When a congressman cites the Constitution, I’m glad to hear it mentioned, but I know he’s subverting it with every vote he casts. That’s how I felt when left-wing economist Robert Heilbroner said in the New Yorker that “Mises was right” about socialism.
Ludwig von Mises was never able to get a paid academic post in the U. S. He was shut out of American economic journals, and boycotted and ridiculed by the establishment all because he told the truth, without fear or compromise, when it wasn’t fashionable to do so.
Heilbroner, however, has never been anything but fashionable. A professor at the New School for Social Research, his lecture fees are high and his books sell well, especially his history of thought, The Worldly Philosophers, which glorifies Marx and Keynes and never mentions the Austrians.
Like John Kenneth Galbraith, Heilbroner has gotten rich by attacking capitalism. And also like Galbraith, every time he writes a book, the reviews in the top media read like sales copy.
In his New Yorker article, Heilbroner mentions the debate of the 1920s and 1930s on the workability of socialism. Mises started it by saying, in his 1920 article on “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth” and 1922 book on Socialism, that socialism was impossible. For more than two decades, the left sought to refute this, and the conventional wisdom held until the collapse of communism in 1989 that Mises had been wrong.
Now Heilbroner says Mises was right: “no Central Planning Board could ever gather the enormous amount of information needed to create a workable economic system.” Although true, that was not Mises’s point. His critique was far more radical: that an economy couldn’t function properly, i.e., economically, without a free price system. Socialism in particular couldn’t work because there are no free prices for its commonly owned means of production.
Mises also made an even more significant point for those of us in the West: free prices are what make an efficient economy possible. Therefore, every step away from the free market subverts economic calculation. Mises arguments about socialism therefore also apply to the American economy of today.
Therefore Heilbroner’s mis-statement serves a purpose. If he really believed that Mises was right, he could hardly endorse “socialist capitalism” as the answer to our problems.
As late as 1970, Heilbroner was apologizing for Stalin. Sure, old Joe made mistakes, usually “self-defeating” ones, poor guy, but “we must bear in mind that industrialization on the grand scale has always been wrenching, always accompanied by economic sacrifice, and always carried out by the more or less authoritarian use of power.” This is Stalin as the Soviet Henry Ford.
Also in 1970, Heilbroner ridiculed Mises (without naming him) as the reactionary dolt who claimed “in the first days of chaos following the Russian Revolution” that “socialism” was … impossible.'”
Ha ha, said Heilbroner. The U.S. S. R. has grown “roughly twice as fast as the United States,” and Soviet socialism “continues to produce at good rates.”
In the midst of a government-caused depression in 1978, Heilbroner had the answer: “a powerful, and I think irresistible, force for planning the economic process” “a general sticking of the public nose into private life.”
In 1980, Heilbroner praised Communism for “the immense material and cultural improvement that these regimes have brought to their peoples.” History cannot be pushed back. “In our times and henceforth, change is upon the world, in large part inspired and guided by Marxism itself The task now is to understand it.”
He endorsed world government as necessary for economic justice in 1988, since “the nation is in some way the ultimate barrier that has to be transcended before something like socialism may be reached.”
Like other rich leftist intellectuals, Heilbroner is a trimmer. Even his New Yorker piece is all mea and no culpa. He wasn’t wrong when he disagreed with Mises; the times have changed.
Mises was right at the wrong time. This is in contrast to Heilbroner, who was right then and right now.
Heilbroner, like all leftists, doesn’t believe in economic law. What worked in 1920 may not work in 1990, but might work again in 2000. Socialism may not be feasible now, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the future if it comes back into fashion in Manhattan salons.
In Eastern Europe, the Baltics, and Russia, Heilbroner like Galbraith is scorned as an apologist for totalitarianism, while interest is high in the unabashed capitalists like Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard.
But in the U.S., the situation is less encouraging. What conservative or libertarian could be published on Mises or any other subject in the New Yorker? In intellectual America, now as in the past, only the left is respectable whether it repents its sins or not.