The Ludwig von Mises Legacy: A Reality Check

Libertarians tend to trust other libertarians. After all, a libertarian isn't going to commit acts of force or fraud against you, right?

Nevertheless, not everything a fellow libertarian tells you should be believed, even about matters related to the libertarian movement itself. Sometimes, people who call themselves libertarians, like members of any other group, spread lies about each other, either deliberately or out of ignorance (i.e., lack of correct information).

Within the libertarian movement, perhaps no one has been the object of more unfounded attacks than Lew Rockwell and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, of which Mr. Rockwell is the president.

In the early days of my interest in libertarianism, a number of prominent libertarians repeated lies about them to me. And because the sources seemed reliable in general, I didn't see any reason not to believe them, despite a lack of any firsthand knowledge.

So I went on assuming that my sources must be right. But then, at Grove City College, I took classes with Dr. Jeffrey Herbener, a senior faculty member at the Mises Institute, and he and his ideas didn't seem so bad at all. So I decided to head down to Auburn to attend the weeklong 2000 Mises University program and check things out for myself. There, I participated in the most rigorous, scholarly, and well-organized libertarian program (rightly described as an “intellectual boot camp”) that I had ever experienced, and found all of the things I'd heard to be simply untrue.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to discover the truth. Sadly, not everyone has done so, and the falsehoods that caused my initial reluctance still persist among many others.

Consider this passage, by R.W. Bradford, from the November 2002 issue of Liberty magazine, in which he suggests that the Mises Institute isn't about advancing the ideas of the Austrian economist Mises at all:

[P]romoting Mises' thought is only the ostensible purpose of the Mises Institute: anyone who looks carefully at its record quickly concludes that its real mission is to promote the thinking of Murray Rothbard, a student of Mises whose thinking and intellectual agenda was quite different from Mises…. As if to underscore its allegiance to Rothbard rather than to Mises, the Institute has recently republished the 1949 edition of Mises' magnum opus, Human Action, rather than the subsequent editions prepared by Mises himself. Mises Institute President Lew Rockwell reportedly claims that he believes the 1949 edition to be “more scholarly,” but cynics observe that the main substantial differences between it and subsequent editions is that it lacks Mises' criticism of Rothbard….1

Each and every assertion in this passage is false, and does a great disservice not only to the faculty, staff, and supporters of the Mises Institute, but also to anyone who wants to learn about economics and liberty.

Mises or Rothbard?

Murray Rothbard was, of course, a conscious disciple of Ludwig von Mises, and one of Mises's foremost and most prolific students in the United States. Few would question that Rothbard is the most Misesian of any of Mises's students. Every good disciple builds upon the work of his mentor, and Rothbard built upon the work of Mises — just as Mises had built upon the work of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk before him.

As you can read on the Mises Institute's web site, Professor Rothbard was personally involved with the Institute during his lifetime, as director of its programs, and his ideas are still addressed frequently at their programs. It's even true that the Mises Institute has kept many of Rothbard's books in print. And, indeed, last summer I attended the Institute's Rothbard Graduate Seminar, which focused upon Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty, a work with which Professor Mises would likely have had some serious disagreements.

On the other hand, I've heard speakers at the Mises Institute openly agree and disagree with Rothbard on many of the issues upon which he and Mises differed — especially on the issue of anarcho-capitalism. While the majority seems to side with Rothbard on that issue, I have observed no party line that anyone is forced to toe.

More importantly, the Mises Institute has undertaken major scholarly projects related to Mises's work. For example, Dr. Jörg Guido Hülsmann, in preparing to write his forthcoming biography of Mises, traveled to Moscow and prepared an index of Mises's “lost” Austrian papers there.

So the question is, is Mr. Bradford suggesting that an organization dedicated to the study of Mises's ideas be concerned exclusively with Mises? That is, should they just look up whatever Mises said on a given topic and stick to that as gospel, lock, stock and dogma?

I doubt that's really what he means. To speak in terms of “Who do you follow?” is not only doctrinaire but childish and far, indeed, from scholarly.

Yet if the perceived problem is, in fact, the lack of an organization that treats Mises's ideas as a “closed system” not to be improved upon, then Mr. Bradford is correct: the Mises Institute is doing nothing to fill that void.

Human Action

Since the Mises Institute first decided to publish its “Scholar's Edition” of Mises's Human Action, I've heard several variations on why the Institute reverted to the first edition, rather than use later revised editions. However, among rumormongers who are in no way affiliated with the Institute, and who are not privy to its decision-making processes, Mr. Bradford's version is the most frequently repeated: The first edition, these people claim, was chosen because the fourth edition contained new material that conflicted with Rothbard's views on anarcho-capitalism and natural rights.

There is no basis for any such claim, beyond the prejudices that exist in the mind of the individual making the statement.

I have to wonder if these critics have actually looked at the Scholar's Edition. Specifically, I wonder if they've looked at its introduction, which details the precise, scholarly reasons why the first edition was used for the Scholar's Edition. I feel no obligation to do anyone's homework for them, and I wouldn't want to do the scholars who wrote the introduction the disservice of attempting to present their reasoning in an abridged form. However, several reasons the editors identified are: (1) later editions omitted passages on German wartime barter policy; (2) later editions omitted some insights on monopoly theory; and (3) later editions add a defense of conscription that contradicts Mises's own writings of 1919, 1939, 1940, and 1946.

Additionally, there is scholarly value in having the first edition of any major work in economics — such as Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations or David Ricardo's Principles — available for scholars. It is also notable that F. A. Hayek, Israel Kirzner, and Murray Rothbard all continued to cite to the first edition in their own works, well after the publication of later editions.

In preparing the Scholar's Edition, the editors consulted archives from Stanford, Grove City College (which owns most of Mises's American papers), the Foundation for Economic Education, Yale, and Moscow (where Mises's papers from Vienna are stored). One may or may not think their reasons for reverting to the first edition were good ones, but no one can accuse the editors of hiding their decision or their reasons for making it.

If the Mises Institute is trying to suppress Mises and other dissenting views on natural rights, they're doing a terrible job. Mises's views on the topic are stated in many of his works, and didn't suddenly emerge with the publication of the 3rd edition of Human Action. I've heard Mises's views on natural rights discussed, pro and con, many times at Mises Institute programs. My friend Paul Clark even spoke at the 2001 Austrian Scholars Conference on the topic, “u2018Rights' are the Antithesis of Freedom and Justice.”

Finally, there is one more problem for the conspiracy theorists: If the Mises Institute is so interested in suppressing the content of later editions of Human Action, it is curious indeed that they would make the entire fourth edition available for free on their web site.

More Lies From the Libertarian Left

The folks we've dealt with above at least attempt to make a substantive argument, even if it is based on incorrect information. Some of the Institute's other “libertarian” detractors — particularly those who make their living in the nation's capital — are apparently so used to inside-the-beltway tactics that they don't attempt anything even superficially resembling rationally reasoned discourse when attacking the anti-political Mises Institute.

This is well illustrated by the experience of one acquaintance, who was at an informal gathering of young people from around the country at a DC “free market” public policy think tank, with some of that organization's top brass. There, he made the mistake of saying that he had found material from the Mises Institute to be helpful in his intellectual development. The DC crowd reacted as if he'd casually mentioned that Mein Kampf was one of his favorite books. “What?” spat one individual who wears the “libertarian” label and likes to go on TV. “You can't be serious! Why, why… they're racists!”

Like all PC police, the DC “libertarians” are apparently not above bringing out good old racism charges when nothing else works. As one who has actually attended Mises Institute events (unlike the individual who made that charge), I can testify that I've never heard a racist idea there. I've seen attendees become outraged at some of the ideas they were hearing — but only because they were libertarian ideas, not because there was any racism in them.

So where does the racism charge originate?

Maybe it's because of a false perception that exists that the Mises Institute is “anti-immigration.” A prominent libertarian economist once told me that the folks at the Mises Institute are a bunch of “racist snakes,” with the sole basis for his conclusion apparently being their alleged anti-immigration stance.

The problem with that economist's belief is, there is no such stance. First, as far as I can tell, the Mises Institute takes no official position on immigration at all. Second, the Institute's senior faculty members are split on the question: While Hans-Hermann Hoppe has made libertarian arguments in support of immigration restrictions (which are too sophisticated for any intellectually honest opponent to dismiss, with a wave of the hand, as “racist”), Walter Block supports free immigration. (For a stimulating debate on the topic, see the Summer 1998 issue of The Journal of Libertarian Studies, which is now published by the Mises Institute.)

So is the complaint that the Institute allows criticisms of unrestricted immigration to be voiced at all? Would a censoring of anti-immigration views be indicative of an open, scholarly exchange?

With that objection discredited, what other basis might exist for the racism charge? Maybe it's because many Institute scholars, like Mises himself, are enthusiastic about the idea of secession? If so, then why not deal with the issue of secession, rather than make mean-spirited guesses about its advocates' motivation?

Could it be that opponents get so upset because the Mises Institute has the guts to eschew the political compromises that are part of the everyday existence of a DC public policy outfit? Or maybe it's because throwing a racism charge or similar against someone who makes a politically unpopular, principled stand for liberty is the way things are done in Washington? I'm just speculating, of course — I don't want to start flinging any mud of my own. But when such influential detractors offer no substantive arguments, what else is any reasonably intelligent person to think?

Don't Be Fooled

The bottom line is, the Mises Institute is one of the world's finest and most uncompromising libertarian organizations, as anyone who has had any contact with them knows.

And despite the best efforts of individuals in some circles, the word is getting out. Admission to Mises Institute programs is competitive, and they attract intelligent students from around the world. The Institute recently built a beautiful new facility to meet the rising demand and provide the best possible atmosphere for study and scholarly research.

It would be a shame if people seeking a libertarian education — especially those interested in learning about Mises — were guided away from the Mises Institute by misinformation spread by lying or ignorant individuals who are merely peddling their own agendas.

Hopefully, as independent-minded truth-seekers, newcomers (and old hands as well) will examine the facts for themselves. If they do, they'll discover, as I did, that you can't always believe what people tell you — even if they do call themselves libertarians.

Note

  1. This is an abbreviated version of Mr. Bradford’s comments. The unedited version contains even more falsehoods about Mises and Rothbard that are beyond the scope of this article.

December 20, 2002