Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Angus Burgin's "The Great Persuasion"

Angus Burgin is Assistant Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. His research and teaching explore problems at the intersection of ideas, politics, and markets in the United States and the Atlantic world since the late nineteenth century.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression, and reported the following:
On page 99 of The Great Persuasion, Friedrich Hayek is engaged in an attempt to bring together leading supporters of the free market from across the Atlantic world, many of whom had been isolated from one another by the events of the Second World War. The theme discussed on this page is one that lies at the center of the book: the difficulty of obtaining funding in support of an intellectual enterprise without constricting its participants’ academic credibility or capacity for free inquiry. Hayek, I write, “recognized that accepting funds from individuals and organizations with an ideological orientation posed particular dangers to an organization that sought to maintain some academic distance from contemporary political debates. His challenge was to obtain their largesse while preserving the integrity of his institutional vision.”

At this moment in the book, Hayek was in the early stages of developing an organization, the Mont Pèlerin Society, that would serve as a template for the ideological institutions that now play a central role in public policy debates. In the course of these efforts he sought to accede to the demands of his funders while limiting their influence. He proved adept at this task, in part because he found contributors who shared his unusually long-term perspective on politics. Rather than seeking immediate and tangible outcomes, they were content to support the construction of new communities of dissent, believing that the ideas these groups discussed had the capacity to alter the structure of political debate. The intellectual and institutional infrastructure of market advocacy in the postwar period was made possible by these individuals’ remarkable faith in the generative capacity of ideas.

As this page reveals, The Great Persuasion is concerned with the influence of abstractions: the ways in which discussions of economic theory, social-scientific methodology, and political philosophy can manifest themselves in (and sometimes change the contours of) popular debates. This requires a close attention to the institutions that foster intellectual communities and project their ideas to a broader public. When successful, such investigations can help us to understand the circuitous path through which ideas that were once considered radical become accepted as the norm.
Learn more about the book and author at Angus Burgin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue