Independent Seminar on the Open Society


Yesterday saw the Autumn instalment of our Independent Seminar on the Open Society 6th-form conference series. Over 260 students from afar afield as Newcastle and Devon descended upon the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster for a day of talks and debate from leading think tankers, politicians and academics. Kicking off the day was the ASI’s own Madsen Pirie, delivering ‘Economics in 2 Lessons.’ Asking students to rank the priority of achieving objectives like clean drinking water, sustainable lifestyles, economic growth in poor countries and an end to ebola, Madsen brought alive the concept of opportunity cost. Moving onto the zero sum fallacy, Madsen explained how so many fail to realise that the economy is not a fixed ‘pie’ to be carved up, and value is created as a result of mutual exchange. The talk provided a solid grounding in how unhindered free trade between individuals makes everyone better off.

Next up was Emma Carr, Director of Big Brother Watch on ‘Civil Liberties in a Digital Age’. Her talk was wide-ranging, highlighting the true extent of state surveillance of individuals, and the actions taken by campaign bodies in response. She also considered the health of the digital economy, looking not only at the impact of surveillance on UK-based tech firms, but the extent to which these companies can manipulate and benefit from our personal data. Considering whether privacy as we know it is dead, Emma argued that it is up to us as members of the public to define the new boundaries, and stressed the importance of good digital hygiene and the use of encryption.

The debate topic for the day was ‘This House Believes That the Living Wage should be mandatory’. Proposing the motion was Deputy Leader of the Green Party Amelia Womack, and opposing it Professor Len Shackleton from the University of Buckingham. Amelia’s argument, peppered with quotes from Churchill and Roosevelt, focused upon the benefits a living wage would bring to local communities and business, and a higher wage floor’s place in a wider re-imagining of society. Len adopted a no-nonsense approach, and laid into the Living Wage’s failings as an anti-poverty measure. The question of age discrimination and equal work for equal pay was also part of a heated discussion. From the floor we saw questions on inflationary pressures, worker productivity and the cost of a Living Wage on small businesses, and despite a passionate performance from Amelia the crowd sided heavily against the motion.

The afternoon saw James Zuccollo, Senior Economist at Reform, ask the fascinating question ‘can fiscal policy make us happy?’ The answer, he argued, is yes. The state can’t really help in areas like family life, but it can help when it comes to issues like unemployment – which causes great unhappiness and declines in perceive self worth – and alleviating economic hardship. James then argued that the government has performed relatively badly on these fronts recently- targeting cuts at the least well-off, whilst protecting comparatively wealthy pensioners. He implored the audience to consider a career in economics, to add balance to the not-so long term economic plans enacted by politicians of all stripes.

To round off the day, Steve Baker MP (bravely!) questioned whether politics was the problem, or the solution. Nobody is satisfied with politics nowadays, but why is that? The problem is not that all politicians are actually lazy, greedy, and corrupt, he argued, but that we expect politics to ‘fix’ so many issues that we’re best placed to solve ourselves. Instead of turning to a distant, central government for guidance on how to live our lives, we should use our own knowledge and compassion to a far greater degree.

Throughout the day the audience was highly engaged, with brilliant questions on subjects from the regulation of bitcoin and foreign policy to reducing the deficit and the rise of UKIP. We also handed over 700 copies of educational, free-market primers to students. ISOS is designed to engage and challenge 6th-form students in a way which compliments the A-level syllabi, and it was fantastic to see such a diverse range of students get involved.

A huge thanks to all our speakers, and the schools and students in attendance who made it such a wonderful event!