A Reviewer's Notebook - 1977/2

Margit von Mises’ book about her husband, My Years with Ludwig von Mises (Arlington, $9.95), is, first of all, a deeply tender memoir of the human side of a genius. Though Mises was "Lu" to his devoted friends such as Henry Hazlitt and Larry Fertig, he was not a man to court intimacy. He could be beautifully, and even humorously, explicit about all man­ner of topics (who can forget his dis­quisition on the production—and resulting pleasures—of cham­pagne?), but when it came to the topic of himself there was never a word. It was rumored that he had a weakness (who said that he almost forgave the Austrian State for sub­sidizing opera?), but his relentless consistency about general ideas seemed to preclude private preoccupations. When he died in 1973 there were innumerable tributes to his work, but nothing much about him as a human being.


The desire to bring the real Mises closer to his friends became "almost an obsession" with Margit von Mises. She knew, as no one else did, her husband’s need for love and af­fection, and she also knew his hesitancies. As she says, they did not live in Paradise. During a long engagement that virtually coin­cided with the protracted agonies of an Austria that was waiting for a depression to end and a Hitler to pounce, she suffered while Lu "fought himself." She was deeply in love with him, but he had what to him was a frightening decision to make.


The work he had cut out for him­self involved nothing less than the complete destruction of socialism as a respected system of ideas. He regarded his vocation as a priesthood. She had two children by a previous marriage who could be disruptive to a quiet home. Though he had time for diversions (they went mountain climbing together), sometimes she did not see him for weeks. She spent time in London to refresh her English and to qualify as a translator of plays for the Vien­nese theatre. He, knowing that Austria was doomed, left Vienna in 1934 to join Professor William Rap­pard’s faculty at the Institute des Hautes Etudes in Geneva.

When, after innumerable separa­tions, they were finally married, the result, for Margit, was a happy anti-climax: Lu adapted himself to marriage more quickly than she did. He never once referred to the thir­teen years of their engagement dur­ing thirty-five years of subsequent marriage, a silence she still finds puzzling. But, though Lu had a sometimes volcanic temper which had nothing to do with herself, the contrast between them made him feel complemented. "I am the human touch in your life," she said. "You are more than that," he said . . . you always are in a good mood."


The History of Ideas


Margit Mises says her book will hardly answer any question about economics. Maybe not, but she answers at least a thousand ques­tions about economic history. Her story will prove indispensable to anyone who wants to understand a migration of thought that may, in the end, be the saving of America and the whole western world. The convulsion that sent the living car­riers of the Carl Menger Austrian school of economics to Geneva and London, to New York and Chicago, came at a time when Keynesianism had practically obliterated the classical liberal economics of the past.

It is perfectly true that Statist economics had its native-born enemies in the London of Lionel Robbins and in the Chicago of Henry Simons, Frank Knight and Milton Friedman. But what phe­nomenon had the effect of Mises’ famous seminar at New York Uni­versity, which lasted from 1948 to 1969? Scores of young dissenters from the accepted Keynesian con­ventions sharpened their sense of economic logic at Mises’ feet. And they did much more than that. They also learned, as a letter quoted by Margit Mises explains, that "the realm of ethics is not something which is outside of that of economic action." A jotting from a notebook (that of Jack Holman, a licensed engineer with a Ph.D. in economics) has Mises saying "one of the indispensable prerequisites of a mastery of economics is a perfect knowledge of history, the history of ideas and of civilization . . . To know one field well, one must also know other fields."


Around the World


The percolation of ideas is an endlessly fascinating topic, and Margit von Mises adds scores of details that will enable her readers to track the penetration of Mises’ philosophy to the most unlikely places. If Latin America is ever to come to its economic senses, Mises’ "two months in Mexico," which Margit describes with great feeling, will have had much to do with it. And if Marx is ever to be aban­doned in places now behind the Iron and Bamboo curtains, it will be because of Mises’ root perception that the problem of economic calcu­lation is impossible to solve under socialism. Communism depends on its trade with free economies for its pricing tips, and if there were no cross-border traffic with the capitalist devil the very concept of socialist planning would become a shambles for lack of measuring rods.


This truth, set forth in a Mises book translated from the German with the English title of Socialism, made a profound impression on Hayek, Roepke and others who read it in the early Twenties. This was a little before Margit’s introduction to Lu, but the story of Socialism’s influence on Hayek’s generation discovered in a tribute to Mises which Hayek contributes as an appendix to Margit’s memoir.


"Human Action"


For Hayek, Socialism still re­mains the "most memorable and decisive production of Professor Mises’ career." But he thinks Human Action, which covers a wider field than political economy, will in the long run prove as impor­tant as Socialism has been. Margit Mises tells the whole story of the publication of Human Action in America. It was due to the uncon­ventional boldness of Eugene Davidson that the Yale University Press dared to accept Human Ac­tion in spite of the Keynesian and Marxian shibboleths that prevailed on the campuses of the Forties. After Davidson left New Haven to go to Chicago, the Yale Press messed up a second edition of Human Action. Margit asks a perti­nent question: "Who was the guilty party causing the unbelievably bad printing job?" Mises was deeply hurt by what he called "scandalous botchery."

Margit Mises has an eye and an ear for character, and her book throngs with beautifully charac­terized people. Leonard Read, Hans Sennholz, Henry Hazlitt, Larry Fer­tig, Murray Rothbard, Sylvester Petro, Percy and Bettina Greaves, Albert Hahn and Philip Cortney, all of them friends and many of them students of Mises, appear and reap­pear as Margit Mises tells of her husband’s travels and seminars. Better than total recall, Margit Mises has significant recall. Her own story as a young actress on the Vienna and Hamburg stage during World War I and after conjures up pulsating pictures of a forgotten world. She protests that she is an amateur writer, but she is actually as skilled as any professional. Those years when she was translating plays for the Vienna theatre have paid off.