The caliber and diversity of the people I am meeting on my trip continues to impress and humble me. Last night was no different.
In Rome I’m staying with a friend of a friend of a friend, Nicola Ianello. He’s a journalist and political theorist. After earning his PhD in Political Science, Nicola has done work at a libertarian think tank and was the first to translate Ayn Rand into Italian. He’s a great guy and his views and bookshelf are providing for some interesting discussions.
I’ve learned that the libertarian community in Italy (and Europe more generally) is active (conferences, programs for young people, translations) and close knit. Since it’s Europe — and not, say, Singapore — it’s easy to understand why like-minded people in a marginalized minority would connect with each other.
Last night I had dinner at a pizzeria (where else?) at 11 PM (it’s too hot) with Nicola and two of his younger 22 year-old friends / proteges who are finishing their degrees in political science with an emphasis on free market thinking. We had a great time.
We didn’t agree on everything. I, for example, like some libertarian ideas and generally advocate for a limited but energetic government. My friends in Rome are far more extreme — they question the role of any government. I probed a bit: “Is market competition preferable to the state in the delivery of emergency services like fire protection? How do you define property rights when it comes to the air above us and environmental issues?” At dinner we talked a little about Austrian Economics (more or less discredited among serious economists) and the Chicago School (seen as more legitimate I think). Hey – they’re even reading the Becker-Posner Blog!
It struck me afterwards that operating on an extreme end of any belief continuum means automatic exclusion from most mainstream discussion fora. I could tell that my friends were prepared to be written off as wackjobs whose views deserved to be ignored. I don’t believe that. I tried to listen and understand their arguments. This is important — it’s too easy for an extreme minority (of any color, in any intellectual discipline), if written off entirely, to resign to introversion, and thus write only for each other and not the general academy. The latter audience demands a higher standard.
Finally, one more interesting observation. Here and elsewhere I’ve talked to Europeans about 9/11. They sometimes wonder whether the U.S. government told the whole truth about the attacks. They wonder why there are no pictures of a plane hitting the Pentagon. They wonder whether the U.S. knew about the attacks and intentionally let them happen. They are insistent in avoiding the label “conspiracy theories.” So I’ll call it, “skepticism.” This strand of skepticism — if honest and if part of European public opinion — should be distressing to American policy makers and citizens. That smart, engaged people could harbor such fundamental distrust of American government means “anti-Americansim” is a far thornier issue than merely trying to be nicer to our allies on a policy level. The United States role in global security throughout history is immense. And yet this trust-building benevolence has all but been forgotten as the current foreign policy reigns. I don’t care if people disagree with policies; I support a vigorous press and skepticism about government’s motives and actions. But America needs foreigners and its own citizens to see the current national security strategy as a true policy — a real school of thought for how to act on the global stage, which it is — and not a secret oil mission run by W’s cronies. Until this is the case, we will continue to be distracted by cover-up theories or imperialism charges instead of the more urgent professional debate about the merits of different courses of action.
Thanks Nicola and friends for a stimulating dinner!