The Ludwig von Mises Legacy: A Reality Check

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Libertarians
tend to trust other libertarians. After all, a libertarian isn't
going to commit acts of force or fraud against you, right?

Nevertheless,
not everything a fellow libertarian tells you should be believed,
even about matters related to the libertarian movement itself. Sometimes,
people who call themselves libertarians, like members of any other
group, spread lies about each other, either deliberately or out
of ignorance (i.e., lack of correct information).

Within
the libertarian movement, perhaps no one has been the object of
more unfounded attacks than Lew
Rockwell
and the Ludwig von
Mises Institute
, in Auburn, Alabama, of which Mr. Rockwell is
the president.

In
the early days of my interest in libertarianism, a number of prominent
libertarians repeated lies about them to me. And because the sources
seemed reliable in general, I didn't see any reason not to believe
them, despite a lack of any firsthand knowledge.

So
I went on assuming that my sources must be right. But then, at Grove
City College
, I took classes with Dr. Jeffrey Herbener, a senior
faculty member at the Mises Institute, and he and his ideas didn't
seem so bad at all. So I decided to head down to Auburn to attend
the weeklong 2000 Mises
University
program and check things out for myself. There, I
participated in the most rigorous, scholarly, and well-organized
libertarian program (rightly described as an “intellectual boot
camp”) that I had ever experienced, and found all of the things
I'd heard to be simply untrue.

I'm
glad I had the opportunity to discover the truth. Sadly, not everyone
has done so, and the falsehoods that caused my initial reluctance
still persist among many others.

Consider
this passage, by R.W. Bradford, from the November 2002 issue of
Liberty magazine,
in which he suggests that the Mises Institute isn't about advancing
the ideas of the Austrian economist Mises at all:

[P]romoting
Mises' thought is only the ostensible purpose of the Mises Institute:
anyone who looks carefully at its record quickly concludes that
its real mission is to promote the thinking of Murray Rothbard,
a student of Mises whose thinking and intellectual agenda was
quite different from Mises…. As if to underscore its allegiance
to Rothbard rather than to Mises, the Institute has recently republished
the 1949 edition of Mises' magnum opus, Human Action, rather than
the subsequent editions prepared by Mises himself. Mises Institute
President Lew Rockwell reportedly claims that he believes the
1949 edition to be “more scholarly,” but cynics observe that the
main substantial differences between it and subsequent editions
is that it lacks Mises' criticism of Rothbard….1

Each
and every assertion in this passage is false, and does a great disservice
not only to the faculty, staff, and supporters of the Mises Institute,
but also to anyone who wants to learn about economics and liberty.

Mises
or Rothbard?

Murray
Rothbard was, of course, a conscious disciple of Ludwig von Mises,
and one of Mises's foremost and most prolific students in the United
States. Few would question that Rothbard is the most Misesian
of any of Mises's students. Every good disciple builds upon
the work of his mentor, and Rothbard built upon the work of Mises
— just as Mises had built upon the work of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk
before him.

As
you can read on the Mises Institute's web site
, Professor Rothbard
was personally involved with the Institute during his lifetime,
as director of its programs, and his ideas are still addressed frequently
at their programs. It's even true that the Mises Institute has kept
many of Rothbard's books in print. And, indeed, last summer I attended
the Institute's Rothbard Graduate Seminar, which focused upon Rothbard's
Ethics
of Liberty
, a work with which Professor Mises would likely
have had some serious disagreements.

On
the other hand, I've heard speakers at the Mises Institute openly
agree and disagree with Rothbard on many of the issues upon which
he and Mises differed — especially on the issue of anarcho-capitalism.
While the majority seems to side with Rothbard on that issue, I
have observed no party line that anyone is forced to toe.

More
importantly, the Mises Institute has undertaken major scholarly
projects related to Mises's work. For example, Dr. Jörg
Guido Hülsmann
, in preparing to write his forthcoming biography
of Mises, traveled to Moscow and prepared an index
of Mises's “lost” Austrian papers there.

So
the question is, is Mr. Bradford suggesting that an organization
dedicated to the study of Mises's ideas be concerned exclusively
with Mises? That is, should they just look up whatever Mises said
on a given topic and stick to that as gospel, lock, stock and dogma?

I
doubt that's really what he means. To speak in terms of “Who do
you follow?” is not only doctrinaire but childish and far, indeed,
from scholarly.

Yet
if the perceived problem is, in fact, the lack of an organization
that treats Mises's ideas as a “closed system” not to be improved
upon, then Mr. Bradford is correct: the Mises Institute is doing
nothing to fill that void.

Human
Action

Since
the Mises Institute first decided to publish its “Scholar's Edition”
of Mises's Human
Action
, I've heard several variations on why the Institute
reverted to the first edition, rather than use later revised editions.
However, among rumormongers who are in no way affiliated with the
Institute, and who are not privy to its decision-making processes,
Mr. Bradford's version is the most frequently repeated: The first
edition, these people claim, was chosen because the fourth edition
contained new material that conflicted with Rothbard's views on
anarcho-capitalism and natural rights.

There
is no basis for any such claim, beyond the prejudices that exist
in the mind of the individual making the statement.

I
have to wonder if these critics have actually looked at the Scholar's
Edition. Specifically, I wonder if they've looked at its introduction,
which details the precise, scholarly reasons why the first edition
was used for the Scholar's Edition. I feel no obligation to do anyone's
homework for them, and I wouldn't want to do the scholars who wrote
the introduction the disservice of attempting to present their reasoning
in an abridged form. However, several reasons the editors identified
are: (1) later editions omitted passages on German wartime barter
policy; (2) later editions omitted some insights on monopoly theory;
and (3) later editions add a defense of conscription that contradicts
Mises's own writings of 1919, 1939, 1940, and 1946.

Additionally,
there is scholarly value in having the first edition of any
major work in economics — such as Adam Smith's Wealth
of Nations
or David Ricardo's Principles — available
for scholars. It is also notable that F. A. Hayek, Israel Kirzner,
and Murray Rothbard all continued to cite to the first edition in
their own works, well after the publication of later editions.

In
preparing the Scholar's Edition, the editors consulted archives
from Stanford, Grove City College (which owns most of Mises's American
papers), the Foundation for Economic
Education
, Yale, and Moscow (where Mises's papers
from Vienna
are stored). One may or may not think their reasons
for reverting to the first edition were good ones, but no one can
accuse the editors of hiding their decision or their reasons for
making it.

If
the Mises Institute is trying to suppress Mises and other dissenting
views on natural rights, they're doing a terrible job. Mises's views
on the topic are stated in many of his works, and didn't suddenly
emerge with the publication of the 3rd edition of Human
Action. I've heard Mises's views on natural rights discussed,
pro and con, many times at Mises Institute programs. My friend Paul
Clark even spoke at the 2001
Austrian Scholars Conference
on the topic, “u2018Rights' are the
Antithesis of Freedom and Justice.”

Finally,
there is one more problem for the conspiracy theorists: If the Mises
Institute is so interested in suppressing the content of later editions
of Human Action, it is curious indeed that they would make
the entire fourth edition available for free on their web site
.

More
Lies From the Libertarian Left

The
folks we've dealt with above at least attempt to make a substantive
argument, even if it is based on incorrect information. Some of
the Institute's other “libertarian” detractors — particularly those
who make their living in the nation's capital — are apparently so
used to inside-the-beltway tactics that they don't attempt anything
even superficially resembling rationally reasoned discourse when
attacking the anti-political Mises Institute.

This
is well illustrated by the experience of one acquaintance, who was
at an informal gathering of young people from around the country
at a DC “free market” public policy think tank, with some of that
organization's top brass. There, he made the mistake of saying that
he had found material from the Mises Institute to be helpful in
his intellectual development. The DC crowd reacted as if he'd casually
mentioned that Mein Kampf was one of his favorite books.
“What?” spat one individual who wears the “libertarian” label and
likes to go on TV. “You can't be serious! Why, why… they're racists!”

Like
all PC police, the DC “libertarians” are apparently not above bringing
out good old racism charges when nothing else works. As one who
has actually attended Mises Institute events (unlike the individual
who made that charge), I can testify that I've never heard a racist
idea there. I've seen attendees become outraged at some of the ideas
they were hearing — but only because they were libertarian ideas,
not because there was any racism in them.

So
where does the racism charge originate?

Maybe
it's because of a false perception that exists that the Mises Institute
is “anti-immigration.” A prominent libertarian economist once told
me that the folks at the Mises Institute are a bunch of “racist
snakes,” with the sole basis for his conclusion apparently being
their alleged anti-immigration stance.

The
problem with that economist's belief is, there is no such stance.
First, as far as I can tell, the Mises Institute takes no official
position on immigration at all. Second, the Institute's senior faculty
members are split on the question: While Hans-Hermann
Hoppe
has made libertarian arguments in support of immigration
restrictions (which are too sophisticated for any intellectually
honest opponent to dismiss, with a wave of the hand, as “racist”),
Walter Block supports
free immigration. (For a stimulating debate on the topic, see the
Summer 1998 issue of The Journal of Libertarian Studies
,
which is now published by the Mises Institute.)

So
is the complaint that the Institute allows criticisms of unrestricted
immigration to be voiced at all? Would a censoring of anti-immigration
views be indicative of an open, scholarly exchange?

With
that objection discredited, what other basis might exist for the
racism charge? Maybe it's because many Institute scholars, like
Mises himself, are enthusiastic about the idea of secession? If
so, then why not deal with the issue of secession, rather than make
mean-spirited guesses about its advocates' motivation?

Could
it be that opponents get so upset because the Mises Institute has
the guts to eschew the political compromises that are part of the
everyday existence of a DC public policy outfit? Or maybe it's because
throwing a racism charge or similar against someone who makes a
politically unpopular, principled stand for liberty is the way things
are done in Washington? I'm just speculating, of course — I don't
want to start flinging any mud of my own. But when such influential
detractors offer no substantive arguments, what else is any reasonably
intelligent person to think?

Don't
Be Fooled

The
bottom line is, the Mises Institute is one of the world's finest
and most uncompromising libertarian organizations, as anyone who
has had any contact with them knows.

And
despite the best efforts of individuals in some circles, the word
is getting out. Admission to Mises Institute programs is
competitive, and they attract intelligent students from around the
world. The Institute recently built a beautiful new facility to
meet the rising demand and provide the best possible atmosphere
for study and scholarly research.

It
would be a shame if people seeking a libertarian education — especially
those interested in learning about Mises — were guided away from
the Mises Institute by misinformation spread by lying or ignorant
individuals who are merely peddling their own agendas.

Hopefully,
as independent-minded truth-seekers, newcomers (and old hands as
well) will examine the facts for themselves. If they do, they'll
discover, as I did, that you can't always believe what people tell
you — even if they do call themselves libertarians.

Note

  1. This is
    an abbreviated version of Mr. Bradford’s comments. The unedited
    version contains even more falsehoods about Mises and Rothbard
    that are beyond the scope of this article.

December
20, 2002

J.
H. Huebert [send him mail]
is a student at the University of Chicago Law School. His website
is www.jhhuebert.com.


     

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