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Monday, October 31, 2011

Against the Zeitgeist

Today’s document is Albert Hunold’s address to the ninth meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Princeton, N.J., on September 8, 1958. It is titled “The Story of the Mont Pelerin Society.” Hunold, who cofounded MPS with F. A. Hayek, suggests that the roots of MPS stem from Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom. 

It is no surprise that the ideas contained in The Road to Serfdom would raise a certain passion in those who still held on to a belief in a free society. It represented a viable alternative to the zeitgeist of the time, which was defined by socialism and scientism. By World War II, both ideas had become presumptions for all Progressive intellectuals. In other words, positivism and formalism had become the norm for scientific discourse, and this paved the way for a “science” of control. The result was a marriage of science and statism. Denying either was tantamount to rejecting logic and reason.

During a book tour, Hayek spoke in Switzerland with businessmen who asked him to recommend ways to propagate a free society in spite of the zeitgeist. “The professor wisely responded that it was not his job to make propaganda – that he could only concentrate on the search for truth,” Hunold said. In other words, it is not the task of the intellectual to publicize the ideas; this is a job for others. It does not mean, however, that there is nothing to be done. Hayek, by gathering like-minded intellectuals together, as well as a few businessmen and activists such as FEE’s Leonard E. Read, was able to spread classical liberals ideas, bringing them back to a greater prominence.

Hunold notes one result: When Ludwig Erhard lifted price controls, shooting Western Germany into prosperity. Hunold credits the intellectual seeds sewn by Walter Eucken and Wilhelm Röpke. The increase in popularity of free markets in the 1980s can also be considered another example. Both Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the Great Britain espoused the ideals of free markets (at least rhetorically). The roots, however, lie in intellectual efforts years earlier by groups such as the Mont Pelerin Society and the FEE.

Now such intellectual movements may not by themselves explain the changes in policy and may not guarantee success, but they are undoubtedly important for social change in any direction. When fighting for unpopular ideas, we are bound to be ridiculed, ignored, and treated with downright hostility. Hunold showed how Joseph Schumpeter mocked the Mont Pelerin Society in its early day when he said that the best proof his thesis that liberal ideas no longer played any role whatsoever in public life was that meeting of liberal economists “on the top of a Swiss mountain of which I have forgotten the name.” Similar mocks and jeers occur today from economists and other intellectuals, but this should not be discouraging. After all, it is always time to stand up for what we believe to be the truth. It is always time to defend and work for a free society.

  • Nicholas Snow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in the Department of Economics, and previously a Senior Lecturer at The Ohio State University Economics Department. His research focuses on the political economy of prohibition.