Presidential address of Pedro Schwartz
General Meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society at Miami
19th to 23rd September 2016
A cursory look at the programme will reveal how much effort and intelligence was behind what has proven to be one of the outstanding meetings of our Society. The guiding mover of the whole programme was Brad Lips but I wish to thank Allegra too, who was away from this meeting after having led so much of the logistical preparations. She has a good excuse though, as her first baby’s due date coincides with our MPS meeting!
It is a shame that Allan Meltzer has not been able to stay with us to the end of the meeting, as he certainly deserves great credit as Program Chair. Everyone on the Program and Organizing Committees has been helpful in different ways, but Alex Chafuen deserves special recognition for being Allan’s closest collaborator from the beginning. Ben Powell also has been incredibly helpful in organizing Young Scholar sessions and the Hayek Essay Contest. We must thank them all for organising what will surely be one of the best meetings of our Society.
Gerhard Schwartz, Eamonn Butler and Jeff Clark have done sterling work at the Executive Committee to prepare the reforms submitted to the Board, and approved by the membership in the matter of the new Bylaws and the change of the domicile our Society.
I would also like to thank the generous sponsors of this meeting. You may see their names on the screen. They are very different from some of the people I will allude to when I speak of POPULISM.
The Spread of Populism in the World at the Start of the 21st Century
When I look around me at the many old and new friends present at this Closing Dinner of our 2016 General Meeting, I rejoice in the rude health of our society. Nearly seventy years have passed since Hayek gathered a small group of thirty eight thinkers around him in the small village of Mont Pelerin, overlooking Lac Léman in Switzerland. The contribution of those Pilgrims of Liberty to building a better world, and the work of the many of us who have followed in their footsteps, has been crucial – I affirm without false modesty. But we meet here in Miami because there is still so much to be done. We must always be ready to Battle for Freedom and to open new ways for the progress of our societies. We are still very much needed.
To get ready for more battles, our members have approved important changes in the Mont Pelerin Society, which I am honoured to have presided these two years. These changes have already been felt at the Miami Meeting. We want to make our organisation more dynamic and relevant to the questions of the day; to bring more young economists, historians, and philosophers to our meetings; to organise the sessions so that all those present have a chance to make their views heard; and to give more say to the members in the functioning of our affairs – all this while preserving the ‘broad church’ spirit proclaimed by our Founding members. Let me echo the Statement of Aims of our Society, agreed at the founding meeting of 1947. Ours is not a political intent. We want to join in the battle of ideas because the central values of civilisation continue to be in danger. The position of the individual and the voluntary group are being undermined by administrative power. That most precious possession of Western Man, freedom of thought and expression, is threatened by the spread of creeds whose object is to supress and obliterate all views but their own. We are unfairly presented as extremists to dismantle our defence of private property and the competitive market. Economic nationalism is rearing its ugly head again in the programs of those who would resist change and progress. Let me read in full the last paragraph of that Statement:
The group does not aspire to conduct propaganda. It seeks to establish no meticulous and hampering orthodoxy. It aligns itself with no particular party. Its object is solely, by facilitating the exchange of views among minds inspired by certain ideals and broad conceptions held in common, to contribute to the preservation and improvement of the free society.
On hearing this summary of the Statement of our Aims we will all agree that the Mont Pelerin Society is still needed today. The latest danger for freedom is the spread of Populism in our democracies, be it of the democratic kind or of those who use our liberties to try to destroy our freedom. We Pilgrims of Liberty have much to contribute to the fight against this new plague, because much of it originates in the realm of ideas.
Aristotle denounced demagogy many centuries ago as being a degeneration of democracy. This is true but is not all. Populism is a flood to which four currents contribute: the beguiled voters; the power-hungry intellectuals; the short-sighted politicians; and the appeasing elites.
It is usual but unfair to put all the blame on the people. In fact demagogues have it so easy because the people have been fed with unfeasible promises of welfare: They have promised good free education, quality free healthcare, ample free pensions, no attention paid to cost or incentives. They have even been promised the end of the business cycle and unemployment. When voters discover they have been tricked, they grow angry and turn to even more irresponsible dreamers.
The anger is there all right. During the American election campaign, we are hearing angry demands of total protection from competition or of money poured into pharaonic infrastructures. Many Britons voted for Brexit from a disillusionment with a fancied European Union imposed by politicians in London and Brussels. The egregious failings of the French way to socialism may result in Marine Le Pen becoming the National Front President of France. Similar populist revolts can be seen in Austria, in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, on the right; and in Portugal, in Spain, and in Greece on the left.
As regards the people, not all is gloom and doom, however. Voters in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, seem to have had enough of Populism and have been throwing out vote-buying politicians. Not that the new ones have proved an unmixed success in every case but still the fight for liberty is present on that Continent. . So, a gullible people are not wholly to blame for the dangerous flirting with utopia that we are witnessing in so many lands, who is?
A group deserving blame are the professors, philosophers, sociologists, economists, journalists who have committed la trahison des clercs, as Benda called it, or the treason of the clerisy, to use the name given them by Deirdre McCloskey. For more than a century mainstream intellectuals have done nothing but extol the virtues of socialism, harp on the defects of the market, lament the alleged exploitation of the poor, and denounce the immorality of capitalism. Marxists, socialists (whether Christian or not), Fabians, progressives, radicals, New-Dealers, Beveridge liberals, and Keynesians have in effect done nothing but inspire or condone the fattening of Leviathan and the servitude of the individual. Intellectuals, undeterred by the failure of socialism, now speak of fairness, social equality, and wicked bankers. I call this ‘Piketting’ holes in capitalism. They are always silent on the magnificent results of the capitalist economy and the free market, especially for the poor. We see with dismay that the Universities of Europe and America have been transformed into places where the philosophy of freedom has no place and is even forcible expelled. At this meeting we have heard from many long suffering faculty, especially from Alan Kors, what it means to be a believer in economic freedom in the Liberal Arts Faculties of the US or the Social Science programmes in Europe. Those unfaithful teachers and students shamelessly follow the recommendation of Gramsci that the way to make the socialist revolution is to monopolise the field of culture. The paradox is that we the classical liberals and libertarians do have in our midst the outstanding thinkers that can help us push back the tide of politically correct intellectual dishonesty – we are proud to count with some of the most distinguished here at our Meeting in Miami – but they are not heard in society as they deserve. The battle of ideas is as important as it was at the birth of our society. It is a battle that especially concerns us here.
The treason of the clerisy deeply influences politicians. We know from the work starting with Tulloch and Buchanan that politicians maximise just like any other human beings. They maximise votes but they could try to maximise votes also by helping maintain the institutions of freedom. However they do not want to appear as cynical seekers of personal gain. They need justification for what they do in the name of the common good. They also need public opinion support. It may be too much to ask them to be far-sighted and ask to strike out for freedom when the philosophers justify an inflation of rights and the media perpetually call for state action. As Jose Piñera told us, it is crucial that we change the atmosphere in the media and the social networks. Why do the traitorous clerisy have such a wide hearing and the demagogues such a large following?
To put it bluntly, it is because ‘the rich’ have a bad conscience. For the socialists ‘the rich’ is the likes of us here in the professions, in business, in gainful employment, and also the captains of industry and finance. Not us in the Mont Pelerin Society, of course, but many in the more affluent part of the society are prepared to compromise, to take the middle road, to curry favour, especially in Europe and Latin America. The well-to-do seem to be always ready for compromise with the enemies of liberty. I sum their position with the symbol of an umbrella – the umbrella Neville Chamberlain carried to his meeting with Hitler in Munich. He thought he could face the monster with sweet reason, by showing his willingness to compromise – at the cost of Czechoslovakia!
Is there no hope? Of course ether is. We have the best ideas to win the battle against the traitorous clerisy. The battle of ideas is as crucial as it was in 1947, when Hayek founded the Mont Pelerin Society. Not only in the media and the social networks, but also in the Universities, the learned journals, the films, the novels, the theatre. We Montpelerinians have our work cut out. Never forget: truth will prevail if the seekers for truth do not falter.
Thank you all for coming and see you soon again.