This talk was delivered at the Grove City College conference on The Legacy of Ludwig von Mises, February 24, 2007.
When people talk of a movement, they almost invariably mean a political movement. It is easy to be a political movement. You only need to care about elections even in the off-season, and identify your cause with some pressure group well-represented in Washington. If you do these two things, you will be a movement. I suppose this is why I’ve never been particularly drawn to the word movement. As with most things touched by politics, the word has been tainted and seems vaguely threatening.
Recall what Tocqueville said about the peculiar Americans. They care not a whit about politics during the course of their normal lives. They build businesses, raise families, cultivate vibrant communities, and engage in every manner of commercial transaction. Then once every four years there is a sudden frenzy over who will be the president, and this frenzy lasts about one week and a half before election day, after which everyone forgets about politics again.
This has remained true from the earliest days of the republic until the present, even during the 2000 election that remained undecided for weeks after people stopped caring about who the winner would be. When the Supreme Court finally decided that the victory would go to Bush, people had already moved on with their lives. In this country, politics is a spectator sport. Some overtime is fine, but if there is too much, people finally just pick up their stadium seats and head to the parking lot.
Whether it is a good thing or not that most Americans don’t care about politics, I will not say. On the one hand, I would like to see people protesting in the streets against war and taxes and regulations and inflation. On the other hand, it says something good about the American people that they insist on acting as if we lived in a free country in which we really shouldn’t have to bother with politics. The original idea of the American Revolution was precisely to de-politicize society so that people could go on building their lives instead of worrying what their overlords were going to do to them next.
Another point in defense of ignoring politics: the politicians really don’t like us doing this. The political class likes lots of positive reinforcement. The civil servants like us to constantly think of their merits and praise them for the good deeds. As regards the political appointees who take jobs like Undersecretary for Finance and Development at the Office for Rental Units at HUD, they want us to think of them as heavyweights and dignitaries worthy of our praise and admiration. The dishonorables in Congress want to be the honorables. The president wants to be glorified as a godhead. The same is true of the dictators in black robes called judges. And so on. To ignore these people is the worst insult, so there is something gratifying about the knowledge that they must suffer this fate.
In any case, when I speak of the Misesian movement, I am speaking of something much more important, something that is changing history, and something that will have a profound impact on the world, long after the regime in power is forgotten. I am speaking of an intellectual movement, a movement rooted in a certain understanding of society, economy, and history. It has a theory of the past and an agenda for the future, and both shed far more light on the realities of the present moment than the political apparatus ever can.
The movement is vast, international, growing, diverse, and highly productive. There are Misesians in China, Russia, all over Latin America, in nearly every college and university in this country, on Wall Street, everywhere in Europe, and there are more professors and students every day. Daily we receive requests for translation rights. The Austrian School is today what Marxism was more than a century ago, and we have the additional advantage of saying what is true, as versus spreading the insane and ghastly lie that Marxism was and is.
The growth is especially notable when we look back 25 years, at a time when the name of Mises was fading from consciousness, certainly in the economic profession but even among libertarians. If we look back to 1973, the year of Mises’s death, it is clear that many people believed that his legacy would die with him. Indeed, I’m sorry to say, many people hoped that his legacy would die with him.
But this did not happen. He left us his ideas and his example, and there were people around who saw their importance. And they dedicated their lives to seeing to it that his books were in print, that his writings appeared in new venues, that reading groups were established, that students had access, and that a new generation would absorb his thought. We like to imagine that in history, truth will prevail through sheer persuasive power. Sadly, this is not the case. Truth needs champions, in all walks of life.
The Misesian movement was fortunate enough to have teachers who learned from Mises. A man like Hans F. Sennholz worked tirelessly to teach and write. He educated and inspired thousands. His influence extends the world over. I think too of Bettina Bien Greaves, who still applies her efforts to editing Mises’s works, and to writing and speaking.
Then there was Margit von Mises, who worked tirelessly on behalf of her husband’s ideals. She traveled the world and gave eloquent speeches about his legacy. She wrote a book. She licensed new editions of his books, and translations too. She took care to make sure that his life’s work would not be in vain. Most importantly, she encouraged the establishment of the Mises Institute in 1982. Twenty-five years later we can see the fruits of her decisions.
After all, when Margit met Ludwig, everyone had already been telling her that his ideas were an anachronism. His book of 1912 condemned central banking, and a year later the US had the Federal Reserve in place. He warned against the dangers of socialism and mixed economies, but by the 1930s, every major economy in the world was being lorded over by socialists and fascists. He said that positivism in the social sciences was a snare and a delusion, but by the 1950s, the whole of the social sciences had embraced the positivist creed.
A phrase batted around in old Vienna was that Mises was the “last knight of liberalism,” a phrase that suggests some nobility but also irrelevance, the certainty that he would never create a school of thought, and surely that his ideas had no future. Today, as we look around a world of burgeoning libertarian scholarship and activism in all walks of life, we are struck by the irony of the phrase. Mises was wise enough to see through the dismissals of his work, and to know that history can turn on a dime. The anachronistic Mises turns out to have a vast and growing presence in the world of 2007.
Thus can we see what effects choices in our lives can have on future generations. Mises lived from 1881 to 1973, but his ideas have long outlived him. He is far more prominent today than he was in the last half of his own life. Thank goodness that he never gave up, and that his work proceeded regardless of the current trends. How easy it would have been to lose heart! But instead he fought on and produced books, such as Human Action and Theory and History, that would come to be appreciated as seminal treatises in the history of ideas.
I would also draw your attention to the work of Murray Rothbard. During his lifetime, some people believed that his prominence was due to the force of his personality. He was incredibly charming, impossibly sweet, and also tenacious and fantastically productive. He was a one-man global machine working on behalf of human liberty. He only had a few colleagues in carrying on the Misesian vision, and extending it in ways that inspired multitudes, but also in ways that not everyone liked.
He was the key to the Mises Institute from its founding. He taught at all our programs. He established our journal. He wrote in all our publications. He inspired all of us on a daily and hourly basis. His passion and optimism were a constant source of inspiration for our supporters, for our faculty, for our students, for me. He made every conference unforgettable, and hardly any student who spent time with him left unchanged.
Even today, as scholars from around the world come to research in our offices, you can quickly pick up on Rothbardian influences. It is evident in the way they view the world, and, for those who spent time with Rothbard, you can even see it in their hand motions or their tone of voice.
How well I recall that dark day in 1995 when he died so unexpectedly. We were so very dependent on him and his vision. How could we carry on with our work? It was as if we had suddenly lost the contributions of hundreds of people. Then we realized something, something truly awful. The enemies of liberty on that day believed that they had something to rejoice about. Mr. Libertarian, and the dean of the Austrian School, was gone. They believed that history could move on without having to deal with the constant problem of the Rothbardian critique.
It was this realization, combined with the desire to do what was right, that led us to carry on. His enemies had made a mistake. They all believed that the movement that was growing was being kept alive by force of Rothbard’s personality — and it was a big personality, to be sure. What they underestimated was the power of his ideas — just as so many had underestimated the power of Mises’s ideas. What his ideas needed were champions, people to carry on his work, to carry forth his vision in all ideological areas. Rothbard had worked not just on behalf of his own generation but on behalf of the many to come. He had given us a new understanding of what is right and wrong about the world, and a vision for what can be. That vision is not affected by his passing, because he left us his ideas and his inspiration.
Everyone in the Mises Institute circle vowed to redouble our efforts. We worked like mad, newly aware of how much of the load he had been carrying and how much there was left to do. After Mises died, the question on everybody’s mind was: who is the new Mises? It is a faulty question in many ways, because it assumes that there must be a living person with the same genius-level intellectual power in order for a movement to grow and be effective. And yet, the Austrian movement was fortunate to have Rothbard and other students of Mises’s around after 1973 to create a bridge to the current renaissance.
So too do people ask me: who is Rothbard’s successor? Well, intellectual life does not work in the manner of an intergenerational monarchy. Great minds like Mises and Rothbard are more like shooting stars, and when they have left us, they leave their ideas scattered over the earth like particles of gold, waiting to be picked up by anyone who is willing. Rothbard’s successors are those who read his books and study his ideas. There are many professors among them. They teach economics but also history, law, philosophy, literature, religion, and music.
There are also finance professionals who are inspired by the Austrian perspective on money and business cycles. I can think of many journalists working in print and online. There are people in all walks of life who seek to understand the world better. Some of them will themselves have a big impact on the world of ideas. I know there are many people in this room who have done so, and will continue to do so.
From the interwar years through the death of Murray Rothbard, the Austrian School was mostly dominated by a few great minds. But let us look upon this fortune properly. We are grateful for their contribution, but our fortune is not that there were only a few but rather that there were any at all. We would have been more fortunate had there been one hundred thinkers on the level of Hayek and Mises, or of Rothbard or Sennholz. This is what we should hope for today: not one but thousands of successors, each specializing in an occupational pursuit that suits his or her talent.
This is precisely what Henry Hazlitt once imagined for the future of libertarianism. He wrote in 1969:
"We libertarians cannot content ourselves merely with repeating pious generalities about liberty, free enterprise, and limited government. To assert and repeat these general principles is absolutely necessary, of course, either as prologue or conclusion. But if we hope to be individually or collectively effective, we must individually master a great deal of detailed knowledge, and make ourselves specialists in one or two lines, so that we can show how our libertarian principles apply in special fields, and so that we can convincingly dispute the proponents of statist schemes…. In whatever field he specializes, or on whatever principle or issue he elects to take his stand, the libertarian must take a stand. He cannot afford to do or say nothing."
So this is the look of a mature movement. It will not be dominated by one or two world-historic thinkers. It will be populated by thousands upon thousands of dedicated intellectuals working in all aspects of life. They will be specialists. They will be professors, students, businesspeople, musicians, bloggers, homeschoolers, professionals, pastors, and there might even be a few political activists. What’s important is that each is working to the best of his or her abilities to do good and fight evil.
Another mark of this movement is that it is pious toward the wisdom of the past. Nothing is more grating and pointless than the current trend — alive now about 15 years — within what is known as the conservative movement. In my youth, anyone who called himself a conservative felt some burden to read the classics and to build an excellent library. The conservative publications sought to keep alive the insights that have stood the test of time.
Not so today. If you look at the personalities that dominate what is called the conservative movement, the substance of their offerings amount to little more than micro-personality cults and their method amounts to offering broadcast bromides against their political enemies. You can read all the bestsellers on the conservative book list and not find a mention of any serious political philosopher or economist. They seem intent on raising a generation of ignoramuses who don’t know more than the party line of the moment. And there is plenty of blame to go around here, from a cable tv network to radio talkers to that famous fortnightly founded by the man who called for a totalitarian bureaucracy to be built within our shores.
The job of a real freedom movement is very different, and it must always include publishing. I’m pleased to report to you that 2007 will be a most productive year in the history of publishing in the Austrian-libertarian tradition.
As the years have moved on, the need for publishing has become ever greater. First, there is the growing demand for books, a demand that we are in a position to know about. It is obvious that our movement is growing dramatically all over the world. Mainline publishers are not, however, entirely aware of this. Neither are they inclined to take the risk of publishing material that might be considered too radical.
Second, there is a problem (and an opportunity) that is unique to the Austrian school. In most schools of economics, the milieu suggests that all students need to know is in the latest textbook and the last year of journal articles. The assumption is that all that is true is absorbed into the latest material and that which is false is cast away. Therefore there is no strong reason to keep anything from the past in print.
Ignorance of history? It’s not considered a vice or a disgrace in the social sciences today. It might even be considered a sign of greater objectivity and a praiseworthy lack of anachronistic thinking.
The Austrians and libertarians are different. If Mises’s Human Action had been written in 300 BC we would still be sponsoring reading groups on it. The point isn’t when a book was written but rather its content. The truths of economics are universally applicable, and do not depend on the circumstances of time and place. Economic laws apply everywhere: this is what the Austrians set out to prove in the 1870s and it is a conviction that they have upheld ever since.
Well, about two years ago, we had all become rather alarmed to see even more of the literature that is essential to our school of thought becoming harder and harder to get. Even classics by Henry Hazlitt, John Bates Clarke, Frank Fetter, Wilhelm Roepke, Frank Chodorov, Albert Jay Nock, F.A. Hayek, John T. Flynn, and so many more, were vanishing. Then there is the absolute imperative to always keep the whole of Rothbard and Mises in print.
In times when people are visiting libraries less and less, since so much is available online, people are developing personal libraries to do their academic work and leisure reading. Our movement is second to none in online resources but it still remains true that unless the book is available in a physical version, the author’s ideas can vanish into oblivion. We cannot let this happen.
For this reason, we have sought sponsors to help us with some hugely important publishing projects this year. They are already starting to appear. This year alone, we have Mises’s interwar writings on the business cycle and David Gordon’s Essential Rothbard in print. My own book appears in the summer. We have three books by Walter Block coming out, plus Rothbard’s own thick book of commentaries on modern economic errors, Guido Hülsmann’s mini-treatise on money production, Rothbard’s amazing classic on the Panic of 1819, Rothbard’s previously unpublished book on the betrayal of the American right, edited with an introduction by Thomas Woods, and so many more that I couldn’t possibly list them.
I should also mention our print on demand service, which has just begun. We’ve already brought back 30 books that had nearly fallen into oblivion. We are using the most modern methods of publishing to bring Chodorov, Flynn, Nock, Israel Kirzner, F.A. Harper, Michael Heilperin, Fritz Machlup, Lionel Robbins, and many more in print — even lost work by Joseph Schumpeter, some of which is good enough to deserve the Austrian moniker.
Yes, this is taking fantastic amounts of energy from our small staff, but we have a big job to do and a moral obligation to the ideas of liberty to do it well.
And actually I haven’t even mentioned what I consider a great landmark in the history of the Mises Institute. At our Supporters Summit in New York (October 12—13) we will be releasing Hülsmann’s seminal biography of Mises, representing ten years of research and writing, travels to five countries, and close investigations of archives from a century and a half.
Nothing like this has been written on Mises. Nothing like this has been written on an economist. Perhaps nothing like this has been written on any champion of freedom. Those of us who have read drafts have all had the same reaction: we only thought we knew something about Mises. This book not only goes beyond previous biographical attempts. It displaces every essay that has ever appeared.
Guido covers the period before Mises came to America in astonishing detail. He delves deeply into his family background in Lvin, now in Ukraine, as the son of an important senior railroad official. It’s all here in this extraordinary book: how Mises stopped the Austrian inflation and prevented communism from wrecking the country, how he fought against national socialism, what he contributed to the theory of money and banking and monopoly, how he came to found the Austrian Institute of Business Cycle Research, how he managed to keep up his remarkable schedule, who attended his internationally famous workshop in Vienna, why he waited to marry Margit, and so much more.
For Mises’s life in America, Guido discusses the travails of publishing, his job search, his students, and his response to political events. But the main theme of the book is always Mises’s ideas and how they affected the world. And here we find the real drama.
Put simply, it was Mises who saved the ideas of liberty from extinction in the dark decades of the 1930s and 1940s. It took brilliance, bravery, and the willingness to make huge personal sacrifices. But his lifetime motto from Virgil sustained him: Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it.
So often when we hear about heroes, we hear about politicians and presidents. But in Mises we find the genuine article, a creator who accomplished so much, a man of integrity who refused to bend his principles, no matter what the personal cost.
The story has never been told with the flourish and level of detail we find in Guido’s book, and never before in a way that demonstrates that Mises is far more important in advancing the science of liberty than we ever knew. This is a book for the ages, about a man for the ages.
The story is not only about Mises. It is about the 20th century and the battle between good and evil that is embodied in the struggle between liberty and the state. It is about the terrible consequences of bad ideas, and about the need for moral courage in the face of intellectual combat.
Even in the face of all these successes, however, we hear the counsel of despair. Why aren’t all our efforts making a difference? What are we doing wrong? Are we just wasting our time with our publications, conferences, scholarships, editorials, teaching programs, vast web presence, recruitment of thousands of young people? Have our educational efforts ever made any difference?
There are a thousand reasons to object to this line of thought. Let us speak to the moral and strategic ones directly. Despair is a vice that squelches and defeats the human spirit. Hope, on the other hand, creates and builds. It is true in business, sports, and intellectual life. We must see success in the future in order to achieve it.
Rothbard used to wonder why people who believe that liberty is unachievable or that activism of any sort is futile became libertarian in the first place. Would a team that is convinced that it will lose every game practice or come together at all? Would an entrepreneur who is convinced that he or she will go bankrupt ever invest a dime?
Perhaps you could say that a person has no choice but to follow the truth even when it is obvious that failure is inevitable. And truly there is some virtue in doing so. But as a practical matter, it makes no sense to waste one’s time doing something that is futile when one could be doing something that is productive and at least potentially successful.
Mises, for example, was told that he was wasting his time, but he knew better. He knew that socialism, central banking, interventionism, and high taxation were policies that would fail to promote the social good, and that insofar as people saw this, they could not be permanent. He saw beyond his own lifetime. And we should too.
But for those who cannot, should libertarians be doing something else with their time?
Here is the crucial matter to consider. What might have been the fate of liberty if no one had cared about it in the last 100 years? That is an important way to look at this issue, one that accords with Frdric Bastiat’s emphasis on looking not only at the seen but also at the unseen. He urged us to look at the unseen costs of state intervention. I ask that we look at the unseen benefits of activism on the part of liberty. We need to look at the statism that we do not experience, and what the world would be like if it weren’t for the efforts of libertarians.
Less than a century ago, in our own country, the state was in its heyday. Socialism was the intellectual fashion, even more so than today. The income tax was seen as the answer to fiscal woes. Inflation and central banking would solve our problems with money. Antitrust regulation and litigation would achieve perfect industrial organization. World war would end despotism, or so that generation believed.
Preposterously, a small faction that would later be dominant in public life believed that if we could just pass national legislation against drinking, sobriety would prevail. Fathers would become responsible, sons would become more educated, churches would fill with pious worshipers, and even poverty — which people then as now associated with substance abuse — would be a thing of the past. These same people believed that speech should be thoroughly controlled and dissidents suppressed. Healthcare should be cartelized. The environment should be protected. The state would uplift us in every way.
If that trend had continued, we would have had totalitarianism right here at home. If the state had had its way — and the state is always happy with more power and money — there would have been no zone of freedom left to us, and we would live as people have always lived when the state controls every aspect of life: in the absence of civilization. It would have been a catastrophe.
But it didn’t happen. Why? Because people objected, and they kept objecting for the remainder of the century. An antiwar movement after World War I put a major dent in the warfare mentality and led to an unraveling of the state afterwards — and kept us out of more wars for decades. Public outrage at the income tax led to keeping a lid on it. Inflation was kept in check by intellectuals who warned of the effects of central banking. So too with antitrust action, which has been set back by libertarian ideology. Free speech has also been protected through activism.
The alcohol prohibitionists managed to pass a constitutional amendment banning all liquor — think of that! — but their victory was not long-lived. Public opinion rose up against them and the amendment was eventually repealed. It was a magnificent reversal, brought about mainly by the force of public ideology that said it was causing more harm than good, and violating people’s rights.
We can look forward in time and see another bout of statism during the New Deal and World War II. But the state faced resistance. FDR and Truman hated, spied on, and harassed their opponents, but their opponents were not destroyed. FDR was stymied in some of his attempts to further the state, which is why he turned to war. Wartime planning and price controls were beaten back against Truman’s objections. The same was true with Vietnam and the draft. The war ended because public opinion turned against it. Reality conformed more closely to the critics’ views than to the proponents’ views. We won.
Nixon limited traffic speed to 55mph by national decree. But another rollback of the state happened and Clinton repealed it. Carter deregulated trucking and airlines, and abolished two federal agencies, and he did it because of public pressure and the triumph of free-market economics.
Again, what we need to take into account are the unseen benefits of activism. Had the advocates of liberty never spoken up, never written books, never taught in the classroom, never written editorials, and never advanced their views in any public or private forum, would the cause of liberty have been better off or the same? No way.
You have to do the counterfactual in order to understand the impact of ideology. Libertarian ideology, in all its forms, has literally saved the world from the state, which always and everywhere wants to advance and never roll back. If it does not advance as quickly as it would like, and if it does roll back (however rarely), it is to the credit of public ideology.
Don’t think for a second that it doesn’t matter. Most of the time the impact is hard to measure and even sometimes hard to detect. Libertarian ideas are like stones dropping into water, which make waves in so many directions that no one is sure where they come from. But there are times when the Mises Institute has made a direct hit, and we know from personal testimony that we’ve caused bureaucrats and politicians to fly into a rage at what we are saying and what we are doing. If you think public opinion doesn’t matter to these people, think again. They are terrified about the impressions the public has of their work. They can be completely demoralized by public opposition.
We live in times of incredible prosperity, unlike any we’ve ever known. This is due solely to the zones of freedom that remain in today’s world, technology and communication among them. Why are these sectors freer and hence more productive than the rest? Because this is an area in which we’ve achieved success. The state is terrified to touch the internet for fear of public hostility.
Again let me ask the question: does anyone really believe that these zones of freedom are best protected when there is no public advocacy of the libertarian cause? Would the head of state feel more or less secure in the continued conduct of his egregious war if the antiwar movement shut up and dried up? Would entrepreneurs feel more or less at liberty to invest if there were no advocates for their cause working in public and intellectual life?
When measuring the success of the freedom movement, these are the sorts of questions we have to ask. It is not enough to observe that the world has yet to conform to our image. We need to take note of the ways in which the world has not conformed to the state’s image. No state is liberal by nature, said Mises. Every state wants to control all. If it does not do so, the major reason is that freedom-minded intellectuals are making the difference.
If it were otherwise, why would the state care so intensely about suppressing ideas with which it disagrees? Why would there be political censorship? Why would the state bother with propaganda at all?
Ideas matter. More than we know. We are, right now, stopping all kinds of evil that we do not see. Why haven’t we won? Because we are not doing enough and our ranks are not big enough. We need to do what we are doing on ever-grander scales. We need to make ever-better arguments on behalf of liberty. And we need to have patience, just like the prohibitionists and socialists had patience to see their agenda to the end. They’ve had their day. Our time will come, provided that we don’t listen to the counsel of despair.
The angel Clarence says in It’s a Wonderful Life that “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
It’s something for anyone who advocates liberty to think about. Think of this as you teach your students, as you do your research, as you engage in public ideology on blogs, and as you consider supporting those who speak truth to power.
There is a reason we are born when we are. Everyone in this room dropped into this long trajectory we call time for a precise purpose. You were all given talents, unique talents. You have all been called to use those talents for something. For what? For doing right, promoting good, keeping evil at bay, advancing the well-being of society. To the extent that we enjoy prosperity and peace today it is because those who came before us did what they were supposed to do on our behalf.
Today, it is our turn, and we must bear the burden. We must do what is right, while we still have time. There is not a moment of our lives to waste. We must contribute whatever we can and however we can. Freedom is a rarity in the history of the world, and it comes about only when it has champions. Let us be those champions today, for as long as we are granted breath on earth.