The latest Tweets from Angus Burgin (@angusburgin). historian at Johns Hopkins. Baltimore. This question animates The Great Persuasion, Angus Burgin’s exceptional transatlantic history of ‘free market advocacy’ during the 20th century. To tell his story. The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression [Angus Burgin] on *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. Just as.

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Would you like to tell us about a lower price? If you are a seller for this product, would you like to suggest updates through seller support? Just as economists struggle today to justify the free market after the global economic crisis, an earlier generation revisited their worldview after the Great Depression. In this intellectual history of that project, Burgin traces the evolution of postwar economic thought in order to reconsider the most basic assumptions of a market-centered world.

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The Great Persuasion — Angus Burgin | Harvard University Press

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Angus Burgin

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There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later. An excellent history of free market ideology in the s and s and the roots of the Mont Pelerin Society. Splendid writing and an intelligent analysis of the social philosophies of Friedman and Hayek. About midway into the book, the author wanders into a field he understands only superficially and constructs a narrative that not only does not hold water, it completely misses the most fundamental ideas of two of it’s main subjects.

After approaching the book with great enthusiasm, by the end I had very mixed feelings. It’s wonderfully written, and the author usually gives a penetrating yet concise articulation of the philosophical ideas which surrounded the Mont Pelerin Society from its inception through till the early s. And its a very detailed and highly valuable history of the Mont Pelerin Society and its forerunner, the Colloque Walter Lippman.

That being said, the book suffers from some serious problems that detract from its overall value. Important developments in the revival of free market economics – particularly the failure of Keynesian models like the Phillips Curve – are glossed over with only a passing mention, while the minutia of politics within the MPS are enumerated ad naseum. In short, he argues that after the shift in public opinion away from free markets during the Great Depression, Hayek and other like-minded intellectuals pursued a moderate and inter-disciplinary approach to liberalism; something in line with his work “The Road to Serfdom”.

Milton Friedman, however, steered the movement away from inter-disciplinary work and towards a narrowly economic viewpoint, one bugin was openly dogmatic and explicitly political. After a flirtation with philosophical moderation in the s, Friedman shifted towards a wholly laissez-faire libertarian sort of free market ideology.

Aside from the fact that Burgin’s argument here focuses excessively in fact, almost exclusively on Hayek and Friedman, it also is selective in the use of history. Yes, the ideas argued by Friedman in the s and s were more staunchly libertarian than those argued by Hayek But just as Friedman changed over that 30 year period, so did Hayek, and the philosophy laid out by the latter from “The Constitution of Liberty” onward was likewise far less compromising than his earlier work “The Road to Serfdom”.

Ignoring Hayeks own shift to create this false narrative struck me as somewhat intellectually dishonest. Most glaring is the treatment of his respective subjects – Hayek and Friedman. As part of his argument that Friedman deviated from the more moderate and broad-based approach begun by Hayek, he compares their philosophies, yet somehow manages completely to ignore the most fundamental elements of their work in economics. Too often he cites Friedman and Hayek from their popular works – books like “The Road to Serfdom”, “Capitalism and Freedom”, or speeches, interviews, and TV specials intended for the general public, like “Free to Choose”, while ignoring the essence of their scholarly work.

Friedman, who became known within economics as the father of Monetarism a term he disliked, favoring the more traditional “Quantity of Money Theory” was most significant within that field not for articulating a libertarian philosophy of ethical values – though he did do so as a secondary activity – but for reshaping our understanding of inflation and the role of the quantity of money in economic stability.


The ultimate underpinning of his free market ideology was the contention – now widely accepted albeit in a more evolved form than what he initially suggested in the s – that economic development was best accomplished by government maintaining a steady supply of money relative to the size of the economy, keeping the price index stable.

That upended the then dominant Keynesian contention that significant government interventions in the economy were necessary, including both monetary and fiscal interventions. This, of course, while it reduces the role of government in the economy compared to the neoKeynesianism of the s and s, it offered the state a far more expansive one than that envisioned by Hayek’s Austrian Business Cycle Theory, whereby the best – really the only role of the state is to allow malinvestments to fail and capital to return from inflated industries.

Again, Burgin touches very, very briefly on the hands-off approach of the ABCT, but this is a central idea in Hayek’s economic philosophy, not a minor detail.

Hayek upbraided Friedman for what he and other Austrians saw as both an inflationary policy and an unrealistic reliance in the ability of the government to regulate fiat currency. This topic – the issue of money, of monetary policy and the government’s role in maintaining general economic stability – was perhaps the most important one, yet Burgin ignores it almost completely for the sake of the rather unconvincing narrative he builds.

Writing about intellectual history tends to fall prey to one of two different vices. If the author is a member of the intellectual movement he is writing about, there is a tendency toward hagiography, with unflattering details carefully airbrushed out.

On the other hand, if the author is not an adherent of the ideas he is describing, he’s likely to descend into caricature in the opposite direction, failing to appreciate key nuances in the protagonists’ arguments and attributing simplistic motives to them. Burgin deftly avoids both vices, presenting a sympathetic account of the thinkers he covers but maintaining a critical distance from their ideas.

He also effectively conveys the sense of deep intellectual uncertainty that pervaded classical liberals’ discussions in the s and s. In retrospect, it’s obvious that Hayek and Friedman were the key architects of the ideas the book describes. But at the time, a number of other individuals and ideas vied for the attention of the world’s free-market liberals. It was Hayek and Friedman’s persistence and organizational skills, as much as raw power of their ideas, that led to them eclipsing other mid-century liberals and gaining broad public support for many of their ideas.

At a time when people across the political spectrum are grappling with how to adapt their political beliefs to a changing economic environment, “The Great Persuasion” is a useful reminder that previous generations felt just as confused when faced with economic and intellectual crises. John Maynard Keynes has famously commented at the end of The General Theory that “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

How this idea of laissez-faire was reappraised by a cadre of economists and public intellectuals, first grudgingly in the midst of the Great Depression, then wholeheartedly in the postwar era, forms the story of The Great Persuasion. Labeling this great persuasion, putting a name on these ideas, has always been an issue. In his lecture, Keynes noted that “the phrase laissez-faire is not to be found in the works of Adam Smith, of Ricardo, or of Malthus.

The term ‘neoconservatism’ didn’t appear on the map until the late twentieth century, and designated a political current rather than an economic persuasion. Perhaps the term that best characterizes Hayek, Friedman, and their epigones is ‘neoliberal’.

First used as a derogatory label, it was adopted as a self-description by some, but not all, proponents of unhindered free markets. The reason the main figures of the neoliberal creed could not agree on a label is that they disagreed on the content of their doctrine. Most, if not all, repudiated historical laissez-faire and called for an organized and constructive liberalism that validated certain modes of government intervention. In The Road to Serfdom, which he dedicated to “socialists of all parties”, Friedrich Hayek supported a role for the government in counteracting the business cycle, constructing new infrastructure, regulating a broad range of business activities, and administering extensive social insurance guarantees.

Some of his colleagues delivered an assault on large corporations or formulated a critique of abstract and unhindered competition. Moral philosophers believed that capitalism was living off the accumulated moral capital of social doctrines that it had since supplanted, and called for a liberalism that emphasized the ethical rather than merely the economic satisfaction of the citizen.


Individuals whose methodologies, assumptions, and goals diverged most explicitely from the emerging paradigm were cast off or took their distances. In Bertrand de Jouvenel’s terms, the organization had succumbed to “ideological passion,” and as a result had transitioned from “a free company of people who think together with some initial basis of agreement” into “a team of fighters. As Burgin notes, “Friedman built his professional and public career on the advocacy of positions that ran contrary to received opinion, and he endured the resulting controversies to find himself regaled with private wealth, academic honors, and lasting political recognition.

He deliberately cultivated the persona of a contrarian gadfly in the venues of public debates, and never shied way from an intellectual opponent or buttressed his positions in the sake of compromise. In addition to Hayek and Friedman, Burgin puts the spotlight on intellectual figures who are generally ignored by histories of neoliberalism but who helped shape the movement in its past and present forms.

Walter Lippmann, the American publicist, wrote the enormously influential Principles of the Good Society inbefore distancing himself from a movement that he found too sectarian or too conservative for his taste.

Albert Hunold was a Swiss businessman of little intellectual importance but who exerted leadership of the society untilwhen he resigned by claiming that the society had “lost its soul”.

It is rare to find a book that addresses an issue relevant to the public at large, while adding something original to the scholarly literature on a particular topic. The reviews in the Wall Street Journal and other media outlet bear witness to the fact that The Great Persuasion addresses not only a public of nurgin historians and social scientists, but is also of broader policy relevance.

It should appeal to anyone interested in contemporary debates about the role that the state anfus markets should play in the economy – arguably the most important theme in policy discussions. On the other hand, The Great Persuasion is a scholar’s book, apparently trimmed down and edited from a PhD thesis, and with all the markers of academic respectability – the footnotes, the archive collections, the strict neutrality in tone and restrained budgin in scope.

Burgin is very clear on where his scholarly contribution resides. He situates his book within the existing literature, noting the remarkable advances in historiography over the past decade. His book fills several gaps in the existing research and offers an original contribution to the field of intellectual history. He is the first to present the creation and early history of the Mt. He provides the first academically sound intellectual biography of Milton Friedman, developed in the last two chapters of the book.

His approach is also innovative: He puts the history of economics back into the history of ideas, claiming that “the problems of economics cannot easily be severed from the problems of philosophy. In fact, Burgin writes, “an exploration of the rhetoric of the society’s members in its early years reveals a movement far less doctrinaire than the conventional narrative would indicate.

Again, Burgin achieves a fine balancing act between these two polarities. His quotes from private correspondence or oral histories are always illustrative.

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They add a unique perspective to a narrative that is as nuanced as it is coherent and demonstrative. True, the author wngus choices, and delved on some episodes in abundant detail while leaving other developments out of the picture. It may be said that the author spent too much time on the “Hunold affair”, which had its origin in petty interpersonal disputes that are of little relevance to the broader narrative. But this episode was an important moment in the transfer of influence within the society from Europe to the United States, and from the cultured polymaths to the professional economists.

As Burgin writes, “after Hunold and burgjn bloc of sympathizers resigned their memberships, the society adopted a narrower identity, intellectually burgun institutionally dominated by Anglo-Americans, unapologetically oriented toward technical economics, and inhospitable to those who did not subscribe to the near-universal preferability of free markets to the alternatives.

In particular, Ludwig von Mises would have deserved a detailed portrait instead of the passing mentions at several junctures of the text.