Mont Pelerin Society

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Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfodm may have had the appeal, for some, of emphatic clarity, but if anything its starkness was counterproductive, as Churchill found to his cost. Yet immediate impact was not Hayek's aim. He recognized the strength of the Keynesian consensus, and was given to telling friends (rather accurately, as it turned out) that another generation would pass before that consensus shifted. In the meantime, he urged them to avoid the fray of day-to-day political causes and instead seek to effect that larger, more momentous change. Doing that meant seeking to influence not so much active politicians as the intelligentsia: academics, respected journalists, and cultural critics. The real battle would be on this ground. Practical politics would follow, not lead.

Heeding his own advice, Hayek began to propose establishing some forum at which allies might confer. Within Britain, organizations like the Society of Individualists had long existed, but they had proved both parochial and ineffective. There was nothing more cosmopolitan. When a Swiss entrepreneur volunteered to finance an exploratory meeting, Hayek therefore jumped at the chance. He invited Popper and Polanyi, among others, to participate. The meeting took place at Mont Pelerin in Switzerland in 1947. Others attending included Milton Friedman and George Stigler (among a cohort of Chicago economists), Henry Hazlitt, and Hayek's mentor, Ludwig von Mises. The point, Hayek told them, was to reexamine "the whole relation between governmental coercion and individual freedom," in order to boost "the chances of preserving a free civilization." The effort would be a long-term one, because the journey to a "new kind of serfdom" was itself long. "We must raise and train an army of fighters for freedom," Hayek continued, in much the same way that the Fabians had raised an army of collectivists in the years around 1900."

This 1947 occasion became the launching point for a more or less regular series of meetings at different centers around the world. The Mont Pelerin Society attracted more members—including Arnold Plant and Ronald Coase—and grew into the leading international forum for economic liberalism. Within Britain, politicians as well as academics and economists attended its regional meetings: Geoffrey Howe, John Biffen, and Keith Joseph, represent ing a new generation of Tory politicians, all part icipated at events in the 1960s. The spirit was very much that which would animate the first Thatcher government in 1979, in which these figures would hold commanding roles: Howe as chancellor of the exchequer, Biffen as chief secretary to the Treasury, and Joseph as secretary of state for industry. Another participant was at the time perhaps even more promising than these, but Enoch Powell's career as a Conservative politician would be destroyed by his notorious Rivers of Blood speech against immigration in 1968.

The triumph of Thatcherism created its own mythology. One part of it was that Hayek amid his society represented lonely voices of resistance throughout a generation of Keynesian ascendancy. Hayek himself remarked that his views were out of favor, and sympathetic writers have portrayed him and his group in heroic terms ever since. This is misleading. Economic liberalism may not have been in power, but it was never in eclipse either. Nor was it as united as retrospective mythology has tended to imply. For example, members of the Mont Pelerin Society constantly grated against the self-denying ordinance prohibiting involvement in quotidian politics. In Britain, especially, the themes, focus, personnel, and institutional form—not to mention the political application—of economic liberalism remained up for grabs in the 1950s. It was a time, in truth, of opportunity.[1]


  1. Johns, Adrian (2010). Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age. W. W. Norton & Company, pp 102-104.

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