A Few Words on

Ludwig Von Mises' "Liberalism"

Liberals & Libertarians #2

Of all the fringe oddballs and  pompous windbags waved around by today's "Libertarians" as intellectual godfathers, Ludwig Von Mises wins the grand prize as the windiest. Mises' protracted prose, rendered into English, is a never-ending agony for those who naively wander into it in the mistaken belief that the author may have had something of value to say. The ugly truth about Mises is that, for all his wind, his work amounts to an intellectual vacuum. It could be safely ignored in serious intellectual circles in Mises' lifetime, as, indeed, it largely was, and, left to stand on its own merits, would have been completely forgotten decades ago, as, indeed, it largely was, outside of the "Libertarian" community and its forerunners. His continuing popularity among "Libertarians" rests solely on the fact that he peddled the nonsense they want to hear; a crank speaking, down through the ages, to his descendants.

In 1927, Mises wrote a massive tome (as was his habit) called "Liberalism," which purported to explain and intended to advance ideas Mises labeled "liberalism."

But what is this "liberalism"? Here, Mises has a problem. From his introduction:

"If one wants to know what liberalism is and what it aims at, one cannot simply turn to history for the information and inquire what the liberal politicians stood for and what they accomplished. For liberalism nowhere succeeded in carrying out its program as it had intended."

Okay, setting aside the questionable soundness of the rationale, scratch that. Where are we to turn? By the time Mises was writing, liberal ideas had a pretty long literary pedigree. Maybe to know what liberalism is, one should read what the liberals wrote?


"Nor does it any longer suffice today to form one's idea of liberalism from a study of the writings of its great founders."

Having, then, just ruled out literally everything, insofar as history is concerned, to what is one supposed to look for an understanding of liberalism?

Why, to Mises himself, of course. He tells us:

"Liberalism is not a completed doctrine or a fixed dogma. On the contrary: it is the application of the teachings of science to the social life of man."

Speaking from an understanding of the history of liberal ideas--that history the study of which Mises has disparaged--the first part of that is quite correct. Liberalism has an underlying set of principles and embraces the concept of utilitarianism with regard to artificial institutions. It's always trying to bring those institutions more in line with its principles, holding, as it does, that to do so better serves the happiness and welfare of mankind.

Mises' invocation of science, however, is a warning signal.

As a general rule, it's advisable to be very cautious when science is invoked in this sort of work. Mises, advocating a doctrine, is about to tell the reader, at staggering length, what "liberalism" is, and, as Marx did with socialism, he's invoking the name of science to cover what he's about to say. The invocation sets up the implication that liberals (as Mises chooses to define them) are scientists, and, conversely, that those who oppose liberalism (also as Mises chooses to define it) are advocating things counter to science. The social Darwinists--Mises' predecessors in trying to appropriate the word "liberalism" for themselves--did the same thing, saying they were only following "the iron laws of nature."[1] And, if it needs to be said, they weren't.

While caution about the invocation of science in such a work is advisable, in general, it is particularly advisable when the invocation comes from Mises and the "Austrian school" cult to which he belonged.

Mises and the other "Austrian school" cultists don't believe in science.

In what they label as "science," they reject the scientific method, which develops theories from observations, then tests them, rejecting or modifying them if new data contradicting the theory presents itself. The "Austrians Schoolers" place their faith, instead, in a priori "theories," which, they argue, should be developed without reference to experience, and, if believed to be logically sound, maintained as correct, even if seemingly disproven by all experience. Rather than drawing their assumptions from data, Mises and the other "Austrian Schoolers" attempt to apply their preconceived notions to data, rendering their work no different--and no more valuable--than that of "creation science."[2]

So when Mises invokes "science" in explaining "liberalism," the prudent reader should begin to reach for his wallet. Mises is alerting his readers that he's about to apply the "Austrian method" to liberalism, which is exactly what he proceeds to do. Having ruled out, in the matter of defining liberalism, both what liberals have advocated and what they have written, the author delivers this final touch, a little later in the book:

"We have already said that the program of present-day liberalism has outgrown that of the older liberalism, that it is based on a deeper and better insight into interrelationships, since it can reap the benefit of the advances that science has made in the last decades."

So much for the entire historical record, when it comes to defining liberalism. We're left with Mises alone. And that's all we get. That this is a book about "liberalism" that openly disparages the study of the history of liberalism would, alone, be rather damning, but those brave enough (or crazy enough) to wade through this torturous tome will inevitably notice what is still, even after the author's dismissals of the value of the historical record, a rather glaring omission:

The liberals.

Despite the books' great length and breadth, one struggles in vain to find quotes from any of them, references to them, even much in the way of a passing mention. They really only turn up in an appendix, "Literature of Liberalism," which appears to have been added in a subsequent edition of the book many years after its initial publication. And that appendix is rather telling. It isn't, the author says, meant to be a comprehensive survey, just what he calls "the most important literature." That assertion, along with the appendix itself, shows how truly shallow his understanding of the tradition really is. John Stuart Mill, easily the major liberal writer of the 19th century, is described as important, but only because, Mises tells us, he represents the descent of liberalism into socialism (and for Mises, as with so many of his latter-day followers, calling someone a socialist is the highest insult). Liberalism exploded in the 17th and 18th centuries (particularly the 18th), but Mises lists nothing from the 17th--not a single text--and virtually nothing from the 18th--while including only four books from the whole of the 18th century, Mises lists, further down, seven of his own books.[3] Outside of that appendix, the liberals are almost completely absent. It's just a monologue, in the strongest possible sense of that word. Mises' Liberalism by Mises.

What, then, is the conscientious reader to make of this strange text? A large book that purports to be about "liberalism," but discourages the study of the history of liberalism, doesn't quote the liberals, doesn't really even refer to any liberals, except in an appendix, written by an author who doesn't seem to know anything about liberalism, and who invokes science to cover what he writes but doesn't believe in science.

Perhaps its time for "Libertarians" to let this one go.


[1] Mises goes rather far in his invocation of science, offering a chapter that purports to negatively psychoanalyze advocates of "antiliberalism," a move of  breathtaking audacity for a "liberal" who, only a few chapters later, praises fascism for saving civilization.

[2] In "Epistemological Problems of Economics," Mises, advancing his faith in a priori "theories," writes that "no kind of experience can ever force us to discard or modify a priori theorems; they are logically prior to it and cannot be either proved by corroborative experience or disproved by experience to the contrary... [A] proposition of an aprioristic theory can never be refuted by experience." That is, of course, why real scientists don't use that approach. In "Human Action," Mises argues that experience "can never... prove or disprove any particular theorem... The ultimate yardstick of an economic theorem's correctness or incorrectness is solely reason unaided by experience." To put a finer point on it, Mises, again from "Epistemological Problems":

"If a contradiction appears between a theory and experience, we always have to assume that a condition presupposed by the theory was not present, or else that there is some error in our observation...  If the facts do not confirm the theory, the cause perhaps may lie in the imperfection of the theory. The disagreement between the theory and the facts of experience consequently forces us to think through the problems of the theory again. But so long as a re-examination of the theory uncovers no errors in our thinking, we are not entitled to doubt its truth."

[3] Perhaps the books' greatest example of its author's politics and his profound lack of understanding of liberalism comes in a chapter dedicated to praising fascism, which was just beginning to fill fill mass graves in Europe:

"It cannot be denied that fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that fascism has thereby won for itself will live eternally in history."

Rather than seeing fascism--one of the major counter-liberal movements of the 20th century--as fundamentally wrongheaded, Mises only disagreement with the fascists, in that chapter, was over a technical question of tactics. Many years later, when his position became politically untenable, he suddenly changed it, began portraying the fascists as socialists (demonstrating that his understanding of politics hadn't improved a bit), and trashed them with the same venom as he had the Bolsheviks.

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