Philip Mirowski on Popper and the Mont Pelerin Society

The dustjacket of  Mirowski’s collection of essays The Effortless Economy of Science indicates that he questions a host of theories, including the pictures of science  put forth by Popper, Polanyi and Kuhn. So he is a polymath and a giant killer. How did he dispose of Popper (in a page)?   In his list of references there are two Popper books, Conjectures and Refutations (a collection of essays) and Unended Quest, Popper’s intellectual autobiography, written for the Schillp Library of Almost Dead Philosophers series. Apparently he did not need to read Popper’s most seminal works or the one book that he wrote specifically on the methods of the social sciences (The Poverty of  Historicism).  

Under the sub-heading “revamped relationship of philosophy to economics” he wrote   “Let us start with the case of the neoclassical economists’ favorite philosopher, Karl Popper. Whatever his supposed contribution to the philosophy of physics (given that it was frequently conflated with the doctrines of the logical positivists that he said he opposed; and in any event, physicists did not pay much attention beyond perfuctionary praise of falsification), it appears clear in retrospect that Popper’s work is saturated with both Marxism and neoclassical economics.”  

1. How many economists have a favorite philosopher, and  how many have even heard about Popper (apart from misleading rumours started by Lakatos and circulated by Blaug and Latsis)?  

2. On “his supposed contribution to the philosophy of physics”.   How about his actual contribution?

Mirowski wrote a whole  book about the history of modern physics and its influence on economics so he should be capable of a more illuminating comment.   One of Popper’s contributions was to hit the problems of demarcation and induction out of the park in 1935 so later generations of philosophers could have done something more useful than positivism and logical empiricism.   Later, during the 1950s he developed his ideas on probability theory and his criticism of subjectivism and positivism in physics into a comrehensive metaphysical research program and cosmology (dominated by propensities) which fits point by point with the Aristotelian program that Barry Smith sketched as the framework for Austrian economics (along with the helpful suggestion to call it “fallible apriorism).  

3. Does M think that Popper actually opposed the doctrines of the positivists or does M  think that Popper only said that he did?  

4. “physicists did not pay much attention”  

Well Einstein agreed with him in the main, certainly on demarcation and induction although Popper could not talk him out of determinism.   He engaged head to head with Bohr, enjoyed a lifelong running conversation with Schrodinger and heavily influenced David Bohm. These are major figures. His influence was diminished among physicists at large because he resisted the dominant orthodoxy of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics.  

As for other scientists, he exchanged letters (something like ten each way) with his Australian friend John Eccles while Eccles was doing his Nobel prizewinning work on the physiology of the nervous system in NZ. He took a keen interest in the details of the experiments,  and discussed them by letter and face to face whenever they were in the same city. He was no stranger to the psychological laboratory because he studied with Karl Buhler in Vienna but gave up on experimental work and turned to the logic of science. Far more than Marxism, Popper’s work is saturated with the non-reductive psychology, theory of language and epistemology of  Selz, Kulpe and the Buhlers (Karl and Charlotte).  

Later he befriended Peter Medawar, a Nobel in medicine who was well read in the philosophy of science. He regarded Popper as the greatest of all the philosophers of science.   He also met Jac Monod (Nobel in molecular biology) who wrote the preface to the French translation of The Logic of Scientific Discovery, starting “This great and noble book…”  

Popper was never invited to the Schlick’s seminar for logical positivsts but Karl Menger invited him to his maths seminar which featured Godel, Wald, von Neumann, Morgenstern. Hacohen reported that he became friendly with Wald through discussing the axiomatistion of the probability calculus. Sadly, Popper was over-impressed by the prospects of methamatical economics but in that company, can you be surprised!   He also became friendly with Richard von Mises through their mutual interest in probability theories.  

Moving on, Mirowski depicted Popper as a postwar Cold Warrior on the strength of The Poverty and The Open Society and the influence of  Hayek which moved him “rightward with alacrity”. This is essentially Hacohen’s take on Hayek’s influence on Popper (sinister and retrograde) which Mirowski likes because he shares Hacohen’s view on the Mont Pelerin Society.   He repeated Hacohen’s view that Popper was not familiar with much social science writing, a view contradicted by Swedberg who credited him with good understanding in some areas and by Jarvie who noted numerous contributions to substantive social science problems in The Open Society alone. Certainly he came up short on some aspects of economics although he noted that the alleged immiseration that occurred during the Indutrial Revolution has no explanation (a bit like the Loch Ness Monster) and he thought that if the capitalists were making so much money by “exploiting” labour they should have bid up wages (which actually happened).  

Mirowski quoted Hacohen “he [Popper] paid no attention to institutions…”, overlooking section 31 of The Poverty where Popper urged more attention to the rise and fall of institutions and traditions and the roles that they play.   “It is the task of sociology to fill [the gap] with something more sensible, such as an analysis of the problems arising within a tradition. There is room for a  more detailed analysis of the logic of situations…Beyond this logic of the situation, or perhaps as a part of it, we need something like an analysis of social movements. We need studies, based on methodological individualism, of the social  institutions through which ideas may spread and captivate individuals, of the way in which new traditions may  be created, and of the way in which traditions work and break down. In other words, our individualistic and institutionalistic models of such collective entities as nations, or governments, or markets, will have to be supplemented by models of political situations as well as of social movements such as scientific and industrial progress. These models may then be used by historians, partly like the other models, and partly for the purpose of explanation, along with the other universal laws they use.” (149)  

The following section 32 is The Institutional Theory of Progress. Popper applied the institutional approach to scientific and industrial progress because these inspired modern historicism. The thrust of this section is to consider the kind of political and social institutions which promote the growth of knowledge and to speculate about the kind of institutions which could bring scientitic and industrial progress to a halt.  

As Popper wrote somewhere, it is not possible to say everything about a complex topic at the same time. Elsewhere (in Conjectures and Refutations) there is a comparison of the similar role played by institutions and traditions.  

Mirowski wrote “However much Popper sought to distance himself from the logical positivist movement, this basic image of a scientific method floating free of all social instantiation, ineffable and yet incongruously inaccessible to ‘totalitarian’ societies, a special arena where ideas clashed and died but their proponents never suffered any consequences, was the key to understanding the relevance of Popper to the cold-war world”.  

I suppose this is an argument to claim that Popper’s ideas were seen to be useful by some political players, but it hardly amounts to a critique of Popper’s ideas and it is especially  misleading to imply that Popper was insensitive to the social context of science (see above).   In fact Ian Jarvie wrote a book to argue that Popper was well ahead of the rush to the social studies of science because he took a “social turn” in his first works on science and society – Logik der Forschung, The Poverty and the Open Society. This “social turn” meant paying sustained and critical attention to the conventions or “rules of the game” of science and society. It is this, more than falsificationism, which marks the unity of Popper’s thought in the methodology of the natural and the un-natural sciences.  

Jarvie wrote  ’My argument will be that thinking socially (rather than logically or psychologically) is central to Popper’s philosophical enterprise beginning with [the German prototype of] The Logic of Scientific Discovery, continuing for his ten most creative years, and emerging sporadically after that. Popper’s consistent ability to think socially also does much to account for his originality, since it is hard to do and its difficulty is attested by how often readers and critics of Popper do not grasp that this is what he is doing’. (page 21)   

Moving on to The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, eds Mirowski and Plehwe.   Expectations are low,  bearing in mind the misrepresentation of Popper and the sneering reference in Machine Dreams to Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society”. That is a good indicator of sloppy reading and bad faith because it does not accurately represent the point that Thatcher was making at the time.

But still, Habermas made the same mistake and he is a  master of hermeneutics.  

Of course each of Mirowski’s arguments have to be treated on its merits and we all make some mistakes. As the Good Soldier Schweik said, “anyone can make a mistake and the more a man thinks about things, the more mistakes he is bound to make”.   Mirowski thinks about a lot of things and so I suppose Schweik would expect him to make a lot of mistakes.  

Mirowski’s solo contribution is the Postface on defining Neoliberalism. The book only arrived yesterday and I will not attempt a comprehensive review.    You probably thought that Pete and Steve and their colleagues at  the blog Coordination Problem (previously The Austrian Economists) are just some regular guys with an eccentric take on economics and politics but you need to be warned that they are a part of “the most important movement in political and economic thought in the second half of the twentieth century”. (426). In other words, they are IMPORTANT  and they are a worry!  

The Mont Pelerin Society provides the thread to organise the mass of intricate historical detail that the authors have compiled on the activities of the “neoliberal thought collective” and precursors such as a group associated with Walter Lippmann in France.   Dieter Plehwe wrote the introduction.   Keith Tribe – the movement in Britain from 1930 to 1980.   Ralf Ptak – the ordoliberal foundations of the social market economy.   Rob Van Horn and Philip Mirowski – the rise of the Chicago School of Economics.   Yves Steiner – confronting the trade unions.   Rob van Horn – on the Chicago attack on the law and economics of trust-busting.   Dieter Plehwe on the origins of the neoliberal economic development discourse.   Kim Phillips-Fein on the role of business conservatives.   Karin Fischer on the influence of the neolibs in Chile before, during and after Pinochet.   Jennifer Bair on the new international order.   Timothy Mitchell on urban property rights in Peru.   Postface, Mirowski defining neoliberalism.  

He starts with a critique of “Wayward Wikipedia” which he suggests is an example of the neoliberal “open market” agenda, playing out in the world of ideas, “appealing to the vanity of nonspecialists and autodidacts who are convinced that their lucubrations deserve as much attention as that accorded to recognized intellectuals”. p 424  

From the Wiki interlude we get the idea of the “double truth”. While Wiki is open to all it ends up conservative and authoritarian due to the editorial influence beind the scenes. The Mont Pelerin Society is supposed to be dedicated to freedom and spontaneous order, but “neoliberals are simulteneously elitists: they do not in fact practice what they preach” p 425. When they organise things, “the cosmos collapses to a taxis”…”something like the double truth doctrine holds for neoliberal theories of democracy…it also holds for the notion of a ‘constructivist’ approach to social reality”. p 426  

One of the main impressions of the book is the way the authors wear their ideological orientations on their sleeves and it is clearly no part of the agenda to provide any deep analysis of neoliberal programs that could explain why apparently intelligent and reasonable people like the Petes and Steve and Dave have got involved in this movement.  

He offers a list of eleven tenets of neoliberalism. Some of them are very strange.  

1. “The starting point of neoliberalism is the admission, contrary to classical liberal doctrine, that their version of the good society will triumph only if the becomes reconciled to the  fact that the conditions for its existence must be constructed and will not come about ‘naturally’ in the absence of concerted political effort and organization”.  

This is supposed to hint at contradiction but laissez faire liberalism did not preclude state action in the form of  “construction’, meaning piecemal experiments and instiutional reforms to control the use of force and fraud, to adminster police systems, courts and the laws of the land. It is like the no brainer that Hayek was opposed to planning, so he had to explain that planning is something that people do all the time, the objection is to holisistic or collectivist planning by the state.  

Another pervasive confusion is the idea that the market is a big agent or person, he has not got hold of the idea that a market is something that happens when people buy, swap and sell things. So when someone says that the market will decide the value of my house or car, it just means that the price will be set (subject to negotiation) by the people who turn up and make offers.  

7. Neoliberals begin with a presumption that capital has a natural right to flow freely across national boundaries (The free flow of labour enjoys no similar right).”     Absent the welfare state and there would cease to be a serious issue about the movement of people.  

8. “Neoliberals see pronounced inequality of economic resources and political rights not as an unfortunate byproduct of capitalism, but as a necessary functional characteristic of their ideal market system”.  

So before capitalism there was no pronounced inequality of economic resources and political rights?   The “European miracle” (Radnitzky) was narrowing inequalities but at the same time the phenomenon of inequality suddenly became a huge issue and, as Hutt pointed out, the system that was emancipating the masses, by a perverse turn of reasoning, was blamed for the suffering of the poor.  

9. “Corporations can do no wrong or at least they are not to be blamed it they do”.   ?  

Freedom and the Double Truth of Neoliberalism  

Mirowski has not got hold of the fact that there is no answer to the problem of sovereignty (Who shall rule?) and settles for the “majority rule” theory of democracy so everyone can (theoretically) participate in the political process.

Of course the tyranny of the majority (or of the interest groups who end up representing the “majority”) is no  better than any other tyranny and the most appropriate response, articulated by liberals from Hume to Popper, is to aim for institutional and traditional controls, checks and balances on the rulers (with no guarrantee of success).  

It seems that the simple minded idea of majority rule is on the rise and a US schoolteacher who blogs under the name “Conservative Blogger” has sent a warning based on his reading of pupils essays. It seems they the students generally accept that the outcome of  elections signals that the winners are “in charge” and the losers have no ground for complaint “suck it in, you guys lost!”.    

Consequently Mirowski can only see limited government as a device to disenfranchise the masses.  He manages to trace a line from Adolf Hitler’s crown jurist Carl Schmidt to Hayek (p 443-4). He suggests that Hayek owed more to Schmidt than he realised and so “For Hayek and the neoliberals, the Fuhrer was replaced by the figure of the entreprenneur, the embodiment of the will to power for the community, who must be permitted to act without being brought to rational account.”   From that point of course it is only a skip and jump to support Pinochet in Chile.  

Enough of Mirowsiki, what about some of the other chapers?  

Because the chapters are mostly historical narratives, reporting who said what to whom, when and where, objections to neoliberalism  mostly emerge in the form of side comments and innuendo, and by leaving out a lot of background information that might put the neolibs in a more sympathetic light. 

Keith Tribe wrote, regarding Peter Bauer “Like Jewkes, the forcefulness of his critique of state and economy is inversely proportional to its substantive merits.” (p 86) And “Neoliberal economism increasingly domianted the public domain, a discourse on markets and liberty whose lack of intellectual credibility was no obstacle to its propagation and execution.” (p 90)  

In the chapter on trade unions there is a lot on the differences of opinion within the movement, between the Continental approach to get the unions “inside the tent” compared with those who saw a need to confront and control the “strike threat system”.  The author lists a paper by Hutt at the MPS but did not cite any of his major works on the fallacies of collective bargaining, the special pleading of the Webbs and other historians of the labour movement, and the way the unions subverted the rule of law and indeed the democratic process, and the damage inflicted on the unempoyed and the community at large.  

Simarly the chapter on the “Third World” and development issues makes much of the differences of opinion in the movement, and the complications introduced by the process of decolonisation against the backdrop of the Cold War and the objective of keeping the new nations aligned to the West if possible. Peter Bauer emerged as the most important contributor to the dialogue, and to the rejection of the general  statist/socialist consensus on the need for state planning, foreign aid for industrial development etc. Admirers of Bauer will be perplexed by Plehwe’s comments like “Bauer eventually used Rodan’s work (if disengenuously) as witness to government ineffectiveness” (p 264) and “He was not shy (if disingenuous again) to cite Karl Marx as a witness…” ( p 265).

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5 Responses to Philip Mirowski on Popper and the Mont Pelerin Society

  1. George Balanchine says:

    “From the Wiki interlude we get the idea of the “double truth”. While Wiki is open to all it ends up conservative and authoritarian due to the editorial influence beind the scenes. ”

    I can attest to the truthfulness of this remark by Mirowski. From my own experience in trying to comment on a Wiki page about the painter Philip Guston, it was really impossible to make any changes, or if it was possible, I was not informed about how to do it. The page was controlled by some “artistic” Wiki group that had total editorial control over what was posted on the main page, the most important one.
    So, score one for Phil!

  2. George Balanchine says:

    “From that point of course it is only a skip and jump to support Pinochet in Chile. ”

    Yes, do you have another way to account for Milton “I love Liberty” Friedman’s support for Pinochet?

  3. Rafe says:

    Friedman visited many countries including communist China to offer advice on economic policy, not to support the ruling dictators. He did not support Pinochet any more than he supported the communist leadership in China.

    How hard is that to understand?

    Some of Friedman’s economic policy advice to Pinochet was taken on board, with good outcomes for the people of Chile. Those policies have been substantially kept in place by later and more leftwing governments.

    How does that reflect badly on Friedman and the Mont Pelerin Society?

    You may have noticed that Pinochet allowed himself to be voted out in a democratic election. How many leftwing dictators have allowed that to happen?

  4. Hey, I appreciate this is a late response, so feel free to ignore it – I just stumbled across this post, which I enjoyed for the most part.

    However, I do think you have a dangerously rose-tinted view of Pinochet. While it’s true that Friedman visited oppressive regimes in the name of ‘purely economic’ reforms, it’s incredibly difficult to separate the economic from the political project, and Friedman should have seen this. To push through the reforms required mass repression of unions, opposition and even of culture: left book/CD burning was commonplace under Pinochet. As one Chilean famously put it, “people were in prison so that prices could be free”. Friedman’s attempts to decouple the political and economic gloss over the crimes his reforms depended on.

    “Some of Friedman’s economic policy advice to Pinochet was taken on board, with good outcomes for the people of Chile.”

    Not really: the successful sectors were largely state owned or assisted, mostly the copper industry but also the state institution CORFCO, which sponsored fisheries, forestry and other areas. This maintained Chile’s export boom, despite the fact that the deregulated financial sector experienced a massive crisis within a decade, sending GDP and wages plummeting. The reforms of the 1990s also saw a rise in anti-poverty social democratic programs, while right now Chile and the rest of Latin America are decoupling themselves from international markets with ALBA, a solely Latin American organisation designed to manage trade in the region cooperatively.

    “You may have noticed that Pinochet allowed himself to be voted out in a democratic election. ”

    Only due to immense international pressure, after trying to rig a referendum, and once many of his major economic reforms had been cemented in by Chile’s new constitution. It’s also worth noting that somebody overthrowing democracy, instituting a reign of terror, then reinstating democracy after a couple of decades, is not exactly a model of diplomacy.

    “How many leftwing dictators have allowed that to happen?”

    Well, Gorbachev, for one. Not my favourite lefty, and certainly a still-born democracy (mostly due to similar interests as in Chile), but a counter example to your point nevertheless.

  5. Rafe says:

    Good points. A person from Chile told me that the nation was heading for disaster under Allende and Pinochet was initially greeted as a liberator. Allende was not elected with an unconditional mandate to govern, he was in coalition with another party on the understanding that he would not pursue his socialist program. Then he proceeded in defiance of the agreement.

    So Pinochet was initially seen as a turn for the better until the tide of opinion turned due to the death squads, so my view of Pinochet was indeed rose-tinted.

    In the end Chile did not have to suffer for long from Allende’s socialism or for a very long time from Pinochet and his associates. They are getting the benefit of some policies that Friedman recommended to Pinochet (who had no idea what to do) and I understand (without much research) that the moderate socialist regime that followed Pinochet has persisted with those policies for the most part.

    FWIW Popper allows for the violent overthrow of a tyranny, provided (a) that it can be done quickly so the nation is not thrown into chaos and ends up worse than before, and (b) it must put in place a proper limited government and effective administration without delay.

    Yes, score one for Gorbachev! The problem in Russia is that the tyranny was in place for such a long time that they have no memory of anything else, unlike Eastern Europe where there was a residue of civil and religious society to provide a moral framework for recovery from communist occupation.

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