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Dead Texts Take Flight

August 18, 2010

Tags EducationFree MarketsMedia and Culture

Three conversations at Mises University this year gave me great encouragement and confirmed the value of the work of the Mises Institute in resurrecting any and all great literature in the Austrian/libertarian milieu. All three were conversations with students about their influences and inspirations.

The first case was a student who aspired to obtain her PhD in history and do some more work toward analyzing history from an Austrian point of view. I asked: what book in particular is your model? The answer came quickly: The New Deal in Old Rome, by H.J. Haskell. Which edition? The Mises Institute edition, of course.

Now this is an interesting case. It was put into print only last year. The original book appeared in 1947, written by a journalist of the old school, a man who took a profound interest in Roman history and who had lived to chronicle the events of the New Deal. He decided to combine his two interests into an accessible history that drew parallels, toward the goal of helping readers to understand both Rome and the United States in the 1930s. It really is a masterpiece of exposition, one that had a big influence on Lew Rockwell.

Well, for reasons that no one really knows (and this happens all of the time), the book was never reprinted. It was one of those lost classics, not completely evaporated from reality but just forgotten about and deeply inaccessible. It lived in an ever-more-remote sector of the world's bookshelf of billions of titles. Our posting and publishing of the book, which took quite a bit of doing, brought it back to life.

It is at once thrilling and scary to think about the what-ifs in a case like this. What if we hadn't gone to the trouble of seeing this project through? What if we had never known to seize on this book? This person would never have encountered the book that changed the direction of a life. What happens to the ideas after this point is anyone's guess. And keep in mind that no one at the Mises Institute knew for sure that this book would make a difference for anyone. It is really a matter of releasing a gift and then waiting to see what happens.

A similar situation happened with The German Question, by Wilhelm Röpke. A PhD student was working on postwar economic reforms in Germany. The subject itself was inspired by this formerly obscure monograph by Röpke. The German Question was first published in 1945 in Germany, and then translated and published in Britain in 1946. Somewhere along the way, it dropped out of the literature and was rarely even brought up as part of the Röpke corpus of works. And yet it is a wonderful book, one that advocates radical decentralization in politics, coexisting with universal free trade in economics — a thesis that grows out of the Austrian theoretical edifice. Just getting a copy to scan and print was a serious undertaking (I think ours came from Geneva).

This same student was also taken with Prosperity Through Competition by Ludwig Erhard, another example of a book that would have no public presence were it not for the Mises Institute's efforts. Erhard was the man singularly responsible for the postwar German economic reforms. This entire book is an argument on behalf of economic competition, but what is striking here is the intended audience. It is not written as an appeal to bureaucrats, consumers, politicians, or economists. The argument is penned for the main interest group that stood in opposition to the competitive market process: the prevailing business class, which had come to live a cozy existence under a cartelized system.

The combination of both books had given this student his entire research agenda. They are what sparked that special something in him that had given rise to intellectual curiosity, which, one can hope, will lead to the progress of knowledge. Mises was fond of saying that ideas are real things. Here is a case in point. The ideas in these books changed the path of a life and a mind. Once again, I was thrilled to think what the Mises Institute had done in making these available, but that thrill is always tempered by the what-if scenario. It's almost like these two books had a near-death experience.

A final case in point is Efficiency and Externalities in an Open-Ended Universe, by Roy Cordato. This is a modern work by a currently working scholar, published first in 1992 by an academic print house. The book is interesting because it is a full and focused theoretical treatment of an important topic in the law-and-economics literature. It was widely debated when it came out. But then the publisher just began to neglect it, and it gradually vanished from a living existence.

We wrote the author and asked him about it. He wrote the publisher, which casually gave him back the rights to the book. The author then agreed to let the Mises Institute publish the book and put the text itself into the commons of world literature. This gave the book a full-fledged second life. One student at Mises University has decided to do a full dissertation on the Austrian treatment of the externality question, based entirely on his reading of this book. This is the book that opened his eyes and drew him into the Austrian worldview.

In none of the three cases mentioned above were the students aware of just how close their beloved books had come to a permanent death. To each of them, the book in question was just part of the literature, an accessible and living part of the world of ideas — as real as the iPhone, the car in the driveway, or a pair of jeans. Yes, the living existence of these texts is taken for granted. In some ways, that is the highest compliment the Mises Institute could receive.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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