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Friday, October 20, 2017

No, Mises Was Not a Neocon

To say otherwise is to either grossly misunderstand or deliberately distort his meaning.

It is of great comfort to us who share an antiquarian passion for the history of political thought that fundamental questions such as, “What is the state?” invariably come to the surface. But sometimes you get the impression that new interpretations focus more on the “political” than on the “thought.” I’m referring to a long opinion piece published by Yoram Hazony in The Wall Street Journal. From his byline, we know that Mr. Hazony, President of the Jerusalem-based Herzl Institute, is publishing a book entitled The Virtue of Nationalism. 

His article’s political goal is clear: he wants to argue that Donald Trump’s blend of conservatism is in line with an old tradition that goes back to Edmund Burke. Trump is thus implicitly considered the torch-bearer of a system of ideas that value the nation-state as providing the soil which allowed Western liberty to flourish. From this comes skepticism towards exporting such values in different cultures and a similar anxiety for opening the door to immigrants that come from illiberal cultures.

Mises the Neocon?

But leaving aside what President Trump stands for, or rather represents, Mr. Hazony’s story is quite problematic. He thinks that “Classical liberalism … offers ground for imposing a single doctrine on all nations for their own good. It provides an ideological basis for an American universal dominion.” So, for Mr. Hazony it was “liberal abstractions,” based upon John Locke’s ideas that matured into contemporary neo-conservatism.

Note that for Mr. Hazony classical liberalism is “rationalist.” I’m not so sure that Locke can be considered a “constructivist,” but it is hard to assume that David Hume and Adam Smith were not central to the original arc of liberalismthat is, classical liberalism. Moreover, it could be argued that Burke himself had strong (classical) liberal leanings. On issue after issue, his tendency was usually liberal.

Mr. Hazony seems to ignore the extent to which the modern libertarian movement, in the United States, tends to favor anti-interventionism and how skeptical prominent libertarians were of exporting democracy, let alone neo-conservatism itself. He quotes from Mises’s 1927 pamphlet “Liberalism” to argue that classical liberals are actually internationalist advocates of world government. So writes Hazony:

Ludwig von Mises thus advocates a ‘world super-state really deserving of the name,’ which will arise if we ‘succeed in creating throughout the world . . . nothing less than unqualified, unconditional acceptance of liberalism. Liberal thinking must permeate all nations, liberal principles must pervade all political institutions.

Let’s read the quotation in its entirety:

To be sure, the League does hold out, even though very cautiously and with many reservations, the prospect of some future boundary adjustments to do justice to the demands of some nations and parts of nations. It also promisesagain very cautiously and qualifiedlyprotection to national minorities. This permits us to hope that from these extremely inadequate beginnings a world superstate really deserving of the name may some day be able to develop that would be capable of assuring the nations the peace that they require. But this question will not be decided at Geneva in the sessions of the present League, and certainly not in the parliaments of the individual countries that comprise it. For the problem involved is not at all a matter of organization or of the technique of international government, but the greatest ideological question that mankind has ever faced. It is a question of whether we shall succeed in creating throughout the world a frame of mind without which all agreements for the preservation of peace and all the proceedings of courts of arbitration will remain, at the crucial moment, only worthless scraps of paper. This frame of mind can be nothing less than the unqualified, unconditional acceptance of liberalism. Liberal thinking must permeate all nations, liberal principles must pervade all political institutions, if the prerequisites of peace are to be created and the causes of war eliminated. As long as nations cling to protective tariffs, immigration barriers, compulsory education, interventionism, and etatism, new conflicts capable of breaking out at any time into open warfare will continually arise to plague mankind.

Mises was actually criticising the international body of the time (the League of Nations) but expressed hope for “a frame of mind” that looks to see individual rights protected, not just within one’s country but also abroad. I agree that Mises’s use of the word “superstate” is unfortunate, but it is clear that all he is pointing toward is a liberal sensibility that traverses national boundaries. 

The passage is part of the book’s section on “a liberal foreign policy.” Chapter 3 of that section is a remarkable collection of caveats, against allegedly peace-creating policies that could backfire (from “standardized” education to the creation of “economic areas”). Indeed, Mises thinks that “a world order must be established in which nations and national groups are so satisfied with living conditions that they will not feel impelled to resort to the desperate expedient of war.” Such a humanitarian attitude, which is indeed part of the classical liberal legacy, was all the more cogent after the disastrous experience of World War I. Mises was not so eager to buy into “the virtues of nationalism” as he saw Europe on fire because of itand understood that may happen again, as unfortunately, it did.

Can Mises be considered a champion of exporting democracy? “The unqualified, unconditional acceptance of liberalism” was for Mises a cultural goal, not a strategy to be pursued at gunpoint. When it comes to the issue of national identity, the second chapter in that very section of the book is devoted to the principle of self-determination. The drift of Mises’s discussion is the aim to dilute conflicts and allow for peaceful coexistence. There was no thirst for American “hegemony”: but the idea that people, by having fruitful commercial relationships, will eventually sheathe their swords. Such vision can perhaps be considered naive, but it certainly cannot be considered propaganda for world government.

Mises’s liberal vision included the idea of “multi-national” states: states within which multiple national identities coexist like they did in Europe for centuries before the idea “one state, one nation” became hegemonic. Was this nostalgia for the old Habsburg empire? Well, perhaps it was. Let’s look at conservatives for a minute.  Think about Europe. Those “empirical” conservatives Mr. Hazony purportedly admires couldn’t be enthusiastic about national identities which were very recent artifactsin some respects themselves products of constructivist rationalism. Didn’t the Congress of Vienna after all have an “anti-national” character? Weren’t European conservatives favoring empires or, yes, the “empirical” history of territorial divisions and royal dynasties as principles of legitimization deeply opposed to the emerging idea of the “nation?”

I’ll read Mr. Hazony’s book, about which now I’m truly curious. But on these matters, so far my recommendation would be to go back to good ol’ Lord Acton.

  • Alberto Mingardi is Director General of Istituto Bruno Leoni, Italy’s free-market think tank.