All Commentary
Tuesday, February 1, 1972

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1972/2

The story is told that whenever Professor Ludwig von Mises encountered a gleam of originality in a paper submitted by a student, he would urge that student to develop the perception or insight in a systematic way. The sixty-six authors who have contributed to the two volumes of Toward Liberty, a collection of essays offered by the Institute for Humane Studies ($10.00) in honor of Mises on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, are all, in one sense or another, graduates of the Mises “praxeological” school, students of “human purposive activity” (the quotation is from Murray Rothbard). What we have here, then, is originality as sparked by the most fecund economic teacher of our times, a vast expansion of perceptions that could not have been developed by one man alone. Yet, as surely has been the case with Mises’ own seminar students, the sixty-six contributors to Toward Liberty would certainly admit that they stand on the shoulders of one man alone, which gives Mises something of the stature of an Atlas. (Need we add that his particular Atlas, unlike the flawed figure in the title of Ayn Rand’s novel, has never “shrugged?”)

The unifying thread in these two volumes is provided by a common devotion to the principle of peaceful voluntarism, which enables “human action” to proliferate in thousands of fructifying ways that are strangled in the crib in any interventionist atmosphere. Within the basic unity, however, the diversity of the sixty-six essays presents an insuperable obstacle to the reviewer. Many of the essays concentrate on the dire effects of state intervention in the economic processes of relatively free societies. Other papers focus on the impossibility of calculation in societies that have gone most of the way to communism. A few authors pay their specific disrespects to the late Lord Keynes. Since the contributors come from seventeen different countries, it is interesting to observe what local conditions have done to affect specific approaches to voluntarism. Then there are the essays which seem to depart from the Misesian line but which really do not when one considers that in the wider Misesian market “all human values are offered for option,” even the values that affect economics only by indirection.

The richness of the books is evident in the multiplication of stray observations that defy current orthodoxies. Picking at random, we have Paul Poirot’s observation that the most polluted properties are those not clearly subject to private ownership — rivers, streets, parks, schools and the body politic, to mention a few. Hans Sennholz notes an irony in Milton Friedman’s efforts to get away from the orthodox gold standard — “monetary freedom,” says Sennholz, “would soon give birth to a ‘parallel standard’” that would permit individuals to make “gold contracts,” and so we would be back on a gold standard despite Friedman’s efforts to do away with something that he regards as tyranny.

Results of Intervention

Looking at thirty years of rent control in Sweden, Sven Rydenfelt notes that the rich seem to wind up with the most desirable housing, while young families have frequently to wait for years for decent space. In Yugoslavia, according to Ljubo Sirc, the attempt to superimpose an “as if” competitive system on State enterprise can’t get off the ground because the founding of new enterprises remains in the hands of political bodies. The English contributors to Toward Liberty struggle to find scope for free choice in an advanced welfare state. Ralph Harris sees some hope in the movement toward “selectivity in welfare,” but he laments that right-wing paternalists gang up with left-wing traditionalists to prevent a significantly large return to “private welfare suppliers” in insurance, medicine and education.

Writing about the struggle of Latin American countries to achieve “take-off,” Ulysses R. Dent of Guatemala remarks on the strange irony that the foreign aid ponied up by taxpayers in the capitalistic U.S.A. has provided the funds for socialistic takeovers.

Thus we export what we profess to hate. A Mexican contributor, Alberto Salceda, speculates that it was “Essene” corruption of Biblical texts that has made Jesus seem anti-capitalist. In the non-Essene parts of the gospels Jesus frequently endorsed the Commandment that says “Thou shalt not covet,” which means that he was no supporter of the envy that is at the root of modern efforts to spread “social justice” by force.

The topic of GNP — gross national product — begets a sapient observation from Giuseppe Ugo Papi of Italy that a preoccupation with macroeconomics keeps us from seeing that augmentations of the GNP start from below, in the potential of the individual. When governments try to expand the GNP by planning, they really lead to its diminution in real terms. An Irish contributor, George Alexander Duncan, thinks it odd that the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and the French Republic have destroyed the economic basis of their Caribbean dependencies by subsidizing extravagant beet-sugar production at home — and then compound the idiocy by sending “aid” to the cane-sugar countries to be wasted by politicos who neither toil nor spin.

Publishers and the Market

Henry Regnery, the dean of our conservative publishers, obviously hopes he will not be condemned for lese majesty when he points out that Mises’ great work, Human Action, was originally published by a university press that was “neither subject to the disciplines of the market nor to the restrictions that purely market considerations impose.” Actually, despite Mr. Regnery’s trepidation, there was no doctrinal contradiction involved in the fact that it was a noncommercial publisher, the Yale University Press’s Eugene Davidson, who accepted Human Action back in 1948 without the change of a single word. The Yale Press in Davidson’s time (and maybe now, for all I know) was the recipient of support that was voluntarily donated by nongovernmental benefactors, which brings it within the purview of Leonard Read’s “anything that’s peaceful” test. A voluntarily subsidized university press is part of that wider market in which “all human values are offered for option.” The voluntary subsidizers in the case of Human Action were getting what they paid for, which happened to be the circulation of a work which their chosen editor had rightly approved. So let Henry Regnery stop worrying; he has not had to make any exception from Misesian principle in writing his essay on “The Book in the Market Place.” I have merely scratched the surface in this attempt to indicate some of the riches of the two-volumed Toward Liberty. Sixty-six essays are too much for one review. Fortunately they are not too much for a single reader, though he will need a command of four languages to read every word that is offered “for option” by the books’ editors.


FIRST THINGS, LAST THINGS by Eric Hoffer (New York: Harper & Row, 1971, 132 pp., $4.95)

Reviewed by Robert M. Thornton

The iconoclastic ex-longshoreman is in rare form in his new book. Hoffer fits none of the contemporary pigeonholes but directs his shafts of idiocy and sham wherever he finds them. Today’s hunting is best on the left, and Hoffer’s deadly aim picks off a number of cows held sacred by today’s intellectuals. What a pleasure to read a man who nonchalantly heaves dead cats into the stuffy sanctuaries of “liberalism.”

Consider his treatment of ecology. The cry is “back to nature,” but Hoffer reminds us that the great achievements of civilization have come from cities and that nature has always been, in a sense, man’s antagonist, something he must live with but also overcome or be destroyed. In Africa, for instance, the real battle is not against colonialism but nature. Even in the great cities of our nation, he writes, the problem is still nature —our inner natures which are turning many into primitive savages as self-discipline and outside controls are cast aside. Hoffer denies that mere expenditures of money will help the cities. The task, he writes, is to lure out the chronically poor and induce exiled suburbanites to return. One way to achieve the former is to end the welfare system, and the latter will be accomplished when city governments perform their rightful functions well and relieve taxpayers of the burden of unnecessary expenditures.

This is a book to stir up the mind, for despite his scorn for the pseudo-intellectual, Hoffer is the real thing, a man of ideas who has not gone “a’ whoring after false gods.” And he is an example of the best that America can produce in common men. Without family connections, social position or inherited wealth and with very little formal education, Hoffer nevertheless has been able to make his mark in the world of ideas. One hopes this won’t be his last slim volume of hard thinking and clear writing. 

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.