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Mises on Political Compromise

Turmoil in the international political arena has driven home the point that politics is about the art of compromise. Not the kind, voluntary type of compromise one is expected to make every so often in a happy marriage, or in business negotiations on a free market. Politics breeds a type of coercive compromise which can only be achieved by backing down on your principles, or better yet, if you hold no principles to begin with. The most skilled politicians know that this is the way up into the political world.

But many other people can fall into the compromise trap as well: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”, the saying goes. To defeat one’s enemy, one must make otherwise unlikely friends. A common example is that of economists bending their views to align themselves with the program of one political figure or other. Those who hold no principles to begin with do so to obtain funding and prestige. But there are also some who do it because they believe that in this way, they can effect a change otherwise impossible, or find a platform and more followers for their own views. In doing so, however, they disregard the fact that many a time, the minor change they’re after comes at the expense of a greater sacrifice of principles, which in the long run provides for a dilution of the initial message and the loss of principled followers as well.

Ludwig von Mises was well known for his intransigent character. His work for the Chamber of Commerce in Vienna, or for the free trade movement in Europe, provided numerous opportunities for political compromise, which he knew was inevitable. Looking back on those years, when his friends thought he could have gained much more if he had loosened up his principled stance on economic issues, Mises actually regretted having compromised too much, and renewed his resolve to return to the battle of ideas.

Perhaps the best example of how he conducted himself in situations which required political compromise is the difficult relationship he had with his student and protégé, Fritz Machlup. Machlup, who called Mises “the scholar who would not compromise”, saw his friendship with his teacher fray in the mid-1960s when Machlup argued that only special political interests supported the restoration of the gold standard. Mises is said to have remarked: “He was in my seminar in Vienna… he understands everything. He knows more than most of them and he knows exactly what he is doing” (Hűlsmann 2007, p. 698).

But Machlup’s attraction to political compromise had in fact begun decades earlier, after his move to the United States (Hűlsmann 2007, pp. 860-62). In 1946, Machlup had asked Mises, in private correspondence, for advice on how to present a rather evasive approach to labour unions to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, given that his audience was likely to be pro-unions and that, “it is politically unthinkable to outlaw unions today”. Obviously torn, he explained:

 “If [my] lecture were to be presented in a scientific forum, I could go into the history of ideas, and in particular Mill and so forth. But for the Chamber, I must be practical and political. […] I will have no choice but to say that monopoly wages are the only purpose of labor unions, and that strong labor unions mean unemployment and inflation and lead to an authoritarian state. Can an honest man avoid such statements? Are there any alternatives?”

Mises’s response is a blueprint for how to deal with political compromise, whenever it rears its ugly head:

“[I would tell the Chamber]: First of all, liberate yourself from false ideas. Study economics. Then go on to convince others. […] I reject any outlawing or limitation of the liberty of association. No liberties shall be abolished, only coercion.”

In his obituary for Mises, Hazlitt remarked that “[Mises’s] outstanding moral quality was moral courage, the ability to stand alone, and an almost fanatical intellectual honesty and candor that refused to deviate or compromise an inch. This… set an ideal to strengthen and inspire his students and all the rest of us who were privileged to know him” (Hűlsmann 2007, p. 1039).

Mises’s own choices teach us that the enemy of your enemy is not your friend if, through that friendship, you abandon the principles you stood by before. In the grand scheme of things, there is nothing to be gained from trading off a bit of socialism now for the (often illusory) promise of more freedom in the future, or personal integrity for a one-off policy. No truth is small enough to be sacrificed in the game of political compromise. 


Contact Carmen Elena Dorobăț

Dr. Carmen Elena Dorobăț is a Fellow of the Mises Institute and Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) at Manchester Metropolitan Business School in the United Kingdom. 

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