Thinkers from the past

How The Economist’s writers found fresh thoughts in old ideas

How relevant are the ideas of the past to the issues of today? If liberals are to re-fit their values for the 21st century, which ideas should be saved and which can be ditched?

As part ofThe Economist’s Open Future initiativeto remake the case for liberalism, our writers re-assessed the work of thinkers such as John Maynard Keynes, Karl Popper and Friedrich Nietzsche. The task was to consider the relevance of these thinkers in today’s debates around global trade, Brexit and democracy — among other big questions.

But applying old ideas to problems of the present is fraught with difficulty. Keynes developed his economic ideas while globalisation was in its infancy, and Nietzsche never had to reckon with the effect of social media on the soul. Here, three writers for the series inThe Economistreflect on how they re-examined old ideas in light of modern issues.

Author of “Hayek, Popper and Schumpeter formulated a response to tyranny

我负责写奥地利n thinkers, a category which covers almost a century of work across lots of disciplines. After some skim reading I realised that three exiled Austrians each wrote their most important books during the second world war. In Massachusetts Joseph Schumpeter wrote “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy”, published in 1942. In New Zealand Karl Popper wrote “The Open Society and its Enemies” in 1945. And Friedrich Hayek wrote “The Road to Serfdom” in Britain in 1944.

In terms of style, Popper seems remarkably fresh, whereas Schumpeter has dated more. But you can immediately sense that the debates all these writers grappled with — over freedom, inequality and tyranny — resonate today.

最有趣的时刻是当我意识到that one of their bedrock assumptions has changed. When Popper and Hayek wrote, they argued that the free market was both efficient (because central planners couldn’t possibly know what was going on in a complex economy) and also a safeguard against tyranny (because the state had limited power). But today the most efficient kind of economy might well be concentrated — through, for example, a few big tech firms or an authoritarian government with a huge amount of data.

Reading about these Austrians crystallised an important thought for me: today there is a rising tension between liberty and what is economically efficient.

Author of “How Keynes would negotiate Brexit

The idea of how John Maynard Keynes might negotiate Brexit came to me when I rediscovered a speech he made to the House of Lords about Britain’s post-war financial dealings with America. In it, the great economist sets out what it means to get the best deal possible, even in unfavourable circumstances.

The challenges faced by Keynes at the end of the second world war are vastly different to those faced by the Brexit negotiators today. Yet there are important lessons to be learned. His speech, made in 1945, just four months before he died at the age of 62, is rich in ideas.

Keynes was a seasoned negotiator. Much of his advice is grounded in psychology. It is this human element that holds the key to negotiation and which is most applicable today. Crucially, Keynes understood that deals are made by people. Negotiators are unlikely to get a just deal without understanding the psychology the “other side”.

Author of “Against the tyranny of the majority

John Stuart Mill is one of those thinkers everyone has heard of, but few people know much about. I was interested in writing about Mill because of his views on democracy. They were highly progressive for their time, though horribly regressive by today’s standards. For example, he wondered whether votes by those with a university education should count for more than those cast by unskilled workers.

What would he make of Britain’s decision to hold a referendum on Brexit, an issue that very few people fully understood? And what would he make of President Donald Trump’s unlikely electoral success?

What comes across in the essay, I think, is that a person often associated with radical liberalism and capitalism actually has much more subtle — and interesting — ideas.

All six ofThe Economist’s primers on liberal thought can beread for free here.Read more about Open Future,The Economist’s global conversation on markets, technology and freedom in the 21st century.

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Insight and opinion on international news, politics, business, finance, science, technology, books and arts.

The Economist

Insight and opinion on international news, politics, business, finance, science, technology, books and arts

The Economist

Written by

Insight and opinion on international news, politics, business, finance, science, technology, books and arts.

The Economist

Insight and opinion on international news, politics, business, finance, science, technology, books and arts

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