In this year of Millennium Lists (“Best Ten Songs of the Millennium,” etc.), the Wall Street Journal tried its hand at the ten economists whom it called the “best and brightest” who have made a difference” in the last thousand years. Of course, the big problem in twentieth-century intellectual history is that the “best and the brightest” were not the ones who “made a difference.” While the list did contain some names to cheer (Aquinas, Hayek, and Schumpeter) it also had plenty to boo (Marx, Keynes, and Veblen).
One name was conspicuously missing from this list: Ludwig von Mises. Though the brightest and the best, Mises said he did not make the difference he started out to make. He set out as a reformer for freedom, but regarded himself as a “historian of decline.” That is a commentary on the brutal and statist century in which he lived, however, not on his accomplishments, which are monumental.
His advances in economic theory are immense. He integrated the two main branches of economics by demonstrating the origin of the value of money. He demonstrated that socialist doctrine was contrary to economic logic. He showed that business cycles stem from central-bank mismanagement. He set out the philosophical foundations of economic science itself.
All of this would have been enough, but assessing greatness is about more than weighing the relative importance of scientific discoveries. Mises is a singular person in the history of ideas not only because of what he explained but also because of what he fought. He waged a fierce intellectual battle against every destructive political ideology and economic fallacy of our century, and paid a huge personal price as a result. Truth, not fashion or fame, was his guiding light.
The problem of being out of step confronted Mises as he set out to complete his great work, Human Action. The introduction to the Scholar’s Edition sheds new light on the terrible difficulties he faced just getting this book published. He found a friendly editor at Yale University Press (Eugene Davidson), but many economists who were consulted in advance of publication tried to kill the project.
A socialist wrote the publisher to say that Mises’s ideas were outmoded. A positivist said his theories were not scientific. And, tragically, two former students of Mises’s who had been drawn into the Keynesian orbit attempted to suppress the manuscript. Today, we take Human Action for granted, but on reflection, it seems almost miraculous that book ever got out of the Publications Committee.
Of all the names on the Wall Street Journal’s list, none put together an economic text as systematic and comprehensive as Human Action, which is clearly the greatest book on economics ever written. That is why it has stayed continuously in print since its publication in 1949, and why (despite bumps along the way) it has been translated in so many different languages.
On the fiftieth anniversary of this masterpiece, the Mises Institute published the Scholar’s Edition to restore Mises’s all-encompassing work to its original state. Reading it again, one can only marvel at the fantastic intellectual drive it took to complete the project, the courage it required to cut through all the socialist and Keynesian nonsense that dominated the intellectual landscape at the time, and the vision it required to spell out so completely and rigorously the economic basis of a free society.
I often wish that Mises had lived to see our present situation. During the last decade, overgrown regimes of all sorts have crumbled or fallen into moral disrepute. The ideology of planning is increasingly outmoded. Students all over the world are discovering Mises for the first time. And Misesians in every field are waging guerilla warfare against what remains of the old socialist left.
In the end, it turns out that Mises was not a historian of decline but a prophet of things to come. He never gave up the fight, not even after witnessing the carnage and wars and destruction inflicted by governments in this bloodiest of centuries. In the end, we are compelled to observe a thousand times, and with greatest admiration and respect for his genius, that Mises was right when most everyone else was wrong.
And yet he was more than right. He was courageous. He was determined. He never gave up. And generations in the next century and beyond will know his name and his work, even as the likes of Keynes and Marx will someday be synonymous with the folly perpetuated by their ideas.
FURTHER READING: “Introduction to the Scholar’s Edition,” in Human Action (The Mises Institute, 1998).