Modern Twists on the History of Friedman, Hayek, and Mont Pelerin

e1f563b301aa8014c5084187710e4e80edf6 Modern Twists on the History of Friedman, Hayek, and Mont Pelerin

Over the weekend I
reviewed here at Reason Angus Burgin’s excellent
new history of how free-market ideas got more libertarian over the
course of the history of the Mont Pelerin Society,
The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the
Depression.While Burgin’s book was a history, with little to say about
either ideology or reality since the heyday of Milton Friedman, it
had some interesting elements, and interesting lacuna, of interest
to those embroiled in now-age libertarian world history and
controversy as well.One of the more interesting new developments in attempts to
embed libertarian thinking in the political philosophy academy has
been the self-conscious branding of many libertarian and
libertarian-ish thinkers as “Bleeding Heart
Libertarians,” and Burgin’s book provides much
evidence of recent historical pedigree for that notion. Modern bleeding heart libertarians will be buoyed, perhaps, by
some details about first-generation Chicago school founder Henry
Simons. Simons lamented that “we old fashioned liberals have, at
best, a hard time avoiding popular classification as reactionaries”
and hoped that market advocates would “talk in what is
recognized to be ‘progressive’ language” in 1939. Simons lamented
how huge corporations made arguing for economic liberalism
difficult in the public eye.Hayek, as Burgin points out, also in the early Pelerin days
“found particular values in those who could speak in a language
persuasive to the Left.” (One wonders why believing in freer
markets than one’s compatriots or competitors in intellectual
discourse makes you the intransigent one, as in one
pungent references to Mises in Burgin.) The Pelerines in Burgin’s
read (not that it did them any good) “were also quick to distance
their ideas from reactionary sentiment and to associate them with
the forward-looking language of progressivism.”Even Milton Friedman, who Burgin paints as the radical who
shifted the general Pelerin consensus toward more radical and
doctrinaire laissez-faire, liked to restructure the terms of the
debate over market freedom by stressing the well being of the poor
and “the establishment of a broad-based prosperity.” Friedman also
liked to emphasize how state actions hurt the poor and uneducated,
often in order to prop up the well-to-do and well-connected, and
the virtues of individual choice for all, not just elites.Still, the early Pelerines were mostly not afraid to be
anti-democratic—not, as Burgin too blithely notes, because they saw
freedom strictly in economic terms, but because (at least in this
case) they saw freedom in freedom terms, not in terms of
social decisionmaking processes for governing.For those embroiled or fascinated by the intra-libertarian
debates over who is properly hardcore and who is a sellout (always
fun for those who find fun in that sort of thing), they will find
outsider historian Burgin at times sounding like the most angry
modern Misesian in blaming weak-tea libertarianism on a desire for
more widespread appeal. Between and even sometime in the lines
Burgin indicates that the Pelerines disdain for pure laissez-faire
had elements more strategic than intellectual. They “were acutely
aware that if they were going to persuade others to adopt their
worldview, they would need to differentiate their perspective from
an uncompromising adherence to laissez-faire,” he notes.
 Walter Lippmann condemned Mises for, as Burgin concludes,
being too hardcore in defense of a traditional liberalism that “did
not present a viable option to those in positions of academic or
political power.” And it is an interesting lacuna in Burgin’s book, about the
influence of the Mont Pelerin market tradition, that he never once
mentions the most successful modern American politician pushing the
most radical end of the larger Pelerin tradition: Ron
Paul.Friedman in a 1962 memo written to the Republican Party that
Burgin quotes at length sounds like the grandfather of Ron Paul,
pointing out there is out no meaningful difference between
Republicans and Democrats. Burgin writes of one of Friedman’s
mentors in the study of social change, the British historian A.V.
Dicey, and quotes Dicey sounding like he’s prophesying Paul: “the
preachers of truth make an impression, either directly upon the
general public or upon some person of eminence, say a leading
statesman, who stands in a position to impress ordinary people and
thus to win the support of a nation.”Friedman himself wanted to, as Burgin wrote, “present his
minority perspective in a manner that would compel members of the
younger generation to adopt it as their own,” and Paul succeeded at
this to an extraordinary degree. It is also curious to see a book
out in 2012 arguing that the Austrian strain of free-market
economics remains ghettoized while “Chicago economists…assumed
positions of broad political influence” without mentioning the
explicitly Austrian success of Ron Paul.To repeat what I wrote in my review, all my little arguments
with Burgin are because he has achieved something excellent in the
outside understanding and appreciation of the world of libertarian
thought with his book, and I repeat my high recommendation of that
book.

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Modern Twists on the History of Friedman, Hayek, and Mont Pelerin


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