professor Emeritus at UNC-Charlotte. It is an effort to “bring together classical liberals to talk about our mutually advantageous goals,” he said. More specifically, they designed the event to bridge the academic and policy worlds.

“The issue is that we are all on our little islands and it’s very easy to get too wrapped up in what you’re doing on your campus,” Smith told the Pope Center. “If you energize those connections between schools, you find that the networking and so forth makes your job a bit easier and more fruitful.”

One of Smith’s motivations to hold the conference is that he is from South Carolina and has worked in North Carolina for five years. His classical liberal approach stems from his early life, too, as his grandfather, Bruce Yandle, is dean emeritus of the business school at Clemson University and a classical liberal. The fact that Adam Smith shares the name of a giant of economic thought is not by chance.

The Center for Free Market Studies was established with the help of a grant from the Michael and Andrea Leven Family Foundation in 2013. Johnson & Wales is a private university best known for its culinary school; there is no economics department, so Smith’s free market center exists for the general education of students in other majors. The Leven grant provided funding for a course on free markets in American economic history, as well as another related course in the future.

Gatherings of classical liberal, conservative, or libertarian academics were rare, if not nonexistent, ten years ago. The past decade has seen the advent of financial support for such programs by donors who want to restore to the university some semblance of intellectual respect for freedom. Such donors include the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the BB&T Charitable Foundation, and North Carolina’s John William Pope Foundation, among others. 

The main goals of the conference were networking and informing classical liberal scholars about what their colleagues are doing and what resources may be available. Five professors shared stories and best practices of the classical liberal centers they have established or run on campus.

Peter Calcagno, an associate professor who founded the College of Charleston’s Initiative for Public Choice & Market Process, for example, recounted that scholarships have succeeded where essay contests and internships have failed. Edward Lopez, Western Carolina University’s BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism, and James Otteson, the executive director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism, discussed their programs, which study the moral foundations of capitalism. 

Five speakers from classical liberal or conservative think tanks and foundations described their programs. John C. Hardin, a spokesman for the grant-giving Charles G. Koch Foundation, spoke about the resources available to universities and non-profits. Robert Raffety of the Mercatus Center explained how scholars can contribute writing to the center, which seeks to improve understanding of  market institutions. The other three organizations were Raleigh-based. Roy Cordato introduced the John Locke Foundation, David Riggs represented the John William Pope Foundation, and Jane Shaw closed with comments about the Pope Center.

Other highlights from the conference:

  •  Smith discussed the concept of “bootleggers and Baptists,” an idea pioneered by Bruce Yandle in the 1980s (it is also the title of their upcoming book). The theory explains the unholy alliances that seemingly opposed groups form in order to push for regulations.
  • Yandle himself gave a closing speech in which he discussed economic freedom, as measured the Mercatus Center’s 2013 “Freedom in the 50 States” study, and the Economic Freedom of the World index of the Cato Institute. He noted that the United States’ economic freedom level has dropped at the same rate as Venezuela’s. Both Carolinas had above-average freedom rankings in the Mercatus report, but North Carolina’s ranking has declined severely since 2001.
  • Lenore Ealy, executive director of the Philadelphia Society, a conservative discussion group dedicated to the exchange of ideas, gave a talk, preceded by a bourbon tasting. The talk was called “Exit, Voice, and Bourbon,” a play on Albert O. Hirschmann’s economics book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. 

In his interview with the Pope Center, Smith expressed satisfaction at what he hopes will be the first iteration of an annual event. He said, “Our turnout rates were incredible. Over 50 percent of the people who [FMS] emailed came. Seventy or 80 percent responded. All of the people who were asked to be in the panel said yes.”

During the conference, Smith solicited constructive criticism and suggestions for the future from the audience. A political scientist in attendance, in agreement with Otteson’s talk, said, “Classical liberal tradition should be alive and well in other academic disciplines than economics.” He called upon Smith to invite more mathematicians, historians, political scientists, and philosophers.

Should FMS host a second iteration of the conference next year, there may be some changes in order. While this conference was not targeted toward students and none came, Smith is open to inviting them in the future. “Students are central to bringing free-market ideas out into the open,” he said.