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Where Have You Gone, Ludwig von Mises?

September 30, 2010

Tags BiographiesWorld HistoryHistory of the Austrian School of Economics

[Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism • By Ludwig von Mises • Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007 • xvi + 1143 pages]

Washington's stunning economic power grabs — healthcare centralization, Keynesian fiscal stimulus, and Federal Reserve bailouts — are creating an unintended consequence: an increasing demand for freedom literature. Exhibit A would have to be F.A. Hayek's 66-year-old Road to Serfdom recently hitting number one for all books on Amazon.com. Those desiring an even deeper education in the ideas of liberty are well advised to study the life and work of Hayek's brilliant teacher and friend, Ludwig von Mises.

Mises was the premier Austrian economist of his generation, whose legacy reveals him to be the greatest economist of the 20th century. Almost single handedly, he kept the embers of free-market economics burning during the interwar years. After immigrating to New York during World War II, he helped establish a living legacy of thinkers and authors who understand and promote the nature and consequences of a free society. Mises's story is magnificently told by Guido Hülsmann in his biography, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism.

Hülsmann's work is a scholarly tour de force that is easily the best, most researched, and most significant biography of Mises. Hülsmann displays an extraordinary knowledge of the economic literature that is both humbling and inspiring. It is clear he has read everything on Mises. Not only has he read and digested Mises's works, but Hülsmann places Mises in the context of the Austrian historical, political, and social setting. He also shows how Mises and his contribution to economics fit into the larger history of the Austrian tradition. More, Hülsmann successfully contextualizes Mises and the Austrian economic tradition in light of the entire history of economic thought.

Additionally, Hülsmann has crafted a very readable story of the life of Mises. He gives us knowledge about Mises, and allows us to more fully and correctly understand what we thought we already knew. He provides precious information about Mises's early life and education, documenting the importance of the Hapsburgs' relative openness to Jewish intellectual life for the milieu into which Mises was born. As for World War I, we gain insight on how Mises's experience at the front and with the war bureaucracy helped shape his classical-liberal political philosophy and economics. We are provided details of Mises's early pioneering work in the field of monetary economics, produced while he was working full time with the Austrian Chamber of Commerce.

We get to observe Mises's valiant work as monetary advisor to the Austrian government that ultimately prevented a German-style collapse of the Austrian krona. We are also treated to an insider's view of Mises's efforts with Max Weber to turn the highly influential Association of Social Policy away from German Historicism, establishing social science as a viable discipline. The reader receives an intimate glimpse of Mises's theoretical achievements relating to economic calculation and the failures of socialism, government intervention, economic epistemology, and business-cycle theory.

Hülsmann's account of Mises escaping the Nazi attempts to silence him is positively gripping. One of the most page-turning sections of the book chronicles Mises and his wife's harrowing bus trip through partly occupied territory, culminating in their departure by ship from Lisbon, Portugal. Upon his arrival in New York without his library, without his friends, and without a job, Mises courageously established himself with the help of people like Henry Hazlitt. After gaining a New York University visiting professorship funded by sympathetic businessmen, Mises subsequently became the intellectual fountainhead for the American libertarian movement, in large part by reviving his renowned "private seminar" at NYU. From there he mentored important economists such as Israel Kirzner, Murray Rothbard, and Hans Sennholz.

Hülsmann also explains the importance of Mises's classic Human Action, which offered a fully integrated, systematic treatise on economics built upon the foundation of all social phenomena. Hülsmann hits the nail on the head in the last chapter of the book by attributing Mises's staying power and intellectual attractiveness to his realism. Good economics is worth studying and pursuing as a vocation because it is rooted in the reality of human action. It is this economic realism that brings successive generations back to Mises's work, not out of antiquarian interest, but as a starting point for living economic analysis.

Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism is a truly amazing scholarly triumph for an author who is only in his early 40s. It demonstrates the highest level of scholarship and is wonderfully written, and by an author for whom English is not his first language. Ultimately, it does what every biography of an intellectual giant should do: it makes the reader want to go back and reread Mises's own works in light of Hülsmann's analysis. Anyone at all interested in the life and work of the greatest economist of the 20th century should avail himself of this biography.


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

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