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Last Knight Live Blog 25 - Kraus

January 30, 2008

Chapter 18, Émigré in New York, opens the fourth and last part of the book, Mises in America. The outbreak of WWII and the rapid advance of German troops throughout Western Europe created an imminent threat to Mises's freedom and very life even in neutral and relatively safe Geneva. He had to leave Europe almost immediately, leaving behind everything he accomplished and cared about, starting a new life and facing an insecure future in the only country that could provide safe haven for him - United States of America.

We learn in the chapter how heartbreakingly hard it was for a world-class intellectual of the age of fifty eight to find suitable employment in America. University professorships during war years, the only position Mises could accept, were at any rate extremely rare, especially for those with Mises's outstanding credentials as outspoken and uncompromising defender of classical liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism.

During the first few years, Mises taught several seminars, gave occasional lectures to business groups and at universities in the US and abroad (his six weeks stay in Mexico where he delivered a series of lectures and established important contacts is especially notable and which almost led to the establishment of an international research institute), was even briefly employed at the National Bureau of Economic Research where he produced a German manuscript of what was later published as Omnipotent Government. Reading about Mises's struggles is distressing, the image of an eminent scholar and a truly great man not able to land a suitable place to live and work is worse than just discomforting; it is a tragic testimony of the state of received intellectual atmosphere of that time. In a letter to Hayek, Mises commented:

I am, however, rather skeptical in regard of the practical results of our endeavors. It seems that the age of reason and common sense is gone forever. Reasoning and thinking have been replace by empty slogans.
A few days ago, Alvin Hansen [a former Austrian who later turned major Keynesian in the US, -- WK] delivered a lecture on post-war economic reconstruction. The old stories about full-employment, scarcity of foreign exchange, the need for foreign exchange control and planning, more self-sufficiency etc. He did not even mention the problem of capital shortage. He seems to believe that taxing rich would make it possible to maintain the pre-war standard of living of the masses. Two centuries of economic theory were in vain, as they could not kill the mercantilist prejudices. The audience - many ex-members of the Verein für Sozialpolitik - expressed full agreement with the lecturer. (pp. 809-810)
Eventually, however, Mises did settle in New York and was offered a position of visiting scholar at New York's University, where he would remain exclusively for many years. The position of a visiting scholar meant that it is not paid by the university; the scholar had to find outside sources of income. But he could work and his work produced outstanding fruits, in persons of a new generation of Austrian scholars, of which more next time.

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