Cognitive Dissonance (Part 3): The triumph of ideas

Posted by News Express | 5 December 2016 | 4,249 times

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One was born in Vienna, the other in New York. Both were firm believers in the power of ideas. For many years, both belonged to a small minority, a sect almost, that existed outside the cocoon of mainstream thought. Together, they tore apart that cocoon, upending the world in a way dictators and billionaires can only dream of. They set about shredding the life’s work of their archrival, the British economist John Maynard Keynes. Seemingly the only thing they had in common with Keynes was the belief that the ideas of economists and philosophers are stronger forces than the vested interests of business leaders and politicians.

This particular story begins on April 1, 1947, not quite a year after Keynes’ death, when 40 philosophers, historians, and economists converged in the small village of Mont Pèlerin in Switzerland. Some had traveled for weeks, crossing oceans to get there. In later years, they would be known as the Mont Pèlerin Society.

All 40 thinkers who came to this Swiss village were encouraged to speak their minds, and together they formed a corps of capitalist resistance fighters against socialist supremacy. “There are, of course, very few people left today who are not socialists,” Hayek, the event’s initiator, had once lamented. At a time when the provisions of the New Deal had pushed even the United States toward more socialistic policies, a defense of the free market was still seen as downright revolutionary, and Hayek felt “hopelessly out of tune with his time.”

Milton Friedman was also at the meeting of minds. “Here I was, a young, naive provincial American,” Friedman later recalled, “meeting people from all over the world, all dedicated to the same liberal principles as we were; all beleaguered in their own countries, yet among them scholars, some already internationally famous, others destined to be.” In fact, no fewer than eight members of the Mont Pèlerin Society would go on to win Nobel Prizes.

However, in 1947 no one could have predicted such a star-studded future. Large swaths of Europe lay in ruins. Reconstruction efforts were colored by Keynesian ideals: employment for all, curbing the free market, and regulation of banks. The war state became the welfare state. Yet it was during those same years that neoliberal thought began gaining traction thanks to the efforts of the Mont Pèlerin Society, a group that would go on to become one of the leading think tanks of the 20th century. “Together, they helped precipitate a global policy transformation with implications that will continue to reverberate for decades,” says the historian Angus Burgin.

In the 1970s, Hayek handed the presidency of the Society over to Friedman. Under the leadership of this diminutive, bespectacled American whose energy and enthusiasm surpassed even that of his Austrian predecessor, the society radicalised. Essentially, there wasn’t a problem around that Friedman didn’t blame on government. And the solution, in every case, was the free market. Unemployment? Get rid of the minimum wage. Natural disaster? Get corporations to organise a relief effort. Poor schools? Privatise education. Expensive healthcare? Privatise that, too, and ditch public oversight while we’re at it. Substance abuse? Legalise drugs and let the market work its magic.

Friedman deployed every means possible to spread his ideas, building a repertoire of lectures, OP-EDs, radio interviews, TV appearances, books, and even a documentary. In the preface to his bestselling Capitalism and Freedom, he wrote that it is the duty of thinkers to keep offering alternatives. Ideas that seem “politically impossible” today may one day become “politically inevitable.”

All that remained was to await the critical moment. “Only a crisis  – actual or perceived  –  produces real change,” Friedman explained. “When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” The crisis came in October 1973, when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an oil embargo. Inflation went through the roof and the economy spiraled into recession. “Stagflation,” as this effect was called, wasn’t even possible in Keynesian theory. Friedman, however, had predicted it.

For the rest of his life, Friedman never stopped emphasising that his success would have been inconceivable without the groundwork laid since 1947. The rise of neoliberalism played out like a relay race, with think tanks passing the baton to journalists, who handed it off to politicians. Running the anchor leg were two of the most powerful leaders in the Western world, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. When asked what she considered to be her greatest victory, Thatcher’s reply was “New Labour”: Under the leadership of neoliberal Tony Blair, even her social democratic rivals in the Labour Party had come around to her worldview.

In less than 50 years, an idea once dismissed as radical and marginal had come to rule the world.

The lesson of neoliberalism

Some argue that these days, it hardly matters anymore who you vote for. Though we still have a right and a left, neither side seems to have a very clear plan for the future. In an ironic twist of fate, the neoliberalist brainchild of two men who devoutly believed in the power of ideas has now put a lockdown on the development of new ones. It would seem that we have arrived at “the end of history,” with liberal democracy as the last stop and the “free consumer”as the terminus of our species.

By the time Friedman was named president of the Mont Pèlerin Society in 1970, most of its philosophers and historians had already decamped, the debates having become overly technical and economic. In hindsight, Friedman’s arrival marked the dawn of an era in which economists would become the leading thinkers of the Western world. We are still in that era today.

We inhabit a world of managers and technocrats. “Let’s just concentrate on solving the problems,” they say. “Let’s just focus on making ends meet.” Political decisions are continually presented as a matter of exigency  –  as neutral and objective events, as though there were no other choice. Keynes observed this tendency emerging even in his own day. “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences,” he wrote, “are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

When Lehman Brothers collapsed on September 15, 2008, and inaugurated the biggest crisis since the 1930s, there were no real alternatives to hand. No one had laid the groundwork. For years, intellectuals, journalists, and politicians had all firmly maintained that we’d reached the end of the age of “big narratives” and that it was time to trade in ideologies for pragmatism.

Naturally, we should still take pride in the liberty that generations before us fought for and won. But the question is, what is the value of free speech when we no longer have anything worthwhile to say? What’s the point of freedom of association when we no longer feel any sense of affiliation? What purpose does freedom of religion serve when we no longer believe in anything?

On the one hand, the world is still getting richer, safer, and healthier. That’s a huge triumph. On the other hand, it’s high time that we stake out a new utopia. Let’s rehoist the sails. “Progress is the realisation of Utopias,” Oscar Wilde wrote many years ago. A 15-hour workweek, universal basic income, and a world without borders . . . They’re all crazy dreams –  but for how much longer?

People now doubt that “human ideas and beliefs are the main movers of history,” as Hayek argued back when neoliberalism was still in its infancy. “We all find it so difficult to imagine that our belief [sic] might be different from what they in fact are.” It could easily take a generation, he asserted, before new ideas prevail. For this very reason, we need thinkers who not only are patient, but also have “the courage to be ‘Utopian’.”

Let this be the lesson of Mont Pèlerin. Let this be the mantra of everyone who dreams of a better world, so that we don’t once again hear the clock strike midnight and find ourselves just sitting around, empty-handed, waiting for an extraterrestrial salvation that will never come.

Ideas, however outrageous, have changed the world, and they will again. Indeed,”wrote Keynes, “the world is ruled by little else.”

This is the conclusion of the write-up culled from the Evonomics publication (2016, July 15) the new intellectual drive to change economics in order to change the world. It was written by Rutger Bregman, the author of Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour Workweek. You can contact me for business advisory services and training – send me a message via WhatsApp or SMS.

•Lawrence Nwaodu is a small business expert and enterprise consultant, trained in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, with an MBA in Entrepreneurship from The Management School, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom, and MSc in Finance and Financial Management Services from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Netherlands. Mr. Nwaodu is the Lead Consultant at IDEAS Exchange Consulting, Lagos. He can be reached via (07066375847).

Source: News Express

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