The foundation of any and every civilization, including our own, is private ownership of the means of production. Whoever wishes to criticize modern civilization, therefore, begins with private property.
—Ludwig von Mises.
Civility is the word of the moment.
New stories lament the breakdown of civility in American society, while reports of Antifa street violence in cities like Portland raise uncomfortable memories for older Americans of 1960s riots. Editorial after editorial decries the loss of social cohesion and friendliness across the country, even within families. Pundits and politicians insist we must restore civility in politics. Otherwise we face a bleak and intensifying cold civil war: progressive vs. conservative, urban vs. rural, #metoo vs. Brett Kavanaugh, elites vs. populists, and Never Trumpers vs. Deplorables.
Yet how do they propose to accomplish this? More politics, more elections, and more top-down edicts from Congress and the Supreme Court.
Hillary Clinton, for instance, suggests civility will be restored only following successful midterm elections that places Democrats in control of Congress. And why not? The political world is all she knows, and the political world yields winners and losers, victors and vanquished. In her utterly politicized worldview, things will settle down only when the right people—her people—control US politics. Hers is a zero-sum world, always ruled by the political gang in power.
We hardly should expect an America so wracked by politics to remain civil.
But Ludwig von Mises understood a different world, one organized around property and trade rather than the state. To him, private property was the basis of any civilized society. Without that foundation, without property and a concomitant system of mutual exchange, he knew humans were destined to devolve into poverty, war, and anti-intellectual savagery. Property gives us prosperity, and therefore material abundance to live civilized lives beyond mere the subsistence that marked most of human history. Property rights give us the ability to accumulate capital, to invest in higher productivity, and to have a greater degree of certainty regarding the future.
Civility cannot be sheared from the broader concept of civilization itself. Both words share the same Latin root civilis, which means relating to citizenship or public life. But it also means relating to others with courtesy, manners, and affability. If civilization is the sum total of a society and its culture, civility—or the lack thereof—is its building block, the positive or negative social traits exhibited by people in that society.
Lew Rockwell, our Founder and Chairman, has a long career fighting for both civilization and civility. Along the way he met some of the brightest lights of our time or any time: Neil McCaffrey, Henry Hazlitt, Leonard Read, Percy and Bettina Greaves, Ayn Rand, Ludwig and Margit Mises, Ron and Carol Paul, and Murray and Joey Rothbard among them.
So I'm sure you'll enjoy my recent interview with him. With the help of Mrs. Mises, whom Murray Rothbard called a “one-woman Mises industry,” Lew Rockwell set about saving the work and name of the 20th century’s greatest economist from obscurity. Today Mises is known around the world, and cited even by his harshest critics as a champion of laissez-faire who fearlessly challenged the supposedly scientific case for socialism.
Don’t miss David Gordon’s review of Kirkpatrick Sale’s remarkable book Human Scale Revisited: A New Look at the Classic Case for a Decentralized Future. Sale is no libertarian, and even an anti-materialist, but he understands the risks posed by consolidated political power. Thus he thinks the 20th century’s trend toward larger and larger centralized states, prevalent both in once-confederated Europe and America, has been harmful to community, peace, and human flourishing.
To Sale’s credit, he is one of many thinkers from around the political spectrum challenging the accepted wisdom that political globalism and political universalism are per se beneficial. Just as Mises elevated self-determination to a defining principle of liberalism, progressives, conservatives, and libertarians increasingly see subsidiarity and decentralization as defining characteristics for a peaceful future.
Speaking of peace, on behalf of everyone at the Mises Institute let me wish each of you a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a peaceful, happy New Year. All of us want peace and prosperity for the world; all of us share a (true)liberal worldview, and all of us understand how non-interventionism in both the economy and world affairs is key to a better future. Let us all commit to making the world a better place next year through our own contributions.
We have big plans at the Mises Institute for 2019—unique, outside-the-box speakers at events, new podcasts, a new entrepreneurs platform, and new opportunities to earn academic credentials from the Institute—and we hope you’ll be part of them.
This article first appeared in the November/December issue of The Austrian.