Mises Daily

Flying Solo: The Aviator and Libertarian Philosophy

The first thing a genius needs is to breathe free air. — Ludwig von Mises

The Billionaire Underdog

Martin Scorsese is the cinematic champion of the underdog, even if he happens to be the richest man in the world. That explains how The Aviator (2004) fits into the impressive body of work Scorsese has created in his long and distinguished career as a director. At first glance, the billionaire aviation tycoon Howard Hughes would not appear to be the sort of subject that would attract Scorsese.

As a rich and powerful businessman, a handsome playboy, and a media celebrity, Hughes seems to be the archetypal top dog. He is exactly the kind of person a typical Scorsese protagonist can only dream of being. A Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976) or a Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy, 1983) stares at public figures like Hughes and is driven to commit crimes in the hope of entering the charmed circle of their publicity.

Scorsese is the great poet of the American underclass, focusing on the loners, the losers, the misfits, and the malcontents, those on the outside of society desperately struggling to get in. As an Italian American, he has often dwelled in particular on the plight of immigrant subcultures as they try to fit into the mainstream of American society, culminating in his dark tribute to the immigrant experience in Gangs of New York (2002). Howard Hughes would seem to be the opposite of all this. Stepping right out of the American heartland, he was born in Texas and inherited a fortune and, hence, social respectability. As a record-setting aviator, he seems cut out of the mold of the quintessential all-American hero Charles Lindbergh — and, hence, worlds removed from a typical Scorsese psychotic criminal like Max Cady (Cape Fear, 1991).

Yet The Aviator manages to turn Howard Hughes into a trademark Scorsese underdog, the Jake La Motta of the aviation industry. Scorsese’s Hughes is a street fighter, sometimes a bully, and always a scrapper. He is portrayed as continually at odds with the establishment, whether in Hollywood or the aviation industry, and, ultimately, he runs afoul of the law and finds himself pitted against the US government itself.1

Despite the fact that he is surrounded by beautiful women and, at times, an adoring public, the film reveals him to be at heart a loner and a misfit, even a freak. To be sure, Hughes is far more successful than the typical Scorsese protagonist in pursuing his ambitions, and he does accomplish what they can only dream of doing. Yet, in the end, Hughes is just as tormented as Travis Bickel, Rupert Pupkin, or Jake La Motta. Like these earlier Scorsese figures, he pursues his dreams obsessively, compulsively, monomaniacally, and, therefore, cannot remain content even when he achieves his goals. Driven by a perpetual dissatisfaction with himself and the world around him, he seems destined to unhappiness.

Still, Scorsese finds something triumphal, and, perhaps, even redemptive, in Hughes’s tortured psyche because it is, after all, the source of his creativity. Precisely because the world does not satisfy him, Hughes is always out to change it and improve it. His obsessive perfectionism continually drives him to new heights of achievement. He wants the perfect motion picture, the perfect airplane, and, one might add, the perfect woman, and, in each case, he keeps on molding and remolding reality to make it fit his visionary expectations.

Scorsese uses Hughes’s story to explore the thin line between madness and genius and, ultimately, shows that the line cannot be drawn. Hughes’s psychological obsessions make his achievements possible, but in the end poison them and incapacitate him. The artist as madman, the madman as artist — here is Scorsese’s deepest point of identification with Hughes and the reason why he is able to give such a sympathetic portrait of a figure who could easily be presented in a very negative light.

Scorsese obviously saw a great deal of himself in Hughes — and with good reason. As an independent filmmaker who bucked the Hollywood studio system, as a perfectionist who kept reshooting scenes and reediting film footage, thereby continually going over budget, Howard Hughes was the Martin Scorsese of his day. As Scorsese himself describes Hughes: “When he made Hell’s Angels (a picture I’ve always loved), he was a truly independent filmmaker, and he literally spent years and a small fortune trying to get it right.”2

Many of Scorsese’s films have drawn on autobiographical material, most obviously whenever he dealt with Little Italy, the New York neighborhood in which he himself grew up. But it is remarkable how, in turning to what at first seems to be subject matter utterly alien to his own immigrant background, Scorsese nevertheless found in Hughes a mirror of his own struggles as a creative artist. The Hollywood scenes of The Aviator are probably as close as we will ever come to seeing Raging Director: The Martin Scorsese Story.

The Businessman as Visionary

As a result of Scorsese’s identification with Hughes as a filmmaker, The Aviator offers something rare in a Hollywood movie — a positive portrait of a businessman, precisely in his role as a businessman. In the typical Hollywood production, whether in motion pictures or television, the businessman often appears as a villain.3 Businessmen are generally presented as greedy, corrupt, uncaring, and willing to do anything for the sake of profit. They typically cheat customers, employees, colleagues, and investors, despoil the environment, subvert the due process of law, and commit all kinds of crimes. In one mystery after another, the murderer turns out to be a businessman, trying to eliminate a rival, cover up an earlier misdeed, or just make a buck at the expense of his fellow human beings.

Aviator Rivetless Reflection

Over against the capitalist villain, Hollywood offers a variety of altruistic, public-spirited heroes who, by contrast, put the common good above their narrow economic interests. Public prosecutors, the police, government officials of all kinds, together with an army of social workers, investigative journalists, environmentalists, and other do-gooders, are presented as necessary to rein in the antisocial impulses of private enterprise. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) — which ironically immortalized Gordon Gekko’s phrase “greed is good” — is only an extreme example of the negative image of businessmen that Hollywood usually projects.4

Scorsese himself has participated in this antibusiness trend in American popular culture. In movies such as The Color of Money (1986) and Goodfellas (1990), he portrays the corrupting effects of the profit motive and works to link the world of business with the world of crime. As part of his sympathy for the underdog or little guy, he has generally adopted a left-wing attitude toward big business/corporate America, namely, that it is evil and corrupt and leads to the big fish preying on the little fish. But, in The Aviator, Scorsese seems to strike off in a new direction and look at the positive side of business for a change, perhaps because he is dealing in part with his own business, filmmaking.

The story of Howard Hughes allows him to portray the businessman as visionary and creative, even heroic. Hughes was, of course, heroic in a conventional Hollywood sense. As a pioneer in aviation and, specifically, a daring aviator himself, often serving as the test pilot for his own innovative planes and setting speed and distance records, he was obviously courageous in the way in which the traditional Hollywood hero normally is. With the title of The Aviator, one could imagine Scorsese’s film assimilating Hughes to conventional Hollywood models of the heroic aviation pioneer, from Charles Lindbergh to Amelia Earhart to John Glenn. Hughes did have the right stuff. But, although the heroic aviator archetype is integral to Scorsese’s portrayal of Hughes, the movie reveals much more than his raw courage in an airplane.

Scorsese’s Hughes is heroic as a businessman, displaying a different kind of courage in his willingness to take economic risks, above all with his own money. The Aviator is unusual among movies in capturing what it is specifically to be an entrepreneur, a genuine innovator in business. Scorsese’s Hughes is creative in all his activities, not just in his work as a filmmaker. What unites his activities in the film and aviation industries is his ability to predict the future. He is always alert to emerging technological possibilities and the new demands of consumers, and he is willing to bet his own money on what he thinks the wave of the future will be.

In most movie portrayals, the businessman has nothing to contribute to the common good and, in fact, makes his money only by cheating, defrauding, or otherwise exploiting the public. By contrast, The Aviator presents Hughes as a progressive force in two industries, someone who gives the public what it wants (e.g., talkies rather than silent movies) and, more remarkably, correctly anticipates what the public would want if it were made available (e.g., transcontinental and transatlantic flights in reliable, fast, and comfortable aircraft).

Thus, even though Scorsese may share the left-wing political opinions typical of Hollywood, The Aviator in many respects celebrates the spirit of free enterprise and, more generally, embodies a kind of libertarian philosophy. One may profitably interpret the film in terms of concepts derived from classic defenders of the free market such as Adam Smith and also draw on the work of the Austrian school of economics, one of whose chief representatives is Ludwig von Mises. The emphasis in Austrian economics on the special role of the entrepreneur and his ability to deal with the risk and uncertainty endemic to economic life makes it particularly relevant to understanding The Aviator.

Although Smith and Mises are conventionally categorized as economists, their work has a large philosophical component. Smith was, in fact, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow and wrote on many philosophical subjects. Mises devoted a significant portion of his writing to epistemological issues, and he always approached economic questions from a larger philosophical perspective. Both Smith and Mises can properly be regarded as social philosophers, and, indeed, they rank high among the developers of a philosophy of freedom. Their support for liberty is grounded in an economic understanding of the virtues of free markets, but it encompasses a larger philosophical vision of freedom as the proper condition of humanity.

It is unlikely that Scorsese was influenced by Smith, Mises, or any other libertarian thinker; nevertheless, he may share the broad outlines of their philosophy of freedom. There has always been a rebellious and anti-authority streak in his movies that suggests an affinity with libertarianism. In Gangs of New York and The Aviator, Scorsese seems to be focusing on the government — and specifically the federal government — as a prime enemy of liberty. In many ways, the most distinctive — and libertarian — component of The Aviator is the way in which it ends up championing the lonely figure of the private businessman against the vast oppressive apparatus of the federal government brought to bear on him.

Normally in Hollywood movies, the private businessman is the villain, and a noble representative of the government — often a congressman or a senator — is necessary to bring him to justice.5 The Aviator reverses this Hollywood stereotype, casting the crusading senator as the corrupt villain and the businessman as the victim of government injustice. Usually in American popular culture, the government is presented as the solution to all our problems (”there ought to be a law”), and we almost never see the idea that free market forces might be the real answer. By contrast, The Aviator seems to suggest that the government itself is the problem, and the entrepreneurial spirit is presented as the key to improving the world. I do not wish to associate Martin Scorsese with Ayn Rand, but I will say that not since the courtroom scene in The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1949) has a Hollywood movie vindicated the philosophy of rugged individualism as forcefully as The Aviator does in the Senate hearing scene.

Some Issues of Interpretation

Before turning to a detailed analysis of the film, I want to take up briefly two preliminary but important issues of interpretation, one involving Martin Scorsese, the other Howard Hughes. I have been talking about The Aviator as if it were simply a Martin Scorsese creation and he were solely and completely responsible for its content. In fact, The Aviator is a rare example of Scorsese becoming involved in a film project that he did not initiate himself. The actor who plays Hughes, Leonardo DiCaprio, was the driving force behind doing a film on the subject and worked closely in developing the screenplay with John Logan — a talented and successful writer whose screen credits include Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000), The Last Samurai (Edward Zwick, 2003), Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone, 1999), and Star Trek: Nemesis (Stuart Baird, 2002).

Scorsese was not even the first choice to direct the film, but, when Michael Mann backed out (he stayed on as coproducer), DiCaprio wisely approached the director he was working with on Gangs of New York. Thus, the story of The Aviator had largely taken shape before Scorsese started to work on the film, as we can see from his own description of Logan’s screenplay: “He had written a character who was both tragic and triumphant, whose brilliance was inseparable from his mania, whose vulnerability was inseparable from his callousness, whose private vision of perfection drove him forward and stopped him dead in his tracks, and then drove him forward once more. Which is to say that The Aviator was a portrait of the artist, writ large across the landscape of 20th century America.”6

Time Magazine Howard Hughes

Clearly, many of the ideas I have been attributing to Scorsese he found already embodied in the script that was handed to him. Thus, any full account of The Aviator must acknowledge Logan’s contribution to the creative process, and DiCaprio also played an important role. Film is a collaborative medium, and, despite the attractions of French auteur theory, one cannot regard any movie as the product of a single creator. Nevertheless, it is still reasonable to talk about The Aviator as a Martin Scorsese film. As I have shown, it fits quite neatly into his body of work as a whole and, in fact, reflects many of his characteristic preoccupations as a filmmaker. And, of course, the finished motion picture bears the unmistakable stamp of his unique cinematic genius.

The genesis of The Aviator is an excellent example of the creative serendipity that is more typical of popular culture than we like to think. We might wish that The Aviator were a project that Martin Scorsese had carefully planned out himself from start to finish. But, in fact, he was handed a script that was tailor-made for his distinctive vision of the world and, what is more, gave him a chance to develop that vision in new directions. The happy result was one of Scorsese’s most successful movies — artistically, critically, and commercially — and, if he was not single-handedly responsible for it, one may still say that the film carries his full endorsement and embodies his view of the world.

The other issue I must deal with briefly is the question of the accuracy of the movie’s portrayal of Hughes. It appears that we will never know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the real Howard Hughes. His life has become surrounded by so many myths, mysteries, mystifications, fabrications, and lies that we will probably never be able confidently to separate fact from fiction in his case. The Aviator is grounded in a great deal of research into Hughes’s life and draws on Charles Higham’s biography (the movie offers, however, a much more positive interpretation of Hughes than the book does).7 DiCaprio studied newsreel footage of Hughes in preparing for the role, as is particularly evident in the Senate hearing scene. Substantial newsreel clips from the actual hearing survive, allowing DiCaprio to imitate Hughes’s behavior on this occasion quite closely (much of the dialogue in this scene is transcribed verbatim from the recorded testimony).

At the same time, The Aviator takes some artistic liberties with the historical truth. The hearings were not, in fact, televised, and Hughes’s persecutor, Senator Owen Brewster, was only a member of the Senate committee, not, as the film claims, its chairman. With exceptions such as this, The Aviator is, in general, true to the facts about Hughes that can be determined, but, like any work of art, it selects and interprets those facts and, thus, ends up emphasizing certain aspects of Hughes’s life at the expense of others.

Insofar as I have been able to sort out the historical facts, I would say that the Howard Hughes we see in The Aviator is generally a more admirable and attractive figure than the real Howard Hughes. The mere fact that the film deals with only the first half of Hughes’s career — before he completely withdrew from public life and became a bizarre recluse — means that we view him in a more favorable light. The Aviator does acknowledge the dark sides to Hughes’s character and presents some of his more questionable deeds, but it does so in the larger context of treating him as a hero rather than a villain. Thus, I want to make it clear that, in this essay, I am discussing a fictionalized portrait of Hughes, the Howard Hughes of Scorsese’s film, not the real Howard Hughes. The historical Hughes would be a much more dubious choice as a poster child for free enterprise. Particularly in the second half of his career, when he earned most of his money from secret defense contracts, he became a part of the military-industrial complex and, hence, largely a partner of the federal government, even its creature, not someone who heroically stood up to it.

It is, of course, interesting to point out the ways in which the historical Hughes differed from the fictionalized portrait given in The Aviator, but it would not be a refutation of the idea that the film embodies a libertarian philosophy to say that the real Howard Hughes was not truly a good model of a free market entrepreneur. For the purpose of analyzing The Aviator as a Scorsese film, what matters is how it portrays Hughes, not what Hughes was really like. In fact, by comparing the historical Hughes with the film’s significantly idealized portrait of him, one gets a sense of what the director was trying to emphasize, namely, the heroic side of the entrepreneur.

In sum, when I use the phrase Scorsese’s Hughes or just plain Hughes in this essay, it should be read as shorthand for the more cumbersome phrase the fictionalized image of Howard Hughes shaped by Martin Scorsese, John Logan, Leonardo DiCaprio, and other contributors to “The Aviator,” an image based in a mass of historical facts about the real Hughes but departing significantly in artistic ways from the full truth about Hughes insofar as it can be determined.

In short, in this essay I am writing about a character in a movie, not a historical figure, and it is that character, I am claiming, who is a celebration of the entrepreneur in the spirit of libertarian philosophy.

Risking One’s Own Money

The Aviator begins with a brief prologue, a scene of Hughes’s childhood, that attempts to locate in his relation to his overprotective mother the source of his lifelong obsession with cleanliness and with his health. The film then jumps ahead to Hughes as a young man, soon after the death of his parents left him extremely wealthy as the owner of Hughes Tool Company. Hughes is in southern California making Hell’s Angels (1930), a film about World War I flying aces and their aerial combat. We get our first glimpse of Hughes the perfectionist as he does everything he can to make the movie on a truly epic scale. He has assembled “the largest private air force in the world” for the picture,8 and, as the story begins, he has decided that an unprecedented total of twenty-four cameras is still not enough to shoot the aerial combat scenes the way he wants them — he needs two more. In his quest for the elusive additional cameras, he approaches one of the grandest of movie moguls, Louis B. Mayer, and the film introduces the motif of Hughes’s ongoing battle with the establishment. Mayer treats him with contempt as an outsider in Hollywood and dismisses him with the curt comment: “MGM isn’t usually in the practice of helping out the competition” (8).

In the opening sequence of the film, we are, thus, immediately confronted with images of Hughes’s visionary power and his iron will in making his dreams come true. His first words in the film, as he deals with technical problems with the aircraft, are appropriately: “Don’t tell me I can’t do it! …Don’t tell me it can’t be done!” (3). These words could serve as the defining motto of the Howard Hughes of The Aviator.

At every step of the way, he refuses to compromise and accept the seemingly practical solution that, according to conventional wisdom, the situation demands. For example, after he concludes that he needs clouds in the background to make the excitement of aerial combat visible to movie audiences, he waits months — despite mounting costs — for the proper weather conditions to materialize. After finally finishing the film — well behind schedule and over budget — he is on the verge of releasing it in theaters when he discovers the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) with Al Jolson. Without hesitation, he announces to his weary business manager, Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly): “You see, this is what people want. Silent pictures are yesterday’s news, so I figure I have to reshoot Hell’s Angels for sound” (22–23).

Hughes Hell's Angels

Hughes’s perfectionism is vindicated when Hell’s Angels turns out to be a critical and a commercial success. But, as we see throughout The Aviator, Hughes pays a price for perfection, literally in terms of how much money it costs him to keep reworking Hell’s Angels to meet his high standards. Fortunately for Hughes, his inheritance ensures that he has enough money to pursue his dreams, as he tells Dietrich: “My folks are gone now so it’s my money“ (4). The Aviator keeps emphasizing this point — that Hughes’s own money is at stake in his artistic and business ventures. It is not just that he is a visionary — “Leave the big ideas to me” (10) — it is even more important that he has the courage of his convictions and is willing to put his money where his mouth is.

Even when he borrows the money to finance his enterprises, he puts up all his personal assets as collateral. To raise the money to finish Hell’s Angels, he instructs Dietrich: “Mortgage Toolco. Every asset.” The results could, of course, be disastrous, as his second in command tells him: “If you do that you could lose everything” (26). But, as a businessman, Hughes is a gambler, and he plays for high stakes. He does not simply risk his money; again and again he risks it all. The Aviator distinguishes itself from most movies about business by constantly reminding us why entrepreneurs are rewarded. It is for taking risks, and the biggest winners are often those who take the biggest chances.

The motif of “one’s own money” runs throughout The Aviator and develops a moral dimension. Hughes makes many daring decisions, and he often makes them on the spur of the moment and by himself, against the advice of others. At times, he appears to be erratic, eccentric, or irresponsible. But, the film implies, as long as it is his own money that he is risking and he is willing to bear the consequences himself, he has the right to do so. In the last main plot sequence in the film, when Hughes is building the giant flying boat that he called the Hercules and that a skeptical public came to know as the Spruce Goose, the moral basis of his business conduct alters precisely when, as a defense contractor, he starts risking taxpayers’ money.

The Aviator would truly be a libertarian film if it were suggesting that Hughes’s eagerness for government contracts was what, in the end, corrupted him as a businessman, but I am not sure that the film goes that far. But it does at least begin to raise doubts about his morality as a businessman only when he enters the world of big-government spending and factors like bribery become more important in winning contracts than genuine economic competitiveness. Hughes is able to vindicate himself at the Senate hearings only when he returns to the motif of one’s own money, telling the committee: “You see the thing is I care very much about aviation. It’s been the great joy of my life. So I put my own money into these planes…. I’ve lost millions, Mr. Chairman” (179).

The Nature of the Entrepreneur

Beyond the moral dimension of risking one’s own money as a business principle, The Aviator suggests that doing so makes one a better businessman. In his struggle to get Hell’s Angels right, Hughes reveals what is driving him to perfection: “My name depends on this picture. If it doesn’t work, I’m back to Houston with my tail between my legs, making goddamn drill bits for the rest of my life” (10).

Hughes’s personal pride is bound up with his personal fortune, and we see that the fact that he has such a personal stake in his business enterprises makes him a much better steward of the money he has at his disposal. If he were spending other people’s money, as government bureaucrats do, he would have less incentive to be careful with it. In such circumstances, if he made a mistake, he would not suffer the financial consequences himself, and, if he made the right decision, he would not reap the financial reward. But, as The Aviator shows, Hughes is a true entrepreneur because he plays a high-stakes game in which he stands to lose or gain millions personally.

The film thus displays a solid grasp of the libertarian understanding of the entrepreneurial function in the free market, a point made cogently by Mises when he distinguishes the true entrepreneur (who invests his own money) from the mere manager (who handles other people’s money):

Society can freely leave the care for the best possible employment of capital goods to their owners. In embarking upon definite projects these owners expose their own property, wealth, and social position. They are even more interested in the success of their entrepreneurial activities than is society as a whole. For society as a whole the squandering of capital invested in a definite project means only the loss of a small part of its total funds; for the owner it means much more, for the most part the loss of his total fortune. But if a manager is given a completely free hand, things are different. He speculates in risking other people’s money. He sees the prospects of an uncertain enterprise from another angle than that of the man who is answerable for the losses. It is precisely when he is rewarded by a share of the profits that he becomes foolhardy because he does not share in the losses too.9

When people complain about the “obscene” profits entrepreneurs make, they conveniently forget about the appalling losses they risk at the same time. Entrepreneurs are fundamentally rewarded for taking risks, indeed, for living with a level of risk that most people would find utterly unacceptable. The Aviator shows clearly that Hughes’s great financial successes were constantly haunted by the prospect of financial disaster. The movie grasps the difference between a true entrepreneur and a mere manager, and, indeed, it shows Hughes always concentrating on the big investment picture while leaving the details to his managers. In portraying Hughes as willing to make a big business decision, stick to it, and accept the consequences, The Aviator celebrates the authentic courage of the entrepreneur.

One would think that more Hollywood filmmakers would appreciate the role of the entrepreneur, given the fact that filmmaking is one of the most entrepreneurial of businesses.10 Huge amounts of money are made and lost in Hollywood as producers try to anticipate what entertainment the fickle public wishes to see.

The entrepreneurial character of The Aviator itself is stressed in an article appropriately entitled “This Year, the Safe Bets Are Off” by Patrick Goldstein. Goldstein discusses what distinguished the five Oscar nominees for best picture in 2004:

They were largely financed by outside investors…. Most of the nominees aren’t even classic outside-the-system indie movies. They’re artistic gambles financed by entrepreneurs…. The Aviator, though released by Miramax, was financed largely by Graham King, who was responsible for roughly $80 million of the film’s $116-million budget (the rest coming from Miramax and Warner Bros. Films).

Ironically, the chief reason it proved difficult to raise the money to make The Aviator was Scorsese’s reputation as a difficult director, one who has trouble respecting schedules and budgets. Goldstein cites King: “He says The Aviator met with rejection everywhere, even with DiCaprio attached to star. Everyone was scared that Scorsese would be uncontrollable.”

As it turned out, despite wildfires on location in California that interrupted shooting, Scorsese managed to finish the film on schedule in November 2003 and without large cost overruns. Still, everyone involved in the film had reason to feel grateful to King for his $80 million gamble on the project. Goldstein writes of the way DiCaprio showed his gratitude: “Hanging in King’s office in Santa Monica is a framed picture of the star kneeling in front of one of the film’s biplanes, with the hand-scrawled inscription: ‘To Graham, thank you for being the only one to have the [guts] to make my dream a reality.’”11

Goldstein adds his own tribute to King: “It’s no wonder why King alone has produced three best picture nominees in the last five years: The Aviator, Gangs of New York and Traffic. Unlike the studios, King, who bankrolls his films by selling off the rights in foreign territories, is in the risk-taking business.”12

The story of the making of The Aviator neatly parallels the story the film itself tells. Indeed, it is the same story of the courage of the entrepreneur in risking large sums of his own money on what he believes will sell in the marketplace.

The Way of the Future

In this business of anticipating consumer demand, The Aviator also celebrates the intellectual qualities of the entrepreneur. As we have seen, the key to Hughes’s success is his orientation toward the future. He immediately sees that the arrival of talkies has made the silent movie obsolete, and he acts accordingly, without hesitation. He is a great pioneer in aviation because he is always asking himself what the public wants and how airline service could be improved. He builds TWA into a major airline by following his vision of the future: “We build a plane that flies above the weather and we could get every man, woman and child in this country to feel safe up there…. An airplane with the ability to fly into the substratosphere — across the country — across the world.… Now that is the future” (37).

At the end of The Aviator, right after Hughes has finally gotten the Spruce Goose to fly, he is still thinking about the future of aviation as he turns his mind to the potential of jet aircraft for commercial use. This is one of the points where the film departs from historical accuracy. The real Howard Hughes was, in fact, slower than his competitors in equipping his airline with jet aircraft.13

But, to strengthen its presentation of the entrepreneur as visionary, The Aviator shows Hughes one step ahead of his competition even in this area: “I’ve been thinking about something. Something new — jet airplanes. …Whoever can start utilizing jet technology on commercial airlines is gonna win all the marbles…. We gotta get into it. Jets are gonna be the way of the future. The way of the future. The way of the future. The way of the future …” (189–90). The Aviator emphasizes Hughes’s role as a forward-looking entrepreneur by choosing these as his last words in the film. The film ends with him repeating this phrase over and over again while his aides hustle him off so that no one can see him finally plunging into madness. In the film’s view, Hughes was a victim of what is now called obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the perfectionism that made him succeed as a businessman was linked to a pathological condition that eventually drove him crazy.14

The film links Hughes’s madness to his genius by suggesting that it is what makes him think outside the box. He does not behave the way ordinary people do, and he does not think the way they do either. When he orders a meal, it must be “New York cut steak, twelve peas, bottle of milk with the cap on” (42) — twelve peas, no more, no fewer, arranged symmetrically. We see here his childhood obsession with order and cleanliness at work, and it makes him appear weird. But the same obsessiveness is at work when he sets out to produce the world’s fastest plane: “The rivets have to be completely flush, every screw and joint countersunk. No wind resistance on the fuselage. She’s gotta be clean” (36). In short, it is precisely because Hughes is a misfit that he stands out from the crowd. He is always doing what is least expected of him and proves the value of a contrarian stance in economic matters. Once again, The Aviator develops a portrait of the entrepreneur that is familiar in libertarian philosophy in general and Austrian economics in particular. Here is Mises’s classic description of the entrepreneur:

The real entrepreneur is a speculator, a man eager to utilize his opinion about the future structure of the market for business operations promising profits. This specific anticipative understanding of the conditions of the uncertain future defies any rules and systematization. It can be neither taught nor learned. If it were different, everybody could embark upon entrepreneurship with the same prospect of success. What distinguishes the successful entrepreneur and promoter from other people is precisely the fact that he does not let himself be guided by what was and is, but arranges his affairs on the ground of his opinion about the future. He sees the past and present as other people do; but he judges the future in a different way. In his actions he is directed by an opinion about the future which deviates from those held by the crowd.15

The Aviator is fully in accord with Mises’s conception of the entrepreneur. By acknowledging that there may be an element of madness in entrepreneurial genius, it emphasizes the individuality of the great businessman, the uniqueness of his vision, the fact that he simply does not see the world the way ordinary people do.

A Socialist Dinner Party

While celebrating the visionary power of the entrepreneur, The Aviator also does a remarkable job of identifying the sources of opposition to this creativity and originality. As the representative of the future, the entrepreneur is constantly running afoul of all the representatives of the past, members of the establishment who have a vested interest in seeing the status quo remain undisturbed.

In The Aviator, the establishment consists of three principal forces: old money; big business; and big government.

Aviator Socialist Dinner Party

Hughes ends up in conflict with old money as a result of his affair with Katharine Hepburn, who, according to the screenplay, comes from a “patrician Yankee clan.” When the actress brings Hughes home to her “ancestral Connecticut manor” (66) to meet her family, he cannot fit into this upper-class environment and is rejected by the Hepburns as a nouveau riche upstart. Here is another point where the film departs from historical accuracy. To emphasize the contrast between Hughes and the Hepburns, it downplays the fact that Hughes was not exactly nouveau riche, having inherited a great deal of money himself. And his family did send him to an exclusive New England boarding school in the Boston area (Fessenden).16 But the film may be allowed some poetic license here for the sake of creating a dramatic contrast and making an important point about old money. Moreover, with his roots in Texas and California and his stake in the motion picture and aviation industries, Hughes does represent the brash new economic forces from the West Coast and the Southwest that challenged the supremacy of the East Coast establishment in twentieth-century America.

The Aviator presents this struggle as a culture war. Hughes represents the new popular culture of Hollywood, while the Hepburns represent the old high culture of New England, with its ties to Europe. Even though Katharine Hepburn is a movie actress, from her first appearance she makes it clear that she prefers traditional drama to film: “I adore the theater. Only alive on stage” (33). The Hepburn family looks down on Hughes as crass, uncultivated, and uncouth, as a kind of mechanic who has no appreciation for art and all the other finer things in life. He reads “flying magazines” (actually aviation journals); they “read books” (71–72). In the arts, the Hepburns keep current with all the fashionable contemporary trends. The painter in their little artist colony is “abstract of course” (68), and they sit around debating the merits of Goya versus Picasso while quoting Jean Cocteau about Edith Piaf (72–73). The film presents the Hepburns as affected snobs of the worst kind. The screenplay reads: “Welcome to Fenwick where all the blood is blue and all the jaws are clenched” (68). Clearly, we are meant to sympathize with Hughes in this scene. For once, he seems to stand for normality in the midst of all this aristocratic pretension and pseudo-intellectualism.

What is most interesting about the presentation of the Hepburns in The Aviator is their politics. Although they are wealthy and upper-class, they are left-wing in their political opinions. In fact, almost the first thing Mrs. Hepburn says to Hughes at the dinner table is: “We’re all socialists here!” (68). In practical political terms, the Hepburns are Democrats and fans of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal, with all its antibusiness policies. Mrs. Hepburn announces to Hughes with all her aristocratic hauteur: “I will not have sniggering at Mr. Roosevelt at my table” (69).

Roosevelt was, of course, from an old, established, socially prominent East Coast family himself. The idea that aristocrats might be socialists and favor antibusiness policies may, at first, appear strange. But, as several libertarian thinkers have argued, the extreme Left and the extreme Right often meet in their distrust and hatred of the free market.17 Like socialists with their commitment to central planning, aristocrats believe in a static social order and reject the supposed messiness and chaos of the free market. The Aviator explores the socioeconomic dynamic of “aristocratic socialism” by the contrast it draws between Hughes and the Hepburns.

We tend to lump the wealthy together into a single class, but The Aviator suggests that how one acquires one’s wealth makes a great difference. The Hepburn family scene culminates in a pointed exchange between Hughes and his hosts:

Ludlow: Then how did you make all that money?
Mrs. Hepburn: We don’t care about money here, Mr. Hughes.
Howard: That’s because you have it.
Mrs. Hepburn: Would you repeat that?
Howard: You don’t care about money because you have it. And you’ve always had it. My father was dirt poor when I was born…. I care about money, because I know what it takes out of a man to make it. (74)

The Aviator suggests that those who are comfortably born into money take it for granted. The wealthy entrepreneur, by contrast, has made his money by his own efforts and appreciates both the money itself and the struggle it takes to accumulate it. Understanding how markets work, the entrepreneur will be in favor of economic freedom and oppose government policies that limit the flexibility entrepreneurs need to respond to ever-changing market conditions.

The representatives of old money are hostile to economic change because they worry that it can only undermine their upper-class status. Hence, old money may, paradoxically, support socialist or antibusiness policies because they hamstring the entrepreneurial activities that lead to the formation of new money. To preserve its privileged position, old money may favor government intervention in the market that hinders the accumulation of new wealth by the next generation.

The sociological analysis implicit in the Hepburn family scene in The Aviator is subtle and accords with libertarian thinking on the subject. In exploring the conflict between old money and new, the film complicates our understanding of social class and reminds us that, just because people are wealthy, they do not necessarily share a common interest or the same opinions about economic policy. Hughes is, in many respects, at his most sympathetic in this scene, which shows how Scorsese can treat even a wealthy man as an underdog. And where else has Hollywood ever portrayed supporters of Franklin Delano Roosevelt so unsympathetically?18

The Senator from Pan Am

The other source of opposition to Hughes in The Aviator is the sinister alliance between big business and big government. The film builds up to and climaxes with Hughes’s struggle against the efforts of Pan Am, in collusion with a US senator, to keep TWA out of the international airline business.

Aviator Senator

The Aviator thus ends on a distinctively libertarian note, dwelling on the confrontation between the heroic individual and the leviathan state.19 As Hughes himself puts it when being cross-examined by Owen Brewster: “I am only a private citizen, while you are a Senator with all sorts of powers” (170).

In the contrast it draws between Hughes and Juan Trippe, the president of Pan Am, The Aviator again differentiates what many analysts, Marxist and otherwise, mistakenly lump together. Not all businessmen are alike; some are genuine entrepreneurs and serve the public, while others use the power of the government to stifle free competition and, hence, innovation.

Tripp represents the business establishment, which is comfortable working with the government and its regulations, especially when the regulatory powers of the government can be exploited to entrench a company’s market position. In contrasting Hughes with Trippe and TWA with Pan Am, The Aviator suggests that there are two ways that a business can come to dominate an industry. TWA under Hughes’s leadership gains its market share the legitimate way, by providing the public with what it wants in an economically efficient manner. Pan Am under Tripp’s leadership exemplifies the dark side of business. Using its influence with the government to restrict access to its markets, it does not have to worry about being competitive in the services it offers.20 The Aviator clearly distinguishes between genuinely competitive business practices in a free market environment and monopolistic practices in an environment of government regulation.

The Aviator presents Hughes as fighting explicitly against the principle of monopoly: “No one airline should have a monopoly on flying the Atlantic. That’s just not fair! … [Juan Trippe] owns Pan Am. He owns Congress. He owns the Civil Aeronautics Board. But he does not own the sky. …I have been fighting high hat, Ivy League pricks like him my whole life” (105).

The Aviator adopts the concept of monopoly familiar in libertarian thinking. Unlike Marxists, libertarians do not view monopoly as the inevitable outcome of economic competition and, indeed, the ultimate stage of capitalism. On the contrary, they view it as the opposite of capitalism, a holdover from the precapitalist system known as mercantilism, in which governments granted special privileges to businesses, often chartering them as the exclusive proprietors in a given field. The script of The Aviator makes it clear that Senator Brewster’s Community Airline Bill has nothing to do with capitalism; it is, instead, based on a European socialist model of nationalized industries: “Senator Brewster is saying that domestic competition will kill expansion into the global market — because the nationalized foreign carriers, like Air France and Lufthansa, can offer lower fares ‘cause they don’t have to compete, right? So, hey, let’s get rid of all that messy competition and have a nationalized airline of our own. And, hey, why don’t we make it Pan Am?” (116).

In his private meeting with Hughes before the hearings, Brewster tries to present himself in typical big-government fashion as the friend of the consumer:

Howard: You think it’s fair for one airline to have a monopoly on international travel?
Brewster: I think one airline can do it better without competition. All I’m thinking about is the needs of the American passenger. (145)

At the actual hearing, Hughes is able to cut through Brewster’s rhetoric and focus on the real reason behind his legislation: “This entire bill was written by Pan Am executives and designed to give that airline a monopoly on international travel!” (175). The Aviator supports the claims of many opponents of government intervention in the market — the agencies created to regulate the market become clients of the very businesses they are supposed to be regulating.

At its heart, The Aviator thus champions the American principle of free market competition against European socialism and the model of nationalized industries. At the hearing, Hughes demolishes the pretense of big government to represent the public interest and shows that corrupt senators like Brewster are simply serving one private interest (Pan Am) at the expense of another (TWA). The film clearly suggests that the public interest is, in fact, better served by an economic system in which genuine entrepreneurs are free to compete with each other to introduce innovations in the marketplace.

In the Senate hearing scene, The Aviator brilliantly plays with a Hollywood stereotype.21 When one sees anyone hauled before a Senate committee on charges of corruption, one normally expects to find the public-spiritedness of the government triumph over the greed of the private individual. But Scorsese uses all his cinematic powers to craft a scene that shows just the opposite, revealing what often turns out to be the reality behind the illusion of big-government benevolence. One company is simply using its influence with the government to gain an unfair advantage over a legitimate competitor.

The Invisible Hand

In the way in which The Aviator differentiates the good businessman from the bad, it provides a useful reminder that free market thinkers are not lackeys of big business, as Marxists often try to portray them. Libertarians do not uncritically support businessmen; they defend a system that forces businessmen, often against their will, to compete with each other in serving the interests of consumers.

Libertarian thinkers are acutely aware that many businessmen resent the sharp discipline of the marketplace and turn to governments to relieve them from competitive pressures by granting them economic privileges. Libertarians champion only the true entrepreneur, the one who accepts the challenge of competing in an open market. For that very reason, libertarians are very suspicious of big business, which, as The Aviator shows, is often all too eager to collude with big government to eliminate competition. That is one of the central claims of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Smith defended free trade and other free market principles, but he often speaks of businessmen in extremely negative terms. In fact, he is no friend of businessmen because he is a friend of free markets. He believes that businessmen must be forced into free competition. In his view, their natural inclination is to seek out economic privileges from governments.

Smith sees the baleful influence of businessmen behind the protectionist policies of the European regimes of his day as well as the mercantilist doctrine that stood in the way of free trade:

That it was the spirit of monopoly which originally both invented and propagated this doctrine, cannot be doubted…. In every country it always is and must be the interest of the great body of the people to buy whatever they want of those who sell it cheapest. The proposition is so very manifest, that it seems ridiculous to take any pains to prove it; nor could it ever have been called in question, had not the interested sophistry of merchants and manufacturers confounded the common sense of mankind. Their interest is, in this respect, directly opposite to that of the great body of the people…. It is the interest of the merchants and manufacturers of every country to secure to themselves the monopoly of the home market.

Most people do not realize that Smith traces the lack of freedom in the marketplace to what he calls “the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers.”22 In the way in which it portrays the battle between Hughes and Trippe, The Aviator offers a concrete illustration of this basic libertarian principle.

People have a hard time grasping the fact that free market thinkers support capitalism but not necessarily individual capitalists — especially when they turn out to be working against the very principle of the free market. Libertarians argue that free market principles are needed precisely to discipline individual businessmen, to prevent them from seeking out unfair advantages at the expense of their fellow entrepreneurs.

This disciplinary power of the market is one way of formulating the famous principle of “the invisible hand,” as articulated by Smith. Smith argued that the best social order is not one that attempts to pursue the public good directly. Far preferable is an order in which human beings are free to pursue their private good as they themselves understand it. The larger good of the public will, in fact, emerge out of this free competition in pursuing private goods. As Smith writes in one of the best-known passages in The Wealth of Nations:

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestick industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the publick interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestick to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the publick good.23


This famous passage might serve as a gloss on The Aviator. The film shows that those who claim to be pursuing the public good are often hypocrites, secretly pursuing their own private good behind a façade of respectability and, in fact, stifling the entrepreneurial activity that is the only real source of progress. And, in its complicated and ambivalent portrait of Howard Hughes, the film makes a fundamental libertarian point — one does not have to be a morally good man in order to serve the public good.

Scorsese’s Hughes has many faults. He is ambitious and vain, with a compelling need to be the center of attention. He is a fierce competitor who is often willing to resort to unscrupulous means to achieve his ends. He is not public-spirited in any conventional sense. On the contrary, he is always looking out for himself, interested primarily in his own fame and fortune. Yet The Aviator suggests that, in pursuing his private obsessions, he ended up benefiting the public. He advanced two of the great arts of modernity — aviation and the motion picture — and, thereby, helped build the world of the twentieth century.

One is reminded of another famous passage in Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.”24

This may sound like a very cynical doctrine, but it is also a realistic one. There are many fantasy elements in The Aviator — it is, after all, in part about the dream factory of Hollywood — but, as we have seen, it is rooted in an unusually solid grasp of economic reality. It offers one of the fullest, most complex, and most insightful portraits of the nature of the entrepreneur ever to appear in a film. And, in celebrating the visionary career of Howard Hughes, The Aviator becomes one of the great American motion pictures because it celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit that made America great.

[This essay appears in The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese, edited by Mark T. Conard (The University Press of Kentucky, 2007).]
  • 1In an interview, Scorsese says of Hughes: “He became the outlaw of Hollywood in a way” (”Martin Scorsese Interview — ‘The Aviator’”).
  • 2Martin Scorsese, introduction to The Aviator: A Screenplay by John Logan (New York: Miramax, 2004), vii. Elsewhere, in response to the question: “Do you see any parallel between Howard Hughes’ obsessions and yours?” Scorsese replied: “I have [had] over the years, some close friends and acquaintances who have said, who have described me at one point, ‘Don’t go in the room. He’s got the tissue boxes on his feet.’ ... But basically I couldn’t presume to say I’ve been like Howard Hughes. Howard Hughes was this visionary. ... I usually like to lock myself in the screening room and just screen. That’s maybe the only similarity I see” (”Scorsese Interview”). Leonardo DiCaprio was more candid when asked whether he could relate to Hughes: “The Hell’s Angels sequence, being a part of films that have gone on for many, many months and you’re sitting there with the director trying to get things perfect and do things over and over and over again, that was something that I think Scorsese and I immediately identified with” (”Leonardo DiCaprio Talks about ‘The Aviator’”).
  • 3A perfect example of Hollywood’s negative portrayal of the businessman is the cruel banker Mr. Potter in the classic It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). For a comprehensive survey of the portrayal of businessmen in American popular culture, see Don Lavoie and Emily Chamlee-Wright, “The Culture Industry’s Representation of Business,” in Culture and Enterprise: The Development, Representation, and Morality of Business (London: Routledge, 2000), 80–103. Here are some representative figures from media studies: “Of all the antagonists studied in over 30 years of programming, businessmen were twice as likely to play the role of antagonist than any other identifiable occupation. Business characters are nearly three times as likely to be criminals, relative to other occupations on television. They represent 12 percent of all characters in identifiable occupations, but account for 32 percent of crimes. Forty-four percent of all vice crimes such as prostitution and drug trafficking committed on television, and 40 percent of TV murders, are perpetrated by business people” (ibid., 84).
  • 4On the hostility to business in culture in general, see F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 89–105; and Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. For an interesting analysis of the psychology of detective stories, see Mises, Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, Part III, “Literature Under Capitalism.”
  • 5The Hollywood archetype of the idealistic senator who takes on the business interests in his state and fights corruption, even in the Senate itself, is, of course, Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
  • 6Scorsese, introduction, p. viii. Elsewhere, Scorsese says of the movie: “The approach on this material really, really comes from John Logan, the writer” (”Scorsese Interview”).
  • 7See Charles Higham, Howard Hughes: The Secret Life (New York: Putnam’s, 1993).
  • 8The Aviator: A Screenplay, p. 6. For the sake of convenience, I have quoted from the published version of the screenplay, even though the spoken dialogue occasionally departs in minor ways from the text. Page numbers for subsequent citations are given in the text.
  • 9Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. On this point, see also Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 2 vols. (1776; reprint, Indianapolis: Liberty, 1981), 1:454, 456.
  • 10For speculation on why people in Hollywood generally condemn capitalism, see Mises, Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, Part I.
  • 11The bowdlerization in brackets is courtesy of the Los Angeles Times. My guess is that what DiCaprio really wrote was balls.
  • 12Patrick Goldstein, “The Big Picture: This Year, the Safe Bets Are Off,” Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2005.
  • 13See Higham, Howard Hughes, p. 179.
  • 14See Leonardo DiCaprio, foreword to The Aviator: A Screenplay, p. vi. Elsewhere, in response to the question, “Do you think Howard Hughes would have been the genius that he was without the OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder]?” DiCaprio replied: “I think they’re a direct result of one another. It’s like he would have not been as obsessed about making the largest plane ever built. He wouldn’t have been obsessed about breaking every speed record. He wouldn’t have been obsessed about flying around the world faster than anyone else. He wouldn’t have been obsessed about reshooting Hell’s Angels for sound, having that movie go on for four years. … It was all completely a part of his obsessive nature and his OCD that made him have such an amazing, astounding life” (”DiCaprio Talks”).
  • 15Mises, Human Action, p. 582.
  • 16See Higham, Howard Hughes, p. 24.
  • 17See, e.g., Mises, Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, Part I. Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent (1907) provides a brilliant analysis of aristocratic socialism and also traces the convergence of the extreme Left and the extreme Right in a hatred of capitalism.
  • 18For a parallel in Scorsese’s work, one might look to the treatment of Abraham Lincoln in Gangs of New York. With its suspicion of federal war policies — and especially the draft — the film seems to sympathize with the hostile response of New Yorkers to a stage representation of Lincoln. American presidents who vastly expanded the power of the federal government do not appear to be faring well in Scorsese’s latest movies.
  • 19Scorsese and DiCaprio agree on this point. Scorsese says: “Ultimately, what I really liked was the way the story developed into a struggle between [Hughes] and the government and Pan Am. I thought that was interesting. I think it has a lot of resonance for today, particularly the investigation committee smearing people” (”Scorsese Interview”). DiCaprio says: “How the hell do you make this situation with Juan Trippe and Pan American Airways and this Senator become a sympathetic situation towards Howard Hughes? …I realized …it has to do with corporate takeover and the involvement of huge corporations with our government, and they’re in cahoots and it’s going on today with the Enron scandals and numerous other things. That’s what really made me say, ‘Okay, here’s this one man, he’s his own boss, he is rich but he is a stand-up individual and here he is with all these horrible things going on with himself mentally, standing up in front of the Senate and battling the Senate to stop the monopoly on international travel.’ I think, ultimately, people kind of got behind that…. They really loved this one individual taking on the entire system, taking on the government, taking on huge monopolies and corporations” (”DiCaprio Talks”).
  • 20Let me reiterate here that I am not talking about the historical facts of this case, only about the way The Aviator presents them.
  • 21Specifically, Scorsese seems to have in mind the great Senate hearing scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II (1974). Although we are sympathetic to Michael Corleone even in this scene, there can be no question that he is, in fact, guilty of the crimes that the Senate committee is investigating. Given Scorsese’s lifelong rivalry with Coppola, it is difficult to believe that he was not trying to show that he could create a Senate hearing scene as powerful as the one by his fellow Italian American director. A number of the details in Scorsese’s scene — Hughes’s consultation with his “consigliere,” Noah Dietrich, his reading of a prepared statement, his appeal to his patriotism, the confusion and consternation among the senators when the hearing fails to go the way they planned — all point to Coppola’s corresponding scene. Note that both scenes take place just after World War II; even the cinematography of Scorsese’s scene echoes Coppola’s. Read against Coppola’s scene, Scorsese’s takes on added meaning — Scorsese is showing that the senators are the gangsters. (Coppola’s film already hints in this direction; one of the senators on the investigating committee, Pat Geary, is shown to have ties to the Corleone family.)
  • 22Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1:493–94, 493.
  • 23Ibid., p. 456.
  • 24Ibid., pp. 26–27.
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