The “Liberty Fund Rules” For Seminars and Discussions

Introduction

I am currently in a reading group on the Leo Strauss book On Tyranny, which also features essays by Alexandre Kojève. We just wrapped our first online discussion of the book, and it inspired me to write this post.

One of my fondest memories as a student was attending more than a dozen invite-only seminars on economic and political theory, which ranged from an afternoon to a full week. These were times when I got to spend time with some of the smartest students and scholars from around the world, to spend hours and delving deep into specific books, articles, and other intricacies of thinking, writing, and debate.

Whether hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), the Institute for Liberal Studies (ILS), and the Mises Institute (Mises), they all had one thing in common: the adhered to what are called the “Liberty Fund rules” for discussion. “Liberty Fund” is a non-profit organization based in Indianapolis, Indiana, which sells many economic and political theory books, and hosts popular economics blogs and podcasts. But they made their name hosting weekend-long seminars, which adhered to these particular rules. So such seminars are called “Liberty Fund-style seminars”, and their rules are thus the “Liberty Fund rules”.

The beauty of these rules is that they bring order and organization in what could be a chaotic situation. There are two terrible potential outcomes in any discussion: awkward silence, or a domineering participant. The Liberty Fund rules help minimize both of these extremes by (1) having a Discussion Leader who is responsible for the queue of speakers, and is usually an expert on the reading at hand, so they can fill in the gaps when the participants have nothing to say; and (2) having the queue set up in a two-tiered manner, to distinguish between short and long points of discussion.

I can’t find online a single source that clearly and easily explains the Liberty Fund rules—with the exception of a reference deep in an academic article on syllabus advice for young scholars, written by Emily Chamlee-Wright (currently the head of the IHS). So I thought, as a frequent participant in these sorts of seminars from a variety of organizations, I am a good position to compile the rules here, for the benefit of anyone interested in hosting their own discussion groups.

Below I give a detailed list of my interpretation of what the rules of these events are. After, I give a personal account of what it’s like to attend such a seminar.

The Rules for a Liberty Fund-style Seminar

  1. The assumption is that all participants will have read the assigned texts. There are about 15 or so participants in a session, though I’ve been in sessions with more than 20 people. The assigned text is the primary source for every topic of the discussion: every point should relate to the text directly somehow, preferably with a page citations.
  2. Discussions start and end exactly on time. Respecting others is an integral part of a civilized society, and it begins by respecting their time.
  3. Participants are seated in a manner where each can see the others, with a name card placed in front of each participant.
  4. The discussion will have a Discussion Leader. The Discussion Leader will begin each discussion by giving a short presentation on the assigned text, preferably in a manner that will enlighten the other participants, and ends by asking some open-ended questions which could potentially serve as conversation starters for the group. The Discussion Leader will be responsible for starting and ending the discussion on time, as well as maintaining the queue of speakers.
  5. There shall be at least two columns for the queue. The Discussion Leader will privately keep a queue. Typically this is on a piece of paper. The paper will have a line down the middle to make two columns. The two columns are usually “long point” and “short point”. A “short point” is usually a direct response to a question or comment raised by another participant, and is usually made within a minute or two. “Long points” may either introduce a new topic, or may synthesize answers to several previous points or questions. Long points are typically limited to five minutes.
    • The participants distinguish which queue they want to go on by different hand gestures; these are usually at the discretion of the Discussion Leader. A raised hand is almost always the signal for someone who wants to make a long point. Some examples I’ve seen over the years: raised finger, pointing to the table, a “pinch” gesture, or a silent head-nod at the Discussion Leader.
    • Short points typically have priority over long points, but the Discussion Leader may exercise discretion by having a Long Point “jump the queue” if the conversation is starting to get stuck.
    • The Discussion Leader may add themselves to either queue, but may not jump ahead of others.
    • There may be more than two columns. Three columns is the most I’ve seen. The third column is usually either a “very short point/”tweet”, which is limited to one sentence long, and has a [inch to finger down gesture; or it is a “jargon bell” where a participant map tap their glass of water to get a definition on a term of art (recall that not everyone at a seminar is from the same academic or professional field).
  6. How to deal with rule breakers. There are a few ways to break the rules in a session. Here is a short list of the most common ways, along with some potential remedies.
    • Ramblers and ranters: Those who talk too long. This is by far the most common problem. As a general rule, the more “senior” a participant is, the more likely they are to go on rambling rants. Rambling rants domineer the conversation, and are disrespectful to others’ time, so they must be nipped in the bud. “Senior” here does not mean “older” participants; rather, participants who feel as though they “outrank” everyone else. So this kind of behaviour can even happen in discussions with undergraduates. As this is the most common problem to have, there are many ways to deal with such people. Here are a couple of tactics that work:
      • The Discussion Leader silently moves them to the bottom of the queue. This is the least disruptive method, as it can be done quietly and subtly. If the other participants are not very talkative, the rambler.
      • The Discussion Leader may also address ramblers and ranters directly. There are two choices here: either during the session, usually with humour; or if it is a multi-session discussion, privately in between sessions.
    • The queue jumpers: Those to interject their points out of turn. Here, the most common tactic is that the Discussion Leader chastises them publicly for jumping the queue. The queue must be held to be the most important facet of the conversation.
    • Those who show up late: Especially when the participants are undergraduates, those who show up late can be a small problem. The best response is to start on time, say nothing when they come into the room (assuming they do so relatively quietly), and privately remind them of the importance of keeping to the schedule after the session.
    • (Rare) The insulter: I have sat with hundreds of participants in Liberty Fund-style discussions, and I do not recall ever witnessing one person directly insult another person during a session. (Insults during the late night cocktail hours are a different matter.) The only time I’ve seen a situation get out of hand was when one participant thought his religious views were being attacked by some others in the group, and he left the event without informing the organizers. Due to their rare nature, an individual response is best warranted, whether it is a warning or an outright ban from the event.
    • (Rare) Misbehaving Discussion Leader: In the rare occasion where the Discussion Leader is misbehaving, it’s up to the organizer of the event (typically a different person; they often sit in on the sessions, but typically choose not to participate) to have a conversation with them.
  7. Dealing with quiet participants: Especially among rookie participants, it is common for some participants to never utter a word throughout the discussion. While it can be the case that these participants have simply not done the readings, in my experience it is much more likely that they have, indeed, read the text very carefully. Instead, their problem is that of nerves and embarrassment. Often they may find themselves in the academic minority of the room (e.g., they are the only historian in a room full of economists), and so don’t feel confident that they have anything interesting to say. It is the duty of the Discussion Leader to make them feel comfortable. While sometimes this may involve calling them out directly, usually with a wise question that draws on their expertise, most Discussion Leaders will not call on anyone who has not raised their hand. However, an alternative is if the quiet participant does eventually raise their hand (typically near the end of the discussion), the Discussion Leader will have the right to jump them to the top of the queue to ensure they get a chance to speak.
  8. Participants will observe the Chatham House Rule. The Chatham House Rule is that after the event is over, participants may use or discuss the content of what was said during the meeting, but must refrain from identifying who said what. For example, you may tweet that “someone in our discussion group said the Earth is flat”; but you may not say “Jim Smith from NASA said the Earth is flat,” nor may you say “someone from NASA said the Earth is flat.”

What’s It Like to Attend a Liberty Fund-style Seminar

In a word: amazing. In a few more words: what university should feel like all the time.

Usually, the participants receive the readings a few weeks to a couple of months in advance. Participants are expected to show up having fully read all the texts, and are ready to engage in a deep discussion over them. The host of the discussion typically provides room and board for the presenters; some better funded organizations even cover the participants’ travel expenses. Liberty Fund itself, in addition to covering room and board, is famous for actually paying the participants cash honorarium on top of everything else. (Liberty Fund events are typically aimed at working academics and businesspeople, so they usually must take time off work to attend.)

Typically each session is 90 minutes in length. In weekend and weeklong sessions, there is also usually a half-day of “free time” included in the schedule. As students, this is when most of us got to spend the day exploring the city, or catching up on homework, or refreshing ourselves on the readings. Sessions typically ended at around 5 pm, were followed by a dinner, then there was usually a cocktail “hour”. The “hour” is in quotes because this when the real discussion would often happen, and would regularly go long into the night. In a lot of ways, the discussions during the day set up the arguments that would happen at night. The free-flowing alcohol only made these debates more fun.

Participants would be from all over the world. Of course I’ve met students from every state in the US and every province in Canada, but I’ve also sat next to students from the UK, France, Germany, Greenland, Iraq, South Africa, Brazil, and more.

The general energy at these events is typically pretty high, though of course it varies widely. In all my years attending them across the US and Canada, I’ve never once had a “bad” experience. But generally, what makes a seminar better than average is having a good mix of people in terms of academic backgrounds (philosophers, economist, historians, etc.), most of whom are “veteran” discussion participants (as in, they have attended similar Liberty Fund-style discussions in the past), are eager to engage with others, and—most importantly—have actually read the readings! There are several signs to know that someone has not done the readings; the biggest tell is that they never reference the actual text when they make a point.

At the end of the student seminars, especially at the larger week-long ones hosted by the IHS, usually there is a free book distribution. Students form a line, and there are various piles of books. You may take one book per round, and may form up again. As each seminar has both “veteran” and “rookie” students, there isn’t a uniform demand for all the books.

Here is a typical set up for such a discussion. This photo is from the Institute for Liberal Studies’ Facebook page. (The ILS calls these discussions “Socratic seminars.”) In this photo, you can see the rectangular seating arrangement, the name tags, the Organizer (Janet Bufton) sitting in the back, the Discussion Leader (Professor Glenn Fox), and you can also see the queue in front of him.

Note also that breakfast has been provided, each participant has a physical copy of the text in front of them (the Organizer would send these out weeks ahead of time), and that most of the students are actually trying to adhere to the “business casual” dress code.

Conclusion

Attending such events was the highlight of my time as a student. The conversations, friendships, and good times were what I always dreamed university life of being. I hope more people get to experience lively; and that by sharing this post, more Liberty Fund-style events will be organized in the future.