The subtitle is The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. Imagine a novel and interesting coverage of the post-war Austrian School, here relabeled the “Geneva School,” a well-done partial history of the WTO and EU, and a book where the central characters are not only Mises and Hayek, but also Alexander Rüstow, Wilhelm Röpke, and Michael Heilperin.
And it’s written by a Wellesley historian who appears to be entirely sane and responsible throughout.
The main lesson, and here these are my own words not those directly of the author, is that various liberals came to realize that their dreams for a free world order in fact involved quite an extensive international legal apparatus, far removed from the traditional nightwatchman state. The EU and the “Four Freedoms” are in this view the actual instantiation of historic classical liberalism, arguably more than anything the United States has done of late. And if you don’t like the over-regulation and excess bureaucracy of the EU, well maybe you’d better realize those are difficult to avoid secondary consequences of having the international law be so strong as to actually constrain state power (again my words, not Slobodian, though his book may lead you to this idea).
Wilhelm Röpke it turns out is the (a?) bad guy, and I have to say I always considered him a third-rate, misguided agrarian thinker. It turns out his views on Africa were not entirely sound, and furthermore he sought to pull the rest of the liberals away their “economic libertarianism,” keeping in mind that Hayek already favored a social welfare state and socialized health insurance, among other interventions.
I folded over 12 separate pages in this book, which is considerably higher than average.
That all said, I don’t quite buy onto the whole story. I read Hayek as rebelling against the vanquished Austro-Hungarian Empire, rather than keeping it as a mental model for reform. Nor am I persuaded by the idea of a identifiable “Geneva School,” whether as an independent group or as a sub-branch of the Austrians. In my view, the connections running through Geneva are historical ones (various people and institutions got put there), not intellectual in nature. Haberler and Machlup I would have covered in greater detail, and that would have strengthened the author’s core thesis. Oddly, there is no mention of Melchior Palyi at all.
pp.271-272 have a good fifteen-point summary of what the Geneva School is supposed to stand for, you might try #5: “World law trumps a world state. International institutions should act as mechanisms for protecting and furthering competition without offering spaces for popular claims-making.”
And by the way, use of the word “neoliberalism” in a book’s title is almost always a major negative signal, but here it is actually appropriate.