Prague
My wife Jenny and I are in this great city again after 16 years for the 2012 General Meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society. The last such meeting was held in Sydney two years ago. The society, founded by F.A. Hayek in 1947, is named for the place in Switzerland where the first meeting was held. It’s a remarkable organisation, full of economists (including a whole swag of Nobel laureates), philosophers, think tank people, businesspeople and the occasional politician, including the redoubtable Czech President Václav Klaus, who hosted the final day of sessions in his Prague Castle. The president of the society for the two-year period leading up to the Prague meeting was London-based Australian Kenneth Minogue. There have in fact been three Australian presidents in its 65-year history. The first was the wonderful economic historian Max Hartwell,  then yours truly and, until succeeded  by the American economist Allan Meltzer, it was Minogue.

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There was a significant Australian contingent at the meeting, representing the classical liberal cornerstone of Australian intellectual life. An MPS meeting (and having meetings is all it does) is a natural place for such people from around the world to get together to meet, toss around ideas, tune up their thinking and occasionally have a good time. The sessions, not surprisingly, had Europe’s problems in their sights. There seems to be a submission to politics and bureaucratic demands that the founders of the Mont Pelerin Society would have found unfathomable, though maybe also believable in the wake of the second world war. Nobody wanted another war, but the centralisation of the European project seems to be pleasing nobody.  A European free trade area was laudable, but it has gone beyond that and the dissatisfaction across the continent is a worrying sign.

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A tradition at MPS meetings is the excursion day. In Sydney, we all went to a sheep station, but in the Czech Republic it was to the spa town of Karlovy Vary, often known as Carlsbad. It’s a beautiful town two hours from  Prague that has had a remarkable makeover, thanks in no small measure to the influx of Russians and their cash. I’m told many are leaving, but with no explanation as to why. If so, their legacy will be a town in good order.

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President Klaus delivered a warning: ‘We are living in a far more socialist and etatist society than we had imagined. After a promising beginning, we are in many ways returning to the era we used to live in and which we thought was gone once and for all.’ He was not only talking about his own country, but the Western world. Klaus’s full paper will be published in the next issue of Policy magazine. It’s  a compelling piece.

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After the meeting, it was time for  a little holiday and some sightseeing in Central Europe. We picked up the Avis car in Prague and delivered it unscathed in Budapest four days later. Always a relief when you consider how many narrow streets there are in these ancient cities. Especially when you don’t really know where you are going, and you’re on the wrong side of the road. But we made it, marriage intact.

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Two nice stops in the Czech Republic are Tábor and Český Krumlov. Tábor was one of the main centres of the Hussites, followers of Christian martyr Jan Hus who was burned at the stake in 1415 for opposing, among other things, the egregious wealth-gathering of the Catholic church of the time. He was  an early Protestant when there weren’t any. Martin Luther acknowledged him as an inspiration.

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Our travels were made easier by the omnipresence of free WiFi where we were staying. WiFi as we know it is essentially an Australian invention, thanks to scientists at the CSIRO and Macquarie University. Some might say that ever-present internet access is  a curse on a holiday, and perhaps it is, but checking out a restaurant or some site in advance can’t be all that bad. Anyway, it’s here to stay, though some of the major hotel chains still think they need to charge excessive amounts for a pretty cheap resource. The small pensions and hotels must have a different business model. So did the ‘hop on hop off’ bus in Budapest.

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All in all, the Czech Republic seemed in pretty good shape. Buildings and countryside were well looked-after and everything functioned properly. The political and economic reforms since the Velvet Revolution in 1989 have succeeded better than in most, if not all, former Communist countries. Crossing the border into Hungary (via Austria) gave us a different picture. Vastly improved I am sure, but the prosperity of the Czechs was not in evidence here. The refurbishment of buildings both in the countryside and in Budapest was not at the same level as we had seen in the Czech Republic and you couldn’t help but feel that the Hungarians had not had the same quality of reforms and leadership as had the Czechs. And of course Václav Klaus played a key role throughout, as Finance Minister, Prime Minister and President.

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The continental European part of our trip ended in Zurich after an overnight train from Budapest. Reading the Australian papers, we saw that Zurich was one of the three most expensive cities in the world. It was.

Greg Lindsay is executive director of  the Centre for Independent Studies.

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