The Mont Pelerin Society
Walter E. Williams, April 16, 1997
Last week I flew to Geneva, Switzerland, then motored along Lake Geneva to Mont Pelerin, the birthplace of its namesake the Mont Pelerin Society. The purpose of the journey was to join with fellow members to celebrate our 50th anniversary. The conference theme, not unlike that of the founding meeting, was "Old and New Threats to Liberty." Founders of the Mont Pelerin Society included scholars like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, both of whom later became Nobel Laureates. Our worldwide 500 membership consists mostly of economists but there are political scientists, legal scholars and historians as well. Today, we can boast that six of our distinguished scholars have won Nobel prizes in economics. Several have earned titles of nobility - lords, knights and dames.
In April 1947, when the Mont Pelerin Society was founded, the Allies had just defeated the Axis Powers but mankind's liberty was by no means assured. The Soviet Union and its satellite states seemed to have insatiable tastes for subjugation. But a far greater threat was the growing love affair with ideas of socialism in Western nations, including the United States. Part and parcel of that vision was government growth could be compatible with liberty. Moreover, if a conflict arose between government growth and liberty, it was liberty that should yield.
The stated goal of the Mont Pelerin Society was to challenge the idea of government supremacy over the individual and is captured in our founding statement of principles and values: "the sacredness of truth, the ordinary rules of moral decency, a common belief in the value of human freedom, an affirmative action towards democracy and an opposition to all forms of totalitarianism, whether it be from the Right or the Left.
Today, it doesn't take much courage to criticize government growth and control, high taxes and government infringement on private property rights. But back in 1947, it was different matter. The entire intellectual climate was in favor of government micro management of the economy through fiscal and monetary policy and regulatory agencies and price controls. Challenging these ideas was by no means popular and a challenger risked his academic respectability. For example, arguing for transportation deregulation, free trade, school choice and balanced budgets were seen as ideas bordering on lunacy. On the political front, intellectuals defended communism and its evils and predicted communism was the wave of the future.
Mont Pelerin Society members recognize there is a need for government power. Power in and of itself is not evil. Indeed, government power is necessary to provide for the common defense, enforcement of contracts and administer justice. However, "Power tends to corrupt," as Lord Acton warned and is made all the more dangerous because the worst of individuals tend to rise to the top in government. The worst rise to the top because, as Thomas Jefferson said, "An honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over his fellow citizens. . . ."
Except for a few skirmishes here and there, the ideas of human liberty have triumphed over those of government coercion. Much of that victory is a result of a half-century's amount of work by my distinguished colleagues of the Mont Pelerin Society. The daunting task that lies before us now is that of implementation. Unscrambling an egg presents more of a challenge than scrambling it. The good news is that the rapid growth technological innovation is on balance liberty-enhancing since it's overall tendency is to reduce the control government can exercise over its citizens.
Walter E. Williams