Reflections on the Mont Pelerin Society
I spent much of the last week at the Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Sydney and a better use of my time I have not had in quite a while. I am more of a philosophy, politics and economics type myself rather than pure economist so with the emphasis on the Enlightenment, and particularly the Scottish Enlightenment, the program was almost exactly made to order.
The Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) was put together in the shadow of the Cold War by a number of scholars with the names Hayek, Mises and Friedman likely to be amongst the few still known today. World War II had just been fought against the National Socialists, Fascists and militarists of various sorts. and arising out of the ashes of that one conflict was the new menace of a communist threat. Collectivist socialism was a political movement supported by great swathes of the population within Europe and across the world. It was, moreover, supported by a large proportion of the “intellectual” classes as well. The aim of the MPS was to circle the wagons and provide a forum in which the idea of personal freedom, individual rights and the capitalist order were kept alive and discussed. It is a society that has never seen a need to disband since these threats never seem to go away.
The fact of the matter is that the worst problems we face in the West are not budget deficits and excess spending but come from the enemies of the liberal societies which have been so difficult to construct. The civilisation in which I was raised, based on self-government (both personal and political), tolerance and individual freedom, appears to be in a losing battle against darker forces that may yet take us into a darker age. I remain perfectly aware that things looked infinitely worse at the end of the 1930s and had hardly improved all that much by 1947 when the MPS was founded, so I am willing to give history a chance to save us once again.
Yet when I look about, there is so little apparent active appreciation for the kind of society in which we live that the very indifference to its historical uniqueness may be its undoing. Outside an authoritarian state, there is only one way for us to all live together in peace and that is by the rules set out by John Locke and the philosophers of the Enlightenment. And yet, for all that, it seems that nigh on half of the citizens even amongst those who have been brought up in communities based on our liberal traditions, do not seem to know what’s at stake or are willing to make an effort to hold the line against our enemies.
And it doesn’t work for me to think that I will see out my time living in this kind of society and let the future take care of itself. I would like to think that the legacy from my time on the planet will be a future in which Enlightenment values remain embedded not only in our society but in a growing number across the globe.
What also seems to work against us is not just the relentless enemies of the civil order we live within, but the sentimentality that seems to grip altogether too many of those who will be needed to defend this way of life. I caught the tail end of Jurassic Park III the other day which had the five humans surrounded by a group of raptors who were about to rip them to shreds. But they got down on their knees and tried to show how they were really friends and were saved because they were able to strike a spark of compassion within the hearts of the raptors.
Let me tell you, if there are a sufficiently large proportion of people out there who will accept as a plausible plot device that raptors can show mercy and have a change of heart then we may not have enough people in reserve who understand who our enemies are and what is required to really defend our way of life. It is this kind of sentimentality that has allowed Barack Obama to become President of the United States. It is the kind of unthinking underlying belief system that the MPS is trying to wake people from.
This liberal order, where those who govern do so only with the consent of the governed, that we as a free people make our communal decisions through institutions that are responsive to our wishes, has taken thousands of years of human civilisation to develop. This form or political and social order has occurred in only a handful of places and has remained fragile and in danger in every society in which it has come to life. There always are those amongst us who have a social theory of some sort that demands adherence to some philosophy or another which would allow them to run your life as they see fit.
If you think of them as raptors in human form, about as malleable to the liberal order and the force of reason as a Hitler or Stalin, you will get a glimmer of understanding of what we are up against. They will never go away. Our only hope is to keep them to such minimal numbers that they can have only minimal effect on our way of life. The MPS is an important part of the way in which the community is reminded of the dangers we face and more importantly, of the kinds of social order that is necessary if we are to continue to have the prosperity and personal freedoms we now enjoy.