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.