An edited version of this was published at The Federalist today.
“If I hadn’t become an academic economist, I wanted to be a college basketball coach, maybe at Duke,” Peter Boetke says when asked what he wanted to be when he was young. Boetke, at 56, has just been elected as the youngest person to serve as president of the Mont Perelin Society, an invitation-only international association of 500 “thought leaders,” mainly academics, and overwhelmingly economists, with some historians, journalists, lawyers and law school professors, and philosophers thrown into the mix. It’s the most influential society you’ve never heard of. But it isn’t the fantasy of some fevered conspiracy theorist.
Boetke is the 30th president of the Society, founded in 1947 by F.A. Hayek. Hayek – author of The Road to Serfdom – in the years after World War II and the rise of Hitler and Stalin, wanted academics to study and promote individual rights, the rule of law, international peace, and the market society. Hayek, and several subsequent Mont Pelerin Presidents – Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, and Vernon Smith – have all been Nobel prize winners. (Members other than the Presidents have also won Nobel prizes, including novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, and economists Ronald Coase and George Stigler.) Imagine something like what you see when you watch or listen to a TED talk or Freakonomics broadcast – except the Pelerines have rarely made their events public, leading one group of academic critics of free global trade to brand them a shadowy “neoliberal thought collective.”
Despite the Society’s being in the intellectual stratosphere, Boetke says he wasn’t a reader of any kind as a high school student: “I played basketball ten hours a day when I could. I’d play all day, come home for dinner, and go out and play some more. The only thing I ever read were the books on basketball by [award winning UCLA] coach John Wooden.”
Boetke is discussing his love of basketball to answer my question of how he would state his life goals in the form of the statement by the famous Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (who coined the phrase “creative destruction”). Schumpeter said he wanted “to be the greatest economist in the world, … the best horseman in all of Austria and the greatest lover in all of Vienna.” Boetke, happily married to his high school sweetheart, Rosemary, and the father of two twenty-something sons, says basketball coaching or tennis, each of which he played in college until a series of broken ankles stopped him from playing basketball (he went on to captain the tennis team), are the only other lives that would have tempted him, with the possible exception of having been a philosophy professor.
Boetke explains his capture by the world of ideas partly by the times and partly by a charismatic professor. Good jobs where scarce in the late 70s when Boetke was working summers to save college money. He dug swimming pools for a local construction company in his home state of New Jersey, and one of his jobs was to siphon gas from one company truck to another so crews could drive to job sites – there were long lines for gas in the floundering Carter-era economy, and no one wanted to wait in them to keep the tanks filled up.
At Grove City College, the small Pennsylvania school that is Boetke’s alma mater, he met Hans Senholz, a former German air force officer who had been a prisoner of war in the United States. After the war Senholz returned to Europe for a master’s degree and then immigrated back to the U.S. and earned a Ph.D. in economics at New York University. Boetke says Senholz was a great orator and a true public intellectual, who made ideas come alive for his student. Boetke became excited about economics because Senholz’s lecture on how gas price controls caused shortages and queues made him see how economics could explain the events he was living through.
Grove City has produced a disproportionate share of influential free market movement people for its small size. Senholz was eulogized by Ron Paul for interesting the Congressman in free market ideas. Matt Kibbe, the former director of the advocacy group FreedomWorks, was a friend, fellow student, and fraternity brother of Boetke at Grove City: “Peter Boettke’s election to the Presidency of Mont Pelerin is a clear signal that this august intellectual community first established by Hayek in the dark days after World War II is adapting to the new opportunities and challenges of the Internet Age, and speaking to a younger generation of classical liberals. The audience for our ideas is so much bigger than ever before, and Pete brings a unique combination of Austrian scholarship, a rare ability to teach others, and the open spirit of a community builder. I can’t wait to see how the Mont Pelerin Society grows from here.” (Kibbe’s wife Terry, also a Grove City undergrad, credits Boetke with their careers in politics: “The story of Pete being the one who got Matt to change his major to economics from biology is actually important because it changed the course of our lives and is the reason we do what we do. And it happened over many beers at a party.”)
“The Mont Pelerin Society is in a position of deciding whether the Presidency is to be an honor for great achievement or great ambition,” according to Michael Munger, director of a political economy program at Duke University (where the alternate life Boetke would be coaching basketball) in the Political Science Department. “It is the nature of using the office as an honor that the great scholars and leaders of a previous generation are recognized. For the past fifteen years at least, the Mont Pelerin Society has chosen as its Presidents men and women in their late sixties who have earned recognition and honor. And that has served the Society well.
“But the Society faces a number of challenges, not least appealing to a new generation of scholars who will write the books, journal articles, and op-eds that will contest the intellectual and ideological spaces of tomorrow. The selection of Peter Boettke as President, a man of great achievement but who is still in his 50’s, betokens a “passing of the torch.” Prof. Boettke has already played a key role in expanding and animating the Association for Private Enterprise Education, and I fully expect him to do the same for the Mont Pelerin Society.” Munger says he was never interested in joining, but now that Boetke is president, plans to apply.
At George Mason University, where Boetke has been Director of Graduate Studies and of Advanced Studies in the Economics Department, he has served as a coach: “Basketball is a team sport played by individuals who get to be creative within the flow of the game.” He works with a team of young economists who do research in fields Boetke describes as “institutional economics” and “analytical anarchism,” that study the way groups of people deal with government failure, areas where laws, regulations and badly defined property rights fail to solve problems like the use of scarce water resources. Many of his faculty also have undergraduate degrees from small colleges like Hillsdale or Manhattan College. Yet they have an impressive output combining the schools of two Mont Pelerin Nobel winners, Hayek’s Austrian economics – which views the economy as a dispersed cloud of information agents must learn, interpret, and navigate – and Buchanan’s public choice theory – which studies the “profit motivated” self-interested actions of all institutions, including teacher’s unions, regulatory agencies, political parties and other groups that are not the traditional for-profit companies people think economics addresses. One of Boetke’s faculty, Peter Leeson, wrote a widely praised book, The Invisible Hook, an economic history that applied “analytical anarchism” to 18th century pirate ships, showing how racial equality and democracy came to exist, unplanned, on pirate ships, before they existed on land, because economic efficiency required it. Hook (which Boetke takes no credit for – “I’ve learned far more from Leeson than Leeson learned from me”) won the 2009 Gold Medal Award for the best book in economics and business. Leeson agrees with Munger and Kibbe: “ One of the world’s most important classical liberal thinkers is now the president of one of the world’s most important classical liberal organizations; a perfect fit.” Another young faculty, Christopher Coyne, who, employs economic theory to analyze military intervention and empire-building, says “I second everything Pete Leeson said.”
Boetke is currently working on two books, one on Hayek for a series on great thinkers in economics, and one a book on public administration from a classical liberal perspective. When asked about how he would change the Mont Pelerin Society – in an age where mass movements and demagogues seem to be opposed to the free trade and open borders liberals have favored since the 19th century days of Richard Cobden and John Bright and their British Anti-Corn Law League – he answers that it should keep doing what it has always done, but address new issues like “mass migration, or the debt crisis.”
When asked about any particular new agenda for Mont Pelerin he doesn’t have one (yet). “I’m an academic so I am reading Max Hartwell’s book The History of the Mont Pelerin Society. I’ve been a member for a few years but I don’t know everything the society has done.” Boetke didn’t run for the office; that’s not how the Pelerines choose their president. A nominating committee nominates you and then those members who come to the annual meeting vote on you. Asked if the Society’s conferences will become more public like TED talks or South by Southwest, Boetke says “I am reading up the various debates that have been part of the history and don’t have a settled position yet. I do think the Mont Pelerin Society in New York City was a great success,” referring to a 2009 open panel on the financial crisis. “But not sure that changes the general policy.” The next regional Mont Pelerin Society meeting, in 2017, in Seoul, Korea, is being advertised on social media.