Saturday, 12 December 2009

Me on Mises’ Liberalism at LiberalVision and some supplementary comments

Click here to see my introduction to Ludwig von Mises and summary of Liberalism.

The account of Mises largely avoids what I find most dubious in Mises, apart from a suggestion that he is too harsh on John Stuart Mill’s contribution to liberalism by emphasising his leanings towards socialism over time. As far as I am concerned, Mises makes mistakes just as big. I certainly think anyone with an interest in classical liberal and libertarian ideas should read Mises.

I have not read as much as I need to so far, I would like to tackle his masterpiece on economics, Human Action. It’s rather large and I feel I should accompany with some other reading in the less mathematical parts of economics, which is where Human Action belongs. John Maynard Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money is an obvious point of comparison. Also given that Mises sees sociology and economics belonging together, and quite rightly I believe, I would like to also make a contextual reading of Max Weber’s Economy and Society. Weber and Mises had good personal relations, and there is certainly some interesting looking material around comparing them. However, these three texts individually are all big reading challenges; reading them together is clearly an extreme challenge, and it is very difficult to read so much material in a focused continuous way excluding other research projects.

Returning to Liberalism, some concerns I have which I did not bring up in the LberalVision piece, for reasons of space and because I want to get people who visit that site to read Mises for themselves and make up their own mind. My own blog has different more self-involved purposes than my LV contributions. However, since someone left a comment about how Mises was better than Mill, I did leave a comment about Mises supporting Italian Fascism in the book. Mises argues that Italian Fascism saved civilisation without going into much detail. What I presume he means is that Mussolini’s regime was better than a Communist regime, and that in 1922 when the Fascists first came to power, there was a real chance of a Communist Party take over. Mises was certainly right to argue that the Fascism of 20s Italy was a more mild kind of authoritarianism than the USSR at that time. Nevertheless I find his position perverse. The greatest risk of Bolshevik style revolution in Europe outside Russia was in 1920. The 1922 entry of the Fascists into government with strong support from parts of the traditional elites was certainly partly a result of the destabilisation of liberal democracy by the 1920 turmoil, but the issue was collapse of faith in liberal democracy not an imminent danger of Red terror.

In general Mises had an alarming tendency to support conservative authoritarianism, as can be seen in his close association with Engelbert Dolfuss who abolished parliamentary democracy in Austria.

Before Dollfuss was murdered for his politics, Mises was one of his closest advisers.’

as Hans-Hermann Hoppe wrote for the Mises Institute in 1997.

Hoppe mentions Dollfuss as an opponent of Naziism and omits reference to his destruction of parliamentary democracy and all political opposition in a country which been a democratic republic since 1919. Hoppe represents a side of ‘libertarianism’ I don’t care for at all, an Anarcho-Conservative who prefers monarchy (and it would seem other forms of conservative dictatorship) to democracy. I should emphasise some more liberal democratically minded people who follow Misian economics, Peter Boettke and Peter Leeson, two economic commentators who are very interesting for non-economists, and I strong recommend them. Still there is a side of Mises which leads to Hoppe.

It is certainly to Mises’ credit that he supports equality between the races, open immigration (unlike Hoppe), liberal democracy in politics (unlike Hoppe), and an end to colonialism in Liberalism. Even so, there is quite a lot of chauvinism, mostly directed at Russia. Bolshevism is apparently a consequence of barbarism in Russia, a barbarism lacking in central and western Europe, apparently. Though in that case, one might think it odd that such countries need Mussolini (Mises published Liberalism in 1927, so we’ll put aside events of the 1930s). According to Mises, the great Russian literary figures who preceded Bolshevism were part of this savagery, and were ‘neurotics’ . Mises believed that anyone who was a socialist of any kind was a neurotic, which does not strike me as a high level of argument. And I hardly think that all pre-1917 Russian writers can be dismissed in this way. It’s of course very sad that the two greatest, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were not advocates of liberalism, but to dismiss them as agents of savagery is itself uncultured and unintelligent. There is much to learn about the depth and value of the individual from reading them, something any liberal should appreciate. In any case, at least one great literary figure from that time in Russia had liberal sympathies, Ivan Turgenev.

Mises, someone who is a highly important part of the continuation of the original liberal tradition after what he quite rightly describes as the tendency for liberals to become moderate socialists, an original thinker in economics, and a man of great moral courage; but also highly flawed with regard to reasoned argument, consistency of liberal democratic principles, and nationalistic stereotyping.

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