Peter Boettke wanted to be a Duke basketball coach when he was young. But now, at age 56, Boettke is an academic economist, and the newest (as well as youngest) president of the Mont Perelin Society.
The Mont Perelin Society an invitation-only international association of 500 “thought leaders”—mainly academics and overwhelmingly economists, with some historians, journalists, lawyers, law school professors, and philosophers thrown into the mix. It’s the most influential society you’ve never heard of.
F.A. Hayek, author of “The Road to Serfdom,” founded the group in 1947. In the years after World War II and the rise of Hitler and Stalin, Hayek 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.)
The Pelerines’ events are similar to a TED talk or Freakonomics broadcast—but they have rarely made their events public, leading one group of academic critics to brand them a shadowy “neoliberal thought collective.”
How Boettke Came To Love the World of Ideas
Boettke is the 30th president of the Society. He became an economist through circumstance, and through the influence of a talented professor. Good jobs were scarce in the late 70s, when Boettke was working summers to save college money. He dug swimming pools for a local construction company in his home state of New Jersey, and in another of his jobs, siphoned gas from one company truck to another so crews could drive to job sites. Gas shortages plagued the floundering Carter-era economy, and no one wanted to sit in line at the gas station to keep the tanks filled up.
Boettke attended Grove City College, a small Pennsylvania school. It was there that 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., earning a Ph.D. in economics at New York University. Boettke says Senholz was a great orator and a true public intellectual. He made ideas come alive for his students. Boettke grew excited about economics after Senholz lectured on how gas price controls caused shortages and queues. It showed him how economics could explain real-world problems and situations.
Grove City has produced a disproportionate share of influential free market movement people, considering its size. Ron Paul eulogized Senholz for interesting him in free market ideas. Matt Kibbe, former director of the advocacy group FreedomWorks, was a friend, fellow student, and fraternity brother of Boettke at Grove City.
“Peter Boettke’s election to the Presidency of Mont Pelerin is a clear signal that this august intellectual community… is adapting to the new opportunities and challenges of the Internet Age, and speaking to a younger generation of classical liberals,” notes Kibbe. “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.”
Michael Munger, director of a political economy program at Duke University (where the alternate life Boettke would be coaching basketball), says the Mont Pelerin society has traditionally “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 in selecting Boettke, who’s still in his 50s, the society seems to be reconsidering the qualifications its leader must have.
“The Mont Pelerin Society is in a position of deciding whether the Presidency is to be an honor for great achievement or great ambition,” Munger explains. “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. … 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.”
From Basketball Player to Economics ‘Coach’
Despite the Mont Pelerin Society’s intellectual ethos, Boettke says he wasn’t a reader of any kind as a high school student. “I played basketball 10 hours a day when I could,” he says. “I’d play all day, come home for dinner, and go out and play some more. The only things I ever read were the books on basketball by [award winning UCLA] coach John Wooden.”
Boettke is happily married to his high school sweetheart Rosemary, and the father of two 20-something sons. He says coaching basketball or tennis (both of which he played in college) are the only other lives that would have tempted him, with the possible exception of becoming a philosophy professor.
But at George Mason University, where Boettke has been Director of Graduate Studies and of Advanced Studies in the Economics Department, he has served as a coach, working with a team of young economists who research “institutional economics” and “analytical anarchism.” They study the way groups deal with government failure, and areas where laws, regulations, and badly defined property rights fail to solve problems like the use of scarce water resources.
Boettke’s faculty combine Hayek’s Austrian economics (which views the economy as a dispersed cloud of information that 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 outside the traditional for-profit companies people associate with economics).
One of his faculty members, Peter Leeson, wrote “The Invisible Hook” in 2009. It’s an economic history that applied “analytical anarchism” to 18th century pirate ships. Leeson shows how racial equality and democracy came to exist, unplanned, on pirate ships before they existed on land, because economic efficiency required it. “Hook” won the 2009 Gold Medal Award for the best book in economics and business.
When it comes to Boettke, Leeson agrees with Munger and Kibbe, noting that “ 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.”
What Will the Future of the Society Look Like?
Boettke is currently working on two books: one on Hayek for a series on great economic thinkers, and on public administration from a classical liberal perspective. He believes the Mont Pelerin Society should keep doing what it has always done, but address new issues like “mass migration, or the debt crisis.”
Boettke says he doesn’t have a new agenda for the society (yet). “I’m an academic, so I am reading Max Hartwell’s book “The History of the Mont Pelerin Society,” he says. “I’ve been a member for a few years but I don’t know everything the society has done.”
Boettke didn’t run for the office; that’s not how the Pelerines choose their president. A committee chooses their nominee, and then annual meeting members cast their votes. Asked if the Society’s conferences will become more public—like TED talks or South by Southwest—Boettke said he doesn’t have a settled position yet. “I do think the Mont Pelerin Society in New York City was a great success,” he said, referring to a 2009 open panel on the financial crisis. The next regional Mont Pelerin Society meeting, in 2017, in Seoul, Korea, is being advertised on social media.