31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2012
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. For instance, Hayek focused mainly on converting a relatively narrow group of academics and elites while Friedman wrote for Newsweek and helped to create the "Free to Choose" PBS miniseries.
The book is deeply researched in both European and American archives and written in a highly comprehensible albeit somewhat academic style. Whether you are an advocate or opponent of the market-based ideas that Burgin discusses, you will appreciate his balanced account of the impact that a powerful idea can have on society.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2013
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." Friedrich Hayek, who stood at the other end of the economics spectrum, pointed out that terms like 'liberalism' or 'democracy', 'capitalism' or 'socialism', hold a different meaning today than in the pre-war or immediate post-war period. The word 'libertarian' was unfamiliar to most founders of the Mont Pèlerin Society, and they were almost unanimous in their rejection of 'conservatism', which they associated with the preservation of the status quo they sought to overcome. The term 'neoconservatism' didn't appear on the map until the late twentieth century, and designated a political current rather than an economic persuasion. Perhaps the term that best characterizes Hayek, Friedman, and their epigones is 'neoliberal'. First used as a derogatory label, it was adopted as a self-description by some, but not all, proponents of unhindered free markets.
The reason the main figures of the neoliberal creed could not agree on a label is that they disagreed on the content of their doctrine. The `neoliberalism' that became paradigmatic in the Anglo-American policy arena in the 1970s and 1980s looked very different from the `neoliberalism' of the late 1930s and 1940s. The founders who gathered for the initial meeting at Mont Pèlerin in 1947 held diverse views. Most, if not all, repudiated historical laissez-faire and called for an organized and constructive liberalism that validated certain modes of government intervention. In The Road to Serfdom, which he dedicated to "socialists of all parties", Friedrich Hayek supported a role for the government in counteracting the business cycle, constructing new infrastructure, regulating a broad range of business activities, and administering extensive social insurance guarantees. Some of his colleagues delivered an assault on large corporations or formulated a critique of abstract and unhindered competition. Moral philosophers believed that capitalism was living off the accumulated moral capital of social doctrines that it had since supplanted, and called for a liberalism that emphasized the ethical rather than merely the economic satisfaction of the citizen.
By contrast, the second decade of the Mont Pèlerin Society was marked by a narrowing of horizons and the accretion of certainties. Individuals whose methodologies, assumptions, and goals diverged most explicitely from the emerging paradigm were cast off or took their distances. In Bertrand de Jouvenel's terms, the organization had succumbed to "ideological passion," and as a result had transitioned from "a free company of people who think together with some initial basis of agreement" into "a team of fighters." Milton Friedman was the chief fighter and he emerged as the leading advocate of free-market economics on the public scene. As Burgin notes, "Friedman built his professional and public career on the advocacy of positions that ran contrary to received opinion, and he endured the resulting controversies to find himself regaled with private wealth, academic honors, and lasting political recognition." The universality of Friedman's belief in the efficacy of free markets exceeded even that of the nineteenth-century theorists of laissez-faire whose legacy Hayek had spent the postwar years working to overcome. He deliberately cultivated the persona of a contrarian gadfly in the venues of public debates, and never shied way from an intellectual opponent or buttressed his positions in the sake of compromise.
In addition to Hayek and Friedman, Burgin puts the spotlight on intellectual figures who are generally ignored by histories of neoliberalism but who helped shape the movement in its past and present forms. Louis Rougier, a philosophy professor at the University of Besançon, gathered the first collection of twenty-six individuals in a conference held in Paris in 1938, but was later discredited by his association with the Vichy government. Walter Lippmann, the American publicist, wrote the enormously influential Principles of the Good Society in 1937, before distancing himself from a movement that he found too sectarian or too conservative for his taste. Wilhelm Röpke was a founding member of the German journal Ordo that went on to have a broad influence on German's postwar economic doctrines, known as ordoliberalism. Albert Hunold was a Swiss businessman of little intellectual importance but who exerted leadership of the society until 1962, when he resigned by claiming that the society had "lost its soul".
It is rare to find a book that addresses an issue relevant to the public at large, while adding something original to the scholarly literature on a particular topic. The reviews in the Wall Street Journal and other media outlet bear witness to the fact that The Great Persuasion addresses not only a public of professional historians and social scientists, but is also of broader policy relevance. It should appeal to anyone interested in contemporary debates about the role that the state and markets should play in the economy - arguably the most important theme in policy discussions. On the other hand, The Great Persuasion is a scholar's book, apparently trimmed down and edited from a PhD thesis, and with all the markers of academic respectability - the footnotes, the archive collections, the strict neutrality in tone and restrained ambition in scope. Burgin is very clear on where his scholarly contribution resides. He situates his book within the existing literature, noting the remarkable advances in historiography over the past decade.
His book fills several gaps in the existing research and offers an original contribution to the field of intellectual history. He is the first to present the creation and early history of the Mt. Pèlerin Society based on archival records of the society and on the correspondence and collected papers of its main protagonists. He provides the first academically sound intellectual biography of Milton Friedman, developed in the last two chapters of the book. His approach is also innovative: it shifts the focus from individuals to networks, and from the US or Western Europe to the Atlantic world. He puts the history of economics back into the history of ideas, claiming that "the problems of economics cannot easily be severed from the problems of philosophy." He gives a different picture of the Mt. Pèlerin Society than the usual clichés identifying it with the hotbed of ultra-liberalism. In fact, Burgin writes, "an exploration of the rhetoric of the society's members in its early years reveals a movement far less doctrinaire than the conventional narrative would indicate."
In writing archive-based history, it is often difficult to find the right distance between minute detail and the broad sweep, and not to be bogged down in petty distinctions and curiosa. Again, Burgin achieves a fine balancing act between these two polarities. His quotes from private correspondence or oral histories are always illustrative. They add a unique perspective to a narrative that is as nuanced as it is coherent and demonstrative. True, the author made choices, and delved on some episodes in abundant detail while leaving other developments out of the picture. It may be said that the author spent too much time on the "Hunold affair", which had its origin in petty interpersonal disputes that are of little relevance to the broader narrative. But this episode was an important moment in the transfer of influence within the society from Europe to the United States, and from the cultured polymaths to the professional economists. As Burgin writes, "after Hunold and a bloc of sympathizers resigned their memberships, the society adopted a narrower identity, intellectually and institutionally dominated by Anglo-Americans, unapologetically oriented toward technical economics, and inhospitable to those who did not subscribe to the near-universal preferability of free markets to the alternatives."
On the other hand, the influence of Austrian economics is often acknowledged but, apart from Hayek, representatives of this school are not presented in detail. In particular, Ludwig von Mises would have deserved a detailed portrait instead of the passing mentions at several junctures of the text. The author notes that "Mises's refusal to compromise his `pure' version of liberalism left him engaged in ever fewer dialogues, and made it impossible for him to find an academic position commensurate with his professional prestige after he fled Switzerland for the United States." In other words, although Burgin is more nuanced, Mises was the black sheep of the movement, a doomsayer whose radical provocations were considered as voodoo economics by the profession - but, as Friedman (who was no less extreme) acknowledged, "every society needs a few kooks".
In writing the definitive history of the Mont Pèlerin Society, Angus Burgin achieves a triple balancing act. He finds the right distance between academic research and broader intellectual relevance, between the detailed account and the big picture, and between hagiography and critique. As other reviewers have pointed out, Burgin is an academic, not an ideologue, and his book keeps the strict neutrality of a detached observer. He believes in the power of ideas, but it is difficult to guess whether he espouses or opposes the ideas he is exposing. "To what extent do we wish to make ours a market-centered world?", he asks in the closing paragraph, while leaving the question open. His only personal belief expressed in the text is that, "for better or for worse, we now live in an era in which economists have become our most influential philosophers, and when decisions made or advised by economist technocrats have broad and palpable influence on the practice of our everyday lives." Maybe the role of the historian is to reclaim the influence of these worldly philosophers, and to lay bare the moral arguments that sustain the economist profession's various persuasions.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 2, 2013
On the eve of Halloween, 2012, Angus Burgin's book The Great Persuasion became available for purchase. Though there are a few tricks and treats, Bergin keeps any spookiness to a minimum. Here is a fair presentation of the towering figures of neoliberalism (today's wobbling standard in the field of economics) held to account only by their word. Just underneath the surface, however, are many ghosts: the financial backers of the movement, whose silhouettes we can only decipher. Ultimately, Burgin leaves a history without vitriol or material context of the great defenders of capitalism.
Burgin's narrative can be divided by two major incidents, one understated and the other discussed at length: the publishing of JM Keynes's The General Theory and the other, a nasty spat amongst men of letters, the "Hunold Affair". Before Keynes united the economics profession, discrete schools of thought that exalted features of capitalism on a sliding scale (Austria, London, Chicago, in declining order of exuberance) were in loose communication, largely through the open mind of Friedrich Hayek.
He (Hayek) is described here as a bookish man who is popularly converted into a cartoon for laissez-faire liberalism through institutional affiliations; this is a process that Burgin alludes to almost excessively but never digs beyond a cursory description, for all characters entangled.
Once The General Theory was published, the reputation and authority of these `liberals' (as most, in an ode to freedom, enjoyed calling themselves) was fading. A series of attempts to organize (stunted by WWII, and influences both political and economic that incite fear) are presented resulting in the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS), which today has gained notoriety for being the brainy womb of global capitalism's current iteration. By the way, this annual gathering is haunted by a Kansas City fund, which was hijacked from its original communal purposes by a phantom son-in-law, if you mind such affairs.
Long story short, this collection of men started to divide, as quickly as they gathered, into certain well-defined camps. The resulting power shift reflected America's cultural preeminence: the young, American, technical economists eventually shed (or usurp) the elder, European, polymaths. This, again, is called the "Hunold Affair" and the coup results in the tragically emblematic death of Wilhelm Ropke, who had 20 years earlier produced a book that united the liberal coterie of the MPS.
From here, we are subject to details of the rise of Milton Friedman's star: from president of the MPS to presidential advisor. His rhetorical influences and popular flair are hashed out. For those of us who await a thorough biography of the man (Alan Eberstein's biography notoriously permitted Friedman final editing rights; Jeff Madrick's chapter on Milton Friedman in his book Age of Greed hints at scandalous avenues of discussion, but seriously lacks scholarly references; I have not managed to look at the cover of Milton and Rose's memoirs Two Lucky People without laughter and nausea), the insights are delicious but unfilling. We are told that he is progressively transformed into the cheerleader of the free market through his institutional influences (Foundation for Economic Education, the Volker Fund, his department at Chicago, not to mention his co-author/boss/brother-in-law), but we are also reminded that his first job was through a New Deal employment program.
So how are we rewarded by empathizing with these men? Well, one can say that Burgin does a service to the legacy of Hayek and the original Chicago school. They were men of greater range of thought and less dogmatism than one would assume otherwise. Though the ghouls of corporate, monied interests pay them notice, none of them significantly alter their largely intellectual pursuits, or `sell out'. Hayek tasted fame with his popular edition of The Road to Serfdom (which he produced only after being marginalized by Keynes great work). The burden he felt as a result of his profiting from cheap polemics is a testament to his original aims: to sublimate capitalism, losing the extremes of both 19th century liberalism (to the right) and 20th century fascism/Soviet-Style socialism/whathaveyou (to the left).
Sadly, this leaves us with gaping holes in our history of this movement. What happened with the Volker fund? Where do we orient the Hoover Institute in this timeline? What other personalities and organizations were willing to make the long term, ideological investments in the MPS? Why is it that Friedman's true ideological father, Ludwig Von Mises, was pushed out, while Hayek was masked and dressed to look like him? How was Friedman able to act as wandering pundit, while maintaining his academic position? Without answers, we remain paranoid of this history repeating itself; the spirits in this story are hidden in the shadows of uncertainty, veiling themselves until they can safely persuade again.