The New Criterion has just published a version of Ken Minogue’s last essay, that he presented in a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in the Galapagos Islands, just a couple of days before he suddenly and sadly passed away. In the Galapagos meeting, Minogue’s session was chaired by Hannes Gissurarson and his co-panelist was Larry Arnhart.

This article is a little jewel, written in the typical Minogueian style: elegant, humorous, profound.

Without spoiling the pleasure of reading it in its entirety to the reader, I would like to quote two passages. In the following one, Minogue distinguished between Western ‘free’ societies, and different human aggregates. In the latter ones, people stay together because any and each of them usefully performs a function – that was bestowed upon her by authorities. Free societies are instead “joint association of individualists”.

Individualists (in their very role as individualists) merely associate rather than form a community, though as subjects of a state they may participate in various communities built around specific interests or passions–clubs, religions, industrial enterprises, and so on. But this is incidental to the free lives they lead.

Those who live in just societies have clear functions, and up to a point enjoy the respect appropriate to such a function. Some of these functions are precisely defined: ruler, wife, warrior, priest, etc. But in all cases there will be a well-understood hierarchy governing social life, and its purpose is to preserve the basic aspiration of such comprehensively just societies–namely, social harmony. Thus the Forbidden City in Beijing had a Gate of Supreme Harmony leading to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, passing on to the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, all of them clearly issuing from the idea of individual imperial authority.

Individualists in free societies, by contrast, merely have a duty to conform to the laws of their state, which ideally do not distinguish specific functions.

A society that doesn’t resemble anybody’s plan is necessarily imperfect–but we shouldn’t consider that a problem which needs to be fixed. What follows is a very wise caveat, that summarizes perfectly the wisdom of Ken Minogue:

societies are necessarily imperfect, and making them perfect is not an option for creatures such as humans. We can, however–up to a point–choose where imperfection may least harmfully find an outlet in our complicated societies. And in making this judgment, we need to remember the practice of freedom on which our wealth seems to have depended. Solutions that reduce our freedom put modernity itself at risk.