Mises was a redMises was a red

Mises as Radical:
Retrospective on Rothbard’s Thesis

Roderick T. Long

Presented at the Mises Institute 25th Anniversary Celebration, New York, 12-13 October 2007.

In his 1981 article “The Laissez-Faire Radical: A Quest for the Historical Mises” (JLS 5.3), Murray Rothbard expressed his dissatisfaction with what he saw as the prevailing interpretation of Ludwig von Mises, according to which Mises was “made to appear a sort of National Review intellectual concentrating on the free-market aspects of conservatism.” While granting that “the image of Mises as an essential conservative is scarcely made up [out of] whole cloth,” Rothbard insisted that such a characterisation “totally overlooks rich strains of Misesian thought,” and concluded that Mises is better understood as a radical than as a conservative:

Mises was virtually the diametric opposite of a modern conservative. ... We find ... a Mises with the following strongly held political views: a proclaimed pacifist, who trenchantly attacked war and national chauvinism; a bitter critic of Western imperialism and colonialism; a believer in non-intervention with regard to Soviet Russia; a strong proponent of national self-determination, not only for national groups, but for subgroups down to the village level – and in theory, at least, down to the right of individual secession ... someone so hostile to immigration restrictions that he almost endorsed war against such countries as the United States and Australia to force them to open up their borders; a believer in the importance of class conflict in relation to the State; a caustic rationalist critic of Christianity and of all religion; and an admirer of the French Revolution.

Ten years later, Jeff Tucker and Lew Rockwell, in their article “The Cultural Thought of Ludwig von Mises” (JLS 10.1), stressed by contrast the conservative side of Mises’ ideas. While explicitly acknowledging the validity of Rothbard’s points, Tucker and Rockwell noted:

Ludwig von Mises held many cultural positions central to modern American traditionalist conservatism .... He favored traditional families organized on the principle of patriarchy ... he thought that such institutions as the family and marital fidelity were natural, exclusively civilized, and highly desirable ... he thought it was possible to make generalizations about races and ethnic groups ... he praised Western civilization as superior to all others ... and he criticized mass culture and counterculturalism ....

Is Mises, then, best understood as a radical or not? Or perhaps a better question is: how are we to understand the relation between the apparently radical and apparently nonradical aspects of his thought?

Ludwig von MisesThe term radical is used with at least three related but distinct senses. In one sense (call it the gradal sense), it is opposed to moderate; here radical means extreme or thoroughgoing as opposed to wishy-washy. In another sense (call it the ideological sense), it is opposed to conservative, politically or culturally. Obviously these senses are distinct, since an extreme reactionary conservative would count as radical in the gradal sense but not in the ideological. Thirdly – call this the dialectical sense – radical can signify an orientation that considers phenomena not in isolation but in their interconnections with other elements in a systemic totality. While this sense is distinct from both the other senses, it has an obvious connection with the gradal sense, and to some degree with the ideological sense as well. A dialectical radical, given her focus on context and interdependence, will naturally tend to be skeptical of the utility of merely local fixes of social problems, insisting that successful reform must depend on changing the system as a whole; hence the dialectical radical will tend to be a gradal radical too, in the sense of calling for more, and more thoroughgoing, change. In the words of Chris Sciabarra:

To be “radical” is to grasp things by the root. But to examine roots and origins, to engage in any analysis of fundamentals, one must be committed to a thoroughgoing, comprehensive strategy. ... Because no problem can be understood by being totally isolated and abstracted from other similarly constituted problems. Looking at the relationships among social problems helps one to elucidate their logical interconnections and the ways in which they both reflect and perpetuate the social system itself. And if one is a revolutionary ... it is the current social system that must ultimately be changed. (“What the Hell Has Happened to the Radical Spirit of Objectivism?”)

Let’s consider these three forms of radicalism in turn.

1. Mises as Gradal Radical?

Clearly Mises counts as a gradal radical, in the sense that the outlook he advocated, he advocated in an extreme and thoroughgoing rather than in a moderate or watered-down way. Methodologically, while Mises always insisted, correctly, that praxeological apriorism was the implicit method of most prior economists and not something Mises had personally invented, Mises certainly held to the method in a more self-conscious, explicit, and thoroughgoing form, which has even been labeled “extreme apriorism.” As for free-market economics, while many have adhered to this position in some form or other, Mises’ commitment to free markets was famously more thoroughgoing than such other celebrated free-market proponents as Milton Friedman – to the point that Mises could label the German Ordoliberals “Ordo-interventionists” and dismiss his Mont Pèlerin colleagues as “a bunch of socialists.”

Yet Mises’ free-market stance did not reach the acme of gradal radicalism. The Hülsmann biography documents Mises’ bemusement at finding that, in relocating from Europe to the United States, he had gone from being nearly always the most extreme free-marketer in the room to being the object of criticism for excessive moderation by anarchistic American libertarians like Murray Rothbard, Rose Wilder Lane, and R. C. Hoiles. Mises’ libertarianism also seems to have grown less gradally radical over time; for example, Mises condemns military conscription in such early writings as Nation, State, and Economy and Interventionism, but endorses it in later editions of Human Action. In addition to such diachronic tensions, there are also synchronic ones; Mises endorses a right of secession down to at least the village level (Liberalism III.2), but as the Hülsmann biography documents, this decentralist commitment coexists uneasily with Mises’ enthusiasm for the imposition of liberal values on local jurisdictions by a strong central government.

2. Mises as Ideological Radical?

To determine how far Mises is radical in the sense in which radicalism is opposed to political and cultural conservatism, we must first determine what the opposite of conservatism is. Let’s begin with political conservatism. It’s often assumed that what stands at the opposite extreme from political conservatism is state socialism; but in his important 1965 articles “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty” (Left & Right 1.1) and “Liberty and the New Left” (Left & Right 1.2), Rothbard persuasively argued otherwise:

Libertarians of the present day are accustomed to think of socialism as the polar opposite of the libertarian creed. But this is a grave mistake, responsible for a severe ideological disorientation of libertarians in the present world. ... [C]onservatism was the polar opposite of liberty; and socialism, while to the “left” of conservatism, was essentially a confused, middle-of-the-road movement .... because it tries to achieve liberal ends by the use of conservative means.... Socialism, like liberalism and against conservatism, accepted the industrial system and the liberal goals of freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards for the masses, and an end to theocracy and war; but it tried to achieve these ends by the use of incompatible, conservative means: statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc. (“Prospects for Liberty.”)

In Rothbard’s analysis, traditionalist conservatism stood at the extreme right and Marxian-style socialism occupied the middle, while at the extreme left, favouring liberty in both means and ends, stood both free-market libertarianism and the New Left. This is not to say that either of these movements was consistently “leftist” in Rothbard’s eyes; he thought libertarians were too apt to err in the conservative direction, straying toward militarism or corporatism, while New Leftists were too apt to err in the socialist direction, straying toward statism or collectivism. But these movements were at least in the leftward region of the spectrum, and Rothbard sought to move both farther “left” – at least in terms of the terminology he was using at the time.

Murray RothbardThe farther one is from conservatism, the more radical one is in the ideological sense; and if we accept Rothbard’s analysis, then the more libertarian one is, the farther one is from conservatism. It follows that, insofar as Mises was a gradal radical in his free-market libertarianism, he will count as an ideological radical as well.

But thus far we’ve been talking only about distance from political conservatism. What about distance from cultural conservatism? Should the various cultural concerns and projects associated with the New Left, for example, be counted as part of what makes someone radical in the ideological sense? What is the relation of these cultural values to ideological radicals’ politically antistatist and antimilitarist projects – mutually supportive, as some claim? antithetical, as others claim? irrelevant, as still others claim?

While I think the right answer is “mutually supportive,” I won’t much ride that particular hobby horse today – though I cannot forbear to note in passing that most of these New Left cultural values were also part of the free-market libertarian tradition before the 20th century; they are, one might say, ultrapaleolibertarian. For example, while Mises seems to regard feminism and free love as state-socialist phenomena, in fact it was free-market libertarians who pioneered the understanding of prevailing gender norms, not as an expression of inescapable biological realities, but as a system of oppression complicit in – both supporting and supported by – the coercive systems of statism and militarism; and when these libertarians championed “free love,” what they meant was not promiscuity but the banning of all coercion, governmental and otherwise, from the sphere of sexual relations. Significantly, however, these developments were more central to the Anglophone than to the Continental variety of libertarianism, so Mises’ traditionalist stands on questions of gender, marriage, and the family were less a deviation from libertarian tradition than they would have been in Britain or America.

Leaving aside the question of what attitudes Mises ought to have taken on such matters, let’s consider what attitudes he did take. Just how culturally conservative was he? Mises’ traditionalism on family-values issues is more complicated than it might initially seem. For a cultural conservative, Mises’ attitude toward marriage was strangely equivocal, inasmuch as he regarded marriage as to some degree incompatible with creative self-expression:

[M]arriage is an adjustment of the individual to the social order .... Exceptional natures, whose abilities lift them far above the average, cannot support the coercion which such an adjustment to the way of life of the masses must involve.... [T]he man of genius ... cannot in the long run feel himself bound by marriage without violating his own self. Genius does not allow itself to be hindered by any consideration for the comfort of its fellows even of those closest to it. The ties of marriage become intolerable bonds which the genius tries to cast off .... (Socialism p. 85f.)

This is more extreme anti-marriage stuff than most free-love advocates ever dreamed of. Both male and female creativity, Mises insists, are squelched by marriage; the woman nonetheless has no viable option but to choose marriage and squelch her creativity, since she is driven to this, Mises believes, by her biological nature. But the man has the choice to opt out of marriage, and Mises appears to imply that any sensible man – or at least any sensible male genius1 – would do so. This is certainly not feminism, but it’s not exactly cultural conservatism either. (I should note that Mises wrote these words before his own marriage.)

Broadening our focus from gender to ethnicity, Mises held that differences among ethnic groups might be biologically grounded, but that as yet it was impossible to know whether this was so; yet this epistemic modesty concerning ethnicity contrasts oddly with his confident assertions about the biological basis of gender differences. Given Mises’ frequent insistence that we know as yet virtually nothing about the physical determinants of psychological drives, and that thymology must be hermeneutical rather than physico-empirical in its method, it’s hard to see how to square his views about gender with his own methodological recommendations. Another synchronic tension?

Mises was not generally sympathetic to the social goals of the New Left; commenting on Rothbard’s enthusiasm for the 1960s student radicals, Mises wrote: “It’s sad to see a brilliant mind go to pot that way.” (Last Knight, p. 1030.) Still, Mises had more sympathy for some of those goals than for others. The New Left, like the Old, sympathised with workers and peasants in their struggles with employers and landowners respectively. Mises’ enthusiasm for the workers’ cause seems to have been rather limited, inasmuch as he described them as “dull beneficiaries of the capitalistic system” who “indulge in the delusion that it is their own performance of routine jobs that creates all these marvels.” (Ultimate Foundation VI.5) The possibility that employees’ contribution to the specifically intellectual and entrepreneurial achievements of their employers might be non-negligible does not seem to have occurred to him – though to those with experience as employees in supporting roles it will seem all too familiar.

Mises also had little sympathy for labour unions, which he regarded as primarily cartels to secure monopoly prices for labour – which, I note in passing, is a more accurate characterisation of the conservative unions that have secured preferment within the corporatist establishment than of the more radical unions with which early libertarians, as well as the New Left, sympathised. Still, we learn from the Hülsmann biography that when Mises’ student Fritz Machlup expressed a wish that it might be possible to outlaw labour unions, or at least to circumvent their influence by legally forbidding private wages to increase at a faster rate than 10% in three years, Mises replied with asperity: “I reject any outlawing or limitation of the liberty of association.” (Last Knight, p. 861.)

Mises’ sympathies with the peasants’ cause seem stronger, however, than his sympathies with the cause of industrial labourers:

Nowhere and at no time has the large scale ownership of land come into being through the working of economic forces in the market. It is the result of military and political effort. Founded by violence, it has been upheld by violence and by that alone. As soon as the latifundia are drawn into the sphere of market transactions they begin to crumble, until at last they disappear completely. Neither at their formation nor in their maintenance have economic causes operated. The great landed fortunes did not arise through the economic superiority of large scale ownership, but through violent annexation outside the area of trade. ... The non-economic origin of landed fortunes is clearly revealed by the fact that, as a rule, the expropriation by which they have been created in no way alters the manner of production. The old owner remains on the soil under a different legal title and continues to carry on production. (Socialism III.ii.25.2.)

Hence Mises’ position would seem to be favourable the New Left goal of returning vast landed estates to the peasants – though, unlike Rothbard, Mises apparently prefers to break up the latifundia by keeping property titles as they are and then letting market forces wear them away, rather than via legal reparations to redistribute property titles as Rothbard favoured.

Nor does Mises’ enthusiasm for land reform end there. Part of Mises’ opposition to immigration restrictions is that they prevent bar immigrants from access to uncultivated land, leaving such access as a special privilege for citizens only, thus benefiting citizens at the expense of potential immigrants. Countries that restrict immigration, Mises tells us, have “integrated their whole citizenry into a privileged caste” (Clash of Group Interests ) in order to “block themselves off from unwanted immigrants” and “hedge in millions of square kilometers of the best land like a private park.” (Nation, State, and Economy I.II.ii.2.D.)

Mises also shares the New Left’s antipathy to colonialism. Where some libertarian-leaning thinkers have praised colonialism for bringing free trade and the rule of law to the benighted heathen, Mises writes:

The basic idea of colonial policy was to take advantage of the military superiority of the white race over the members of other races. The Europeans set out, equipped with all the weapons and contrivances that their civilization placed at their disposal, to subjugate weaker peoples, to rob them of their property, and to enslave them. (Liberalism III.6.)

Given the New Left’s extreme ambivalence about popular culture, it’s also not clear how many cultural-conservative points Mises’ disdain for popular culture should win him. And as for multiculturalism, would Mises still have said that “[t]he idea of liberty is and has always been peculiar to the West” while “the peoples of the East never conceived the idea of liberty” (Money, Method, and the Market Process, ch. 21) if he had been more familiar with the radical pro-market ideas of the Confucians? (Long, “Austro-Libertarian Themes in Early Confucianism,” JLS 17.3, 2003.)

Mises also shares, in a sense, the New Left’s concern with participatory democracy, which Rothbard would later define as giving “each individual ... the right to full control over the decisions that affect his own life” (“Liberty and the New Left”) as opposed to simply allowing everyone to pull a lever every few years – though the form Mises’ concern takes is not one that most New Leftists would readily recognise:

In the capitalistic society, men become rich ... by serving consumers in large numbers.... The capitalistic market economy is a democracy in which every penny constitutes a vote. The wealth of the successful businessman is the result of a consumer plebiscite. Wealth, once acquired, can be preserved only by those who keep on earning it anew by satisfying the wishes of consumers. The capitalistic social order, therefore, is an economic democracy in the strictest sense of the word. In the last analysis, all decisions are dependent on the will of the people as consumers. (Manipulation of Money and Credit, ch. 3.)

Given the New Left’s emphasis on the desirability of unanimous consent rather than mere majority rule, a Misesian plebiscite in which those who vote for Britney Spears get Britney Spears and those who vote for Scarlatti get Scarlatti seems more in the spirit of the New Left than the one-size-fits-all political democracy celebrated by the corporate liberal establishment. Hence even if the New Left’s social concerns, beyond mere antistatism and antimilitarism, are considered part of ideological radicalism, Mises still comes out more ideologically radical than he might initially have seemed.

3. Mises as Dialectical Radical?

As for dialectical radicalism, Mises does seem to score fairly high on this dimension. Consider his explanation of why putting businessmen in charge of socialist enterprises will not confer capitalistic efficacy upon such enterprises:

A popular slogan affirms that if we think less bureaucratically and more commercially in communal enterprises, they will work just as well as private enterprises. The leading positions must be occupied by merchants, and then income will grow apace. ... [But the] entrepreneur’s commercial attitude and activity arises from his position in the economic process and is lost with its disappearance. ... It is not a knowledge of bookkeeping [or] business organization ... which makes the merchant, but his characteristic position in the production process .... (Economic Calculation IV, p. 38)

In short, entrepreneurial success does not arise solely from the personal qualities of the entrepreneur, but from the place those qualities occupy in relation to a larger system. Change the social relations, and the qualities do no good. Sciabarra even labels Mises an “organic thinker” (Total Freedom, p. 124 ) on the basis of such passages as the following:

It would be absurd to look upon a definite price as if it were an isolated object in itself. A price is expressive of the position which acting men attach to a thing under the present state of their efforts to remove uneasiness. It does not indicate a relationship to something unchanging, but merely the instantaneous position in a kaleidoscopically changing assemblage. In this collection of things considered valuable by the value judgments of acting men each particle’s place is interrelated with those of all other particles. What is called a price is always a relationship within an integrated system which is the composite effect of human relations. (Human Action III.xvi.12.)

Mises certainly saw various social phenomena as interconnected; his analysis of interventionism, for example, illustrates his dialectically radical orientation. The interventionist sees a specific problem, or alleged problem: say, cashew butter is too expensive, so she introduces price controls. But this “solution” treats the price of cashew butter as an isolated phenomenon and ignores its place in a network of broader connections; in fact the price control generates perverse incentives which create new economic problems, calling for still further intervention, and so on.

Another instance of Mises’ dialectical radicalism is his opposition to war. Many theorists of course have been antiwar; but Mises attacks war at its root by challenging the fundamental assumption behind warfare: the thesis of the inherent disharmony of human interests. Understanding the concepts of mutual gains from trade and the Ricardian Law of Association does not simply make a case against the unfortunate costs of this or that war, but rather shows the systematic preferability of cooperation over conflict.

Dialectical radicals, of whatever political stripe, often insist that pursuit of their political goals must be integrated with pursuit of broader social and cultural goals, on the grounds that political and nonpolitical aspects of society are interconnected, with relations of reciprocal support subsisting between certain cultural values and certain political forms – a point that Sciabarra stresses in his book Total Freedom. For dialectical radicals of a libertarian stripe, this commitment takes the form, not of favouring the promotion of the relevant values by political means, but rather of promoting the political and cultural goals together as part of a common package. This is one of the possible connections between dialectical libertarianism and the leftist cultural concerns of ideological radicalism – though of course not all dialectical radicals are libertarians, and not every dialectical libertarian’s cultural concerns necessarily take a leftist form. Ayn Rand, Hans Hoppe, and Charles Johnson, for example, all argue that a libertarian political and economic order requires the right background cultural norms in order to have the best chance of surviving and flourishing, but beyond certain generalities there would be little consensus among the three of them as to what the relevant norms are.

How far would Mises agree with this dialectical libertarian, or as it has recently come to be called, “thick” libertarian orientation? At first it might seem as though the answer is: not much. For all his antipathy toward positivism, Mises was enough of a positivist to think that value judgments could not be given an objective or scientific foundation, and so would likely have been reluctant to yoke the propagation of scientific economic ideas unequally together with the propagation of unscientific personal preferences. Moreover, as Mises thought that ultimate ends were outside the purview of rational discussion, he would have naturally doubted the possibility of any rational (as opposed to rhetorically manipulative) way of promoting values to begin with.

In Socialism, Mises considers a version of something like thick libertarianism – he calls it “solidarism” – and finds it wanting. According to Mises, solidarism teaches that the “interests of all members of society harmonize,” and that “[p]rivate ownership ... is to the interest of all.” So far, so good. But according to the proponents of solidarism, the mere guarantee of private property rights, while necessary, is not sufficient for the full realisation of “the principle of social solidarity”; thus market forces must be supplemented by “special provisions.” For what Mises calls the “more etatistically inclined wing of Solidarism,” these “special provisions” involve “State action,” and so Mises unsurprisingly rejects this version of solidarism. But Mises also rejects the more voluntaristic wing of solidarism, which seeks to secure these special provisions “not by State laws, but by moral prescriptions.” Voluntary solidarism as Mises describes it looks like a version of thick or dialectical libertarianism; there’s no coercive interference with the market (so it’s libertarian), but because it’s thought that markets will work more beneficially if certain moral values are inculcated and followed than if they are not, such values are noncoercively promoted (so it’s thick). Yet Mises apparently considers even voluntary solidarism an objectionable form of socialism, because it “places above the owner an authority – indifferent whether Law and its creator, the State, or conscience and its counsellor, the Church – which is to see that the owner uses his property correctly.” Once the owner’s use of property is placed under any set of social norms, even voluntary ones, property “ceases to be the basic and ultimate element in the social order” and so “ownership is abolished, since the owner, in administering his property, must follow principles other than those imposed on him by his property interests” – even, apparently, if the imposition is carried out by the Church’s powers of moral suasion unaided by coercion. (Socialism II.16.1.) This seems to me a very odd position for a value-subjectivist to take; if capitalism as Mises defines it means that private owners are free to make any peaceful use they choose of their property, and if the owners’ subjective preference is to make their use of their property in such a way as to conform to some widely propagated moral code, then is that not precisely the owner’s interest?

Moreover, while it is no doubt true that for any given set of cultural values, a society with those values will do better with free than with unfree markets, won’t markets do even better – as well as being more stable – with some sets of cultural values than with others? For example, a society in which dishonesty is widespread will force market participants to pay heavy additional costs to monitor and enforce compliance with contracts, whereas in a society where dishonesty is less common such costs will be lower, and markets will be able to turn the relevant resources to meet other needs.

Sciabarra's tri-level analysisIn any case, Mises does not always seem so adamantly opposed to thick libertarianism. In a 1943 letter to the New York Times, for example, Mises wrote: “Economic nationalism cannot be eradicated by measures of a purely institutional character. What is needed is a radical change in political mentalities and social and economic mentalities.” (Quoted in Jude Blanchette, “Austrian Economists As Denizens of the Popular Press.”) This remark could have been made by Sciabarra, whose dialectical libertarianism studies the interplay between structural, cultural, and personal factors.)

Consider, moreover, Mises’ book The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. A dialectical libertarian need not agree with all of that book’s psychologising explanations of capitalism’s critics, nor with its assumption that the “capitalism” the critics are attacking is always precisely the same thing as the “capitalism” that Mises is defending, in order to acknowledge that the book’s basic thrust is a thick-libertarian one: a market order requires a supportive cultural framework, because if too many of its participants accept anti-market values, it will not remain a market order for long. Hence Mises’ need to debunk pernicious values as part of making the case for the free market.

To what extent, then, is Mises a radical? He comes out as quite radical in the gradal and dialectical senses, albeit less so than some of his later followers. With regard to ideological radicalism, he scores high on the political dimension and admittedly much lower – though not quite so low as one might initially suppose – on the socio-cultural dimension. I conclude that Mises’ overall orientation is far more radical than not, and that his legacy is accordingly an attractive and inspiring one for those who are radical in all of the above senses.

1 Thanks to David Gordon for reminding me of this qualification.

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