This past June, just after the summer solstice, a group of economists and political philosophers gathered on one of the Galápagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, to discuss the subject of “Evolution, the Human Sciences and Liberty.” In between touring the islands—and perhaps posing for photos with iguanas or the famous turtles?—the assembled guests attended panels on such subjects as “the moral animal” and the archetypal figures of “the Warrior” and “the Entrepreneur.” The sponsor of this Pacific getaway was the Mont Pelerin Society, the fabled organization founded by the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek in 1947 to “contribute to the preservation and improvement of the free society,” simply by providing a space where intellectuals committed to the free market could meet and exchange views.
The Mont Pelerin Society was and remains an unusual organization. Its 1947 Statement of Aims proclaimed that the group would not “conduct propaganda,” become aligned with any political party, or attempt to establish a “meticulous and hampering orthodoxy.” A cross between a salon and an academic conference, the society held itself above the contentious world of elections and policy-making. It would not seek to recruit a mass popular membership (even today, new members must be nominated by two people already in the group). It was meant as a haven for intellectuals who believed that their skepticism about state intervention in the economy and their philosophical commitment to the free market put them outside the mainstream of postwar political thought.
The society has often been seen in terms of the rise of conservative anti-government thought and politics in the postwar United States. In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, the radical geographer David Harvey describes it as a “small and exclusive group of passionate advocates” hostile to the welfare state and celebratory of the free market. And as its founder, Hayek might seem a crusader and polemicist whose fierce denunciations of economic planning anticipated the subsequent conservative attacks on unions, the social safety net and the very idea of market regulation. This image was reinforced last summer when Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, claimed Hayek as an intellectual inspiration. The Great Persuasion, by Johns Hopkins historian Angus Burgin, challenges this image of Hayek and of the Mont Pelerin Society—and, by extension, the commonly accepted story of the intellectual roots of neoliberalism. Far from being confident, Burgin suggests, Hayek and those affiliated with Mont Pelerin in its early days were uncertain, almost as critical of the sunny premises of nineteenth-century classical liberalism as they were of economic planning. The Mont Pelerin Society—and neoliberalism itself, in its first incarnation—emerged at a time when the idea of the market was not triumphant but in tatters.
Although it focuses on a small circle of esoteric intellectuals who believed deeply in the political importance of ideas but studiously sought to avoid actual engagement in political life, The Great Persuasion is neither a narrow book nor one meant for specialists. It is capacious and quietly ambitious, offering a dramatic retelling of the intellectual history of the postwar revival of free-market ideas, and it is an excellent example of what can be gained when intellectual history doesn’t focus exclusively on individuals. Burgin shows that the mobilization around the idea of the market—and by extension the broader conservative movement—was not domestic, parochial or anti-intellectual. Rather, it depended on an international community of thinkers, especially academic economists (who are often left out of the story of changing attitudes toward the market, despite their centrality).