This fall, with its American presidential election leading right into the fiscal cliff/curb/cudgel, has given us all ample time to consider the ethical implications of free market capitalism. It’s a system to which inequality is inherent, and the debate we’ve been having is ostensibly over the extent to which government should help to ameliorate the harm our economy visits on many. Which, of course, means we’ve just been stuck in a prolonged moment of inertial uncertainty on a pendulum that’s been swinging since at least the early 20th century.
Throughout these months we’ve also been treated to a rare appearance on the public stage of these things called “ideas.” The word’s usage this fall, so often in rhetorical connection to that Republican idea-man Paul Ryan, has mostly been so emptied of meaning as to depress anyone who’s ever actually had one. “Idea,” in its employment this political cycle, has been code for the stripping down of recycled policy proposals to their “big,” “brave,” or “bold” kernel.
Nevertheless, their brief center stage has provided fine occasion to think on the role of ideas in politics and public opinion, as has the timely publication of Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression, a history of the evolution of conservative economic thinkers in the decades after a global economic crisis forced a reconsideration of their worldview. See? Timely.
Burgin’s focus is the Mont Pèlerin Society, an international association founded in 1947 by Friedrich Hayek and later helmed by Milton Friedman. Burgin shows that, in contrast to the popular telling, an awful lot changed in the transition from Hayek to Friedman, both in the particulars of conservative economic opinion and in the assumed role of the economist in its dissemination:
Friedman shared Hayek’s understanding of the importance of ideas and the long horizons of ideological change, but they parted ways on the question of rhetoric. Friedman’s public utterances, unlike those of his predecessor, are marked by their near-total instantiation of [British constitutional lawyer Albert Venn Dicey’s] warning against qualifications in the presentation of an economic philosophy. While Hayek remained aloof from politics and confident in the influence of his ideas unaided by his public persona, Friedman embraced the reductive language of the American public sphere as one more lever in the provocation of ideological change. He recognized the absence of limitations in his advocacy of laissez-faire as a primary source of its polemical strength.
Earlier this year we spoke with Burgin about that evolution, and Friedman’s turn towards the public:
When you consider the multiplying effect of each generation consciously stripping nuance from the public presentation of their ideas, and the ensuing game of reducti-phone, well, today’s political sphere becomes far more intelligible. Nevertheless, as Burgin explains, the history of the Mont Pèlerin Society should be read as “an extended plea for the relevance of the history of ideas to the history of politics,” and should also help us to understand that ideas themselves are “sites of contestation” subject to reformulation, not merely the static tools for which they’re often taken.