Just as today’s observers struggle to justify the workings
of the free market in the wake of a global economic crisis, an earlier
generation of economists revisited their worldviews following the Great
Depression. The Great Persuasion is an intellectual history of
that project. Angus Burgin traces the evolution of postwar economic thought in
order to reconsider many of the most basic assumptions of our market-centered
Conservatives often point to Friedrich Hayek as the most
influential defender of the free market. By examining the work of such
organizations as the Mont Pèlerin Society, an international association founded
by Hayek in 1947 and later led by Milton Friedman, Burgin reveals that Hayek
and his colleagues were deeply conflicted about many of the enduring problems
of capitalism. Far from adopting an uncompromising stance against the interventionist
state, they developed a social philosophy that admitted significant constraints
on the market. Postwar conservative thought was more dynamic and cosmopolitan
than has previously been understood.
It was only in the 1960s and ‘70s that Friedman and his
contemporaries developed a more strident defense of the unfettered market.
Their arguments provided a rhetorical foundation for the resurgent conservatism
of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan and inspired much of the political and
economic agenda of the United States in the ensuing decades. Burgin’s brilliant
inquiry uncovers both the origins of the contemporary enthusiasm for the free
market and the moral quandaries it has left behind.
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