It is said that a number of years ago, when Bill Buckley was at the beginning of his career of college-speaking, and somewhat more tolerant of libertarians than he is today, he once wrote two names on the blackboard thereby nicely dramatized the point that students in his audience were being presented with only one side of the great world-forming debate between capitalism and socialism. The name of the defender of democratic socialism—I think it was Harold Laski, possibly John Dewey—was recognized by most of those present.
The name of Ludwig von Mises was entirely unknown to them. Needless to say, the situation has not basically improved since then (unless perhaps in the sense that most college students would now recognize the name of William F. Buckley, Jr.). How has it been possible that the great majority of economics and social science students, even at elite American universities, are completely unfamiliar with Mises? Even the New York Times, in its notice at the time of his death in October 1973, termed Mises “one of the foremost economists of this century,” and Milton Friedman, though from a completely different tradition of economic thought, has called him “one of the great economists of all time.”
But Mises was even more than a great economist. Throughout the world, among knowledgeable people—in German-speaking Europe, in France, in Britain, in Latin America, in our own country—Mises was famous as the great twentieth century champion of a school of thought which could be said to have a certain historical importance and a certain intellectual respectability: the one that began with Adam Smith, David Hume, and Turgot, and included Humboldt, Bentham, Benjamin Constant, Tocqueville, Acton, Böhm-Bawerk, William Graham Sumner, Herbert Spencer, Pareto, and many others. Offhand, one would have thought that this acknowledged position alone would have entitled Mises to being presented within the “pluralistic” setting of left-liberal Academe.
And then there were Mises’s scientific achievements, which were extraordinary. For example, it is conceded on all sides that in the whole discussion revolving around the viability of a system of central economic planning, Mises played the key role. Quite possibly the great intellectual scandal (still unadmitted) of the past century has been that the vast international Marxian movement, including thousands upon thousands of professional thinkers in all fields, was for generations content to discuss the whole issue of capitalism vs. socialism solely in terms of the alleged defects of capitalism. The question of how, and how well, a socialist economy would function, was avoided as taboo.
It was Mises’s accomplishment—and a sign of his superb independence of mind—to have brushed aside this pious “one-just-doesn’t-speak-of-such-things,” and to have presented comprehensively and arrestingly the problems inherent in attempting rational economic calculation in a situation where no market exists for production goods. Anyone familiar with the structural problems with which the more advanced Communist countries are continually faced and with the debate over “market socialism,” will perceive the significance and continuing relevance of Mises’s work in this field alone.
How then can we account for the fact that those who managed to take a Laski and a Thorstein Veblen—or even a Walter Lippmann and a Kenneth Galbraith—seriously as important social philosophers somehow could never bring themselves to familiarize their students with Mises or to show him the marks of public recognition and respect that were his due (he was, for example, never president of the American Economic Association)? At least part of the answer, I think, lies in what Jacques Reuff, in a warm tribute, called Mises’s “intransigence.” Mises was a complete doctrinaire and a relentless and implacable fighter for his doctrine. For over sixty years he was at war with the spirit of his age, and with every one of the advancing, victorious, or merely modish political schools, left and right.
Decade after decade he fought militarism, protectionism, inflationism, every variety of socialism, and every policy of the interventionist state, and through most of that time he stood alone, or close to it. The totality and enduring intensity of Mises’s battle could only be fueled from a profound inner sense of the truth and supreme value of the ideas for which he was struggling. This—as well as his temperament, one supposes—helped produce a definite “arrogance” in his tone (or “apodictic” quality, as some of us in the Mises seminar fondly called it, using one of his own favorite words), which was the last thing academic left-liberals and social democrats could accept in a defender of a view they considered only marginally worthy of toleration to begin with. (This would largely account, I think, for the somewhat greater recognition that has been accorded Friedrich Hayek, even before his greatly deserved Nobel Prize. Hayek is temperamentally much more moderate in expression than Mises ever was, preferring, for instance, to avoid the old slogan of “laissez faire.” And it is hard to imagine Mises making such a gesture as Hayek did in dedicating The Road to Serfdom “to socialists of all parties.”)
But the lack of recognition seems to have influenced or deflected Mises not in the least. Instead, he continued his work, decade after decade: accumulating contributions to economic theory; developing the theoretical structure of the Austrian School; and, from his understanding of the laws of economic activity, elaborating, correcting, and bringing up to date the great social philosophy of classical liberalism.
Now, within the classical liberal tradition, distinctions may be drawn. One very important one is between what may be termed “conservative” and “radical” liberals. Mises belonged to the second category, and on this basis may be contrasted to writers, for instance, such as Macaulay, Tocqueville, and Ortega y Gasset. There was very little of the Whig about Mises. The vaunted virtues of aristocracies; the alleged need for a religious basis for “social cohesion;” the reverence for tradition (it was somehow always authoritarian traditions that were to be reverenced, and never the traditions of free thought and rebellion); the fear of the emerging “mass-man,” who was spoiling things for his intellectual and social betters; the whole cultural critique that later provided a substantial foothold for the attack on the consumer society—these found no place in Mises’s thinking.
To take an example, Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, at one point cries out: “Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests—in a word, so anti-poetic—as the life of a man in the United States.” Whether or not this judgment is true, Mises would never have bothered to make it. As a utilitarian liberal, he had more respect for the standards by which ordinary people judge the quality of their own lives. It is highly doubtful that Mises felt any of the qualms of liberals like Tocqueville at the Americanization of the world. (In fact, their attitude towards America would be a good rough criterion for categorizing classical liberals as “radical” or “conservative.”)
Mises, then, was a radical liberal, in the line of the Philosophical Radicals and the men of Manchester. All the elements of radical liberalism are there: first of all, and most basic, his uncompromising rationalism, reiterated again and again. (Symptomatic of Mises’s avoidance of everything he would consider mystical and obscurantist in social thought is the fact that, to my knowledge, he never in all his published writings once mentions Edmund Burke except in the context of someone who, in alliance with writers like de Maistre, was ultimately a philosophical opponent of the developing liberal world.)
There is his utilitarianism, taking the end of politics to be not “the good,” but human welfare, as men and women individually define it for themselves. There is his championing of peace, which in the tradition of those nineteenth-century liberals most closely identified with the doctrine of complete laissez faire—Richard Cobden, John Bright, Frédéric Bastiat, and Herbert Spencer—he bases on the economic substructure of free trade. And, more surprising, there is in Mises a basically democratic concern and, in an important sense, an egalitarianism, such that this requires special comment.
Mises’s fundamentally democratic and egalitarian out-look is not, of course, to be understood in terms of belief in some innate equality of talents or in equality of income. When Mises discusses the great question of equality he does not have in mind a future fantasy utopia, where each will absolutely count for one and none for more than one, but rather the empirical conditions under which human beings have hitherto found themselves in various societies.
What have actually been the conditions of class, status, degree, and privilege in the history of mankind, and what difference does capitalism make? The history of pre-capitalist societies is one of slavery, serfdom, and caste- and class-privileges in the most degrading forms. It is history made by slave-owners, warrior-nobles, and eunuch-makers, by kings, their mistresses, and courtiers, by priests and other Mandarin-intellectuals—by parasites and oppressors of all descriptions. Capitalism shifts the whole center of gravity of society (“The World Turned Upside Down,” as Lord Cornwallis’s troops played at Yorktown).
In the hackneyed but true and sociologically enormously important statement: every dollar, whether in the possession of someone totally lacking in the social graces, of someone of “mean birth,” of a Jew, of a black, of someone no one ever even heard of, is the equal of every other dollar and commands products and services on the market which talented people must structure their lives to provide. As Marx and Engels observed, the market breaks down every Chinese Wall and levels the world of status and traditional privilege that the West inherited from the Middle Ages.
It is the battering ram of the great democratic revolution of modern times. Mises maintained that the pseudorevolution which socialism would bring about is much more likely to lead to the reemergence of the society of status and the re-degradation of the masses to the position of pawns, controlled by an elite which would assign itself the title role in the heroic melodrama, Man Consciously Makes His Own History.
As far as the caliber and quality of Mises’s thinking goes, my own view is that he is able to penetrate to the heart of important questions, where other writers typically exhaust their capacities on peripheral points. Some of my favorite examples are his discussions of “worker control” (which promises to become the preferred social system of the Left in many Western countries), and of Marxist social philosophy (which Mises deals with in a number of his books, most extensively and trenchantly in Theory and History.)
In the conjunction in this brief discussion of great intellectual scope, rigorous reasoning, and the proud defense of classical liberal values, the reader can glimpse something of the distinctive character of Mises as social philosopher.
No appreciation of Mises would be complete without saying something, however inadequate, about the man and the individual. Mises’s immense scholarship, bringing to mind other German-speaking scholars, like Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter, who seemed to work on the principle that someday all encyclopedias might very well just vanish from the shelves; the Cartesian clarity of his presentations in class (it takes a master to present a complex subject simply); his respect for the life of reason, evident in every gesture and glance; his courtesy and kindliness and understanding, even to beginners; his real wit, of the sort proverbially bred in the great cities, akin to that of Berliners, of Parisians and New Yorkers, only Viennese and softer—let me just say that to have, at an early point, come to know the great Mises tends to create in one’s mind life-long standards of what an ideal intellectual should be.
These are standards to which other scholars whom one encounters will almost never be equal, and judged by which the ordinary run of university professor—at Chicago, Princeton, or Harvard—is simply a joke (but it would be unfair to judge them by such a measure; here we are talking about two entirely different sorts of human beings). It was altogether fitting for Murray Rothbard, in the obituary he wrote for Mises in Libertarian Forum, to append these lines from Shelley’s Adonais, and it is fitting for us to recall them in the year of Mises’s centenary:
For such as he can lend—they borrow not
Glory from those who made the world their prey;
And he is gathered to the kings of thought
Who waged contention with their time’s decay,
And of the past are all that cannot pass away.
Finally, for the serious reader of politics and social philosophy who has never studied Mises my advice would be to make the omission good as soon as possible: it will save a lot of otherwise wasted effort on the road to truth in these matters. Liberalism or Bureaucracy would be a good start; or, for those with a special interest in twentieth century history, Omnipotent Government; or his Socialism, which remains for me the finest book I have ever read in the social sciences. Considering the absolutely critical place America has in Western civilization today, it would truly be a tragedy if a few establishment professors succeeded in keeping intelligent young Americans from acquainting themselves with the rich heritage of ideas left us by Ludwig von Mises.
A version of this article appeared in the October 1981 issue of the Libertarian Review.