The Promise of Human Action

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This speech
was delivered at the Mises Institute, September 14, 1999, the
date on which Human
Action
was published 50 years earlier. The Mises Institute
has just published the pocket
paperback
edition.

In a 1949
memo circulated within Yale University Press, the publicity department
expressed astonishment at the rapid sales of Ludwig von Mises’s
Human Action. How could such a dense tome, expensive
by the standards of the day, written by an economist without a
prestigious teaching position or any notable reputation at all
in the United States, published against the advice of many on
Yale’s academic advisory board, sell so quickly that a second
and third printing would be necessary in only a matter of months?

Imagine
how shocked these same people would be to find that the first
edition, reissued 50 years later as the Scholar’s
Edition of Human Action
, would sell so quickly again.

How can
we account for the continuing interest in this book? It is unquestionably
the single most important scientific treatise on human affairs
to appear in this century. But given the state of the social sciences,
and the timelessness of Mises’s approach to economics, I believe
it will have an even greater impact on the next century. Indeed,
it is increasingly clear that this is a book for the ages.

Human
Action appeared in the midst of ideological and political
turmoil. The world war had only recently ended, and the United
States was attempting to reshape the politics of Europe with a
new experiment in global foreign aid. The Cold War was just beginning.

Virtually
overnight, Russia went from ally to enemy – a shocking transition
considering that nothing much had changed in Russia. It had been
a prison camp since 1918 and its largest imperial advances in
Europe had taken place with the full complicity of FDR. But in
order to sustain wartime economic planning in the United States,
and all the spending that entailed, it became necessary for the
United States to find another foreign foe. By 1949, the United
States began to fight socialism abroad by imposing it at home.

Indeed, on
this day 50 years ago, the old idea of the liberal society was
gone, seemingly forever. It was a relic of a distant age, and
certainly not a model for a modern industrial society. The future
was clear: the world would move toward government planning in
all aspects of life and away from the anarchy of markets. As for
the economic profession, the Keynesian School had not yet reached
its height, but that was soon to come.

Socialist
theory enthralled the profession to the extent that Mises and
Hayek were thought to have lost the debate over whether socialism
was economically possible. Labor unions had been delivered a setback
with the Taft-Hartley
Act
, but it would be many years before the dramatic declines
in membership would take place. In academia, a new generation
was being raised to believe that FDR and World War II saved us
from the Depression, and that there were no limits to what the
state could do. Ruling the land was a regime characterized by
regimentation in intellectual, social, and political life.

Human
Action appeared in this setting not as polite suggestion
that the world take another look at the merits of free enterprise.
No, it was a seamless and uncompromising statement of theoretical
purity that was completely at odds with the prevailing view. Even
more than that, Mises dared to do what was completely unfashionable
then and now, which is to build a complete system of thought from
the ground up. Even Mises’s former students were taken aback by
the enormity of his argument and the purity of his stand. As Hans
Hoppe has explained, some of the shock that greeted the book was
due to its integration of the full range of philosophy, economic
theory, and political analysis.

When you
read Human Action, what you get is not a running commentary
on the turmoil of the time, but rather a pristine theoretical
argument that seems to rise above it all. To be sure, Mises addresses
the enemies of freedom in these pages – and they happen to
be the same enemies of freedom that surround us today. But much
more remarkable is the way he was able to detach himself from
the rough-and-tumble of daily events and write a book restating
and advancing a pure science of economic logic, from the first
page to the last. It contains not a word or phrase designed to
appeal to the biases of the world around him. Instead, he sought
to make a case that would transcend his generation.

To appreciate
how difficult this is to do as a writer, it is useful to look
back at essays we may have written last year or 10 years ago.
Quite often, they have all the feel of their time. If any of us
have written anything that can hold up 5 years later, much less
50, we should feel extremely happy at our accomplishment. And
yet Mises sustained a 1,000-page book on politics and economics
that doesn’t feel dated in the least – or at least that was
the consensus of the students we recently had in our offices to
reread the entire work.

Consider
Samuelson’s
Economics, which made its first appearance in 1948. It’s
no accident that it’s in its 16th edition. It had to be continually
updated to fix the theories and models that events rendered anachronistic
in only a few years. Even as late as 1989, the book was predicting
that the Soviets would surpass the United States in production
in a few years. Needless to say, that had to go. Last year, a
publisher brought out the first edition – as a kind of museum
piece, the way you might reproduce an old phonograph record. In
any case, it didn’t sell well.

Incidentally,
when John
Kenneth Galbraith
reviewed Human Action in the New
York Times, he called it a nice piece of intellectual nostalgia.
Interesting. Does anyone read any of Galbraith’s books today for
any other reason? Our purpose in reissuing the first edition,
on the other hand, was not nostalgia: it was to introduce a new
generation to what it means to think clearly about the problems
of social order. We still have so much to learn from Mises.

I think we
need to reflect on what it required of Mises personally to write
the book. He had been uprooted from his homeland, and much of
his beloved Europe was in tatters. Well past midlife, Mises had
to start over, with a new language and a new setting. It would
have been so easy for him to look around at the world and conclude
that freedom was doomed and that his life had been a waste.

Try to imagine
the intellectual courage it required for him to sit down and write,
as he did, an all-encompassing apologia for the old liberal cause,
giving it a scientific foundation, battling it out with every
enemy of freedom, and ending this huge treatise with a call for
the entire world to change direction from its present course onto
an entirely new one.

I’m sometimes
accused of having an excessively pious devotion to the man Mises,
but it is impossible not to notice, in the thicket of his dense
argument, that he was also a singular character in the history
of ideas, a man of uncommon vision and courage.

When we
honor Human Action on this great anniversary of the book’s
publication, we must also honor the fighting spirit that led him
to write it in the first place, and to see it through to its miraculous
publication.

What are
the political and economic trends that have come to pass in the
last 50 years? The rise of new technologies, whose existence are
best explained through a Misesian theory. The collapse of the
Soviet Union and its client states, for the reasons explained
in this book. The failure of the welfare state, again foretold
in these pages. The widespread disappointment in the results of
positivist methods in the social sciences, also addressed here.

Indeed,
if we look at the failure of the welfare state, the persistence
of the business cycle, the hyperinflation in Asia, the collapse
of currencies in South America, the benefits we’ve derived from
deregulation in our own country, and the meltdown of social-insurance
schemes, we’ll see that each is addressed and predicted in Human
Action. Again, each is discussed in terms of timeless principles.

But none
of these issues touch on what I find to be the most encouraging
trend of our time: the decline in the moral and institutional
status of the central state itself. Quite often in the press these
days, pundits decry the rise of cynicism and antigovernment feeling
among the public. But what does this really mean? Surely not that
Misesian theory has come to capture the imagination of the masses.
We are a long way from that. What they are decrying is the end
of the old intellectual and political regime that was just coming
into its own when Mises’s book appeared in 1949, and has been
breaking apart since at least 1989.

The same
level of respect is not shown to leaders in Washington as it was
in those years. Involvement in politics or the civil service is
not valued as highly. In those days, the state got the best and
brightest. These days, it gets those who have no other job prospects.
The public sector is not the place to look for bandwidth. Moreover,
hardly anyone believes that central planners are capable of miracles
anymore, and the public tends to distrust those who claim otherwise.
The political rhetoric of our time must account for the rise of
markets and private initiative, and acknowledge the failure of
the state.

Now, there
are exceptions. There is the Bill
Bradley
campaign, which, as far as I can tell, is driven by
the idea that Clinton has cut the government too much! And then
there are the conservatives at the Weekly Standard. Last
week’s issue called for something new: what they have dubbed “One
Nation Conservatism.” The idea is to combine the conservative
domestic statism of George W. with the conservative foreign-policy
statism of John McCain. This is what might be called the politics
of the worst of all worlds.

The entire
approach fails to come to terms with a central insight of Mises’s
treatise: namely, that reality imposes limits on how expansive
our vision of government can be. You can dream about the glories
of a society without freedom all you want, but no matter how impressive
the plans look on paper, they may not be achieved in the real
world because economizing behavior requires, most fundamentally,
private property, which is the institutional basis of civilization.

Government
is the enemy of private property, and for that reason becomes
the enemy of civilization when it attempts to perform anything
but the most minimal functions. And even here, Mises says, if
it were possible to permit individuals freedom from the state
altogether, it should be done.

People were
not ready for that message then but they are more ready for it
now, because we live in times when government routinely confiscates
one-half or more of the profits associated with entrepreneurship
and labor. Politics consists of 100,000 pressure groups trying
to get their hands on the loot. Why would anyone believe that
it would be a good idea to expand this system?

Let me read
you the rationale for this One-Nation Conservatism. It will inspire
people to throw themselves into what they call public service.
Public service has four main merits in their view: it “forces
people to develop broader judgment, sacrifice for the greater
good, hear the call of duty, and stand up for their beliefs.”

These are
all desirable traits. But I fail to see how they have anything
to do with politics. Rather, a politicized society tends to produce
the opposite: narrow judgment, selfishness, petty graft, and compromise.
And that’s putting the best-possible spin on it.

Who are the
real visionaries today? They are software developers, communications
entrepreneurs, freedom-minded intellectuals, homeschoolers, publishers
who take risks, and businessmen of every variety who have mastered
the art of serving the public through excellence – and doing
it despite every obstacle that the state places in their way.

The real
visionaries today are the people who continue to struggle to live
normal lives – raising children, getting a good education,
building healthy neighborhoods, producing beautiful art and music,
innovating in the world of business – despite the attempt
by the state to distort and destroy most of what is great and
good in our world today.

One of the
great rhetorical errors of Mises’s time and ours has been to reverse
the meaning of public and private service. As Murray Rothbard
pointed out, private service implies that your behavior and your
motivation is about helping no one but yourself. If you want an
example, tour the halls of a random bureaucratic palace in DC.

Public service,
on the other hand, implies a voluntary sacrifice of our own interests
for the sake of others, and I suggest to you that this the most
overlooked feature of a free society. Whether it is entrepreneurs
serving their customers, parents serving their children, teachers
serving their students, pastors serving the faithful, or intellectuals
serving the cause of truth and wisdom, we find an authentic public
ethic and a real broadness of judgement; it is in the voluntary
nexus of human action where we find the call of duty being acted
on. It is here we find people standing up for their beliefs. It
is here we find true idealism.

It was Mises’s
firm conviction that ideas, and ideas alone, can bring about a
change in the course of history. It is for this reason that he
was able to complete his great book and live a heroic life despite
every attempt to silence him.

The scholarly
followers of Mises in our own time exhibit these traits, and inspire
us every day with their innovative, principled, and radical approach
to remaking the world of ideas. In their work for the Quarterly
Journal of Austrian Economics
, in their books, and in
their teaching we see the ideals of Mises being fulfilled.

At
a low point in his life, Mises wondered if he had become nothing
but a historian of decline. But he quickly recalled his motto
from Virgil: "Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more
boldly against it." With Human Action, Mises did
just that. He was to die around the time that Nixon went off the
gold standard and imposed wage and price controls, to Republican
cheers. He didn’t live to see what we see today – nothing
short of the systematic unraveling of the statist enterprise of
our century – but he did foresee that hope was not lost for
the flourishing of human liberty. For that great virtue of hope,
we must all be very grateful.

Let me also
say how grateful I am to everyone involved in the production of
the Scholar’s Edition on this 50th anniversary, from our members
to our faculty to our staff. Mises smiles today.

Llewellyn
H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him
mail
], former editorial assistant to Ludwig von Mises and congressional
chief of staff to Ron Paul, is founder and chairman of the Mises
Institute
, executor for the estate of Murray N. Rothbard, and
editor of LewRockwell.com.
See his
books
.

The
Best of Lew Rockwell

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