Another neoliberal: another neoliberalism?

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, one of central Europe’s brightest and best, fresh from a stint as Einstein’s research assistant arrives in Manchester in 1933.

I have now finished the second draft of an essay which I began intending it for publication in some international magazine like The Atlantic Monthly. It’s about Michael Polanyi, who was in the founding generation of neoliberals. As I briefly outlined here, he developed the idea of ‘polycentricy’ as a statement of the manifold benefits of a distributed decision making that was more general than the case Mises and Hayek had developed for markets in preference to central planning. He grew to have subtly, but profoundly different ideas about what neoliberalism should be.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that I needed to do a lot of reading and then writing to process my thoughts. The result is hardly publishable anywhere at 13,500 words, and certainly not in Australia (it doesn’t mention Scott Morrison once!). But at least it can be condensed into a much shorter article or two and ransacked in other writing.

In any event, that means I won’t post it directly on my blog, but you’re most welcome to read it. Please email me on ngruen@gmail.com if you’d like to and I can give you access – along with ‘suggesting’ permissions in case you spot a typo or want to make a comment.

One intriguing fact gradually dawned on my as I wrote, which was how important central European emigres to England were in the story. My father was one such, though a generation younger than Hayek and Polanyi who figure in this story. But he made it from Vienna to England in 1936. Polanyi made his way from Berlin to England in 1933 by which time Hayek had turned up as Tooke Professor at LSE, hired as an anti-Keynesian prizefighter of sorts – though for him there was no necessity to escape as there was for my father and the Jewish born (by then Catholic convert) Polanyi.

Be that as it may, my father’s path crossed again with those in the story. He spent about three years in the US beginning at the University of Wisconsin in the late 40s and finishing at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s. As you’ll read in the essay if you’re interested, this was precisely at the time that the “New Market Study” was being run and Hayek was creating the Chicago School of Economics by hooking the University up with anti-New Deal philanthropic foundations and corporations.

(And no, at the time, this was unusual. The Brookings Institution had ways of keeping their funders at arms length. Not so at Chicago. Intriguingly, John D. Rockefeller had bankrolled the University a generation previously describing it to the end of his life as “the best investment I ever made,” though I’m unsure of the extent to which Rockefeller is referring to any ideological designs or success”.[1. Collier, Peter, Horowitz, David, 1976. The Rockefellers: An American dynasty, p. 50])

If you’re not already well-read about the history of neoliberalism – and the way in which ‘mainline neoliberalism’ sloughed off concerns that were uncomfortable to its political mission – you may find it of interest. And Polanyi’s perspective is an interesting and compelling one, I think. Marginalised at the time, his concerns have only been vindicated by subsequent developments.

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