A Golden Life

The Austrian émigré economist Friedrich Hayek didn’t much like the label “libertarian”, which he considered a “singularly unattractive” Americanism. He preferred to call himself “an unrepentant Old Whig—with the stress on the ‘old’”. Old or young, he certainly was not lonely. When he founded the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947, he and his comrades (well, associates) numbered thirty-nine of the world’s most prominent intellectuals. Then again, there were no women invited to that first meeting in Switzerland, so perhaps the Old Whigs were lonely after all.

If there’s one message about Ron Manners that comes through loud and clear in his second memoir, The Lonely Libertarian, it’s that he’s rarely alone. The very cover of the book depicts him surrounded by twenty-four young Mannkal Scholars, participants in the flagship educational exchange program of the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation, set up by Manners in 1997. Mannkal is a portmanteau of Manners and his hometown of Kalgoorlie, though the foundation is sensibly headquartered in Perth.

Which is not to say that Manners has lost his connection to his origins. Far from it. Throughout The Lonely Libertarian, Manners gives us glimpses of family loyalty and corporate commitment, and though it is impossible for an outsider to verify these, it is certain that Manners himself believes that friendship and good cheer are the keys to success. Not that he necessarily defines “success” in business terms. The Lonely Libertarian reads much more as a philosophy for living than as a guide to getting rich.

The book itself is something of a hodgepodge, or to be kind, an “eclectic collection”, a treasury to be dipped into rather than a monograph to read straight through. Part Boy’s Own adventure and part Horatio Alger tale, Manners’s life seems to belong as much to the nineteenth century as to the twenty-first. He seems to have missed the twentieth century entirely, or at least to have dodged its zeitgeist. He went straight from the mining frontier of Western Australia to the electronic frontier of online activism.

Manners tells the story—or stories—of his life, from his far-from-boring bush upbringing (What was there to do for fun in 1950s Kalgoorlie? “We shot things and we blew things up”) through his years as a tax fugitive (or financial conscientious objector?), to the founding of (“rich as”) Croesus Mining and his (unsuccessful) adventures in Russian reform. Manners emphasises the role of accidents and the lessons to be learned from them; one suspects that he has courted accidents more than most. But the real lesson of this book seems to be to go the extra mile to connect with other people. More often than not, they’ll welcome the approach, and connect right back.

Two teenage accidents, one serendipitous and the other almost tragic, set Manners on the course to the not-so-lonely libertarianism of the book’s title. The first was the chance discovery of old magazines from the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education, which led to a lifelong association with its founder, Leonard E. Read, after the young Manners reached out to ask his editorial advice. The second was a car crash that nearly took off his right arm. His father refused to accept the doctor’s advice to amputate, teaching Manners the importance of questioning authority—and salvaging his second career as a multi-instrumentalist jazz musician.

Though always fun and full of good humour, the book is frustratingly uneven and poorly polished. One third of the book is given over to a single, bloated chapter on taxation, which consists of a random collection of stories, quotations, memoranda, vignettes, advice and plain old complaints about taxes. Some of these are quite entertaining; others fall flat. But good or bad, the main problem is that they are unorganised. If Manners kept his tax records this way, it’s no wonder that he got into trouble with the taxman! But he returned to the fold in 1982, and he says he’s been a happy taxpayer ever since.

The rest of the book is … pure gold. Some readers may disagree with Manners’s philosophy of governance, or even his philosophy of business, but no one will disagree with his philosophy of life, which might be summarised as something along the lines of “go your own way; you might just find others going the same way, too”. In his Russia chapter, Manners tells the story of how, in 1990, a Moscow street artist was moved to emotion because she “saw the outside world through [his] eyes, and … now she is sad because she will never know that world”. He should track her down and give her a copy of this book. The Lonely Libertarian lets us see the world through Manners’s eyes, and what a wonderful world it is.

The Lonely Libertarian: Turning Ideas into Gold—Then Gold into Ideas
by Ron Manners

Connor Court, 2019, 250 pages, $49.95

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the author of The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts. He reviewed PC Worlds by Jonathan Friedman in the November issue.

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