Recently by Gary North: Legacy Builders, Part 2
In my previous report, I provided a mix of legacy builders. Some were scholars. Some were businessmen. One was a Sunday school teacher. All had influence on many people.
In this group of legacy builders, scholarship was preeminent. There are three economists and one sociologist. The sociologist is not out of place, although it is not common for sociologists to have any appreciation of economic theory.
LUDWIG VON MISES
My only meeting with Mises came in the fall of 1971. I had been hired by the Foundation for Economic Education. I was invited to attend a special ceremony. F. A. Harper had edited a second collection of essays honoring Mises. The first book of essays honoring Mises had been edited by Mary Sennholz and was published in 1956. The meeting was held in a nice hotel in New York City. After the meeting, I was able to talk with Mises about a number of things, including his connection with the German sociologist, Max Weber. Weber referred to Mises’s 1920 essay on Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, in a footnote in a book that Weber did not complete. He died in 1920. Mises told me he had sent the essay to Weber.
Mises left a legacy that has steadily grown since his death in 1973. He was one of those rare men who had two phases in his career. The first phase, beginning in 1912 and ending after the publication of John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory (1936), established his reputation as a major economic theorist. His 1912 book on money and banking, his 1922 book on socialism, and his many articles on specialized topics in economic theory identified him as a major theorist. But his opposition to all forms of fiat money gained him a reputation as a 19th-century Neanderthal in the world of fiat currencies, which began with the abolition of the gold standard at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. His hostility to socialism also contributed to his status as a pariah. He was clearly resisting what was regarded in academic circles as the wave of the future. Academics want to be trendy. Mises was not trendy.
The triumph of Keynesianism after 1936, coupled with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, led to an eclipse in Mises’s career. When he came to the United States in 1940 as a refugee, he was virtually unknown here. He had no teaching position. He was 59 years old. He had never been known in the United States. He was dependent on occasional writing assignments, and also on donations from friends, including Henry Hazlitt.
He served as a free market voice crying in the Keynesian wilderness for the next 30 years. He presided over a graduate seminar at New York University which went on for a quarter-century. Murray Rothbard was one of the regular attendees, although as an auditor. He was not paid by the university, which relegated him to the status of visiting professor. He was supported by donors. Yet there was no one on the NYU economics faculty who is remembered today. They were nonentities, and they left no legacy.
The publication of his book, Human Action, by Yale University Press in 1949 did begin to establish his reputation in America. The book sold far better than anyone had expected. This book was the first comprehensive, integrated theory of free market economics that had ever been published. Very few people understood this in 1949, but anyone who has studied the history of economic thought finds in this book the first comprehensive application of economic theory to the entire market-based economy. The analysis is integrated in terms of the Austrian economic defense of subjective value theory and methodological individualism.
He continued to write after 1949. His books were sold by the Foundation for Economic Education, which brought him to the attention of readers who were in favor of the free market. His articles appeared in the Foundation’s magazine, The Freeman. The Freeman did not circulate widely in academic circles, but it was a widely read magazine on the Right.
I bought a copy of Human Action in 1960. I was aware of Mises’s importance in the history of economic thought, but at my university, I was probably the only student who knew about him. I suspect that the only professor who knew about him was Carl Uhr, who taught a course in the history of economic thought.
Mises was tenacious in his commitment to free-market principles. Probably more than any other major scholar of the 20th century, he was known to his peers as uncompromising. He was regarded as ideological by Chicago school economists. They were correct. Because of his consistency in applying the principle of nonintervention into every nook and cranny of the economy, but above all in his opposition to central banking, free-market economists regarded him as eccentric. “Eccentric” for them was a word for “rigorously consistent.”
He was known to the Left as the West’s most implacable opponent of economic intervention. When the Nazis marched into Austria in 1938, they confiscated his library. He had left it behind when he left the country to go to Switzerland in 1934. He feared that the Nazis would take over in Austria, and he was correct. As a free market economist and a Jew, he would not have survived in Austria.
The Soviets also recognized who he was, and they confiscated the library from the Nazis, and sent it to Moscow. It was not discovered there by any Western economist until the 1980s. That was a great irony: Western economists did not know who he was, but Soviet economists did. This became increasingly true in the 1980s, as the Soviet economy began to disintegrate, exactly as Mises had predicted it would.
Mises’s great advantage over almost all of his peers was this: he wrote in English as a second language. Most economists write in English as a third or fourth language. He did not use equations. He did not use a lot of jargon. He developed paragraphs based on sentences that were developed consecutively. You could begin on page 1 of any of his books and, if you paid attention, you could get to the end without becoming confused.
This was an advantage because average people who were interested in economics could follow his logic. His reputation spread by way of “The Freeman” throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s. That magazine had a circulation as high as 40,000 in some years. There were not many economists who could reach an audience that large.
He really did stick to his knitting, and he really did stick to his guns. He stuck to his guns with such tenacity that for decades he had no influence whatsoever in the academic community. They wrote him off. But, after his death in 1973, his influence began to grow. In 1974, his disciple F. A. Hayek won the Nobel Prize in economics. Bit by bit, his reputation spread. Because of the Mises Institute, his name is now more widely known than almost any other economist of his generation, either before World War I or after World War II. The average person would be unfamiliar with the name of most economists in the first half of the 20th century, and he would be unable to read the works of almost any economist in the second half.
So, because Mises was unwilling to compromise, especially in the area of methodology, refusing to use equations, his legacy has been greater than most of his long-dead peers. His legacy is growing, and theirs is almost nonexistent.
Much of Mises’s influence is the result of Murray Rothbard’s voluminous writings, in powerful, captivating, and flawless English, from the late 1950s until his death in 1995. Rothbard became the primary interpreter of the works of Mises, even though he did not share Mises’s commitment to 19th-century limited government. It is possible to read Human Action, but it is a lot easier to read Man, Economy, and State. Rothbard never found full-time employment in a college or university that had an economics department until late in his career. He taught engineering students, who were not interested in economics and surely did not know who Rothbard was. If he had any legacy from his classes at Brooklyn Polytechnic, nobody has been able to discover it.
He gained his reputation as an economist mainly through the publications that appeared in a 12-month period from 1962 through early 1963. Columbia University Press published his doctoral dissertation on America’s first depression: The Panic of 1819. It read like a dissertation, unlike anything else Rothbard ever wrote. It had some minor influence in the economic history, but it was a narrow topic.
Then came Man, Economy, and State in the fall of 1962. Then, the following spring, came America’s Great Depression. That book was a study of the statist policies of the Hoover Administration. It applied the Austrian theory of the trade cycle to the economic and political events of the Hoover Administration. Because it was based on Austrian economic theory, academic economists rejected it. Because it was hostile to Herbert Hoover, any conservative who found out about it probably rejected it before even looking at the table of contents. It was almost a perfect book for alienating everybody. Then came the acceleration of the Vietnam War and the development of the antiwar movement. Rothbard became actively involved in the antiwar movement, and he ceased writing books on economic theory. This continued until the early 1980s, when he wrote the best upper division textbook in money and banking that has ever been written, and which has probably never been assigned in any university in the United States: The Mystery of Banking. It is totally hostile to fractional reserve banking, central banking, and all forms of fiat money. It is the primary task of all university-level courses in money and banking to establish the students’ confidence in all three of these. Rothbard once again had painted himself into a corner.
Only at the very end of his life did he begin to do a detailed academic study in economics. He wrote two volumes on the history of economic thought. He died before the third volume was completed. There has never been any history of economic thought to rival it in terms of a mixture of minute details of the lives of economists, coupled with careful analyses of their economic doctrines.
His legacy stems from the power of his economic analysis and the cogency of his writing style.
He left another legacy in the area of early American history: his study of colonial America up to, but not including, the American Revolution. Sadly, he took his notes on a piece of audio recording technology that disappeared, so he was never able to finish the fifth volume.
Then there is his legacy as the most literate defender of economic and political anarchism in the history of anarchist thought.
He stuck to his knitting. He never stopped writing. He did not compromise in his hostility to economic intervention by the state. He did short articles, midsized articles, fat books, heavily footnoted books, pamphlets, newsletter articles, movie reviews, political analysis, and whatever else interested him, which was everything except possibly nuclear physics. The huge volume of his writings, the clarity of his writings, the ideological consistency of his writings, and the fact that he got Lew Rockwell on his side, established a legacy which has been leveraged by the power of the World Wide Web. He is reaching a larger audience today than he could have imagined. He died in 1995, the year that the Netscape browser was introduced. He could not have foreseen the impact of this event.
His skills were ideally suited to this new technology. His skills in written communication are exactly what people doing Web searches are looking for. He was a print-media person, and while the Web is equally geared to video, for those who are looking for cogent writing, Rothbard’s body of material is vast.
Nisbet was an anomaly. He was a sociologist who was a master literary stylist. This borders on the inconceivable. Second, he was a political and philosophical conservative. For a sociologist, this is as rare as the ability to write clearly. Third, his career had two phases, and the second phase made him an international figure. This almost never happens.
As a graduate student, he was highly influenced by a remarkable academic genius by the name of Frederick Teggart. Almost nobody knew about Teggart in his day, and if it weren’t for Nisbet, almost nobody would know about him today. He was a graduate assistant for Teggart, and he learned how to use a research library as a result.
He discovered in the library at Berkeley the writings of French conservative political theorists who wrote in the first third of the 19th century. They had virtually been forgotten. He was able to write his doctoral dissertation on this tradition in social theory. He had an undistinguished career at Berkeley, and then in 1954 he took an administrative position at the newly created University of California at Riverside. From that time until 1965, he did not teach many classes.
His one book in this phase of his career was well received: The Quest for Community. It was published in 1953 by Oxford University Press, the major academic publisher, and a publisher that had book sales outside of college libraries. His theory was that the growth of totalitarianism went hand-in-hand with the disappearance of voluntary societies at the local level. This left the isolated individual with no commitment other than to the state. A similar explanation of the rise of totalitarianism had been offered to a much larger audience by Hannah Arendt in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Nisbet’s book was well received, but it did not become a best-seller. It did stay in print, however, which is remarkable for any academic book.
Then, in 1965, he resigned from his administrative position and took a sabbatical to teach in Italy. When he came back, he went into the classroom, and he began to write. He soon became a favorite author in what was then called “the Commentary crowd,” meaning Jewish intellectuals in New York City who had begun to abandon their far Left political views about this time. His books began to sell, because articles began to appear in “Commentary” and the other outlet, The Public Interest. As he told me once, Jews buy a lot of books. He knew that this was the primary basis of this second phase of his academic career. For the next 20 years, he wrote book after book, and all of them are worth reading.
Here is a case of a man who did not stick to his knitting for at least a decade. He taught in the classroom, but he was not a well-known scholar until the publication in 1953 of his book on totalitarianism. He literally did not know of the existence of the conservative movement during these years, and it was only when he read Russell Kirk’s book, The Conservative Mind, also published in 1953, that he realized that he was part of a broader intellectual movement.
I first met him in the spring of 1960, when he took me to lunch with Russell Kirk and the Chancellor of the University. The only reason why he took me was because I was one of maybe three conservatives on the campus, and I had dropped them a note about something that I had read of his in Modern Age, the conservative quarterly journal. I studied sociology with him in the late 1960s. The only reason why I did that is because it wasn’t sociology. He was on my doctoral dissertation committee in 1972.
By going into administration in 1954 at a new school located in the boondocks of Southern California, bordering on the desert, he disappeared from public view. When he emerged, the timing was such that there had been a major shift of opinion in New York City, and it was spreading to the rest of the country. He was able to find a market for his books, and he had been thinking for the entire period about the issues of the day, but always in relationship to the history of Western social theory. He could write in English, and he had long since given up any interest in academic sociology.
The timing was right. He had stuck to his guns, but he had fired them only once from 1945 until 1965: in 1953. He stayed out of the line of fire. By the time he emerged, guns loaded, he found an audience for his views. He could not possibly have foreseen this in 1963. That he would wind up in the Schweitzer-endowed chair in sociology at Columbia University in the final phase of his teaching career would have seemed equally inconceivable.
He made only one mistake. It was a big one. As a teaching assistant, he had watched Teggart decline intellectually. He had heard his lectures, and they were substandard toward the end. He vowed at that time that he would never teach in a university beyond the age of 70. He told me this years earlier. He resigned from Columbia when he turned 70. Yet he remained a highly effective speaker, almost a spellbinder, until the very end. The only scholar I have ever heard who may have been better than Nisbet behind a podium is Paul Johnson. But I only heard Johnson speak once, so it may not have been a representative sample. Enoch Powell was better than either of them, but he had long since given up academia. He was in Parliament. The same was true of Representative Phil Crane, who would have been a great historian, but who went into politics instead.
Rogge [ROWEguee] was a free market economist who went into administration at Wabash College, and he never wrote much. He was the most entertaining academic speaker I have ever heard. He spent many years earning extra money on what speakers call the rubber-chicken circuit. He was a perfect defender of free market principle in front of a group of businessmen. He could entertain a group of academics with equal facility.
His legacy was as an advisor to one of the richest libertarians of all time, Pierre Goodrich. Goodrich built the Independent Telephone system of Indiana. There is no question in my mind that he was a genius entrepreneur. He also thought of himself as an intellectual. Here, he was not equally gifted. I had to listen to him for two days at a conference in 1971, and when the entire group got ptomaine poisoning after the second day, I regarded that experience as preferable to a third day at the conference.
Rogge told me the following. “Rich men know how to accumulate wealth, but they are not skilled at giving it away. My job is to give Goodrich advice that will not lead to a great deal of harm.”
His advice was tremendous. He guided Goodrich in creating the Liberty Fund, which publishes the highest-quality low-cost books in the world. They are libertarian books, books on classical 18th-century political theory, the collected writings of great free market scholars, and are published on high-quality paper at low prices. Goodrich locked in the organization’s by-laws to a very narrow focus, which meant that the organization was not worth capturing by the Left or the Establishment. Today, it has the largest endowment of any Right-wing organization in the world. Hardly anybody knows about it. Rogge’s legacy is in those books. He did not gain a group of dedicated young men as disciples. He did not leave a large body of literature. While he was a great speaker, few of those speeches are still available. But he gained the confidence of an exceedingly rich man with an exceedingly libertarian vision. He helped that man create an organization that has provided young scholars with high-quality books for the last 40 years.
It is easier for someone who writes a great deal to leave a legacy. The reason why I included Ben Rogge in this list is because his influence was not through his own writings, but through other people’s writings.
Each of these men decided early in life that he would defend an intellectual position that was completely out of step with the prevailing intellectual opinion of their day. Mises defended the conclusions of 19th-century classical liberalism, but he did so in terms of the new philosophy of what men can know and how they can know it. He restructured economics in terms of the philosophy of methodological individualism. Rothbard extended this vision, and went far beyond it in terms of his application of it to historical events.
Nisbet discovered early 19th-century French conservatism, and he adopted that view as a young man. He was still defending that position half a century later. He defended it with greater eloquence, clarity, and historical support than the founders had. He dropped out for 20 years, from 1945 to 1965, but when he returned to the battle, he was better armed than almost anyone of his generation to take on the mythology of American liberalism.
We don’t know what opportunities we are going to be given. I am reminded of the mother of four star general Chappie James, a black, who rose to be the senior officer in the U.S. Air Force. His mother told him, when he was a young man, “if you knock at the door of opportunity, you had better have your bags packed.” All of the people I have surveyed in this series had their bags packed.
July 14, 2012
Copyright © 2012 Gary North