The first conference of the Association for the Study of Free Institutions, in which I took part on Monday and Tuesday, was a resounding success–for the ASFI, for its co-sponsor the James Madison Program at Princeton, and for all those who attended. The disciplines of law, history, political science, philosophy, anthropology, economics, and the study of religion were all represented, making ASFI a real model of the interdisciplinary exchange of ideas.
There were many worthwhile contributions to the conversation on what makes free societies function, from the first panel on Monday morning revisiting Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind after 20 years, kicked off with smart, funny remarks by NRO’s own Stanley Kurtz, to the final panel Tuesday afternoon on the historical conditions that foster free institutions, with CCNY historian Darren Staloff, speaking last of all, taking us on a whirlwind tour from the ancient polis to the early Dutch republic to Augustan England. In between we also heard keynoter John Agresto’s wise and moving reflections on the great difficulties, and the hopes for progress, in building a free society in Iraq–based on his own experience there.
Readers of this page would have been most interested, I expect, in the Monday panel on the rule of law. First up was George Mason law school’s Michael Krauss (a sometime NRO contributor), who gave one of the most succinct and sensible accounts of this ambiguous concept that I’ve ever heard. Next came Notre Dame’s Gerry Bradley (come back to Bench Memos, Gerry!), who commented on the damage done to liberty and the rule of law by the logic at the heart of the Supreme Court’s 1992 Casey ruling. Then we heard from Penn’s Amy Wax, who identified key “subversions” of the rule of law abroad in the land today–deterministic concepts as excuses for behavior, “outcome egalitarianism,” and various forms of tribalism. Finally came Jack Wade Nowlin of Ole Miss law school, cogently reminding us that when we think of lawlessness, tyranny, and harm to the Constitution and the rule of law, we need to think of the judiciary as just as fully capable of all these depredations as any other institution, maybe more so.
My own turn came on Tuesday morning, on a large and varied panel on “Security, Liberty, and Terror.” Bill Allen of Michigan State led with a strategic view of our Middle East interests, followed by Angelo Codevilla of Boston University discussing the harsh realities we must face and yet seem reluctant to face in the present war. I took a constitutional approach, talking about how we should understand the powers of government (especially the executive) in wartime. Alan Gibson of Cal State-Chico bearded some mostly conservative lions in their den by critiquing the war from the left, and John Lenczowski of the Institute of World Politics spoke of our foreign policy apparatchiks’ failures in diplomacy with Arab and Muslim publics (e.g., shutting down Arabic-language VOA news broadcasts in favor of rock ‘n’ roll).
I’m leaving out an awful lot, including whole panels on “the moral claims of capitalism” and on the pope’s Regensburg speech. The good folks at Princeton’s Madison program plan to put video of the whole conference up with a link at this page in the near future. And if you get interested in joining ASFI–as you should–check it out here.