The road leaving Mont Pelerin is the road to renewal
In 1947, economist Friedrich Hayek gathered a group of liberal thinkers at a spa resort on Mont Pèlerin in Switzerland. The situation looked grim for liberalism. National Socialism had been defeated in battlefields of the Second World War, but the Soviet Union established itself as a superpower, and in particular, thinkers and parties throughout the political field seemed to adopt some kind of socialist ideas.
It was difficult to gather all the good forces to “clarify the difference between the totalitarian and liberal order” and all the thinkers at the meeting did not see eye to eye on many issues. The society that became the Mont Pelerin Society managed, however, to create a broad liberal-conservative alliance to reverse the struggle for ideas.
All around the world, market economy, human rights and democracy were moving forward. The Soviet Union fell, but after the turn of the millennium a traditional social democracy and its welfare state have returned. Now backed up on the global arena by ecologist and postmodern ideas, islamism and an increasingly loud radical conservatism.
But such a narrative assumes that the threats to individual freedom, open economies, human rights and governance come from thought-out ideologies in the same way as they were when the Mont Pelerin Society was founded. “What is essentially an ideological movement must be met with intellectual arguments and the restoration of valid ideas,” to quote the founders.
Today, however, liberal thinkers are remarkably silent in the public debate. Political content and long-term goals are abandoned in favor of the latest shock headline and crisis of the day. The intellectual leadership of liberalism keeps hoping that the situation will return to normal. Strategic thinking is absent.
At the same time, much attention is given to authoritarian thinkers. They are well represented on the marketplace of ideas and are offered well paid career paths into the public debate, primarily through their increasing dominance over the media. An intolerant and increasingly divided identitarian left, is dependent on the confrontation with the authoritarian side as a uniting outside force. The danger is that the whole political spectrum is shifting, not only in which topics are considered relevant, but also in the values espoused.
This attention, however, overestimates the ability of authoritarian thinking. What is brought forward in the form of outrage, ethnocentrism, protectionism, terrorist eschatology and ‘gettougherism’ are hastily dusted off ideas lacking ideological depth. They avoid the difficult issues of the future as it is easier to spread a climate of fear, and since they are lacking answers to them.
The reason for the silence is, rather, that in the years after the turn of the millennium many free market opinion leaders and institutions stopped thinking about the liberal utopias that Friedrich Hayek regarded as central to further developing the direction of ideas.
A debate about how liberalism could construct new goals and directions after the Cold War, was stopped in its tracks by the paradoxical conclusion that the current was the best of all possible worlds, while traditional political dividing lines were to be maintained. It was a comfortable conclusion, the political thinking and structures cultivated during the 1970s and 1980s would continue to lead the way.
The impression that the rest of the world received was that the vision of liberalism was that society should look like this, so many perceived that liberalism was merely a defense of the current state of affairs. A free market was equated with today’s capitalism minus regulations and taxes, rather than a context where people’s opportunities were expanded under voluntary exchange. This even before the financial crisis during the late 2000s.
During the noughties, political conversation continued as usual. Criticism was brought up against high taxes and waste of public funds. Statements were made against paternalism, but became increasingly perfunctory. When the forward-looking political force was lacking, they became dispersed actions without a greater chance of success.
A renewed vitality in entrepreneurship, pop culture, technological innovation and cultural experimentation contradicted cultural traditionalism that was the second leg of liberal conservatism. The paradigm of ideas formed in the shadow of the Cold War had difficulties to explain the fruits of liberty and how they should be harvested.
The core of William F. Buckley conservatism, and Goldwater-Reagan fusionism, was overwhelmed when the many different directions of socialism dropped the last of their ideas. The outcome of liberty was not only a continuation of the present. More often, free market thinkers came up with objections to free choice, free markets, and with technological and social innovation. If people do not choose what is right, freedom must be wrong.
It would be easy to point out the actions of individual politicians as the cause. Politicians need to get better at explaining how liberal ideas should renew society and solve problems. What they want to do with government, instead of just administering it.
Though that is easier said than done, if there are no such ideas to work from. Ideas rarely develop in political life, as Friedrich Hayek observed. Therefore, development work was strongly linked to specialized institutions for idea production, like the Institute of Economic Affairs Hayek’s inspiration contributed to found. The problem is that the players in the climate of ideas have changed from publishers to activists. Then it is not about developing new ideas, but rather acting as an echo chamber for already existing contemporary ideas.
Many initially got involved more because of their dislike of socialism than because of any particular sympathy of liberty and free market economy. Due to the fall of liberal conservatism, the philosophical and moral tools and the social theory are lacking, since the body of ideas has not been further developed for decades. Then it became easy to get into authoritarian ideas, the left seems to get more upset by them.
The meeting at Mont Pèlerin was wise to choose ”not establishing a pedantic and hindering orthodoxy”. The society would keep the toolbox of freedom stocked for the future, as it increases the likelihood that the tools of liberty will be used for important political decisions.
However, the way forward can not be just about showing that trade is not a zero-sum game, that ethnic diversity is an asset and not an expense, that independent courts and media are vital to democracy and that global cooperation between free societies provides peace and prosperity. It is not enough to be anti-antiglobalistic, antisocialist and antipaternalistic. It is not enough to be reactive.
The secret fear of old radicals is to win, as they conclude that no radicals will be needed after that. The 2010s showed that it is necessary to think strategically about one’s own ideas, create one’s own issues in the public debate, and review which institutions are functional for the future and which ones should be created.