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Mises on Everything

December 7, 2005
I would not lose courage even now. I would not tire in saying what I knew to be true. -Ludwig von Mises[1]

Over the years many a book of quotes has been published for the world's consumers. They are a strange hybrid, a literary platypus, not quite books but books all the same. How does one review a non-book?[2] Sitting in my apartment is one of the Mises Institute's latest offerings: The Quotable Mises. Even the editor Dr. Mark Thornton warns the reader that this book-but-not-quite-a-book "is not intended as an introduction to Mises or as a summary of his work." (p.xvi)

I believe Thornton is being too modest. At 279 pages, over one thousand quotes, and a menu of two-hundred eighty-four subjects, the Quotable Mises will give someone who reads it all the way through a very good sense of Mises's character and philosophy. While it is not an in-depth study of the man's thought, it certainly makes fine cliff notes.

For example, I have read Planning for Freedom and Interventionism, only two out of the plethora of Mises's works. I plan on reading and studying all of them, especially his opus, Human Action. Until then, I must rely on the aforementioned three volumes — two books and a collection of quotes — for a feel of the man.

I did not have a firm opinion of him until I read the Quotable Mises. I believe that Ludwig von Mises was a gentleman scholar, highly intelligent, and one of the best men history has to offer. He was also completely unsuited for widespread popular or professional acceptance. And like that greatest of punk bands, The Pixies, his relative obscurity, while understandable, is undeserved.

Kill the Messenger

Genius does not allow itself to be hindered by any consideration for the comfort of its fellows — even of those closest to it. -Ludwig von Mises

Like this collection of quotes, Ludwig von Mises was a hybrid, not exactly a misanthrope, but not exactly a "man of the people" either, if you get my drift. This is a gentleman who, I have read, walked out of a Mont Pelerin Society meeting calling the other participants "socialists."[3] Mises wasn't good at "pulling his punches"; he did not suffer fools gladly.

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he showed no inclination at all to sugar coat reality for the masses. In regard to his fellow intellectuals, he could be very blunt; especially to those he considered "monetary cranks." Like George S. Patton's notorious, barely contained lack of respect for the middling Field Marshall Montgomery, Mises, especially when it came to Keynes, did a poor job of keeping his disdain in check.

For example, he wrote of Keynes "for what many people have admiringly called Keynes's 'brilliance of style' and 'mastery of language' were, in fact, cheap rhetorical tricks." (p.130) Much as Senator Gore said to FDR when that old thief asked Gore's opinion of his plan to confiscate the gold of the working masses ("Why, that's just plain stealing, isn't it, Mr. President?"[4]) Mises wrote "in old fashioned language, Keynes proposed cheating the workers." (p.131)

Now is not the place to argue whether or not Keynes was a master safe cracker; I am merely asking if you would maintain any relations, public or private, with a man who called you a thief. I wouldn't either, even if the accusation was spot on. Robert Formaini, writing about Mises's career circa 1944 to 1960, states he was "an outcast professionally."[5] My reaction to this nugget of information did not include surprise.

Showing too a complete lack of political ambition, Mises wrote, "the egalitarian doctrine is manifestly contrary to all the facts established by biology and by history." (p.73) Now this certainly wasn't going to win him popular acclaim in modern America, where the doctrine of "everybody's got a right to [insert your wish here]" has for many years also included a right to be considered intelligent. Even stupid people are fully aware that not everyone is equally intelligent, but it's just not nice to say so.[6]

For example, Hillary Clinton in her book, It Takes A Village, spouts that she has "never met a stupid child" because the child's "intelligence is expressed in a way that is not customarily recognized." Now that's just stupid. But say it like you mean it and you too can be a senator — with an adoring public to boot.[7]

Mises, instead of pandering to the masses, wrote, "freedom is no natural right," (p.90) that everyone must earn it because "the natural condition of man is extreme poverty and insecurity." (p.164) Now I'm not saying Mises was wrong. But if you're going to dispel people's dearly held beliefs, being voted Prom King is not in your future.

The lack of popular acclaim for this man just reinforces my belief that the common man, so to speak, does not like reading political economy. (Mises agreed, he wrote that "the book market is flooded by a downpour of trivial fiction for the semi-barbarians." p.7) Yet the working masses overwhelming preference to tote Stephen King's The Stand rather than Human Action to the beach in and of itself fails to explain Mises's complete lack of popular acclaim. I believe another factor must be taken into account.

If the man lacked one thing above all, it was a good public relations expert. Hitler had Leni Riefenstahl, Lenin had Maxim Gorky, Keynes had the entire apparatus of government; even poor little Castro had the New York Times hammering and sickling him into an agrarian reformer.[8] Who stood up for Mises? Who was his Lizzie Grubman?[9] Mises's lack of a good P.R. firm coupled with his refusal to pull his punches with either his fellow intellectuals or the public explains a large measure of his relative obscurity, an obscurity that this book shows to be completely undeserved.

Power To The People

I said I'm free to do what I want any old time. -Soup Dragons

Like our Founding Fathers, Mises seemed to have no illusions about "The People." He did not elevate the masses into a demigod of infinite wisdom and goodness. He wrote, "majorities are no less exposed to error and frustration than kings and dictators." (p.53) He referred to "The People" as the "semi-barbarians."[10] He knew, as the Founding Fathers did, that men are very flawed creatures, apt to be ruled by emotion rather than reason. But that is not to say he thought us any less human for it.

Mises did not fall for the claptrap that nationality, race, or gender made one superior to those not so blessed. As to the first he stated that "the newborn child is a savage" (p.35) and will remain so until that individual applies himself to a quest for knowledge, which takes time and effort because "there are no shortcuts to wisdom." (p.211)

As for the question of race, he stated "racial hatred is not a natural phenomenon innate to man. It is a product of ideologies," (p.56) and he believed such ideologies to be irrational. He referred to "the stupid race pride of the white man." (p.42) For the feminist set, he stated that "all mankind would suffer if woman should fail to develop her ego and be unable to unite with man as equal, freeborn companions and comrades." (p.81) Mises wrote that "the logical structure of human thought … is the same for all races, nations, and classes." (p.139)

Here history gives us a man unsullied by nationalist, racist, or sexist ideologies — a true rarity amongst the intellectual set. So why have I never seen his face on a stamp?[11]

What makes Mises shine, where this book truly soars is when he shows his essential respect for the common man, his urge to see us "semi-barbarians" free and happy, through his repeated urging that his fellow intellectuals and their zealots leave us alone. Mises argues this core belief in language every bit the equal in its beauty to anything our Founders wrote. His statement that "the elite should be supreme by virtue of persuasion, not by the assistance of firing squads" (p.37) highlights this most human of Mises's character traits.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of intellectuals of his time and ours, Mises's snobbery towards the common masses extends no further than knowledge of his greater intellect. While it is unlikely that Mises, unlike this reviewer, would have ever owned the entire first season of The Anna Nicole Show on DVD,[12] he wishes us peace and the freedom to manage our own affairs. He shows no inclination to mold us in his image, no ego-driven urge to form us into "armies of compassion"[13] or whip us into a giant nation of "unity."[14]

He stated, "a man is free as far as he shapes his life according to his own plans." (p.253) While he might believe I am wasting my life sitting on the couch riveted by Anna Nicole Smith and friends, he won't destroy his liberty or mine passing a law forbidding me to do so. "A free man … must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police." (p.250) And that, above all, marks him as an intellectual of distinction: He makes a good neighbor.

Mises lacked the ego-driven vanity of most great men; he lacked the urge to remake the world in his favorite image at gunpoint. Men such as Alexander the Great, Hitler, and Che were cast in the opposite mold from Mises, who was both humble and intelligent enough to know the danger of power's corrupting influence on mere mortals, among whom he counted himself.

"Power is evil in itself, regardless of who exercises it." (p.178)

Think how rare this attitude is among intellectuals throughout time! You will almost always find the Thomas Friedmans of the world panting on their knees before whatever man of the moment who can "get things done." It was noted in the past that Native Americans are extremely vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol. It is rarely noted that all human beings are extremely vulnerable to the lure of power and its attendant corruption of the human spirit. Very few thinkers have ever realized this, almost always dreaming of what they would do if they got their hands on the levers of power.[15]

Mises personifies liberalism's greatest attraction. His plan was that there is no plan. Everybody lives as they please; everybody gets to make their own plan. In Mises's perfect world, all the world saviors and daydreamers are perfectly free to run off down to Jonestown together — but they can't force us to drink the Kool Aid, too. As Green Day sings, "Who the hell are you to tell me what I am, or what's my master plan?"[16]

Mises Tee $11What he said: $20

Mises could sing backup with "Freedom must be granted to all, even to base people, lest the few who can use it for the benefit of mankind be hindered." (p.89) He upbraids the ignorance and immorality of those intellectuals who believe their big brain gives them license to design other men's lives, and states, "the educated classes are possessed by the idea that in the social domain anything can be accomplished if only one applies enough force and is sufficiently resolute." (p.122) His comment that "every dictator plans to rear, feed, and train his fellow men as the breeder does his cattle," (p.55) reveals his personal disgust at such a inhuman attitude.

Forget Che; truly, in Mises, we had a "man of the people."

While this book of quotes is not a replacement for a deeper study of Mises's work, this review is just one example of how, due to the depth, breadth, and organization of the quotes gathered, you can come away with a rather good idea of Mises's character and beliefs. Ludwig von Mises once wrote "the age of liberalism … made the great works and the great thoughts accessible to the common man." (p.6) The Quotable Mises, the cliff notes to one of history's truly radical revolutionary thinkers, does much the same thing. Me and my Anna Nicole Show DVD are proof of that.

C.J. Maloney lives in New York and works on Wall Street. Send him mail. Comment on the blog.

[1] All page citations in this article are taken from The Quotable Mises, editor Mark Thornton, copyright 2005, the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

[2] Don't worry; I have experience with non-books, having reviewed, amongst others, Hillary Clinton's It Takes A Village, George Bush's A Charge To Keep, and John Kerry's A Call to Service. You're in good hands.

[3] Wow. I would have paid money to see that.

[4] Benjamin M. Anderson, Economics and the Public Welfare (Indianapolis, Liberty Press, 1979), p.317 Senator Gore disappeared soon after from both the Senate and our nation's conscience, cementing his place in our Kill The Messenger Hall of Fame.

[5] Economic Insights, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (Volume 6, Number 4), p. 2.

[6] Remember what Thumper's mom always said.

[7] In the event you wonder why our public school graduates can't count past their ten fingers, wonder no more.

[8] Yes, you are correct. "Sickling" is not proper English.

[9] Henry Hazlitt doesn't count. He never backed over anyone with his car.

[10] Alexander Hamilton wasn't too enamored of The People, either. "The people! The people, sir, are a great beast!" and we like him.

[11] Answer: Because he is a true rarity amongst the intellectual set.

[12] Well worth every penny I spent, believe you me.

[13] George W. Bush, in his reactionary, socialist screed A Charge to Keep.

[14] Hillary Clinton and John Kerry in their reactionary, socialist screeds It Takes A Village and A Call to Service, respectively.

[15] In case you're wondering: seven-day weekends and a new stadium for the Mets would be the defining characteristics of Maloneytopia.

[16] Green Day, "Reject" from their vastly underrated 1997 release Nimrod.

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

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