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COMMENTARY: To win the battle of ideas, you have to show up

In 1790, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, by that time bitter rivals serving together in Washington’s Cabinet, dined privately with James Madison and struck a deal. The Virginians would get Hamilton the votes in Congress needed to adopt a financial system of his design in exchange for putting the new capital city on the banks of the Potomac.

Hamilton got the better end of the deal, which is memorialized in Lyn Manuel-Miranda’s musical retelling of his life in the song “The Room Where It Happens,” where he reminds Aaron Burr that “you don’t get a win unless you play in the game.”

That was true in 1790, and it’s true today. The places where leaders in politics, media and business intersect are the modern rooms “where it happens.” The most well-known is the World Economic Forum, which just concluded its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

A pricier gathering of global glitterati would be hard to find. The deals and decisions made at and because of this meeting each year shape the world of today and tomorrow. So you would think supporters of things like free markets and free minds would be breaking down the doors trying to get in.

They’re not. Instead, they’re leading the charge against it. Writing in the New York Post, prominent libertarian scholar James Bovard highlighted a 2016 video made for Davos that included eight predictions of what life would be like in 2030. “The highlight of the film,” he wrote, “was a vapid millennial guy pictured alongside the slogan: ‘You will own nothing and be happy.’”

“This bizarre notion,” he continued, “was no WEF aberration.”

He might be right, but, with so much intellectual, economic and cultural power in one place at the same time, how can lovers of liberty, classically defined, afford not to go? What better place to mount a defense of freedom generally than among the people who may have enough power to strip it away?

“Criticism of Davos used to come mostly from the left,” wrote Walter Russell Mead in The Wall Street Journal. “These days, its most bitter critics come from the populist right. And a Davos elite that once saw doctrinaire leftism as the greatest obstacle to global prosperity and progress now increasingly sees right-wing populism as the enemy of everything good.”

The few Republican lawmakers who did attend got roasted for their trouble by conspiracy-minded conservatives who see Davos as a global cabal of influencers.

But people willing to defend the classical liberal initiatives that liberated humankind from the dark ages, produced economic growth, raised global living standards and made it possible for people even in undeveloped countries to live longer, healthier, more productive and better-educated lives need to be where they are under attack. There is no virtue in staying away.

By attending meetings such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, traditional conservatives and populists can make their views known and shape the tone of the meeting in proximity to the private luncheons, tennis games and other fol-de-rol friendships are formed and deals are made.

For free markets and free minds to endure, those who advocate on their behalf must make themselves part of the global conversation. That requires being in Davos and at gatherings like it as part of a global collection of decision-makers and thought leaders discussing the world’s problems “in the room where it happens.”

Peter Roff is a media fellow at the Trans-Atlantic Leadership Network, a former columnist for U.S. News and World Report, and senior political writer for United Press International. Contact at RoffColumns@gmail.com.

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