Matilde Ciolli, 2023-24 HOPE Center Visiting Scholar

Matilde Ciolli
Matilde Ciolli

In the postwar world—a world in which governments were actively involved in managing and reconstructing national economies—a group of thinkers began urging a revival of classical liberal principles when it came to economic markets.

The return to classical liberal principles that they urged is now called neoliberalism. But as Matilde Ciolli, a 2023-24 HOPE Center visiting scholar who is studying the spread and evolution of neoliberal ideas in the Global South, is quick to add, neoliberalism as then understood was not, as many people today believe, a blind commitment to free markets. For it brought with it the understanding, learned from painful lessons of the Great Depression, that the economy could not in fact be left solely on its own.

“Neoliberals such as Hayek,” Matilde explains, “knew that a market economy could function smoothly only with the institutional support of government and the laws.”

In short, they saw the limits of laissez-faire and knew that economies had to adapt to the new postwar realities.

“The right political conditions, the legal structure—all those were needed to create and enforce market order.”

In addition, Matilde says, the postwar neoliberals acknowledged that the kinds of institutional support that nourished markets in one country might differ from the support that would nourish markets in another.

“The postwar thinkers knew that any plan to liberalize markets had to be flexible and adapt to specific economic and political contexts.”

For that reason, people like Hayek made several visits to countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Mexico, as well as Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela, to observe firsthand local conditions and support the spread of neoliberal ideas. Matilde, who completed her PhD in 2022 (jointly awarded by the Università degli Studi di Milano and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris), is interested in how Hayek’s ideas were adapted to fit the particular conditions of a given country.

During her visit to Duke, Matilde will delve into Hayek’s archives, the complete microfilm of which is at the Rubenstein Library, researching his many trips to Latin America.

“We think of neoliberalism as a largely European and American phenomenon,” Matilde says. “Yet Latin American economists were involved almost from the very start.”

She points out that Mexico had invited Ludwig von Mises, one of the postwar neoliberals, to visit as early as 1942—five years before the famous first meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, often thought to mark the beginning of the neoliberal movement.

For that reason, it is plain wrong, Matilde says, to identify neoliberalism with just one person or to see it as a single blueprint for economic reform.

“Neoliberalism was very much a collective project, shaped by many people in many different areas of the world.”

Matilde, whose passion is dancing the tango—she studied it in Buenos Aires—was born and raised in Rome. Although she has visited the United States many times, including last summer on a grant to examine Hayek’s papers at Stanford, this is her first visit to Duke.

She will be here until April.