Volker Bolsters Economic Liberty

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1947

William Volker was a millionaire by age 47, and could have been so earlier had he not begun each workday by meeting with anyone who asked and writing checks to help many of them, giving away perhaps one third of his income. He had been powerfully impressed as a young boy when his German-immigrant family arrived in Chicago shortly after the Great Fire and saw “a vast spontaneous system of relief supported by charitable persons.” When he grew up he did his part to keep such neighborly assistance alive. “Mr. Anonymous” was a devout Christian and very active in the civic life of his adopted Kansas City, Missouri.

In 1910, Volker helped the Kansas City government create the nation’s first municipal welfare department. He was soon disillusioned, however, by political manipulation of the funds. “Political charity isn’t charity,” Volker concluded. Later in his life Volker discovered the free-market thinker Friedrich Hayek, whose analysis of the ways government is often kidnapped by special interests helped Volker make sense of his experience.

When Hayek, amid Western Europe’s flirtation with Marxism, was trying to organize a meeting of free-market economists in Mont Pelerin, Switzerland, he worried that no Americans would attend due to the high cost of travel. Volker’s foundation came to the rescue with a check that allowed 17 Americans to fly across the ocean for the 1947 gathering. The American attendees included Milton Friedman, Henry Hazlitt, Leonard Read, George Stigler, and Ludwig von Mises (who was not an American but was teaching in New York). The Mont Pelerin Society, as the resulting group came to be called, went on to become a leading hub of free-market thinking. Eight of its members have won the Nobel Prize in economics. Many others have held important government posts in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Under the influence of Volker’s nephew and business partner, Harold Luhnow, the Volker Fund continued to play a role in the re-emergence of free-market thinking during the twentieth century. At a time when few other philanthropists showed any interest, it supported organizations that made the case for liberty in the Western cultural tradition.

In 1956, the Volker Fund sponsored a series of lectures by Milton Friedman that evolved into his seminal book Capitalism and Freedom. “This series of conferences stands out as among the most stimulating intellectual experiences of my life,” wrote Friedman in the preface. The Volker Fund also underwrote the fellowship that allowed Friedrich Hayek to teach at the University of Chicago for many years (which helped cement that campus as a center of classical liberalism and home for subsequent scholars like Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Ronald Coase, Gary Becker, Eugene Fama, Robert Fogel, Lars Hansen, and Robert Lucas—all winners of Nobel Prizes in economics), as well as grants that supported Ludwig von Mises at New York University.

  • Herbert Cornuelle, “Mr. Anonymous”: The Story of William Volker (Caxton Printers, 1951)
  • R. M. Hartwell, A History of the Mont Pelerin Society (Liberty Fund, 1995)