8th January 2011
The Mont Pelerin Society: Hayek’s heroic attempt to establish freedom
I’m learning quite a few new things through accidental ‘clicks’ on internet links. Even though I’m desperately short of time at the moment, I’m posting a short extract from Chandran Kukathas’s essay, “Hayek and liberalism” from The Cambridge Companion to Hayek that explains Hayek's heroic attempt to re-integrate post-War Germany with the rest of the world through what became the Mont Pelerin Society.
(That Hayek motivated the establishment of the Institute for Econmic Affairs
in England, is another story! Clearly, he was very concerned about bringing genuine freedom to the world.) [Also see my related blog post: here
HAYEK and the MONT PELERIN SOCIETY
Hayek … took up the task of finding practical means of reintegrating Germany into European cultural life. His Cambridge paper was sent out to a number of academics and public figures, seeking comments on his proposals for the reintegration of Germany. Moreover, he raised the idea of establishing an international society to the furtherance of this end.
The difficulty of persuading others to join in such an endeavor at the time should not be underestimated. Michael Polanyi, for example, wrote back expressing his unwillingness to meet other Germans – saying that he could forgive but not forget. And Hayek was well aware of the suspicion with which Germany and Germans had come to be regarded – as he makes clear in a review published in March 1945, “Is There a German nation?” The review begins: “Difficult as it is for the ordinary man to believe that all he has heard of the Germans can be true, it becomes almost impossible for those who have direct acquaintance with a particular side of German life.” And once again Hayek argued that most Germans approved of little in Hitler’s program but were taken in by appeals to nationalist sentiment, and that the problem this has created can be remedied only by a concerted effort on the part of Europeans to put “the common house in order.”
Whatever the difficulties, Hayek set about trying to organize an international society of liberal-minded intellectuals. He was able eventually to raise the money to fund a meeting of sympathetic scholars in April 1947 – a meeting that saw the founding of the Mont Pelerin Society. But a great deal of Hayek’s energies between the publication of The Road to Serfdom in 1944 and the formation of the Mont Pelerin Society were spent working toward or arguing for the reintegration of German scholarship – and particularly historical scholarship – into the intellectual life of Europe.
Hayek’s writings and activities in this period covering the rise and fall of Nazi Germany are important because they reveal how much his efforts as a political theorist emerge out of the worries and fears of an active public intellectual. Especially revealing is his “Memorandum on the Proposed Foundation of an International Academy for Political Philosophy tentatively called ‘The Acton –Tocqueville Society.’” Dated 1945, it sets out Hayek’s basic proposals to bring German scholars and German cultural life back into the fold, to fight “totalitarianism,’’ and to preserve the liberal tradition. The tone of the memorandum is one of anxious urgency, as is made clear in the opening paragraph:
In large parts of the European Continent the former common civilization is in danger of immediate disintegration. In the rest of the Western World, where it still seems secure, many of the basic values on which it is founded are already threatened. Even among those who are aware of these dangers there exists an uncertainty of aim and a lack of assured basic convictions which makes their isolated endeavours to stem the tide largely ineffective. The most sinister sign is a widespread fatalism, a readiness to treat as inevitable tendencies that are merely the results of human decisions, and a belief that our wishes can have no power to avert the fate which an inexorable law of historical development has decreed for us. If we are not to drift into a state which nobody wants, there is clearly urgent need for a common effort at reconsideration of our moral and political values, a sorting out of those which must in all circumstances be preserved and never sacrificed or endangered for some other “advances,’’ and a deliberate effort to make people aware of the values which they take for granted as the air they breathe and which may yet be endangered if no deliberate effort is made to preserve them.
Throughout the memorandum Hayek expresses his concern that, even after victory in war, the situation is precarious because totalitarian ideas have gained a foothold and a mighty effort is still needed to combat their influence. This comes out even more clearly in a second memorandum, probably written in 1946, entitled “The Prospects of Freedom.” Here he quotes the words of “a great man whom we have recently lost,” Lord Keynes, who had written of the power of ideas, observing that “the world is ruled by little else,” and that “it is ideas and not vested interests, which are dangerous for good and evil.” Hayek was entirely in agreement with Keynes on this point, and this also helps account for his eagerness to get on with the task of developing alternatives to totalitarian ideas – particularly since there was always a lengthy “interval between the time when ideas are given currency and the time when they govern action.”
So it is out of his anxiety and fears about the future of Europe and modern civilization, and a conviction that that future depended upon the salvaging of a tradition of humane values whose vitality had been sapped by war and the influence of totalitarianism, that Hayek’s liberal social and political philosophy emerges.