Our Prospects are Bright
This talk was delivered at the Boston Mises Circle on October 1, 2016.
Last week marked the 135th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig von Mises, and that’s an appropriate moment to revisit Guido Hulsmann’s brilliant biography of this great man, Mises: Last Knight of Liberalism. I commend this book to you, incidentally, not simply for its profile of a seminal figure, but also as an outstanding work of intellectual history that incidentally offers the reader a graduate course in the history of economic thought.
As I reread the concluding sections, I was struck by the difference in temperament between Mises and Murray N. Rothbard, his great seminar student for more than 10 years, at least in terms of their outlooks on our prospects. Murray became known for his long-term optimism. Mises, not so much.
Over the course of the 1950s, for example, George Reisman, one of four students to earn his Ph.D. under Mises, thought he was seeing progress: more and more people he encountered seemed sympathetic to the cause of free markets. Mises was less sanguine: Reisman, he said, was a young man in the process of meeting existing supporters of free enterprise. There was no growth occurring.
In fact, Mises went so far as to compare his own writings to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which would be found by someone a thousand years in the future.
Mises did not anticipate that his friend F.A. Hayek would win the Nobel Prize for his work on Misesian business cycle theory. Much less could he have imagined that a full-fledged Mises Institute, with its scholarly conferences and publications, week-long student immersion programs, and consistent and diverse forms of outreach to the general public, would one day flourish.
One difficulty evident in Mises’s day was that supporters of the free market had by and large signed on with the emerging “conservative movement,” where by process of elimination they thought they belonged.
There had been neither a conservative nor a libertarian movement before World War II. What we call the Old Right was a series of individual writers and thinkers, and the occasional periodical. The America First Committee was a movement, to be sure, and a great one, but it dissolved on December 8, 1941.
Within six years of Mises’s arrival in the United States in 1949, the cause of laissez-faire was coming to be associated with the broader movement called conservatism. Remnants of the Old Right persisted after World War II, but before long they had become a distinct minority within a conservative movement that began to emerge with the creation of National Reviewin 1955. Murray tells the story in his posthumous book The Betrayal of the American Right, which is at once history and memoir.
What exactly did the conservatives want? National Review described itself as standing athwart history shouting, “Stop!” As time went on, “stop” became “slow down,” which in turn became, “We’ll join you in five minutes.”
Conservatives bought foreign interventionism hook, line, and sinker. And with the obsession with conserving came, eventually, a reconciliation with the status quo. Important conservative leaders began to describe Franklin D. Roosevelt, the nemesis of the Old Right, as one of the greatest presidents in American history.
It had been a mistake from the beginning to adopt the word conservative, and an even greater mistake for libertarians to consider themselves conservatives.
F.A. Hayek’s aversion to this term is well known, thanks to his essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Murray noted that in the days of the Old Right no one called himself a conservative. And why should he? The Old Right had no interest in conserving the institutions of the America of their day. Those institutions were to be overthrown.
Less well known is how Mises felt about being called a conservative. And even though by culture, temperament, dress, and manners Mises gave the impression of conservatism, he too considered the term a misnomer. When Yale University invited him to speak as part of its “Conservative Lectures” series in 1954, Mises declined. “To conserve,” he said,
means to preserve what exists. It is an empty program, it is merely negative, rejecting any change…. To conserve what exists is in present-day America tantamount to preserving those laws and institutions that the New Deal and the Fair Deal have bequeathed to the nation.
Today the conservative movement is in shambles. Its constituent parts are at war with one another. Nobody can figure out what constitutes a “true conservative.” And the ease with which Donald Trump sailed to the GOP nomination laid bare this astonishing fact: the seemingly formidable array of magazines, think-tanks, and pressure groups that constituted the conservative movement, none of which could stop him, had been paper tigers all along.
The decline of conservatism has been accompanied by a tremendous growth in libertarianism. That growth has been the combined result of a huge number of young people who became libertarians immediately, never having passed through a conservative stage, as well as a considerable stream of refugees from the conservative movement, where many libertarians finally realized they didn’t belong.
Mises, of course, did not live to see any of this. Nor did he foresee it.
Although Mises’s activities and public appearances had slowed by the 1960s, it wasn’t until 1971 that he actually ceased working. After physically recovering from an infection that year, Mises found himself no longer able to work. Even though Mises had been pessimistic about the progress of liberalism (in the European sense, of course), he had still felt a drive to carry on. So his poor health was an especially difficult cross to bear. According to Margit, his wife, Mises said: “The worst is that I still have so much to give to the people, to the world, and I can’t put it together anymore. It is tormenting.” Until that moment, nothing had stopped him.
Mises did receive some degree of professional recognition, a fact we might have overlooked in light of his lack of a salaried position at New York University. He received honorary doctorates from NYU, the University of Freiburg, and Grove City College, as well as the Austrian Medal of Honor, awarded at the Austrian embassy in Washington. He was even elected a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association.
Yet it was not this recognition, welcome as it was, that motivated Mises, whose only rebuke of himself in his memoirs Notes and Recollections,was that he hadn’t been uncompromising enough. He lived his life as an incorrigible truth-seeker, regardless of the professional consequences. This is one of the many reasons he was such an inspiration to Murray, and why he continues to inspire the rest of us.
For the most part, Mises’s economic views – to say nothing of his epistemological arguments – ensured that he would be scorned or ignored by his own profession and of course by the political class. He would receive no large institutional backing from any source.
How, then, do we account for the continued growth of Misesian thought? Here’s Guido’s answer:
The main explanation of the present-day growth of the Misesian paradigm is the extraordinary vigor of the ideas that inspire it. Mises is a classic, but in our day he is more than that. A classic author has given mankind a timeless formulation of essential questions and, sometimes, time-tested answers. Yet these questions and answers are not necessarily the ones that move us today or are relevant to solve the problems that we confront. Not so in the case of Mises. More than thirty years after his death his writings still strike the reader, academic and layman alike, as relevant and thought provoking. His books and articles are still bought by the thousands each year and – most of all – read. How many economics students today actually read something Adam Smith or David Ricardo have written? Any teacher of economics knows the answer. The same answer holds true for the writings of twentieth-century luminaries such as Gustav Cassel or Frank Knight. It holds true even for the writings of John Maynard Keynes; the greatest champion ever of interventionism is constantly referred to in the classroom and in the media, but few people have ever held one of his books in their hands. In contrast, Mises is still read and studied attentively all over the world, second only to the fashionable textbook authors of our day.
He is indeed. As our Mises University summer program – which attracts eager students from all over the world – demonstrates year after year.
At our most recent Mises U., Walter Block recalled an interesting exchange he had with Murray Rothbard in the late 1960s. When Walter asked how many libertarians Murray thought there were in the world, Murray answered with a bleak figure: twenty-five.
Not 25,000, or even 2,500. Twenty-five.
By that standard – and that figure is indeed the relevant benchmark – how can we be anything but delighted with our progress, especially when our views run directly counter to what virtually everyone is taught in every school in America?
And frankly, libertarianism is something new under the sun. It’s true, of course, that we have intellectual forerunners: the nineteenth-century individualist anarchists, the French liberals like Frederic Bastiat, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theorists like John Locke, and groups like the Levellers and the Late Scholastics, at the very least.
But a consistent and systematic approach to the world that takes liberty as its non-negotiable foundation? There frankly was no such thing until the twentieth century. Even the heroic figures who came before us, with the occasional exception like Gustave de Molinari, did not consider the possibility that so many state functions they took for granted could be provided within the market nexus they otherwise admired.
For a brand new philosophical school, and one that most people encounter only in caricature at the hands of media, intellectuals, and political figures who despise it, we’re doing extremely well.
Our views are the opposite of what the ruling classes want to hear, and the opposite of the superstitions those classes labor to spread among the public.
There are millions of us now. We have a greater ability to reach and educate people than ever before, and thereby increase our numbers still more.
Libertarians of the future will look back on this period in history and wonder why so many of us were so glum. This was when the explosion in growth occurred, and we were too busy comparing ourselves to Democrats and Republicans to see it.
As libertarians we know that a lot of news the public thinks is good is actually not so good, whether it’s the passage of destructive legislation with pleasant-sounding names, or economic news that sounds positive but in fact indicates bubble conditions. We are skilled at finding hard truths beneath the saccharine surface of state propaganda.
But when it comes to the growth of our movement and the spread of our ideas, by any reasonable standard the news is all good. Let’s recognize that, and build on it.