Friday, September 3, 2010

The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective

by Bruce Caldwell


September 2, 2010

In April, 1947 thirty-six liberals from Europe and the United States gathered in Mont Pèlerin, Switzerland for a ten-day conference convened by the Austrian economist Friedrich A. Hayek. Discussion centered on reconstituting, elaborating, and defending the general principles of a new liberal economic, social and political order in an age in which liberalism had become a dirty word. The Mont Pèlerin Society was born. Fifty years later, the Soviet bloc had disintegrated and “neoliberalism” was apparently rapidly emerging as the reigning economic and political philosophy worldwide. What did the intellectual movement that was launched in 1947 have to do with the change? That question motivates the collection of papers in The Road from Mont Pèlerin.

The set-up of the book is straightforward. Editor Plehwe provides an introduction and editor Mirowski a “Postface.” There are three sections, one on the variety of national neoliberal traditions (French, British, German, and American), a second on the evolution of their views on various policy topics (unions, monopoly, economic development, and the relationship of the Society to conservative business funders), and a final one on putting ideas into action (the critique of a U.N.-sponsored initiative titled the New International Economic Order, the urban property rights project touted by Hernando de Soto, and, of course, Chile). A recurring theme, well illustrated in the chapters in the first two sections of the book, is that neoliberalism is diverse both in its geographical origins and in its intellectual commitments. The neoliberal thought collective, as Dieter Plehwe puts it, is neither parochial nor a “pensée unique” (p. 1-3).

The great strength of this collection is the skillful use that some of the authors make of archival materials. For example, in her nuanced chapter on “Business Conservatives and the Mont Pèlerin Society,” Kim Phillips-Stein makes extensive use of the correspondence between Hayek, Harold Luhnow, Jasper Crane, Loren Miller, and others to tease out the frequently uneasy, sometimes even strained, relationships between the intellectuals and their funders. Rob Van Horn, both in his chapter on the evolution of the views of Aaron Director, Milton Friedman, and Edward Levi on antitrust policy, and in that with Philip Mirowski on the role of Director, Hayek, and Henry Simons in the creation of the Chicago School of economics, uses letters and other documents to bring the stories to life. The archives of the Mont Pèlerin Society meetings are used effectively by Yves Steiner in his fascinating paper on the diversity of views exhibited by Mont Pèlerin members on the role of unions, and by Dieter Plehwe in his equally informative paper on how various protagonists approached the problem of development. The editors are also to be commended for their individual contributions at the beginning and end of the book. Plehwe’s social network analysis of the connections among the various members of the Society, and Mirowski’s valiant attempt in the face of the cacophony of definitions currently on offer (which he displays, using Wikipedia to great advantage) to provide a summary of the essential tenets of neoliberalism, are both valuable and, in the latter case, frequently highly entertaining.