Ludwig von Mises Approved of Birth Control, But So What?


The distant spheres of people deeply interested in birth control and Ludwig Von Mises met violently when blogger "Rortybomb" (Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute) did some libertarian-baiting by claiming that libertarians should be against mandated insurance that covers birth control because Ludwig Von Mises didn't approve of birth control. (I am not a regular reader of his blog, so sophisticated strategic ironies that may or may not have been at work will zoom over my head.)

In the first place, Mr. Bomb's supposition is openly based on some intellectual sleight of hand to begin with, taking a stated opposition to "free love" as an alleged tool of socialism and extending it to birth control:

I think it is fair to lump "free love" as he means it with birth control.  He writes Socialism in 1922, a year after Margaret Sanger founds the group that becomes Planned Parenthood (which she does after a decade of writing sex education for women columns in a variety of socialist and anarchist magazines while trying to evade arrest).  He doesn't mention Sanger but he's pretty obsessed with this book Woman and Socialism ("no other German socialist book was more widely read or more effective as propaganda than Bebel's Woman and Socialism, which is dedicated above all to the message of free love").

Let's get some more quotes onto the internets and then encourage our libertarian friends to have at it.  Help that whole fusionist project by spending 2012 finding increasingly esoteric ways of denouncing birth control alongside the religious conservatives – the future of private property depends on it!

That daring leap was dead wrong, which Rortybomb later tweetmitted. See this, from Mises' longest book, Human Action:

Those fighting birth control want to eliminate a device indispensable for the preservation of peaceful human cooperation and the social division of labor. Where the average standard of living is impaired by the excessive increase in population figures. irreconcilable conflicts of interests arise. Each individual is again a rival of all other individuals in the struggle for survival. The annihilation of rivals is the only means of increasing one's own well-being. The philosophers and theologians who assert that birthcontrol is contrary to the laws of God and Nature refuse to see things as they really are. Nature straitens the material means required for the improvement of human well-being and survival. As natural conditions are, man has only the choice between the pitiless war of each against each or social cooperation. But social cooperation is impossible if people give rein to the natural impulse of proliferation. In restricting procreation man adjusts himself to the natural conditions of his existence. The rationalization of the sexual passions is an indispensable condition of civilization and societal bonds. Its abandonment would in the long run not increase but decrease the numbers of those surviving, and would render life for everyone as poor and miserable as it was many thousands of years ago for our ancestors. [p. 673] 

Thanks to Gene Callahan for being the first to get that quote into the record in response to Rortybomb.

And Mises was a general fan of the basic feminist message, as Rortybomb himself quotes, from Mises' early opus Socialism:

So far as Feminism seeks to adjust the legal position of woman to that of man, so far as it seeks to offer her legal and economic freedom to develop and act in accordance with her inclinations, desires, and economic circumstances—so far it is nothing more than a branch of the great liberal movement, which advocates peaceful and free evolution. 

Mises does go on to address "natural barriers" that socialists want to overturn, and doubtless some of his own personal opinions about what those natural barriers might be would differ from moderns, liberal or conservative, which is exactly why Rortybomb's entire implied point doesn't make any sense to begin with. Those concerns are far more matters of opinion, not political philosophy, and in no sense should bind even those who have sworn fealty to Mises' general views on economics and liberty. (For example, I'm quite the Misesian in most questions of politics and economics, but can imagine an intelligent conservative argument that the "rationalization of the sexual passions" is in some sense harmed by birth control, though not in the specific procreational sense he is addressing specifically.)

But let's address the larger point, if there is one, besides that atop all of our heads for even talking about this: That polemical points can rightly be earned laying some judgment, whether real or imagined, of an intellectual founding father or influence on a political movement or tendency on to the backs of its younger followers–either to mock them or to insist that, no, this is really what their intellectual mission is: not to promote liberty, but to work for whatever Ludwig Von Mises liked or didn't like.

It is interesting, for those interested in intellectual history, that Mises saw free love as part of some larger socialist mission to destroy the family. But for the libertarian the relevant question is, is this voluntary or not, does this infringe on anyone's life, liberty, or property or not? "Anything that's peaceful," baby, as Leonard Read, one of Mises' great popular disciples in Amerca, wrote.

Thus, there's a libertarian case to be made against forcing anyone to cover any specific medical care, birth control or whatever, in the insurance deals they make with their clients. But it has nothing to do with whether Ludwig von Mises was comfortable with free love, or birth control, or with catheters, or blood transfusions, or any other specific medical procedure that might or might not become a political controversy when the government tried to force people to sell insurance only on the condition that that insurance cover that procedure or medication's use.

That said, I won't even do the nyaa-nyaa-nyaa Keynes was into eugenics!

Much on Mises and more in my very long book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the American Libertarian Movement.