The ancient city-state of Athens, where semi-democracy reigned for several centuries, fell into disarray just about when Greek philosophy, cultivated mostly in that famous locale, reached its peak of accomplishment. Today, when collectivism is attaining its greatest impact in the realm of concrete policy—not just in overtly socialist states but all countries of the world—the doctrines of statism are dying or breathing last gasps. And the alternative of a predominantly free social order is gaining significant intellectual attention, even if not full respect.
This good news reverberated in Hong Kong during the five days of the 1978 meetings of that obscure but fascinating group who call themselves the Mont Pelerin Society. In session after session, speakers from around the world reported declining political trends as far as the reign of liberty is concerned, At the same time they gave abundant news of favorably surprising intellectual developments. (Some of the news about concrete events wasn't too bad either, actually. The phenomenon of Proposition 13, of California fame, and the gradual but definite deregulation, both economic and racial, of South Africa were two such heartwarming instances.)
The Mont Pelerin Society was founded in 1947 by Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek and held its first meeting in the Swiss Alps, at Mont Pelerin. The idea, as Hayek related it, was to "provide for its members an opportunity to clear their own minds on problems they haven't themselves intensely studied.…It has been a discussion society and not a propaganda society and as such I think it has been extraordinarily beneficial" (REASON, February 1975).
Originally only a handful of individuals were members, including Ludwig von Mises, Ludwig Erhard, and Milton Friedman, but today the membership has reached about 350, with an ever-increasing number of guests interested in being honored by an invitation to join. Concerning the issue of whether the organization should be larger, Hayek noted that "That's a very serious dilemma and I don't quite know what the answer is. It did owe its effectiveness mainly to the fact that it was small. It now mainly serves the interests of people from overseas countries who have little opportunity to discuss their problems with people of similar convictions. And there are so many people who would benefit from being admitted into the discussion that expansion is very difficult to resist. At the same time, the expansion of the society has made it a much less interesting place than it used to be when it was small."
Today the situation seems to have changed little, although Dr. Hayek appears to have reconciled himself to growth, judging by his remarks at the Hong Kong meetings. Along with many others, he has come to see growth as a corollary of the more-favorable reception of the society's few generally agreed upon ideals, including the primacy of political liberty. Indeed, Hayek, who spoke several times during the meetings both as main speaker and as a member of the audience—not to mention as the recipient of a beautiful gift from the membership on the occasion of his forthcoming 80th birthday—appears to be considering some kind of spectacular intellectual event (a well-publicized European conference, a major publication, or whatnot) the talent for which he believes should be found among the society's members.
This takes us back to the matter of the development of ideas—in this case, the very good idea of liberty itself. The Hong Kong meetings were attended by some of the most-respected and distinguished advocates of the free society—some actively participating, some members of the audience, some guests, and many of them participants of nightly late-hour discussions. Besides Dr. Hayek, Hong Kong was host to Milton Friedman, Roger MacBride, Murray Rothbard, George Stigler, Gary Becker, Ben Rogge, Arthur Seldon, Arthur Shenfield, David Friedman, David Henderson, Leonard Liggio, Sudha Shenoy, Alvin Rabushka, Roger LeRoy Miller, and many, many others (from a wide variety of countries) whose names are not so well known.
Talks ranged from some old themes that long-standing participants remember with fondness but also with some impatience—for example, the gold standard versus gradual increase of the money supply—to new ones—for example, the status of Catalonia vis-à-vis Spain. In all the talks there shone through a degree of confidence in at least the current respectability of libertarian ideas, which has not been in evidence throughout meetings of a similar ideological makeup.
The intellectual composition of the Mont Pelerin Society is focused mainly on economics, with both the "Austrian school" and the "Chicago school" very well represented. Some attorneys and some political scientists can be found, but there are very few historians, philosophers, psychologists, and members of the other arts and sciences. This is not terribly surprising, inasmuch as until recently few intellectuals and academicians could be found who were not either far left or far right of any sort of libertarianism. Economists, for a variety of reasons, have seen fit to think highly of human liberty. And it is no less true, as several discussions at the Hong Kong meetings made very clear, that many economists think of the other academic disciplines as either irrelevant to the problems of social and political life or congenitally confused and "unscientific" about such problems.
Hong Kong, incidentally, was an opportune place to have these meetings, despite its tropical humid heat when the meetings were held and despite the considerable distance many American and European members and guests had to travel so as to attend. Hong Kong, albeit a welfare state in some respects, tends to favor free enterprise, with a policy of free trade as part of its government's official propaganda (as well as frequent practice). But don't kid yourself, Hong Kong is no island of complete liberty for the individuals who live there—government owns all of the land, for example, even though the leasing situation and related legal arrangements make matters easier there for builders, owners of apartment and office buildings, and other business, than in many countries with a policy of allowing citizens to obtain nominal title to land. Comparatively speaking Hong Kong is, however, the most libertarian major civilized community in the world today. And under Edwin Fuelner's and several others' management, the Hong Kong meetings proved to be an appropriately very fine occasion.
The city itself is constantly alive—sometimes, judging by the noise and traffic and crowds and relatively laissez-faire commercial and private life, a veritable horror chamber for the likes of Ralph Nader. Talk about "noise pollution"—and the dangers lurking above all the pedestrians, what with thousands of plants and banners suspended from the balconies of hundreds and hundreds of skyscraper apartment buildings. Ralph would have had a seizure every minute!
Those who attended the Mont Pelerin Society's meetings showed a very different attitude, of course. Thus, upon hearing that Hong Kong's central cultural complex—comprising museum, concert hall, library, etc.—is a private, profit-making business to an extent unmatched anywhere, the audience broke out into cheers. And there was no one who did not openly delight in the chance to shop in Hong Kong, where prices are never fixed (except for some transportation services) and every merchant is ready to bargain 'til any hour of the night. If Karl Marx were alive and had even a tinge of empiricism to his system, he would flatly reject the theory that commerce engenders mutual alienation in human beings. Only when one feels the guilt of rich liberal-socialists does the Marxian principle apply; not, however, among 350 convinced free traders and the population of Hong Kong's shopkeepers.
As in Athens, so in contemporary times there are numerous fine ideas that have finally gained a sort of eminence that one did not find even five years ago. Publications, conferences, university graduate departments—these and other elements of the culture show signs of people abandoning confidence in socialism and statism and adopting a respectable attitude toward the libertarian alternative. Statism is in intellectual retreat. Today, it seems that most prominent statist intellectuals, say Irving Howe and Robert Heilbroner, are on the defensive as they attempt to discredit the free market, whereas 10 years ago capitalism could be sneered at without batting an eye.
Does this shift bring with it what some would rightly fear—complacence among those at the forefront of the struggle for liberty? Not if we judge by the talk at the Mont Pelerin meetings. Vigilance, the fear of being blinded by early rays of sunshine, and similar cautionary notes resounded everywhere. Except for a few "hard liners," no one indicated that there are abundant, clear, and unambiguous grounds for optimism as far as general concrete trends are concerned. Some even predicted doom, holding that from an empirical economic analysis we must conclude that the present trends in concrete affairs reflect the desires of the overwhelming majority of people everywhere—indeed, are an expression of their rational self-interest! Others were less pessimistic and fatalistic, recalling that human beings are, after all, often mistaken about their best interest or misguided in achieving it and that people can be re-persuaded about these matters, by libertarians, for example.
The Mont Pelerin Society's proceedings are not subject for news, incidentally, because the meetings are private and the media is not invited. Members and guests who work for the media are permitted to give reports, but any close investigation and reporting of what goes on in the meetings (and around them) would subvert the purpose and atmosphere of the society as originally conceived by Dr. Hayek.
It may be that Dr. Hayek's original idea of a relatively unplanned intellectual society, with but a few basic principles to guide it, reflects the Hayekian confidence in the spontaneous organization of human societies in general and in the prospect of far superior benefits forthcoming from such organization than from more-formal assemblies. If the Mont Pelerin Society is a case in point, we have good news for Dr. Hayek: it is mainly the members of this society, not the thousands of bureaucratic bodies across the globe, who have managed to come to grips with the problems of human societies in general, so that their message, with major and minor variations, echoes Dr. Hayek's own theme—let the people be, and they'll do better in their lives and in the lives of others than all the piecemeal and totalitarian planning has done from the dawn of mankind.
Senior Editor Machan was a guest at the Mont Pelerin meetings.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Meeting of the (Free) Minds".