The Long War for Liberty

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Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School. Foreword by Jörg Guido Hülsmann, Preface by David Gordon. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2012.

Ralph Raico has played a central role in the resurgence of the Austrian School of thought in the last forty years. First and foremost a historian, Professor Raico is an intellectual of enormous flexibility, typically ranging in his writings from history to philosophy to economics to politics, intermingling the standard “disciplines” of our day. Raico studied with Ludwig von Mises in the formative stages of his intellectual development. As Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School demonstrates, he has himself become one of the pillars of the modern Austrian School.

Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School is a collection of nine essays. Each explores, in its own way, the contours of liberalism in the older sense, the ways in which “liberals” departed from the tradition of liberty after the mid-nineteenth century, and the role of the Austrian School in salvaging and expanding classical liberalism. In Raico’s primary field of history alone, he has written on a range of topics that is hard to fathom in this age of positivist specialization. Consider just a few of his topics: American militarism, liberal and Marxist theory, twentieth-century economic history, the specific development of the Austrian School, German political and economic thought, and the anti-market culture of modern intellectuals. The list could go on. In an academic and intellectual world of compartmentalized “specialties,” Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School tells us something vital about the potentialities of the Austrian School approach.

Yet for all its variety, this book turns out to be much more than the sum of its parts. Each of these essays is a significant contribution to Austrian School history in and of itself to be sure. But taken together, the essays give us a brilliant analysis of the long war which the intellectual champions of liberty have been fighting since the emergence of modern Europe and the United States in the eighteenth century.

It has been a wearying struggle, as Raico demonstrates strikingly. Whether facing the old privileged conservative order, the newborn technocratic bureaucracies, the “proletarian” shamans, or the growing state in its changing forms, Raico shows that all the heroes of libertarian thought — from Jefferson to Constant to Bastiat to Richter etc. – have encountered tremendous opposition from interests whose main concern was to plunder the producers of wealth.

Speaking to this point, one of the most wide-ranging and ground-breaking essays is Raico’s outstanding study, “The Conflict of the Classes: Liberal vs. Marxist Theories.” In it, he combines his linguistic and intellectual breadth with a keen sense of theoretical distinctions to trace “class theory” from Marx back to its originators, the French liberals of the early nineteenth century: de Stutt de Tracy, Charles Comte, and especially J. B. Say. Raico shows that the imprecise formulations of Marx concerning “class” were balanced, shakily, on the much more robust theory of class which Say and de Stutt de Tracy had already worked out by 1817. For these early liberals (the “Industrialists” and others), the “class conflict” was represented by a dichotomy which pitted producers of wealth on the one hand against those attempting to plunder the wealth from producers on the other. Hence, as Raico shows, the language of “plunder” used by Frederic Bastiat was rooted in the ideas produced by French liberalism over thirty years before Bastiat’s time. This insight, by the way, was predicated on the reality that the “exploiters” were at times aristocrats and princes who plundered the wealth by laborers and merchants, at times bureaucrats who promoted the interests of the growing state in various functional and practical ways, at times “champions” of the working class who proposed new ways of collecting wealth from individuals in order to redistribute it. Marx’s version of “class conflict,” as Raico demonstrates, was clearly derived from the liberal theory, though the result was a distortion of the original ideas.

This volume of essays is very much related to Raico’s outstanding historical monograph, The Party of Freedom — Studies in the History of German Liberalism (Die Partei der Freiheit — Studien zur Geschichte des deutschen Liberalismus. [Lucius & Lucius, Stuttgart 1999]), still, unfortunately, available only in German. Where the earlier work is a detailed scholarly study of German liberalism, the book of essays before us is a study of much greater scope. Still, in the current volume, Raico does make available to those who don’t read German at least some of his encyclopedic knowledge of German liberalism, as in his essay on German liberal Eugen Richter. We see in Richter — a continuing interest of the author’s over the last decades — an important German classical liberal politician of the late nineteenth century German politics. On the subject of German politics before World War I, many Austrian School scholars have ignored the remnant of classical liberals who remained principled after the 1860s. The resulting picture is colored only in the colors of conservatism, ultra-nationalism, or socialism. Resurrecting the career of this hard-fighting liberal figure, Raico has rephrased the potential dialogue on German politics under the Kaisers. Raico points out that one recent German historian has called Richter “the eternal nay-sayer” (p. 305). In Raico’s view, this sobriquet constitutes a compliment. And as more than one Austrian scholar has pointed out since this essay appeared several years ago, this unintentional compliment puts Richter in an category with another liberty-driven nay-sayer, born just a century later (Daniel J. Sanchez, “The Ron Paul of the Second Reich,” http://bastiat.mises.org/2012/03/the-ron-paul-of-the-second-reich/). One might add Richard Cobden and Jacques Turgot, along with Ron Paul and a few others, to the list of brilliant champions of liberty who worked through their political systems to expand and exercise the message of liberty.

It is probably misleading to single out one or two of these essays for comment, since they are all significant contributions. But the temptation is too strong to resist. Raico’s essay “The Centrality of French Liberalism” lays out an important intellectual position in current discussions among Austrian School scholars as well as an important piece of the history of classical liberalism. In “Intellectuals and the Marketplace,” Raico develops an extended historical explanation for the anti-market bias of mainstream intellectuals, in the process updating and extending information and ideas from Hayek’s classic 1954 collection of essays by outstanding liberty-oriented scholars, Capitalism and the Historians. In my opinion, the 1954 collection must henceforth be read alongside Raico’s essay. But rather than naming the virtues of each essay, I should simply say: get the book and read it.

For those who are relatively new to the Austrian School, Raico’s Austrian methodology will be of particular interest. As perhaps the outstanding disciplinary historian in the recent Austrian School, Raico employs standard historiographical method and practice, but his treatment is also informed by the tools of Austrian School methodology as a whole: “radical” (i.e., “going to the roots”) a priori logic, the primacy of human liberty, the rejection of “invasion,” the importance of individual preference, and the like. The book represents a superb example of this Austrian approach. In dealing with ideas, Raico’s real protagonist is liberty — not Mises, not Bastiat, not Richter. For example, in his study of Mises’s book Liberalism, Raico is not trying to protect Mises from criticism (as, for example, in the almost religious mode of Marxists discussing Marx). Indeed, Raico analyzes a series of critiques of Mises thoughtfully and in great detail. More generally, Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School integrates the great insights from Rothbard, Hoppe, and other great Austrian School intellectuals of the last thirty years with his own profound understanding of the intellectual history of the modern world to produce an Austrian classic. This book provides at once a framework for understanding the modern Austrian School, a brilliant study of modern intellectual history, and a kind of model for the whole Austrian approach.

One important recommendation: Don’t skip the footnotes! Many publishers today pressure authors to allow the evidentiary citations to be banished to the end of the book, often necessitating some complicated process by which the reader is obliged to mark two or three different spots in the book in order to keep track of the sources. At the same time, many modern editors try to streamline and sterilize the footnote citations, killing off the elegant old “content footnote,” which has largely disappeared in modern books — and totally disappeared in many social science disciplinary writings. In the case before us, the publisher and the author have collaborated to put the footnotes at the bottom of the page, where they belong in a historical work. And Raico, in the classic fashion of the great historians, has filled his notes not only with citations of sources, but also subtle hints and asides about how one might approach the sources, quick references to mini-debates with both living and past writers, added details that enrich the text, and more. The footnotes are a treasure trove. Reading them is both an education and a pleasure.

In sum, the outstanding historical essays collected in Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School take on a richness and synergy that is truly remarkable. Ralph Raico’s book on the Austrian School and classical liberalism fits in comfortably among the most important and most advanced works of scholarship of the modern resurgence of the Austrian School. It is a model of the historian’s craft, and it is an instant classic in the great literature of the Austrian School.

Hunt Tooley (send him mail) is Professor of History at Austin College, and the author of numerous books, articles and essays on modern history.

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