• The Promise of Human Action

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    This speech
    was delivered at the Mises Institute, September 14, 1999, the
    date on which Human
    Action
    was published 50 years earlier. The Mises Institute
    has just published the pocket
    paperback
    edition.

    In a 1949
    memo circulated within Yale University Press, the publicity department
    expressed astonishment at the rapid sales of Ludwig von Mises’s
    Human Action. How could such a dense tome, expensive
    by the standards of the day, written by an economist without a
    prestigious teaching position or any notable reputation at all
    in the United States, published against the advice of many on
    Yale’s academic advisory board, sell so quickly that a second
    and third printing would be necessary in only a matter of months?

    Imagine
    how shocked these same people would be to find that the first
    edition, reissued 50 years later as the Scholar’s
    Edition of Human Action
    , would sell so quickly again.

    How can
    we account for the continuing interest in this book? It is unquestionably
    the single most important scientific treatise on human affairs
    to appear in this century. But given the state of the social sciences,
    and the timelessness of Mises’s approach to economics, I believe
    it will have an even greater impact on the next century. Indeed,
    it is increasingly clear that this is a book for the ages.

    Human
    Action appeared in the midst of ideological and political
    turmoil. The world war had only recently ended, and the United
    States was attempting to reshape the politics of Europe with a
    new experiment in global foreign aid. The Cold War was just beginning.

    Virtually
    overnight, Russia went from ally to enemy – a shocking transition
    considering that nothing much had changed in Russia. It had been
    a prison camp since 1918 and its largest imperial advances in
    Europe had taken place with the full complicity of FDR. But in
    order to sustain wartime economic planning in the United States,
    and all the spending that entailed, it became necessary for the
    United States to find another foreign foe. By 1949, the United
    States began to fight socialism abroad by imposing it at home.

    Indeed, on
    this day 50 years ago, the old idea of the liberal society was
    gone, seemingly forever. It was a relic of a distant age, and
    certainly not a model for a modern industrial society. The future
    was clear: the world would move toward government planning in
    all aspects of life and away from the anarchy of markets. As for
    the economic profession, the Keynesian School had not yet reached
    its height, but that was soon to come.

    Socialist
    theory enthralled the profession to the extent that Mises and
    Hayek were thought to have lost the debate over whether socialism
    was economically possible. Labor unions had been delivered a setback
    with the Taft-Hartley
    Act
    , but it would be many years before the dramatic declines
    in membership would take place. In academia, a new generation
    was being raised to believe that FDR and World War II saved us
    from the Depression, and that there were no limits to what the
    state could do. Ruling the land was a regime characterized by
    regimentation in intellectual, social, and political life.

    Human
    Action appeared in this setting not as polite suggestion
    that the world take another look at the merits of free enterprise.
    No, it was a seamless and uncompromising statement of theoretical
    purity that was completely at odds with the prevailing view. Even
    more than that, Mises dared to do what was completely unfashionable
    then and now, which is to build a complete system of thought from
    the ground up. Even Mises’s former students were taken aback by
    the enormity of his argument and the purity of his stand. As Hans
    Hoppe has explained, some of the shock that greeted the book was
    due to its integration of the full range of philosophy, economic
    theory, and political analysis.

    When you
    read Human Action, what you get is not a running commentary
    on the turmoil of the time, but rather a pristine theoretical
    argument that seems to rise above it all. To be sure, Mises addresses
    the enemies of freedom in these pages – and they happen to
    be the same enemies of freedom that surround us today. But much
    more remarkable is the way he was able to detach himself from
    the rough-and-tumble of daily events and write a book restating
    and advancing a pure science of economic logic, from the first
    page to the last. It contains not a word or phrase designed to
    appeal to the biases of the world around him. Instead, he sought
    to make a case that would transcend his generation.

    To appreciate
    how difficult this is to do as a writer, it is useful to look
    back at essays we may have written last year or 10 years ago.
    Quite often, they have all the feel of their time. If any of us
    have written anything that can hold up 5 years later, much less
    50, we should feel extremely happy at our accomplishment. And
    yet Mises sustained a 1,000-page book on politics and economics
    that doesn’t feel dated in the least – or at least that was
    the consensus of the students we recently had in our offices to
    reread the entire work.

    Consider
    Samuelson’s
    Economics, which made its first appearance in 1948. It’s
    no accident that it’s in its 16th edition. It had to be continually
    updated to fix the theories and models that events rendered anachronistic
    in only a few years. Even as late as 1989, the book was predicting
    that the Soviets would surpass the United States in production
    in a few years. Needless to say, that had to go. Last year, a
    publisher brought out the first edition – as a kind of museum
    piece, the way you might reproduce an old phonograph record. In
    any case, it didn’t sell well.

    Incidentally,
    when John
    Kenneth Galbraith
    reviewed Human Action in the New
    York Times, he called it a nice piece of intellectual nostalgia.
    Interesting. Does anyone read any of Galbraith’s books today for
    any other reason? Our purpose in reissuing the first edition,
    on the other hand, was not nostalgia: it was to introduce a new
    generation to what it means to think clearly about the problems
    of social order. We still have so much to learn from Mises.

    I think we
    need to reflect on what it required of Mises personally to write
    the book. He had been uprooted from his homeland, and much of
    his beloved Europe was in tatters. Well past midlife, Mises had
    to start over, with a new language and a new setting. It would
    have been so easy for him to look around at the world and conclude
    that freedom was doomed and that his life had been a waste.

    Try to imagine
    the intellectual courage it required for him to sit down and write,
    as he did, an all-encompassing apologia for the old liberal cause,
    giving it a scientific foundation, battling it out with every
    enemy of freedom, and ending this huge treatise with a call for
    the entire world to change direction from its present course onto
    an entirely new one.

    I’m sometimes
    accused of having an excessively pious devotion to the man Mises,
    but it is impossible not to notice, in the thicket of his dense
    argument, that he was also a singular character in the history
    of ideas, a man of uncommon vision and courage.

    When we
    honor Human Action on this great anniversary of the book’s
    publication, we must also honor the fighting spirit that led him
    to write it in the first place, and to see it through to its miraculous
    publication.

    What are
    the political and economic trends that have come to pass in the
    last 50 years? The rise of new technologies, whose existence are
    best explained through a Misesian theory. The collapse of the
    Soviet Union and its client states, for the reasons explained
    in this book. The failure of the welfare state, again foretold
    in these pages. The widespread disappointment in the results of
    positivist methods in the social sciences, also addressed here.

    Indeed,
    if we look at the failure of the welfare state, the persistence
    of the business cycle, the hyperinflation in Asia, the collapse
    of currencies in South America, the benefits we’ve derived from
    deregulation in our own country, and the meltdown of social-insurance
    schemes, we’ll see that each is addressed and predicted in Human
    Action. Again, each is discussed in terms of timeless principles.

    But none
    of these issues touch on what I find to be the most encouraging
    trend of our time: the decline in the moral and institutional
    status of the central state itself. Quite often in the press these
    days, pundits decry the rise of cynicism and antigovernment feeling
    among the public. But what does this really mean? Surely not that
    Misesian theory has come to capture the imagination of the masses.
    We are a long way from that. What they are decrying is the end
    of the old intellectual and political regime that was just coming
    into its own when Mises’s book appeared in 1949, and has been
    breaking apart since at least 1989.

    The same
    level of respect is not shown to leaders in Washington as it was
    in those years. Involvement in politics or the civil service is
    not valued as highly. In those days, the state got the best and
    brightest. These days, it gets those who have no other job prospects.
    The public sector is not the place to look for bandwidth. Moreover,
    hardly anyone believes that central planners are capable of miracles
    anymore, and the public tends to distrust those who claim otherwise.
    The political rhetoric of our time must account for the rise of
    markets and private initiative, and acknowledge the failure of
    the state.

    Now, there
    are exceptions. There is the Bill
    Bradley
    campaign, which, as far as I can tell, is driven by
    the idea that Clinton has cut the government too much! And then
    there are the conservatives at the Weekly Standard. Last
    week’s issue called for something new: what they have dubbed “One
    Nation Conservatism.” The idea is to combine the conservative
    domestic statism of George W. with the conservative foreign-policy
    statism of John McCain. This is what might be called the politics
    of the worst of all worlds.

    The entire
    approach fails to come to terms with a central insight of Mises’s
    treatise: namely, that reality imposes limits on how expansive
    our vision of government can be. You can dream about the glories
    of a society without freedom all you want, but no matter how impressive
    the plans look on paper, they may not be achieved in the real
    world because economizing behavior requires, most fundamentally,
    private property, which is the institutional basis of civilization.

    Government
    is the enemy of private property, and for that reason becomes
    the enemy of civilization when it attempts to perform anything
    but the most minimal functions. And even here, Mises says, if
    it were possible to permit individuals freedom from the state
    altogether, it should be done.

    People were
    not ready for that message then but they are more ready for it
    now, because we live in times when government routinely confiscates
    one-half or more of the profits associated with entrepreneurship
    and labor. Politics consists of 100,000 pressure groups trying
    to get their hands on the loot. Why would anyone believe that
    it would be a good idea to expand this system?

    Let me read
    you the rationale for this One-Nation Conservatism. It will inspire
    people to throw themselves into what they call public service.
    Public service has four main merits in their view: it “forces
    people to develop broader judgment, sacrifice for the greater
    good, hear the call of duty, and stand up for their beliefs.”

    These are
    all desirable traits. But I fail to see how they have anything
    to do with politics. Rather, a politicized society tends to produce
    the opposite: narrow judgment, selfishness, petty graft, and compromise.
    And that’s putting the best-possible spin on it.

    Who are the
    real visionaries today? They are software developers, communications
    entrepreneurs, freedom-minded intellectuals, homeschoolers, publishers
    who take risks, and businessmen of every variety who have mastered
    the art of serving the public through excellence – and doing
    it despite every obstacle that the state places in their way.

    The real
    visionaries today are the people who continue to struggle to live
    normal lives – raising children, getting a good education,
    building healthy neighborhoods, producing beautiful art and music,
    innovating in the world of business – despite the attempt
    by the state to distort and destroy most of what is great and
    good in our world today.

    One of the
    great rhetorical errors of Mises’s time and ours has been to reverse
    the meaning of public and private service. As Murray Rothbard
    pointed out, private service implies that your behavior and your
    motivation is about helping no one but yourself. If you want an
    example, tour the halls of a random bureaucratic palace in DC.

    Public service,
    on the other hand, implies a voluntary sacrifice of our own interests
    for the sake of others, and I suggest to you that this the most
    overlooked feature of a free society. Whether it is entrepreneurs
    serving their customers, parents serving their children, teachers
    serving their students, pastors serving the faithful, or intellectuals
    serving the cause of truth and wisdom, we find an authentic public
    ethic and a real broadness of judgement; it is in the voluntary
    nexus of human action where we find the call of duty being acted
    on. It is here we find people standing up for their beliefs. It
    is here we find true idealism.

    It was Mises’s
    firm conviction that ideas, and ideas alone, can bring about a
    change in the course of history. It is for this reason that he
    was able to complete his great book and live a heroic life despite
    every attempt to silence him.

    The scholarly
    followers of Mises in our own time exhibit these traits, and inspire
    us every day with their innovative, principled, and radical approach
    to remaking the world of ideas. In their work for the Quarterly
    Journal of Austrian Economics
    , in their books, and in
    their teaching we see the ideals of Mises being fulfilled.

    At
    a low point in his life, Mises wondered if he had become nothing
    but a historian of decline. But he quickly recalled his motto
    from Virgil: "Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more
    boldly against it." With Human Action, Mises did
    just that. He was to die around the time that Nixon went off the
    gold standard and imposed wage and price controls, to Republican
    cheers. He didn’t live to see what we see today – nothing
    short of the systematic unraveling of the statist enterprise of
    our century – but he did foresee that hope was not lost for
    the flourishing of human liberty. For that great virtue of hope,
    we must all be very grateful.

    Let me also
    say how grateful I am to everyone involved in the production of
    the Scholar’s Edition on this 50th anniversary, from our members
    to our faculty to our staff. Mises smiles today.

    Llewellyn
    H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him
    mail
    ], former editorial assistant to Ludwig von Mises and congressional
    chief of staff to Ron Paul, is founder and chairman of the Mises
    Institute
    , executor for the estate of Murray N. Rothbard, and
    editor of LewRockwell.com.
    See his
    books
    .

    The
    Best of Lew Rockwell

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