Editorial: In Honour of Michael O’Dowd – the Eclectic South African Classical Liberal

The Rational Standard has secured permission from the Free Market Foundation (FMF) to publish essays written by the FMF’s late chairman, Michael Conway O’Dowd, in his 1999 occasional paper, “Liberal Reflections.” In doing so, we hope to do our part in preserving the works of one...

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The Rational Standard has secured permission from the Free Market Foundation (FMF) to publish essays written by the FMF’s late chairman, Michael Conway O’Dowd, in his 1999 occasional paper, “Liberal Reflections.” In doing so, we hope to do our part in preserving the works of one of South Africa’s, and the world’s, great classical liberal minds. O’Dowd passed away in 2006 at the age of 76.

O’Dowd was known in South African liberal circles for the O’Dowd Thesis, an essay he penned in 1966 predicting that industrialization would lead to the demise of Apartheid. Officially titled “The Stages of Economic Growth and the Future of South Africa”, the thesis was inspired by Walt Whitman Rostow’s 1960 book The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto.

O’Dowd readily accepted – in 1982 and 1991, respectively – that his prediction had not been realized as he originally thought it would, partly because he assumed (and he admits: naively) that the rate of economic growth (~4.5%) South Africa was experiencing then would continue. He had good reason to assume this, however, because South Africa was growing at that rate relatively consistently from 1930-1933 to the time he wrote the Thesis. His prediction did, however, eventually come true about a decade later than he thought, with the end of Apartheid being neatly wedged between the National Party regime’s desperate attempts to liberalize in the 1980s and the African National Congress’ comparatively-capitalist Growth, Employment and Redistribution plan of the 1990s.

What O’Dowd also predicted, and what came true, was that the United States would become a welfare state as it entered the “mass consumption society” stage of its development. As O’Dowd wrote in the Thesis, “The Great Society looks very like a new name for the welfare state, though, one would hope, on an improved model.”

Today, O’Dowd is remembered for pioneering corporate social investment in South Africa, during his time as Chairman of the Anglo-American and De Beers Group Chairman’s Fund. Writes journalist Paul Pereira:

“In 1974, a momentous decision was taken that would create South African corporate social investment as we know it today. Anglo created a department to develop and carry out social investments. For townships and villages, it heralded the coming of the cavalry, called the Anglo American and De Beers Chairman’s Fund.

Led by Michael O’Dowd, it was the start of a massive infrastructure development project, the Rural Schools Programme, which exists to this day with rand-for-rand state support. It built the first black technikons, the SOS Children’s Villages and backed Johannesburg’s African Children’s Feeding Scheme, still feeding 31,000 youngsters daily.”

“Liberal Reflections” is a forgotten contribution to classical liberal thought which has been collecting dust for two decades. In the preface, the late veteran journalist Ken Owen wrote:

“O’Dowd is an eclectic. He writes in the tradition of millennia of philosophers – from Aristotle ad Confucius, through Judaeo-Christianity, to the Open Society of Karl Popper. Enriched with allusions from literature and history, O’Dowd’s Paper demonstrates how liberal capitalism provides the only material environment where both the human mind and spirit can achieve their highest aspirations.”

2006 painting of O’Dowd by Frances Kendall.

O’Dowd considers everything from competition, to truth, to cultural relativism in a fashion reminiscent of other great classical liberal polymaths, like Friedrich von Hayek, whom O’Dowd presumably met more than once during his tenure as FMF chairman.

The eight essays which the Rational Standard are republishing, in order of publication, are:

We renamed the essays with titles more appropriate for an online, search engine-optimized context, and added headings for the readers’ convenience.

The Rational Standard, being Africa’s only explicitly-classical liberal publication, seeks to honour those classical liberals who have contributed to the fight against State tyranny and advocated for freer societies. With most of Africa’s eminent classical liberals having done the bulk of their work in the pre-digital era, and with many of them, like O’Dowd, having already passed away, we stand to lose the brilliant insights they provided. Many have likely already been lost to history.

It is an intellectual injustice that an individual like O’Dowd – and many others – would so soon after his death be forgotten by history. Even South Africa’s moderate classically liberal community, for the most part, does not know of O’Dowd. They are far more likely to know of O’Dowd’s daughter, Cathy, who was the first woman to have summitted Mount Everest from both the north and south sides.

The essays are not temporally or geographically constrained, and can be relevant to any reader. These works do not apply particularly to South Afruca.

O’Dowd’s liberal reflections will likely not be the last you see from him on the Rational Standard.

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