A Letter From Vienna
by Ira Katz
Recently by Ira Katz: Another TSA Crime: Word Disfiguration
Dear LRC Readers,
I was privileged to recently attend the Ludwig von Mises Institute Supporters Summit held in Vienna, Austria. John Denson’s presentation on the history of the founding of the Mises Institute in Auburn that resulted from the foresight, persistence, and courage of Lew Rockwell, was the highlight of the talks for me. I also very much enjoyed and was inspired listening to individuals from various countries who have started there own local Mises Institutes, that Helio Beltrão of Brazil has described the process as being like a starfish. Of course Vienna is the home of the Austrian School of Economics. A special treat for me was the walking tour of the sites of Mises’ life including his school, the neo-Gothic Akademisches Gymnasium, and the art deco chamber of commerce building where he worked. The tour ended at a cafe where Jeffery Tucker performed songs of the Mises Circle. The final talk by Professor Hans Hermann Hoppe described his preference for Mises over Friedrich Hayek. Hoppe read several damaging quotes by Hayek that compromised his free market credentials to the extent that Hoppe called Hayek a social democrat!
During the singing at the cafe I tended to stay near the bar (be assured this is no critique of the performance of Mr. Tucker, but only a reflection of my yearning for beer after the two-hour walk) where a conversation ensued. The discussion echoed Hoppe’s remarks but in this case we compared Mises to Murray Rothbard. The conversation was initiated by the fact that a Belgian student present had been among the founders of a Murray Rothbard Institute. The consensus around the table was that the Mises Institute might more accurately be called the Rothbard Institute. Obviously there is very much the same in the thought of these two great economists, but what differentiates them? I think most would say that Mises was more of a minarchist compared to the pure anarcho-capitalism of Rothbard. For example, Mises retained a fondness for the Hapsburgs all his life.
While I agree with this differentiation in terms of the role of government, in my view it is more instructive to examine their differences as a matter of culture. Rothbard was somewhat of a cosmopolitan libertarian in that there was no specific culture via place, religion, etc. that he is associated with. On the other hand Mises was a cultural libertarian in that he was very much reflected the old Vienna before WWI. The cultural background of Mises was beautifully and tenderly depicted by his friend, the old Austrian intellectual Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. Walking the streets of Vienna, seeing the churches and other the buildings, the historical plaques everywhere; eating the wiener schnitzel, strudels and spätzle; drinking the coffee, beer and wine, catching wafts of waltzes one recognizes a distinctive culture. I was exceptionally impressed by Mises’ school and the curriculum it offered in classical languages and thinking. Attending at the same time as Mises (b. 1881), who I consider the greatest economist, was Erwin Schrödinger, (b. 1887, physicist, Nobel laureate for physics in 1933) who was put in a group just below Newton and Einstein, in a ranking by Lev Landau, as one of the greatest physicists. Others who attended the school at the same time (between ages 10-18) were Paul Ehrenfest, (b. 1880, world class physicist and mathematician, friend of Einstein and Bohr), Hans Kelsen, (b. 1881, constitutional lawyer, author of the Austrian Constitution), Lise Meitner, (b. 1878, world class physicist), and Richard von Mises, (b. 1883, younger brother of Ludwig, world class applied mathematician, early member of the Vienna Circle, he developed the distortion energy theory of stress that I learned as an undergraduate engineering student). In Vienna at the same time were giants of literature and music, for example Stefan Zweig (b. 1881) and Arnold Schoenberg (b. 1874, though his music is not my cup of tea), respectively. The meetings were held at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and the talks themselves in a beautiful room where we learned that Böhm-Bawerk had lectured. Just across from this building are plaques dedicated to the mathematician and philosopher Leibniz (in 1712, he began a two-year residence in Vienna, where he was appointed Imperial Court Councilor to the Habsburgs) and the composer Schubert (b. 1797 in Vienna).
In summary, the Viennese culture in which Mises was raised and matured was something of immense value and worth protecting. That culture was integrally related to the Hapsburgs, so it is not surprising that Mises was not aggressively against that particular government. The US government of 1789 is surely much different than the one of 2011 regarding liberty and culture. LRC is filled with articles that depict the current government’s active attack on deviations to the dominant corporatist culture. As a libertarian I necessarily am more opposed to the hostile government of today than I would have been to that of the founders.
Among those around the table that evening where a Randian objectivist, a Mormon, a Roman Catholic and a Jewish convert to Catholicism from Iceland, Croatia, Belgium, and US via France. With these various backgrounds and profound cultural disagreements I think we all would strongly agree that libertarianism is the economic/political philosophy founded on the principles of nonviolence and property rights that best facilitates cultural development and coexistence. In a particular place or time an individual libertarian might feel more or less strongly against his government.
I have written occasionally for LRC, however, this was the first event associated with the Mises Institute that I had ever attended. My connection to the Austrian School began more than 20 years ago when I had recently finished my PhD in mechanical engineering but wanted to learn something about economics as the predictions from the profession were obviously so faulty. I had observed that if an engineer had made predictions of the same poor quality he would be charged with malfeasance, or at least would not find much work. Yet the statures of the government economists never were challenged even though they were so consistently wrong. At that time I had made a friendship with an elderly woman who lived close to the university. While visiting her in her apartment I noticed a book with the subtitle "A Treatise on Economics." My friend noticed my interest and offered to lend it to me. She said she had been a good friend of the author. So the first economics book I had ever read was Mises’ Human Action. Later she gave me a first edition that I like to think was handed to her by Ludwig himself such that I am directly in the line of Mises as an adherent of the Austrian School. Now, after being in Vienna with other Miseans, that feeling is even stronger.
October 1, 2011
Ira Katz [send him mail] lives in Paris and works as a research engineer for a French company. He is the co-author of Handling Mr. Hyde: Questions and Answers about Manic Depression and Introduction to Fluid Mechanics.
Copyright © 2011 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.