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Secrets of Mises.org

October 28, 2003

Delivered at the 2003 Mises Institute Supporters Summit.

There once was a time, not too long ago, that in order to have light, one had to rely on the sun or a burning flame to provide it. So too, there was once a time when, in order to read a text of anything, you had to have a physical copy in your hands. It had to be sent through the mail or delivered in person. There was no way that one copy could be read by multiple people at the same time.

The generation now being raised finds this nearly impossible to believe. "How did the system work?" my 9-year old daughter asks. I explain that the internet became consumer accessible only ten years ago, but she hears that as before her lifetime, so it might as well be before cars, electricity, and indoor plumbing. It's all the dark ages to her.

In some ways, it was. Before Mises.org went online on October 2, 1995, the mail and hand delivery were the only two ways that the material we produced could be distributed and made available. How well we recall spending hours every day searching through back issues of our publications, finding just the article that a caller on the phone needed, copying it on the copy machine (at least we had those), and putting it in an envelope to give to the government employee who took the envelope by truck, and eventually stuck it in a box at the person's home or office. The advent of the fax machine, which was the size of a washing machine in those days, was a stunning breakthrough.

In some ways, it is remarkable to think that dissident ideas ever got a hearing. In order to discover their existence, you had to have heard a speech somewhere, stumbled on a book in the library, or searched the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature and found unusual publications listed among the millions upon millions, and then take the further step of contacting the publisher.

It was particularly difficult for students, who were and are our primary target audience. Unless a professor assigned a reading or warned students not to read Mises or Rothbard (censorship being the best form of advertising), it was very likely that students would go through many years of schooling, even in economics, without ever having heard about the Austrian School of economics or libertarianism, much less have contacted the Mises Institute about these ideas.

Yet somehow, we managed. But rather than focusing on the bad old days, let us talk about the age when the information lights came on. Our first site was put online by our adjunct scholar Peter Klein, and then our membership coordinator Susan Thomas took it over. Later it became a group project, and remains so today, as it must be, because Mises.org is far more than a website. It is a city, even a civilization, unto itself.

With the web, it became possible to:

  • Put every word ever written by the Austrian economists online so that the magnificence of this tradition of thought can be made available to the entire world, thus amplifying and extending the hard work of thousands over the period of more than a hundred years.
  • Provide instantaneous delivery of every publication ever put out in the history of the Mises Institute.
  • Provide a running commentary on world affairs, with daily articles written by the best scholars and writers in the Austrian tradition, and with a blog to comment and respond immediately, and thereby compete even with the major news organizations (indeed Mises articles are frequently featured on the Google news page, and Moreover.com feeds our articles to tens of thousands of topical sites).
  • Provide interactive research guides and bibliographies, reducing from months to minutes the time it used to take to assemble these, and with far more accuracy.
  • Share files and whole books across the world with only a few clicks.
  • Listen to the voices of Ludwig von Mises, Margit von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and all our scholars, and any recording we have ever made, just by pointing and clicking.
  • Deliver news of the Austrian School on a ongoing basis, and, with the RSS news feed, any changes to the web log or available articles, can be mirrored on thousands and millions of sites and blogs anywhere in the world, all thanks to a few lines of computer code (this is how Mises.org mirrors LewRockwell)
  • Most fundamentally, Mises.org does the most important thing extremely well and efficiently: it lets the world know that these ideas exist. Interested students don't need to scour the libraries to find out about our work. They can know in an instant. One search and the world opens up to you.

Before getting into what is available, just a few comments on the usage. In September 2003, Mises.org logged 1,209,295 page views. This is individual users examining a particular URL in the site. Mises.org also logged a total hit count in September of 11,255,668. A commercial site would gladly pay a high price for this level of interest.

At any one time, day or night, every day, year round, between 300 and 600 people are on the Mises Institute site, reading short articles or whole books or listening to lectures, or doing research of one sort or another. It's like an ongoing seminar that is three times the size of anything we would be able to fit into our seminar room, and it goes on constantly and globally.

Who are the users? Students, some on their own initiative, others because their professor links to Mises.org from a syllabus; faculty; financial professionals; business owners; clergy; newshounds; government employees, some looking for respite, others for evidence of the enemy; and every manner of individual and institution from more than a hundred countries. Users go directly to content, bypassing all gatekeepers. It's no wonder that governments the world over fear the web.

In fact, Mises.org's daily traffic dwarfs any government agency you can name. It exceeds that of the UN, the IMF, and the World Bank. It beats the Fed, the American Economic Association, the National Bureau of Economic Research, Brookings, American Enterprise Institute, and all the rest. In fact, if there is a more trafficked institutional site focusing on economics or liberty, I don't know of it.

Not bad for a movement that used to think of itself as a remnant. What we've learned is that interest in our tradition of thought is far vaster than we ever imagined. We've also learned that our potential market is far wider than we ever thought. Our daily email list for receiving full article text is nearing the 11,000 mark. Our news and blog lists are similarly large. Our working papers, study guide, journals, audio files, bibliographies and biographies are linked and imitated the world over. Our site is extra content rich, and never talks down to anyone.

Let me just pause here to say a few words about the financials of running a site this large. It is common for people who have never managed sites of this size and reach to believe that the goal of all websites is to garner hits, and the more the better. In some sense that is true, but beyond a certain level, usage can be very expensive. Storing and transferring content is expensive. A linked file that delivers rich content can cost a service provider thousands of dollars, costs which contracts typically specify are to be passed on to the domain owner. What at first seems to be a boon—a link from Drudge, for example—can turn into a bust overnight. You can "throttle" delivery but too tight a throttle can result in frustrating stoppages. No matter how you look at it, the costs must be borne by the institution itself.  

It is especially expensive for a nonprofit institute to keep shelves of books and journals available, to say nothing of large video and audio files. Nonprofits cannot benefit from the commercial value of advertising, and, in any case, a site like Mises.org is not commercially viable in the traditional sense (any more than many kinds of civic institutions are), but rather must be run on a nonprofit basis. Yet it must thrive, even for the one student out there who could become the next Mises or Hayek or Rothbard. This is why the Mises Institute is so grateful for its benefactors that keep us online.  To donate to support the Mises Institute is similar to piously supporting a great archive or museum or rare book collection, one that grows in value by the day and hour. It is an investment for the ages, and one that benefits all of humankind.

Onward now to some treasures in Mises.org that you may not have discovered, starting with some of my favorite audio files: The Robert Lefevre Commentaries. LeFevre is an unsung hero of the movement for liberty. In the 1950s, he had the idea of starting a school in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that provided a forum for radical thinkers in our tradition to have students to teach. Mises taught there, as did Rose Wilder Lane, Frank Chodorov, James Martin, and many others.

The biggest impact he had might have been through his own speeches, which were legendary in his time. He may have been the greatest speaker in the history of libertarian ideas. You can hear the passion in every word. They reflect extremely careful thought, and his capacity for distilling extremely complicated ideas down to their essence. He was utterly tireless as a speaker, but when he died in 1986, he surely had no idea that 16 years later, his words would come back to life with this permanent collection on Mises.org, now available to the world.

The Mises Institute is grateful to be the recipient of the Lefevre archives and library, and the successor to the institution he founded. If you have not done so, take a few hours and listen. You might start with his talk on Human Rights or his talk on Who Owns What. You will be immediately hooked.

So long as we are on the topic of audio files, have you ever listened to Mises speak? Consider his 1956 speech: Liberty and Property. You can read along too. There's also his 1962 talk on the Origins of the Austrian School. He is introduced by William Peterson. Or you can listen to Margit von Mises talking about her husband's life. Her voice alone gives you a picture of old Vienna.

Perhaps you regret that you didn't take a course on economics from Murray Rothbard. Well, you can.

Or perhaps you regret missing the Austrian Scholars Conferences for the last several years. Well, listen online.

Going back to texts, Mises.org features all the writings of Mises that we can possibly put online given copyright restrictions, and it several formats: Pdf, text, Palm, and often with links to reviews and other source material.

People ask why we would do this given that we are also selling Mises's books. There are two ways to answer this. The first is that it is the primary job of the Mises Institute to get the information out to the public. It would be contrary to our mission to have that information available and somehow withhold it pending the sales of books and essays.

The second point speaks to an issue becoming increasingly obvious to booksellers themselves: putting text online is not always competitive with hard-copy sales. It can often increase sales simply because making the text available increases interest in the book or article. My own impression is that whenever we put a text online, it tends to be talked about, cited, discussed, and otherwise goes from being invisible to becoming highly visible. From the point of view of sales, this is all to the good.

Continuing with my own picks of great material on Mises.org, we have many readers who write to say that there are words in our articles or in Mises's writings that they do not understand. A great place to start is Mises Made Easier put together by Percy Greaves.  The linking was done several years ago, but it still holds up as a marvel. You can find your way around this definitional book very easily, and it contains links to other Mises books and essays. Or you can go to the source directly, via this technological marvel: the Human Action Interactive Index.

Within the last year, we have placed ever greater emphasis in getting inaccessible books online. These are books that are out of print and unavailable even in used book stores. Two in particular are worth mentioning here: Machlup's great book on financial markets and Frank Fetter's Principles of Economics. There were days of worldwide celebration after the release of both, given that students and professors had been desperate for copies for years and years. It took us a very long time--we take the extra step of producing searchable PDFs from text files--but once they were up, all problems were solved and the books came back to life. There are also dissertations and an incredible lineup of other writings, the inaccessible made available for the first time.

Recently, too, we have been working to put more and more outstanding  scholarly articles by Rothbard online. Within days of their appearance, they begin to be linked from university domains, classrooms, and discussion groups. The articles go from being obscure and inaccessible to being part of the life of our times. There is tremendous satisfaction in knowing that one is playing a part in such a great project as this.

As we work toward getting more texts online, the database in which they are linked is the one that drives our Study Guide, a twenty year project that is added to on a daily basis. It is the work of many dozens of scholars. These are not the only bibliographies available through Mises.org. There are complete bibliographies of Mises, Rothbard, Hazlitt (which reveals even his unsigned material for the New York Times), and Fetter.

The working papers online provide a great means for students and professors to received advanced feedback on their work ahead of final publication. The Austrian Syllabus Project permits people to see what Austrian professors are teaching in their classroom, and for them to share ideas in the development of Austrian pedagogy.

The periodicals section of the site provides many years of reading. In some ways, this section of the site is the most pious towards the work of those who preceded us. When Murray Rothbard started Left and Right on a shoestring and sent this fledgling journal out to a few hundred people, he never would have imagined that all these years later it would become a part of the structure of the history of ideas in the 20th century. But thanks to the technology that permits us to keep the entire run available, it continues to educate. Here you can read the original version of Rothbard's classic: "Left and Right: The Prospects of Liberty".

The complete Austrian Economics Newsletter, Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, volumes 1–10 of the Review of Austrian Economics, The Free Market, and The Mises Review are all here. For those visiting our offices, our complete library collection is online. Google picked up on all these links—all 22,000 URLs—so we routinely receive calls and emails from all over the world asking about borrowing a particularly rare volume. (Can't do that, we explain.)

Just to show that Mises.org is not only about monetary policy, methodology, and the like, our fun page links music played at our offices, including the Mises songs from the interwar circle, as well as film reviews, and crosswords. There's also some very silly material: like the Monty Python Money Song: "You can keep your Marxist ways, for it's only just a phase!"

I've left so much out, but if you use Mises.org and find it valuable, consider supporting this work, which is so crucial to the advancement of liberty itself. Just as a power failure reminds us how much we depend on electricity, we need to be aware how central this medium has become for the delivery of ideas central to civilization itself.

My son asked me the other day whether life was boring before the advent of Lego.com. I told him it wasn't really boring, but life is surely more exciting now with Lego.com. We might similarly ask whether liberty stood a chance before the advent of Mises.org. It did, but our chances are much greater for advances now, and more than ever before.

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

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