Keywords: History, economics, politics, Hayek, Friedman

Title: The Great Persuasion

Author: Angus Burgin

Publisher: Harvard University Press

ISBN: 978-0674058132


Even now, in an atmosphere where politicians routinely earn plaudits for attacking bankers, business and free markets, there seems to be no big public appetite central planning or more big government. Indeed, despite the various economic crises we have endured since 2008, the intellectual case for free markets and ideological capitalism still seems very strong. Free market think tanks abound, still making the case for smaller government and the superiority of market solutions over centrally managed state solutions. However, this was not always the case, indeed, there was a time early in the twentieth century when the voice of free marketeers was drowned out by the greater clamour of the intellectually ascendant case for central planning - whether in the form of Soviet style communism, Western European social democracy or, latter, Keynesian central management of the economy.

This change in intellectual atmosphere was due, in no small part, to the activities of the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS), a small group of academics and business leaders organised in support of 'classical liberalism' (not to be confused with modern liberalism, which is in many respects diametrically opposed to classical liberalism). In 'The Great Persuasion', Angus Burgin charts the rise of the MPS and the activities of its founders and leading lights, including FA Hayek and Milton Friedman, in rehabilitating belief in the efficacy of market solutions following the Great Depression and the consequent dominance of the anti-market position. While this is not the only focus in the book, Burgin affords it a central place in the historical narrative.

While for some on the Left, the MPS and the plethora of think tanks and lobby groups which have emerged since the 1950s as champions of free market ideas might seem to be dogmatic and triumphalist, the beginnings were far more tentative. While critical of statism and central planning, many of those involved in the renaissance of 'classic liberalism' were also critical to some degree with existing liberal ideas. Far from being a dogmatic or propagandist group, in the founding decade the organisation was home to a broad range of individuals with differing views on politics, the role of the state, economic organisation and so on. United as they were by a distrust of the state, this was by no means a group that we would now characterise as libertarian.

In time the make-up of the MPS changed, as did the geographical spread of the membership. The European focus changed in the decades after the war, perhaps mirroring the shape of the world as power shifted to the US. Within the Mont Pelerin Society this manifested itself in an increasingly central role for Milton Friedman and other US economists. This shift was also reflected in greater certainty and a more overtly libertarian policy in the MPS.

For the most part the book manages to combine a narrative history of an organisation and its leading members, and the history of ideas and how those ideas seep out into the broader cultural milieu. In this respect the Mont Pelerin Society has been enormously successful. While not a think tank or lobby group, it has been enormously fertile in seeding a range of organisations and groups which have taken the message out to politicians, writers, business people and the public at large. And, perhaps, it's testament to the success of those organisations that even in the midst of crisis, there are many who find the central message of classical liberalism still more attractive than the idea that governments and politicians know best.

Bugin's book covers a lot of ground and it does so while remaining interesting and engaging. For those interested in the history of ideas there is new ground here, in particular as the history of the MPS has not had popular treatment before. In particular the difference between Hayek's initial vision of the organisation he founded and the emergence of a larger and more ideological group under Friedman is extremely interesting. Indeed while the Hayek versus Keynes story is relatively well-versed, the Hayek versus Friedman story is still waiting a fuller treatment.

In all, this is an interesting read for those interested in the history of ideas, the history of economics and in contemporary political discourse.

Contents © London Book Review 2013. Published June 26 2013