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Friday, April 13, 2007

Caper in the Caucasus

Barreling along a narrow, cratered, sharply winding road in the mountains of Armenia seemed an odd way to promote liberty. But that’s what it was. For the bus negotiating the hairpin curves in the cold rain under thick gray clouds carried FEE’s team of goodwill ambassadors to the Eurasian South Caucasus: President Richard Ebeling, Director of Academic Affairs Anna Ebeling, Director of Seminars Larissa Price, Research Fellow Beauregard Tyler, Adjunct Scholar Paul Cwik, and me. We were at the midpoint of a nearly two-week trip to the region, where we were holding economics seminars for students in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Armenia.

This is not the first time FEE has gone there. It was the third visit to Georgia and the second to Armenia. A year ago we made a nearly identical trip to the two countries.

We began in Georgia. After landing in the capital, Tbilisi, on March 28, we conducted a three-day seminar in the nearby mountain village of Shindisi. Our hosts in Georgia, as in years past, were Paata Sheshelidze and Gia Jandieri of the New Economic School — Georgia. They were assisted by Wolfgang John of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation of Germany, which helps to promote liberalism in that part of the world. The students were enthusiastic and eager to learn about free-market political economy, although not everyone was on the same wavelength. One attendee asserted that the market is unnecessary because he already knows what the price of everything should be. How? He has all the requisite equations.

The 47 students heard Richard Ebeling, Anna Ebeling, Paul Cwik, and me lecture on Austrian economics and Public Choice, market prices and economic calculation, competition and monopoly, separating school and state, free trade, inflation and the business cycle, free banking, market solutions to environmental problems, the nature of taxation, the philosophical seeds of modern slavery, and why socialism failed.

An important aspect of this seminar should be emphasized. The students came from three countries — Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan — that are in various states of hostility with one another. The last two are at war over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Armenians may not travel to Azerbaijan, and Azeris may not travel Armenia. So FEE brought them together in Georgia. Some of the students said it was the first time they had met anyone from the other country. The cause of liberalism — with its ideal of peace through global cooperation in a free market — was well served by the seminar.

My lecture on separating school and state drew some representatives of Georgia’s ministry of education. Simon Janashia, director of the National Curriculum and Assessment Centre, sat at the back of the lecture hall looking amused throughout my remarks. During Qamp;A he expressed concern that some parents do not value a liberal education and need state direction; Muslims, he said, might not educate their daughters. I responded that it is not the state’s role to impose its version of enlightenment on people through a school monopoly, adding that informal social methods are better able to emphasize the importance of education. I also noted that in the United States, the Amish try to bring their children up in in an isolated environment, but that does not prevent rebellion and exit among Amish youth. After the lecture Janashia, Richard Ebeling, and I carried on the discussion. Janashia insisted that education is a fundamental right, to which we responded that nothing that must be provided by other people can be a genuine right. He also defended the government’s licensing of private schools and shutting down unlicensed schools. Yet he resisted the logical implications of that policy, which Ebeling traced out, namely, that the state ultimately could kill a private schoolmaster who refused to comply with an order to cease and who was prepared to defend his life and property from the government’s officers.

Onward to Armenia

From Georgia we headed to Armenia along that rough road described at the beginning of the article. There is a better road. Unfortunately, it is too close to the border with Azerbaijan, and vehicles have been shelled using it. Getting into Armenia is no piece of cake. After an hour’s drive to the Georgia-Armenia border, we had to exit our bus, present passports to the Georgian authorities, then walk some distance, dragging our luggage, to the Armenian side, where we applied for visas. Chilly weather made this less than pleasant. Once we got through the bureaucratic barriers we were greeted by the familiar faces of our hosts from last year: Vahagn Khachatryan of the Centre for Economic, Legal, and Political Studies and Forecasting, and Karen Aghajanyan of the Naumann Foundation. We got into another bus and rode several hours more to our destination, stopping along the way for the luncheon prepared for us.

Like the seminar in Shindisi, the one in snowy Tsakhkadzor, Armenia, outside the capital, Yerevan, brought together students who otherwise would not be in the same place. The 44 students included not only residents of Armenia and Georgia, but also of Abkhazia. This is an area internationally recognized as a republic within Georgia, but since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been conflict and secessionist activity. Many Georgians have left their homes during the strife. Thus Georgian and Abkhazian students do not often mix. But they did so at the FEE seminar. We could see the effect at the closing banquet, when students made toasts of friendship and one Georgian man presented gifts to the Abkhazian women. It was a touching moment.

The three-day seminar was similar to the one in Georgia, except that many of the students did not speak English. So translation of the lectures into Russian (the only common language) was needed. The translator hired for the occasion was an older man whose lack of knowledge of economics made his translations rocky, to say the least. This prompted Anna Ebeling, who was born and raised in Moscow, to take over the translation duties on many occasions.

The translator also played an unanticipated role during one of the scheduled discussions. It seems that all the criticism of the old Soviet Union was too much for him, and he began to speak up nostalgically in its defense. He said that the many bad things should not detract from the good; for instance, there was no poverty and or unemployment. This was rebutted by Richard Ebeling and Vahagn Khachatryan. The translator also mocked the idea that liberalism could improve people’s lives in the former Soviet republics. The students seemed unpersuaded. As I summed up the exchange for those who were not present: The translator said, ‘We shouldn’t have thrown the baby out with the bathwater,’ and we responded, ‘But there was no baby!’

The day after this revealing encounter, Anna Ebeling gave a moving lecture on Utopia in Power: The Soviet Tragedy, complete with PowerPoint slideshow graphically illustrating the horrors of Stalin’s reign. Eyewitnesses at the lecture detected an expression of embarrassment on the translator’s face.

The closing banquet featured repeated expressions of gratitude and goodwill, and the spirit of liberalism was abundant in the room. We were weary and even sick from the travel, but all that was forgotten in this warm glow of friendship. At that moment it wasn’t hard to be optimistic about the future .

The next day we drove back through the mountains (thankfully, the snow had disappeared) to Tbilisi, Georgia, to prepare for the long flights home. One final dinner with our friends Paata; his wife, Nino; and Gia, and we would be on our way. (Incidentally, the youngest person to attend our Georgia seminar was Nino and Paata’s baby daughter, Ekaterine — Kato for short.)

We took off from Tbilisi International Airport early next morning, satisfied knowing that dozens of students knew more about freedom and liberalism than before we arrived.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.