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Saturday, August 26, 2017

A Different Side of Mises

These informal lectures from 1951, at FEE, have been transcribed, word for word.

The writing temperament of Ludwig von Mises was precise, formal, and brilliant. Especially concerning economic theory, all the steps of logic are there. He seeks to create structures of thought the way masons make buildings. Every point extends from somewhere and leads to somewhere. It is sometimes passionate and fiery but only once that display of emotion has been justified by the argumentation.

It must have been amazing to be there. Sometimes, however, you wish that Mises would pull back and relax just a bit, speak more informally, ruminate based on his encyclopedic knowledge. It is not always necessary to construct arguments for the ages. Sometimes we just want insight, tidbits, opinions and judgements, hints for further research, literature references, and so on.

This would be gold coming from the master!

Well, it did happen. The year was 1951. Leonard Read, the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, opened the lecture hall to Mises, whose masterwork Human Action had been published two years earlier. You could say that he was at the height of his power, except that Mises always seemed to be at the height of his powers.

These lectures were taken down word for word using shorthand by Bettina Bien-Greaves (it’s a skill that is largely lost). It must have been amazing to be there. The notes she took were not published during Mises’s life. It was Herculean effort to port them from scribbles to text and put the book in print. This happened in 2004. The result is The Free Market and Its Enemies.

The book was published by FEE, but oddly garnered very little attention. Most Misesians don’t even know that this book exists.

Re-reading this book over the last year, I’ve been absolutely astonished by the insights. They appear every few pages. Many points are here that you do not find in his writings, simply because the setting in which he spoke was more casual so that he was able to explore a greater range of his thought.

I’m deeply grateful for so much of this book, but I want to mention one insight in particular that rocked my world so hard that I’m still drawing on it. He is discussing the reaction to the discovery of economics and the freeing of society from authoritarian control. He notes that the first reaction came from the nobles, elites, and ruling classes who resented the rise of the middle class.

Then he plunges straight into the influence of Georg F. Hegel. Mises tosses off an insight that shakes up everything. Here is the mic-drop moment:

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the famous German philosopher, gave rise to two schools —the “left” Hegelians and the “right” Hegelians. Karl Marx was the most important of the “left” Hegelians. The Nazis came from the “right” Hegelians.

I’ve never seen it put so plainly. In my own education, I was highly educated on the left branch but not the right branch. Over the last two years, coinciding with the rise of a quasi-Nazi movement in Europe and the US, right-Hegelianism has been resurgent. It should be called the other threat to liberty. In other essays, Mises goes into further detail.

In brief, Hegel’s view of history as having some acting purpose aside from individual human beings bled into an attack on the idea of economics and free markets. Hegel became the most important antiliberal until that moment of time.

Mises points out that Hegel’s following split into right and left. The right believed that history was driving toward a culminating moment in which all final authority on earth was embodied by the Prussian state and church. The left believed that the culminating moment was more universal and was characterized by the birth of a new man who would live completely differently from anyone else in history. The right Hegelians became the fascists and corporate/theocratic/conservatives, while the left Hegelians followed socialism straight to Marx and beyond.

Isn’t it remarkable how Mises just keeps on giving? Using that model of understanding, you can literally reconstruct the whole of the intellectual history of politics and society from the early 19th century to the present day. It is rich and pregnant with massive implications for our own time. And, so far as I know, this is the only place he states this observation with such clarity of exposition – again, owing to the informal structure of the venue.

And this is only just a few paragraphs! The entire selection of lectures is this way, insight after insight. There is so much here that not even Misesian scholars have begun to consider the implications of the thoughts in this book.

Isn’t it remarkable how Mises just keeps on giving? In this case, we owe a tremendous debt to Leonard Read, FEE, Bettina Greaves, and all those who put in the hard work to take these lectures out of a moment in history and replant them in our time, so that we can read and learn.

And now with a Portuguese translation, for which I’m honored to write the foreword, Brazilians too can learn from the master even though he long ago passed from this earth. Such is the nature of ideas. Their power doesn’t diminish with the passage of time, and neither does the mastery and brilliance of the great man whose words are herein recorded.