Monday, November 20, 2006

The Mont Pelerin Society, Milton Friedman, and the World

I spent most of a week recently in Guatamala at a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, an organization created by Friedrich Hayek after the Second World War. At the time it was created, supporters of free markets were rare, especially in the academic world. One reason to create the Society was to give people with classical liberal views the opportunity to spend at least a few days a year with other people who did not regard their beliefs as obvious nonsense, fit only for the wastebasket of history.

Some decades later, a number of people associated with the Society, including my father, suggested that perhaps it was time to dissolve it. Views that had been regarded as obviously obsolete in the late forties had become, if not always accepted, at least widely known and widely viewed as serious contenders in the marketplace of ideas. It was no longer necessary to go to some far corner of the world to find colleagues who shared a generally pro-market viewpoint; with luck there were at least one or two down the corridor.

The argument that ultimately persuaded him and others that the Mont Pelerin Society ought to be continued was that, although libertarian views were now widespread and respected in the U.S., the situation was very different elsewhere. Especially in the Third World countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and to a significant degree even in Europe, believers in free markets still found themselves in the situation that Hayek and others had faced when the Society was founded, isolated in a sea of left wing orthodoxy. For them, at least, the Society could continue to serve its original purpose.

I was reminded of this reading the comments on my memorial post for my father. What was striking was not the number but the geographical diversity. In addition to the U.S., condolences came from people who identified themselves as from:

Costa Rica
Hong Kong


Gabriel M said...

Yes! You should definitively come to Romania. Maybe next year when there's going to be an European libertarian summit, "European Resource Bank Meeting", 4th edition.

If libertarianism reached temporary decreasing marginal returns in the US, maybe you *should* consider focusing your resources abroad.

Again, the deepest condolences for your father! We can only hope that the things we've wrote on his great work, over the last few days, for our local audiences, capture at least a tiny fraction of his genius and love for life and humanity.

Anonymous said...

My experience as an economist at an economics department at a German university is that while most German economists are "relativly" libertarian compared to what seems to be the mainstream in Europe outside the economic community, my ideas expressed in a lot of discussions still raise quite a few eyebrows.

While I somehow do enjoy being seen as a provocative radical outside the mainstream, it does also pain me to see how socialistic and conservative (in the European sense) views are still present among my fellow grad students. Interestingly, the closer to the top of the acadamic hierarchy people are, the more libertarien their views seem to be (i.e. full professors seem to be more libertarian than grad students -- might be interesting to discuss the reasons).

In a word: Your father was of course right to accept the argument.

Anyway, my impression of the Mont Pelerin Society has always been that it is somewhat elite and exclusive, and that it is not as easy to join as your local sports club. Got any information on that issue?

Fred said...

David, I'm posting links to dozens of tributes to your father at my PrestoPundit blog -- they are coming from all over the globe, as are the folks stopping by the blog to read them.

Your father was a great man and many of us are thinking of you and the rest of the family at this time.

David Friedman said...

Jan asks about joining the Mont Pelerin Society. I don't know the details, but I think the admission process involves being recommended by a member, attending one or two meetings as a guest, and then being invited to join.

earth that was said...

I had the good fortune of attending a talk Milton Friedman gave when visiting Australia many years back. The thing that struck me about him was his good grace and humour, even when in political debate. About the worst thing he ever called a political opponent was "well meaning but misguided". As such he worked to uplift not only the intellectual standard of political debate but it's behavioural & ethical standard too. Even for those who do not follow his specific policy proposals he was and continues to be a great role model. I'm glad I had the opportunity to share my time on earth with him.

Anonymous said...

It often amazes me how complex truths are condensed over time into simple, bite-sized chunks which eventually become accepted as conventional wisdom.

For example, if you surveyed USians I'll bet that the vast majority will agree that "competition among businesses is a good thing."

How did that particular meme - that "competition is good" - come to be accepted by almost all Americans?

What does it take to break other economic concepts into bite-sized pieces, ready to filter down to the masses in the form of conventional wisdom? For example, what would it take to spread the "minimum wage hurts the very poorest" meme?

Mike Huben said...

Yes, it's obvious that the work of the MPS is not yet done, because the propaganda has not permeated the globe yet.

"One cannot overstate the childishness of the ideas that feed and stir the masses. Real ideas must as a rule be simplified to the level of a child's understanding if they are to arouse the masses to historic actions. A childish illusion, fixed in the minds of all children born in a certain decade and hammered home for four years, can easily reappear as a deadly serious political ideology twenty years later."
Sebastian Haffner, "Defying Hitler" pg. 17

"Hayek stressed that the society was to be a scholarly community arguing against "collectivism", while not engaging in public relations or propaganda. However, the society has always been a focal point for the international capitalist think-tank movement: Hayek himself used it as a forum to encourage members such as Antony Fisher to pursue the think-tank route. Fisher went on to establish the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in London during 1971, the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. during 1973, and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in 1981. In turn the Atlas Foundation supports a wide network of think-tanks, including the Fraser Institute and the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy Research."
Wikipedia 11/22/06

Anonymous said...

D. Friedman,

Free market and globalization should lead poor countries to development, but we should first remaster globalization, i mean, treat different economies differently and similar economies the same way. We should not impose a single system for every nation.

I am from Angola, I've studied and live in Portugal, I hope one day my loved Africa will be a good place to live and work, and, I believe free market is the answer.

Anonymous said...

Though all of those people were paying tribute to your father(by expressing their sorrow in their comments), the fact that they were doing it on your blog-site speaks of your popularity. Admirable!