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The Uncompromising Friend of Liberty

October 3, 2011

Tags BiographiesHistory of the Austrian School of Economics

[On Freedom and Free Enterprise (1956)]
 

When I was invited to contribute an essay to a volume in honor of Ludwig von Mises, I was surprised and still more delighted. My astonishment was due to the fact that the contributors were to be chosen from the ranks of some of the most distinguished living economists, among which I have no reason to count myself. It was, on the other hand, a happy prospect to be allowed publicly to state my esteem and my affection for a very dear friend, and to be urged to spend at least some weeks in his intellectual intimacy.

That, I confess, was the main motive of my acceptance. During the all too brief years, from 1934 to 1940, during which Dr. von Mises had consented to be associated with the Institute at Geneva which I was directing with my friend Paul Mantoux, I very often and, I am afraid, very indiscreetly, enjoyed his company. All those who have ever had a like privilege realize that he is not only one of the keenest analytical minds among contemporary economists, but that he also has at his disposal a store of historical culture, the treasures of which are animated and illuminated by a form of humanity and Austrian wit rarely to be found today on the surface of this globe. In fact, I sometimes wonder, not without fear, whether our generation is not the last to be blessed with what seems to have been a monopoly of pre-war Vienna.

In reflecting upon our numerous and, to me, always very enlightening conversations, two points on which the fundamental opinion of L. von Mises never varied are most prominent.

On the one hand, he was ever insistent on the purely scientific character and functions of economics. As with all other sciences, the role of economics was solely to analyze and to explain reality, not to assess nor to improve it. It was completely wertfrei. Values could be assumed, posited, believed in or disbelieved, claimed or denied. They could not be known nor demonstrated. Therefore, economists who invoked the authority of their intellectual discipline to urge upon society measures calculated to reform it were imposters.

Reforms could only be means to an end. Economics dealt, and could legitimately deal, only with means. The means adopted or rejected, of course, depended essentially on the ends chosen. But the choice of ends was quite beyond the discretion of our own, or of any other, science.

Therefore, while economists might well advise statesmen as to the probable results of the means suggested to achieve their ends, they could not, as men of science, express any valid judgment as to the excellence of these ends. This they would leave to seers, to prophets, to metaphysicians, or to the man in the street. The visions of the latter might be admirable, but their assertions could but be the expression of their faith and never be postulates of their sole reason.

On the other hand, von Mises missed no opportunity, in private as well as in public, to proclaim his abhorrence of all forms of state intervention in the processes of economic life. Our age knows no more consistent and but very few as passionate advocates of policies of complete laissez-faire in an unhampered market economy.

A single personal recollection — it could be readily multiplied — may serve to illustrate my point. This recollection is drawn from a meeting of the Mont-Pèlerin Society. As is well known, this very loose association of liberal intellectuals was formed some years ago by economists, historians, and philosophers of a score of countries. What brought them together were a common love of liberty and a common apprehension that statist policies, ever more generally preached and practised the world over, would bring about an eclipse of freedom, and consequently also of prosperity.

Mises was naturally a charter member of this organization which, from the start, was presided over by our colleague, von Hayek. It might well have been expected that the periodical gatherings of this Society could not fail to generate an atmosphere exceptionally congenial to the revered dean of 20th-century liberals.

Well, what I am about to narrate shows that even the Mont-Pèlerin Society seemed to him dangerously infected by the virus of statism. This episode took place at a meeting held in Seelisberg, a Swiss mountain resort situated just above the Grütli, the traditional birthplace of Helvetic freedom. The topic discussed was the social policies of liberalism.

What interventions of public authorities to combat unemployment and industrial destitution were to be favored, or at least tolerated? Social insurance, minimum wages guaranteed by the state, such and similar devices were rather timidly urged by some of the liberals present. None of their proposals found the slightest mercy at the hands of von Mises.

"But what would you do," it was asked of him, "if you were in the position of our French colleague, Jacques Rueff," who was present at the meeting and who happened at that time to be shouldering the responsibilities of the administration of the Principality of Monaco.

Suppose that for some reason which could easily be imagined, there was in that Principality widespread unemployment and therefore famine and revolutionary discontent. Would you, could you advise the government to limit its activities to police action for the maintenance of order and the protection of private property?

Our friend von Mises was entirely unmoved. He replied:

If the policies of non-intervention which I advocate prevailed — universal free trade, freely fluctuating nominal wages, no form of social insurance, etc. — there would be no acute unemployment. Private charity would suffice to prevent the absolute destitution of the very restricted hard core of unemployables.

It might be tempting to recall many other instances in which, in the course of private conversation or collective debate, von Mises absolutely rejected as ill-considered any form of state meddling in the operations of the free market. Tempting, but quite superfluous. No one who is apt to glance over these pages can ignore the uncompromising stand which our friend has ever taken in these matters.

In fact, in spite of his many original and learned writings, which have long made of him one of the most renowned living economists, I would venture to assert that he is most widely known the world over as the staunchest, most undaunted, and most uncompromising friend of economic and social liberty of mid-20th century.

Now, a question has often arisen in my mind: how his stand on this major matter of policy was to be squared with his equally uncompromising banning of absolute values from the orbit of economic science, and therefore also of economic policy. Of course, there is no logically necessary inconsistency between these two mental attitudes.

Psychologically, however, they are not often adopted by the same mind. Theoretical agnostics in the matter of ultimate value are apt to be somewhat reserved and cautious as advocates of policy. And enthusiastic crusaders and intolerant critics in the field of action are usually to be found in the ranks of those who feel least hesitation about proclaiming as absolutely good or evil the policies they champion or combat.

In order fully to comprehend the thought of my esteemed friend on these two fundamental issues, the invitation to take part in this intellectual symposium suggested the idea of discovering it by a careful perusal of his most recent important work, Human Action, published in English in 1949. I therefore resolved to forego all other avoidable work until I had given myself the full benefit of the spiritual and mental intimacy with him I anticipated from carefully reading from cover to cover this major exposition of his mature social philosophy.

The experience proved well worth the effort. Besides the profit and delight I derived from the many weeks devoted to this most exhilarating task, a question insistently arose in my mind: how many, before me, had found it tempting to undertake and possible to carry out the long, intellectual journey through the 880-odd pages from which I have just returned?

No one will ever be in a position to answer this question. The numbers of the copies of the book absorbed by the market offer no adequate clue. Every self-respecting periodical has doubtless reviewed the volume and no self-respecting public library has failed to purchase it. But reading a book is a very different matter from purchasing or even from reviewing it.

It is not my purpose to carry this incidental query any further. But it does concern what is to my mind one of the fundamental problems of our contemporary civilization. A learned treatise is not a dictionary one keeps for reference purposes on one's shelves. Even when it is admirably composed and adequately indexed, as in the present case, it cannot really and fairly be judged by one who is content to dip into its chapters here and there. The author has the right to expect a less cursory treatment on the part of the reader.

But how can he hope to receive it in the present day when at least a thousand volumes are published for every one that appeared in the age of Adam Smith? True, among this torrential output one is not likely to find a Wealth of Nations. If contemporary economists find it possible to read carefully only one extensive book a year, they would not be ill-advised to select, if they have not already done so, the Human Action of Ludwig von Mises.

In his latest great work our author has very clearly confirmed what I thought I knew of his intellectual positions on the two points stated above. He makes it abundantly clear that economics, no more than any other science, can establish the absolute validity of any ultimate aims of human conduct. Furthermore I have never, in all my previous recollections of him, found him more passionately addicted to the defense of the free market economy nor more intolerant of all forms of what he likes to call "statolatry."

This article is excerpted from "On Reading Ludwig von Mises," in On Freedom and Free Enterprise: Essays in Honor of Ludwig von Mises (1956).


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