The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression

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9780674058132: The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression

Just as today's observers struggle to justify the workings of the free market in the wake of a global economic crisis, an earlier generation of economists revisited their worldviews following the Great Depression. The Great Persuasion is an intellectual history of that project. Angus Burgin traces the evolution of postwar economic thought in order to reconsider many of the most basic assumptions of our market-centered world.

Conservatives often point to Friedrich Hayek as the most influential defender of the free market. By examining the work of such organizations as the Mont Pèlerin Society, an international association founded by Hayek in 1947 and later led by Milton Friedman, Burgin reveals that Hayek and his colleagues were deeply conflicted about many of the enduring problems of capitalism. Far from adopting an uncompromising stance against the interventionist state, they developed a social philosophy that admitted significant constraints on the market. Postwar conservative thought was more dynamic and cosmopolitan than has previously been understood.

It was only in the 1960s and '70s that Friedman and his contemporaries developed a more strident defense of the unfettered market. Their arguments provided a rhetorical foundation for the resurgent conservatism of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan and inspired much of the political and economic agenda of the United States in the ensuing decades. Burgin's brilliant inquiry uncovers both the origins of the contemporary enthusiasm for the free market and the moral quandaries it has left behind.

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About the Author:

Angus Burgin is Assistant Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University.


A brilliant rereading of the history of modern conservative thought, which casts each of its key protagonists in new light. The line from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman was no straightforward unfolding of constant neoliberal premises, but a crooked path full of contradictions, contention, and unexpected contingencies. (Daniel T. Rodgers, author of Age of Fracture)

Burgin has written a marvelous account of the role of the Mont Pèlerin Society in transforming public discourse concerning the role of markets in society. His meticulously researched, clear-eyed, and nuanced treatment is a compelling and well-told story. (Bruce Caldwell, author of Hayek's Challenge: An Intellectual Biography of F.A. Hayek)

The Great Persuasion is an exemplary work of intellectual history showing how a small circle of theorists played a huge role in the triumph and persistence of market-centered political conservatism. Burgin renders refreshingly dynamic the notoriously dreary ideas of economists as he narrates two generations of calculated networking, skillful popularization, and political organizing. (David A. Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley)

John Maynard Keynes famously insisted that ideas, not interests, matter in history. In this tremendously accomplished study, Burgin shows how a few men and their ideas exploded Keynes's own welfarist orthodoxy. And yet perhaps even Keynes would welcome the results, for ultimately Burgin suggests that no ideology, including the romance of the free market that rules today, is invulnerable to those who insist that it is wrong. (Samuel Moyn, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History)

Burgin tells the story of free market theory in a masterful intellectual history that covers the 1930s to the 1970s. Keynes and the Keynesians declared laissez-faire over and done in the 1930s, Burgin observes, but 50 years later, free market economics had revived... Burgin traces the development of the principles that challenged Keynes and statism—and still do—dwelling on the profound impact of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. He describes the astonishing and unexpected popular success of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and traces Milton Friedman's role in popularizing free market economics... Burgin covers a complex subject clearly and free of cant. (Publishers Weekly 2012-08-31)

Offers a concise account of how F.A. Hayek and later Milton Friedman disseminated the virtues of free markets and enlivened conservatism in Britain and the United States, culminating in the triumphs of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. (Kenneth Minogue Wall Street Journal 2012-10-26)

One of the great merits of Burgin's book is to show how the character and the content of the free-market ideology changed when the flag passed from Hayek and Company to Friedman and Company. Despite the efforts of a small band of the faithful, the Tea Party is, and is likely to remain, more Friedman than Hayek: harder-line, more brashly confident, less concerned with getting things quite right, and without sympathy for losers. (Robert M. Solow New Republic 2012-11-16)

A riveting cultural-political history of the free-market revival that began even as depression and world war threatened to quench the last embers of laissez-faire. Burgin--an insightful scholar rather than an apologist--pays special attention to the role of the Mt. Pelerin Society in the postwar conservative and classical-liberal story. (Daniel McCarthy American Spectator 2012-12-05)

Burgin never reveals whether he personally thinks Mises, Hayek, or Friedman were intellectually right or wrong (Mises, he insists, was tactically a little rigid and extreme). Instead, he focuses on how they built (or failed to build) relationships, networks, and institutions; how they funded and organized projects like the Mount Pelerin Society, which lies at the heart of his story; and how personality, ideas, even geography drew confederates closer together, then blew them apart. Burgin is a quiet connoisseur of the ironic shift, the subtle change in ideas under new conditions, the intellectual difference exposing larger conflicts...He understands and outlines the often complex interplay of ideas in rarefied academic centers, how ideas cross-fertilize and mutate as generations pass and conditions change. This book would be valuable if only for his careful dissection of ideas by mostly forgotten Chicago economists like Jacob Viner and Frank Knight in the decades before Friedman...Burgin offers intellectual biographies of many of the key members of Mount Pelerin, from the society's contentious early administrator Albert Hunold to luminaries such as Karl Popper, Michael Oakeshott, Michael Polanyi, and George Stigler." (Robert Teitelman New York Journal of Books 2012-10-30)

Many people, cheerleaders and detractors alike, have made careers flapping their mouths about the meaning of postwar conservatism without bothering to acquire half the understanding of it that Burgin has...He loves economics and its arguments and rivalries enough to have mastered a pile of minutes, monographs, and personal correspondence and turned it all into a great ideological drama. He has written a terrific book. Original and judicious, it never loses sight of the philosophical arguments economics conceals, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose. (Christopher Caldwell Bookforum 2013-02-01)

The most significant achievement of [this] remarkable book is to confirm that neoliberalism exists in a context, and is bounded by a beginning as well as an end. For now, however, that end is nowhere in sight. (James McAuley Prospect online 2013-01-30)

[A] new history of neoliberalism that provides more nuance and depth to an understanding of the reemergence of classical liberal ideas in the latter half of the 20th century...The Great Persuasion introduces readers not only to F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, but also to the central roles that the new European and American conservatives played, as well as the background to developments that occurred in Chicago in the 1930s. Burgin has produced a book that is essential reading for students and researchers at all levels regarding postwar intellectual history. (R. B. Emmett Choice 2013-02-01)

[A] fluid, intellectually supple book. It tells the story of how Friedman and the Friedmanics captured the language of neoliberalism, showing how otherwise frankly utopian mantras about smart markets versus dumb governments were in fact the culmination of a whole series of earlier intramural arguments about the moral and conceptual underpinnings of capitalist societies that began in the aftermath of the First World War. (Duncan Kelly Times Literary Supplement 2013-05-31)

Capacious and quietly ambitious, offering a dramatic retelling of the intellectual history of the postwar revival of free-market ideas, and it is an excellent example of what can be gained when intellectual history doesn't focus exclusively on individuals...Burgin's account of the evolution of the Mont Pelerin Society is a study of the complexity of ideological change, of the ways that ideas conceived in one context can acquire a very different hue over time. It is an immensely rich, careful and thoughtful history that captures the range of opinion within a group of people who are too often seen as having marched in lockstep.
(Kim Phillips-Fein The Nation 2012-08-05)

An intellectual historian by training, Burgin has a gift for integrating careful textual exegeses with panoramic surveys of the political scene, using a wide-angle lens to highlight what matters in specific texts while deploying close readings to revise the big picture...Burgin, in one of his greatest contributions, draws attention to the many issues--both superficial and substantive--that divided [Hayek and Friedman]...As a piece of the richer history of the twentieth century that will emerge once fables of a lost golden age are dispensed with, The Great Persuasion is invaluable...Brilliantly executed...The Great Persuasion is filled with astute evaluations of how economists, especially Friedman, assumed their new role as public intellectuals.
(Timothy Shenk Dissent 2013-09-01)

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