Economics

The Radical Von Mises

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Ever feel like a square for digging stuffy Old European economist Ludwig Von Mises? Why, that very name seems to drip aristocratic spider webs. Well, don't, says philosopher Roderick Long, echoing and recasting the arguments of Mises disciple Murray Rothbard from 1981. Mises was radical, man.

Long judges Mises radicalism along three distinct dimensions: the gradal, "extreme or thoroughgoing as opposed to wishy-washy"; the ideological, "opposed to conservative, politically or culturally"; and the dialectical, "an orientation that considers phenomena not in isolation but in their interconnections with other elements in a systemic totality."

He points out, among other things, Mises' alarm over marriage's effects on individuality, his belief in free immigration, his disdain for colonialism, his awareness of the historical piracy behind most large land holdings. Long provides a smart and nuanced tracing of the extent to which Mises sometimes did, and sometimes didn't, seem to believe in a "thick" libertarianism, in which political liberty must or ought be embedded within a wider set of moral, social, or personal values.

I largely agree with the Rothbard/Long thesis, and appreciate its nuances. Why do you think my history of the modern American libertarian movement, in which Mises plays a prominent role, is called Radicals for Capitalism?

UPDATE: Back in 1998, I wrote about the time that no less a radical dude than the Batman came to the defense of Ludwig von Mises stolen papers in a bizarre DC Comic written and drawn by superbrilliant comic artist Paul Pope. As Pope had his "Berlin Batman" sum up Mises: "Von Mises' anti-authoritarian ideas were first a threat to the Nazis, then the Soviets, and to all increasingly regulatory governments in our own times. He was against socialism in all its many forms. He was an advocate of individual liberty, free speech, and free thinking…"

And here I am from May 1997 on the true story of Mises long-missing papers.

NEXT: The Luck of the Polish

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  1. Why do you think my history of the modern American libertarian movement… is called Radicals for Capitalism?

    I thought that was a wink at the hardcore Randroids.

  2. So, when do we create the Mt. Rushmore of Capitalists? πŸ˜‰

  3. It’s interesting to me how libertarian capitalism, when it become sufficiently radical, starts to sound like the anarchic socialism, or even syndicalism, of the 19th century.

  4. joe,

    Huh. Mises had a chapter in “Socialism” ripping apart syndicalism. He didnt think they sounded at all alike.

  5. robc,

    He didnt think they sounded at all alike.

    FWIW, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t similar in some ways.

  6. Liberalism and libertarianism are part of the same family tree. Yet somehow the girl in the ad on the right side of this page on this libertarian blog is wearing a t-shirt that says “CONSERVATIVE”. Just goes to show how all clear meaning gets distorted by politics.

  7. robc,

    By the time Mises was writing, in the middle part of the 20th century, socialism had become defined in terms of Marxist-Lenninism. Even the parties that distinguished themselves from Moscow did so in terms of degrees, arguing that the Soviets’ “state socialism” had gone too far. Anti-socialists viewed socialism in those terms, as well.

    The anti-state socialism that preceded M-L communism got lost in thie narrative.

  8. I’m currently reading Mises’ Human Action. Not very far in it so far, but it’s very good (though dry).

  9. seem to believe in a “thick” libertarianism, in which political liberty must or ought be embedded within a wider set of moral, social, or personal values.

    Its probably theoretically possible for political liberty to exist within a wide range of these values, but as a practical/historical matter, I think it probably only has (and likely can) exist only in a very particular matrix of values.

  10. joe,

    By the time Mises was writing, in the middle part of the 20th century

    “Socialism” was published in 1922. Im going with early, not middle.

  11. robc,

    Well, whatever the merits of his argument, at least on its face the claim that socialism had become tied to state socialism by 1922 seems right. The Soviet revolution was well on its way to consolidation by that point and other socialist revolutions (like the one in Bavaria) while unsuccessful had state socialism in mind.

  12. the claim that socialism had become tied to state socialism by 1922 seems right.

    I dont disagree. Syndicalism was covered in a chapter called “Pseudo-Socialist Systems”, so Mises made a distinction too. “Socialism” is available online here.

    Here is the last paragraph from Section 4 of that chapter (the section that deals with syndicalism):

    As an aim Syndicalism is so absurd, that speaking generally, it has not found any advocates who dared to write openly and clearly in its favour. Those who have dealt with it under the name of co-partnership have never thought out its problems. Syndicalism has never been anything else than the ideal of plundering hordes.

  13. robc,

    Well, my first question would be what version of syndicalism is he referring to?

    …it has not found any advocates who dared to write openly and clearly in its favour.

    Even as of 1922 I find that hard to believe.

  14. SoS,

    There may have been many writing openly but unclearly. πŸ™‚ Actually, considering that a clear discussion of syndicalism leads to the obvious problems that Mises points out, I dont think anyone in favor of it was writing clearly on the subject.

    My point was that libertarian radicalism, like Mises espoused, doesnt sound at all like syndicalism, at least as Mises described it. I dont get joe’s comment at all.

  15. robc,

    I think you’re missing the point – no is disputing that he was against syndicalism. Trotsky was against Stalinism, too – passionately, devotedly so.

    And yet, if you look at the political visions of anarchic socialism and radical libertarianism, they have a great deal in common.

  16. 1. the state serves to protect the interests of those with property.

    2. a great deal of concentrated wealth was acquired in a violent, criminal manner.

    3. the state should be eliminated, or at least vastly reduced, to allow the natural functioning of the economy to take place.

    4. the role of the state should be replaced, in many areas, by corporate entities – that is, by people coming together of their own free will to enter into economic partnerships.

    5. this will result in much less concentrted wealth, as well as less war and less conflict within the society.

    Obviously, there are differences as well – important ones. Still, that doesn’t eliminate the similitarities.

  17. And yet, if you look at the political visions of anarchic socialism and radical libertarianism, they have a great deal in common.

    Out of curiosity (I really don’t know and am not trying to be snarky) what other than the “anarcho” part?*

    *Which seems to be a broad point of agreement between the two.

  18. joe,

    My point is I dont see anything (important) in common. At least not libertarianism and syndicalism.

    BTW, I dont even grasp the concept of anarchic socialism, its just too contradictory to exist in my mind. Socialism is the state owning the means of production. Anarchy is lack of state. My brain cant wrap around putting those terms together.

    Syndicalism at least makes sense as a concept, at least within a static, caste-based economy.

  19. Actually, robc, socialism can mean social or public ownership of the means of production.

    And since hardly anyone can agree on what that means, and more and more the state has usurped all the social functions it did not already control, it is here, IMO, that we start to see the contradictions inherent in socialism.

  20. joe,

    With regard to syndicalism, I see your pts, with the exception of #3. Syndicalism is in no way a natural functioning of the economy. Actually, #4 doesnt apply to radical libertarianism, because none of the things being replaced with corporate entities are legimiate roles of the state. πŸ™‚

    #5 is the only one I would call a “political vision” and just about every economic system claims that.

  21. Isaac,

    socialism can mean social or public ownership of the means of production.

    Yeah, I almost corrected myself on that. Mises defines it as “The essence of Socialism is this: All the means of production are in the exclusive control of the organized community. This and this alone is Socialism. All other definitions are misleading.”

    At some point in anarchism though, some “organizing member” is going to be stronger and will effectively be a state.

  22. “Berlin Batman” sum up Mises: “Von Mises’ anti-authoritarian ideas were first a threat to the Nazis, then the Soviets, and to all increasingly regulatory governments in our own times. He was against socialism in all its many forms. He was an advocate of individual liberty, free speech, and free thinking…”
    Holy artificial and implausible dialogue Batman!
    Sound’s like something out of Atlas Shrugged…

  23. robc,

    Socialism is the state owning the means of production.

    No, socialism is the COMMON ownership of the means of production. Putting everything under the ownership of the national government is one version of this. Putting each factory and farm, for example, under the control of a council of the workers who work there is another. Giving that council the power to tax the locals and enforce other laws is yet another.

  24. joe,

    See my post at 11:20. Already corrected.

  25. robc,

    Syndicalism is in no way a natural functioning of the economy. I know YOU don’t think that. And THEY didn’t think that capitalism was the natural functioning of the economy. The “rightness” of one or the other ideology isn’t the issue here.

    Actually, #4 doesnt apply to radical libertarianism, because none of the things being replaced with corporate entities are legimiate roles of the state. I guess that depends on what state-roles they would be replacing. And, also, my earlier point.

  26. Grownup language for grownups, MNG.
    Maybe The Adventures of Archie is more suited for you?

  27. At some point in anarchism though, some “organizing member” is going to be stronger and will effectively be a state.

    True. This is the stumblimg block I always run up against when considering anarchy.

  28. joe,

    I guess that depends on what state-roles they would be replacing.

    See your #1, the role of the state is to protect property. Any other roles being replaces werent legit.

    I know YOU don’t think that.

    What I think doesnt matter. Mises proved that syndicalism cant function naturally. The problems of a dynamic economy have no answer in syndicalism.

  29. Isaac,

    This is the stumblimg block I always run up against when considering anarchy.

    Anarchy is metastable. One little tweak and it all goes to hell.

  30. robc,

    What I think doesnt matter. No, it doesn’t. That’s why your statement, See your #1, the role of the state is to protect property. is useless to this discussion.

    It doesn’t matter what you, or I, think is the “proper” role of the state, when the question is, “Did the early socialists and the radical captitalists want localized economic entities to take over the role of the state?”

    Nor does the statement, “The syndicalists were WRONG WRONG WRONG” have anything to do with that question.

  31. True. This is the stumblimg block I always run up against when considering anarchy.

    Except that it’s an unfounded assertion. By extension, you could declare that the most powerful entity will eventually wind up controlling everything. Last I checked, there were plenty of tiny and mid-sized sovereign nations thumbing their noses at the United States in all sorts of ways that piss off our government.

    What I would argue is that common defense can be negotiated as just another point in a contract between neighboring localities (whatever you want to call them: cities, states, towns, etc.) without any of those localities giving up the right to terminate the contract in a pre-defined way and without those localities giving up any sovereignty. If someone doesn’t fulfill the terms of the contract, it goes to arbitration… not to martial law.

    An example in real life: when Level 3 and Qwest decide they want to peer, they don’t create a meta-corporation that punishes the one that gets out of line. In effect, that’s what the 13 original states did; see where that got us?

  32. Sorry ed, people just don’t talk like that. One has to have an “ear” for how people actually talk, and Rand’s later work was usually worse than Batman’s quote here. Some of the speeches are hilarious if meant to be actual dialogue from a human being.

    But that makes sense considering that she had long sacrificed her art to her political values. Aesthetic excellence is a value in and of itself, those who think they can “tack” it on to a political messsage usually create mediocre art. Let artists do art, in which they will have to let aesthetic values trump political ones, and let propagandists make propaganda.

  33. the state serves to protect the interests of those with property.

    Not sure how diluted this might be in a mature democracy.

    Much of the influence in the United States is wielded by groups other than the rich. In particular, I’m thinking of racial advocacy groups and the unions, both of which can reliably deliver the blocks of votes that ensure power.

  34. Propaganda can be good art. You just have to appreciate it for what it is.

    I can appreciate Rand’s work and Soviet propaganda posters for exactly that reason.

  35. Good point, RC.

    I was just decribing their ideological beliefs, not endorsing them.

    Also, keep in mind the pre-New Deal versions of government they were describing. It was a Republican president of that era who said, “The business of America is business.”

  36. joe,

    It doesn’t matter what you, or I, think is the “proper” role of the state, when the question is, “Did the early socialists and the radical captitalists want localized economic entities to take over the role of the state?”

    it does matter what the radical capitalists thought though. They didnt want them to take over roles of the states, they wanted them to take over things that werent roles of the state, that the state happened to be doing.

    It may be semantic nitpickery, but its important semantic nitpickery. The things the radical capitalists wanted were never, according to the radical capitalists, roles of the state. That was (and is) the problem with the state.

  37. Many of the things the anarcho-socialists wanted locals corporate bodies to control were equally, in the eyes of libertarians like yourself, not proper roles of the state. Like aid to the poor.

    So I really don’t see your point.

  38. joe,

    Im afraid Im going to have to break out symbolic logic.

    A is a role of the state
    B is something else that the state is doing that isnt a role of the state
    If both sides favor shifting B to local control, that says nothing about A.

    You claimed that both wanted “the role of the state should be replaced”, but you are actually talking about B, which isnt a role of the state.

    Good, I was able to do it without shifting entirely to symbols.

  39. Ah, irrelevant semantics.

    Let’s use the term “Tommy the Talking Gorilla” to refer to what the state does.

    Anarch-socialists, like radical capitalists, wanted to get rid of the state, and have Tommy the Talking Gorilla taken care of by localist, non-government entities.

  40. joe,

    If your #1 is not Tommy the Talking Gorilla serves to protect … then the same problem exists.

  41. “now” not “not”

  42. toilet. kiss kiss. state bad. yuck. kiss.

  43. Ludwig von Mises has ceased to impress me. I read some of his books and found them to be all about insisting that everything he said was so intuitively obvious that citing empirical facts was a waste of time for both you and him.

    For some reason, that never works when I try it. Here I’ll show you: “Everything I say is intuitively obvious; what need have we for facts?” See, you’re not buying it. But for some reason, it works for him. “I am Ludwig von Mises, and everything I say is intuitively obvious.” Response: “Oh wow, geez! Incredible! Brilliant analysis!” It works for him. Go figure.

    At least Ayn Rand could entertain while being factually vacuous, which is why you can find her books in every Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Half Price, while von Mises is strictly a library/mail-order/online phenomenon.

    I think libertarianism would be much more successful as a political movement if its leaders could learn to think for themselves. Start with the proposition, “(Fill in name of favorite guru) is not God.”

  44. robc,

    I get your point, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the commonality that both ideologies share – that the state should go away, some of what it does should not be done, and the rest taken over by mutualist, localist bodies organized according to their members’ economic activity.

  45. joe,

    “the rest taken over by mutualist, localist bodies organized according to their members’ economic activity”

    I would disagree with this, just on a subtle point, which blows the whole comparison up for me.

    the rad caps wanted it to be taken over by individuals who could form mutualist, localist bodies if they so desired, while still having the ability to buy/sell shares in said bodies.

    the synds and an socs wnated it to taken over by mutualist, localist bodies that they “owned” a non-transferrable share of/was commonly “owned” respectively. That difference drawfs the similarity.

    Basically, the only agreement is they all opposed centralized socialism. That doesnt, to me, make one sound like the other.

  46. Drawf? WTF is a drawf?

  47. robc,

    Actually, it means they both opposed economic centralization as a whole, including its capitalistic version, “corporatism.”

    Anyway, I said “similar,” not “identical.”

  48. Being pro-laasezfaire capitalism is radical in its anti-authoritarianism. Ludwig Von Mises certainly qualifies.

    BTW, I remember reading, in one of his books, his admonition that we should be quite reticent to portray sex as something filthy since it’s the genesis of us all.

  49. Brian:

    Back in 1998, I wrote about the time that no less a radical dude than the Batman came to the defense of Ludwig von Mises stolen papers in a bizarre DC Comic…

    Very interesting and cool!

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