Revisiting a still-astonishing week, nearly forty-seven years later

Revisiting a still-astonishing week, nearly forty-seven years later May 30, 2023


Where I stood with F. A. Hayek
The ruins of St. Andrews Castle, on the eastern coast of Scotland, as seen on a beautiful day not unlike today  (Wikimedia Commons pubic domain photo)


I’ve had little time during the past few days to write or to blog, which will likely continue.  And, for the moment, jet lag has left me even less mentally capable than I usually am.  So I’m intending to occasionally reuse a few prior entries over the next while.  This one, for example, is a modified and somewhat expanded version of something that I wrote in September 2022 while sailing on the North Sea toward Edinburgh:

We spent last night in a suburb of Edinburgh, Scotland, and had a simple lunch today in St. Andrews.  Doing so reminded me of what I believe to have been my first visit to Edinburgh, and what was certainly my first visit to St. Andrews.  The latter, of course, is probably best known to many people worldwide as the “home of golf” — the location of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (simply “The Royal and Ancient” or even the “R&A”), which was founded in 1754 and which, until 2004 (that is to say, for a full quarter of a millennium), bore responsibility as the “world governing body” for the rules of the game around the globe (excepting only the United States and Mexico).  But, although I eventually spent a fair amount of time in the vicinity of the Royal and Ancient, it was certainly not the principal attraction there for me.


St. Andrews University courtyard
A courtyard at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews   (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Sometime in 1975, I learned that the National Federation of Independent Business was sponsoring an essay contest in honor of the bicentennial of Adam Smith’s classic text on economics, The Wealth of Nations.  The winner of the contest would receive $2000 (fairly serious money in 1975!), as well as an all-expense-paid trip to the United Kingdom that would include a week-long tour of England and Scotland and that would then conclude with the victor’s attendance at the week-long 1976 meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society – a premiere international group of conservative economists – to be convened at the University of St. Andrews.  This was irresistible to me.  St. Andrews and its famous university carried a special allure for me because that was where the then well-known conservative thinker Russell Kirk had earned his doctorate.

I immediately decided to seek the prize and, curiously, I was always serenely confident that I would win it.  I simply knew that I would.  This despite the fact that I had no idea how many contestants would participate nor who the judges would be.  (I still have no idea.)  One of the principal approach paths to LAX passed far above my parents’ house in California and, as I sat out in their backyard writing my essay over the 1975 summer break, every plane that passed overhead — and they passed regularly and very frequently, albeit high and therefore soundlessly — reminded me of my upcoming trip to Great Britain.


On St. Salvator's quad
A view of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where Russell Kirk and the Interpreter Foundation’s own David Larsen earned their doctorates, where N.T. Wright served for nearly a decade as a research professor, and where I spent a remarkable week in 1976.  I saw something just today indicating that, in September of 2022, the “Guardian” had ranked St. Andrews ahead of both Oxford and Cambridge among universities in the United Kingdom.  I’m sure THAT went down well in Oxbridge!
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Winning the essay contest — and I did, in fact, win it — allowed me to mingle socially with such figures as Friedrich von Hayek, who had won the first-ever Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974, as well as with Milton Friedman, who would win the 1976 prize just a few months later.  I met future laureates like James Buchanan (1986) and Ronald Coase (1991), and spent a long afternoon exploring the superb used bookshops of St. Andrews with George Stigler, who would win the 1982 prize.  One afternoon, I walked around the Royal and Ancient with the journalist and business historian John Chamberlain, whom I greatly admired.  I suppose, since I was far and away the youngest person in the group, that I must have seemed a bit like a pet or a mascot to them.

It was heady stuff for an undergraduate Greek major, and I almost shifted my studies to economics.  (Flatteringly, several of the economists I met tried to persuade me to do just that. Armen Alchian, of UCLA, and another fairly young economist from Dartmouth — whom I can vaguely picture in my mind but whose name eludes me after nearly half a century — were  the most persistent.)


The castle at St. Andrews
St. Andrews, Scotland, is where the great conservative thinker Russell Kirk earned his doctorate and where I met the then and future Nobel laureates Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, George Stigler, James Buchanan, and other prominent conservative/libertarian economists (including the colorful Murray Rothbard) in 1976.   (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


I remember one late-night session in the hallway of a St. Andrews dorm where some of us argued U.S defense policy with the famed libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, who coined the phrase “anarcho-capitalism” and, for that matter, pretty much embodied it himself.  He was contending that America didn’t really need federal-government military forces, but that — on the analogy of the privateers who served the role of an American navy during the Revolutionary War — free associations of citizens could, if they wanted, band together and purchase intercontinental ballistic missiles of their own.  (I’m not altogether sure that he was joking.  I envisioned a neighborhood in West Covina deciding to take out, say, Alhambra or South Pasadena over a disputed call in a high school football game.)

One evening, my next-door neighbor in the university dorm where we were staying — an economics professor from the University of Colorado at Boulder, I think, whose name I’ve sadly forgotten — suddenly dragged me off to a late-night gathering of something called “The Invisible Hand Society,” the main point of which seemed to be alcohol and bonhomie.  There were about ten or twelve of us there, including Milton Friedman and a few others.  The fellow who invited me had warned me at the last minute to put on the Adam Smith necktie that each attendee at the Mont Pelerin meeting had been given and that, it turned out, each member of the Invisible Hand Society was supposed to wear.  This was lucky for me, because one poor soul showed up without it and was immediately fined ten pounds by the chairman.  (And he had to pay.)  At one point, each of us in the room had to tell what we had done during the past year for the cause of the free market.  I felt hopelessly inferior, because I was just an undergraduate student (in classics, no less), and all that I had done was to write my essay.  But that was generously deemed sufficient, and I passed.  Another member of the group reported that he had debated John Kenneth Galbraith at Princeton.  He was fined twenty pounds for mentioning Galbraith’s name.

One day, we made a pilgrimage to Canongate Kirkyard, on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, where we were to place a wreath on Adam Smith’s tomb.  But it turned out that nobody had actually brought the wreath.  Everybody had thought that someone else had it.  So, later that afternoon or early evening, we gathered on the battlements of the ruined St. Andrews Castle to watch Friedrich von Hayek cast the wreath into the surf below, expressing the hope, just before he did so, that Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand” would take the wreath where it needed to go.

An amusing episode from the final banquet:  A Harvard professor (whose name and even field I no longer recall) who was at the Mont Pelerin Society meetings and who also participated in the prior week-long tour of England and Scotland often sat next to me at our luncheons and dinners.  I assumed that he was enthralled by my wit and effervescent personality.  At the closing banquet, he became quite thoroughly sloshed, though, and the real reason came out:  “Do you know why I like to sit next to Mormons?” asked me.  “No,” I responded.  “Why?”  “Because I get their booze!  By the way, do you happen to know Noel Reynolds?  I always sit next to him, too!”

Finally, here’s a mystery from the nine or ten days that I spent in Scotland in 1976:  I had heard of the Scottish dish called haggis, and had been told how awful it was.  And I thoroughly expected to hate it.  But they served a small portion of haggis at that final banquet and, to my astonishment, I loved it.  I’ve tried it a couple of times since then, though, and I’ve absolutely loathed it, precisely as I had expected to do earlier.  (After all, it contains liver, which I hate.)  So why did I really like it that night in St. Andrews?  I still have no sure idea.

Posted from just outside Ballater, Aberdeenshire, Scotland



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