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The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression Hardcover – October 30, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookforum

Burgin has written a terrific book. Original and judicious, it never loses sight of the philosophical arguments economics conceals, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose. —Christopher Caldwell


A brilliant rereading of the history of modern conservative thought, which casts each of its key protagonists in new light. The line from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman was no straightforward unfolding of constant neoliberal premises, but a crooked path full of contradictions, contention, and unexpected contingencies. (Daniel T. Rodgers, author of Age of Fracture)

Burgin has written a marvelous account of the role of the Mont Pèlerin Society in transforming public discourse concerning the role of markets in society. His meticulously researched, clear-eyed, and nuanced treatment is a compelling and well-told story. (Bruce Caldwell, author of Hayek's Challenge: An Intellectual Biography of F.A. Hayek)

The Great Persuasion is an exemplary work of intellectual history showing how a small circle of theorists played a huge role in the triumph and persistence of market-centered political conservatism. Burgin renders refreshingly dynamic the notoriously dreary ideas of economists as he narrates two generations of calculated networking, skillful popularization, and political organizing. (David A. Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley)

John Maynard Keynes famously insisted that ideas, not interests, matter in history. In this tremendously accomplished study, Burgin shows how a few men and their ideas exploded Keynes's own welfarist orthodoxy. And yet perhaps even Keynes would welcome the results, for ultimately Burgin suggests that no ideology, including the romance of the free market that rules today, is invulnerable to those who insist that it is wrong. (Samuel Moyn, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History)

Burgin tells the story of free market theory in a masterful intellectual history that covers the 1930s to the 1970s. Keynes and the Keynesians declared laissez-faire over and done in the 1930s, Burgin observes, but 50 years later, free market economics had revived… Burgin traces the development of the principles that challenged Keynes and statism—and still do—dwelling on the profound impact of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. He describes the astonishing and unexpected popular success of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and traces Milton Friedman's role in popularizing free market economics… Burgin covers a complex subject clearly and free of cant. (Publishers Weekly 2012-08-31)

Offers a concise account of how F.A. Hayek and later Milton Friedman disseminated the virtues of free markets and enlivened conservatism in Britain and the United States, culminating in the triumphs of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. (Kenneth Minogue Wall Street Journal 2012-10-26)

One of the great merits of Burgin's book is to show how the character and the content of the free-market ideology changed when the flag passed from Hayek and Company to Friedman and Company. Despite the efforts of a small band of the faithful, the Tea Party is, and is likely to remain, more Friedman than Hayek: harder-line, more brashly confident, less concerned with getting things quite right, and without sympathy for losers. (Robert M. Solow New Republic 2012-11-16)

A riveting cultural-political history of the free-market revival that began even as depression and world war threatened to quench the last embers of laissez-faire. Burgin--an insightful scholar rather than an apologist--pays special attention to the role of the Mt. Pelerin Society in the postwar conservative and classical-liberal story. (Daniel McCarthy American Spectator 2012-12-05)

Burgin never reveals whether he personally thinks Mises, Hayek, or Friedman were intellectually right or wrong (Mises, he insists, was tactically a little rigid and extreme). Instead, he focuses on how they built (or failed to build) relationships, networks, and institutions; how they funded and organized projects like the Mount Pelerin Society, which lies at the heart of his story; and how personality, ideas, even geography drew confederates closer together, then blew them apart. Burgin is a quiet connoisseur of the ironic shift, the subtle change in ideas under new conditions, the intellectual difference exposing larger conflicts...He understands and outlines the often complex interplay of ideas in rarefied academic centers, how ideas cross-fertilize and mutate as generations pass and conditions change. This book would be valuable if only for his careful dissection of ideas by mostly forgotten Chicago economists like Jacob Viner and Frank Knight in the decades before Friedman...Burgin offers intellectual biographies of many of the key members of Mount Pelerin, from the society's contentious early administrator Albert Hunold to luminaries such as Karl Popper, Michael Oakeshott, Michael Polanyi, and George Stigler." (Robert Teitelman New York Journal of Books 2012-10-30)

Many people, cheerleaders and detractors alike, have made careers flapping their mouths about the meaning of postwar conservatism without bothering to acquire half the understanding of it that Burgin has...He loves economics and its arguments and rivalries enough to have mastered a pile of minutes, monographs, and personal correspondence and turned it all into a great ideological drama. He has written a terrific book. Original and judicious, it never loses sight of the philosophical arguments economics conceals, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose. (Christopher Caldwell Bookforum 2013-02-01)

The most significant achievement of [this] remarkable book is to confirm that neoliberalism exists in a context, and is bounded by a beginning as well as an end. For now, however, that end is nowhere in sight. (James McAuley Prospect online 2013-01-30)

[A] new history of neoliberalism that provides more nuance and depth to an understanding of the reemergence of classical liberal ideas in the latter half of the 20th century...The Great Persuasion introduces readers not only to F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, but also to the central roles that the new European and American conservatives played, as well as the background to developments that occurred in Chicago in the 1930s. Burgin has produced a book that is essential reading for students and researchers at all levels regarding postwar intellectual history. (R. B. Emmett Choice 2013-02-01)

[A] fluid, intellectually supple book. It tells the story of how Friedman and the Friedmanics captured the language of neoliberalism, showing how otherwise frankly utopian mantras about smart markets versus dumb governments were in fact the culmination of a whole series of earlier intramural arguments about the moral and conceptual underpinnings of capitalist societies that began in the aftermath of the First World War. (Duncan Kelly Times Literary Supplement 2013-05-31)

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's account of the evolution of the Mont Pelerin Society is a study of the complexity of ideological change, of the ways that ideas conceived in one context can acquire a very different hue over time. It is an immensely rich, careful and thoughtful history that captures the range of opinion within a group of people who are too often seen as having marched in lockstep.
(Kim Phillips-Fein The Nation 2012-08-05)

An intellectual historian by training, Burgin has a gift for integrating careful textual exegeses with panoramic surveys of the political scene, using a wide-angle lens to highlight what matters in specific texts while deploying close readings to revise the big picture...Burgin, in one of his greatest contributions, draws attention to the many issues--both superficial and substantive--that divided [Hayek and Friedman]...As a piece of the richer history of the twentieth century that will emerge once fables of a lost golden age are dispensed with, The Great Persuasion is invaluable...Brilliantly executed...The Great Persuasion is filled with astute evaluations of how economists, especially Friedman, assumed their new role as public intellectuals.
(Timothy Shenk Dissent 2013-09-01)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674058135
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674058132
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #811,459 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Tiger CK on October 31, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Angus Burgin's The Great Persuasion is a lucid account of the development of free market ideas in the United States and Europe during the latter half of the twentieth century. According to the author, at the end of World War II, ideas about the Free Market were no longer in vogue intellectually. By the end of the twentieth century, however, both economists and political leaders had become highly critical of state interference in the competitive market place. How did such a transformation occur?

Burgin seeks to demonstrate the origins of this sea change in economic thinking by focusing on the members of the Mount Pelerin Society, an organization created by the British economist Friedrich Hayek to create a dialogue between economics, journalists and political elites who wanted to reinvigorate interest in and support for market-based economics and policies. He devotes the most attention to Hayek and Milton Friedman.

One of the most interesting points of The Great Persuasion is its discussion of how Hayek and Friedman differed. Hayek believed that the market distributed resources according to morally neutral criteria and this helped to make it efficient and beneficial for society as a whole. Friedman, on the other hand, believed that the market had a built in mechanism to instill desirable values such as individualism and freedom. Society benefitted because the market fostered these ideals. Thus, at the heart of the work is the story of how market advocates changed their ideas over time, as they sought to popularize them. The Great Persuasion not only discusses how these ideas evolved but how methods of disseminating these ideas evolved.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Timothy B. Lee on December 19, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Writing about intellectual history tends to fall prey to one of two different vices. If the author is a member of the intellectual movement he is writing about, there is a tendency toward hagiography, with unflattering details carefully airbrushed out. On the other hand, if the author is not an adherent of the ideas he is describing, he's likely to descend into caricature in the opposite direction, failing to appreciate key nuances in the protagonists' arguments and attributing simplistic motives to them. Burgin deftly avoids both vices, presenting a sympathetic account of the thinkers he covers but maintaining a critical distance from their ideas.

He also effectively conveys the sense of deep intellectual uncertainty that pervaded classical liberals' discussions in the 1930s and 1940s. In retrospect, it's obvious that Hayek and Friedman were the key architects of the ideas the book describes. But at the time, a number of other individuals and ideas vied for the attention of the world's free-market liberals. It was Hayek and Friedman's persistence and organizational skills, as much as raw power of their ideas, that led to them eclipsing other mid-century liberals and gaining broad public support for many of their ideas. At a time when people across the political spectrum are grappling with how to adapt their political beliefs to a changing economic environment, "The Great Persuasion" is a useful reminder that previous generations felt just as confused when faced with economic and intellectual crises.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Etienne RP on May 12, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
John Maynard Keynes has famously commented at the end of The General Theory that "practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." And he went on to remark: "I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas." Angus Burgin's book is the history of the gradual encroachment of a particular idea: the notion of laissez-faire, or the belief in the power of the market to allocate resources efficiently and to achieve optimal outcomes, without any form of state intervention.

In another famous essay published in 1924, Keynes had proclaimed The End of Laissez-Faire. Indeed, this French expression best characterizes the context of 19th century liberalism, and more particularly the works of French authors like Jean-Baptiste Say or Frédéric Bastiat. Their brand of liberalism or libéralisme à la française ("laissez faire, laissez passer les marchandises") exerted only limited traction over the history of economic ideas, but the expression stayed as a rallying cry for liberals and their modern neoliberal epigones. How this idea of laissez-faire was reappraised by a cadre of economists and public intellectuals, first grudgingly in the midst of the Great Depression, then wholeheartedly in the postwar era, forms the story of The Great Persuasion.

Labeling this great persuasion, putting a name on these ideas, has always been an issue. In his 1924 lecture, Keynes noted that "the phrase laissez-faire is not to be found in the works of Adam Smith, of Ricardo, or of Malthus.
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