On Ludwig von Mises

Some quotes from this important economist and thinker:

It is worth knowing something about the important Austrian-American economist, historian, philosopher and social critic Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973). Given the huge importance of the man and his work (especially in terms of classical liberalism and what is known as the Austrian School of Economics), he is worth taking a closer look at.

His free-market economics has had a big impact on a number of important economists and libertarian thinkers (some of whom were his students). These include people such as Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Ron Paul.

He certainly was an exceptionally intelligent thinker and a prolific writer. He was born to Jewish parents in what is now Ukraine, and by the age of twelve he spoke fluent German, Russian, Polish and French, read Latin and could understand Ukrainian.

He and his wife fled Austria in 1940 and settled in New York. For many years he was a visiting professor at New York University (from 1945 until his retirement in 1969). He penned some 20 key works, with various collections of his addresses and articles published after his death.

Over the years I picked up ten of his works, so I will list each one here in alphabetical order. I will also include a quote or two from each one of them. Hopefully this brief introduction to von Mises will spur some of you on to read his works for yourself.

The Anti-Capitalist Mentality (Libertarian Press, 1956, 1981)

People do not ask for socialism because they know that socialism will improve their conditions, and they do not reject capitalism because they know that it is a system prejudicial to their interests. They are socialists because they believe that socialism will improve their conditions, and they hate capitalism because they believe that it harms them. They are socialists because they are blinded by envy and ignorance. They stubbornly refuse to study economics and spurn the economists’ devastating critique of the socialist plans because, in their eyes, economics, being an abstract theory, is simply nonsense. They pretend to trust only in experience. But they no less stubbornly refuse to take cognizance of the undeniable facts of experience, viz., that the common man’s standard of living is incomparably higher in capitalistic America than in the socialist paradise of the Soviets. (p. 46)

Bureaucracy (Yale University Press, 1944,1962)

Totalitarianism is much more than mere bureaucracy. It is the subordination of every individual’s whole life, work, and leisure to the orders of those in power and office. It is the reduction of man to a cog in an all embracing machine of compulsion and coercion. It forces the individual to renounce any activity of which the government does not approve. It tolerates no expression of dissent. It is the transformation of society into a strictly disciplined labor-army—as the advocates of socialism say—or into a penitentiary—as its opponents say. At any rate it is the radical break from the way of life to which the civilized nations clung in the past. (p. 17)

The first duty of a citizen of a democratic community is to educate himself and to acquire the knowledge needed for dealing with civic affairs. The franchise is not a privilege but a duty and a moral responsibility. The voter is virtually an officeholder; his office is the supreme one and implies the highest obligation. (p. 111)

Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow (Regnery Gateway, 1958, 1979)

In using the term freedom as applied to human beings, we think only of freedom within society. Yet, today, social freedoms are considered by many people to be independent of one another. Those who call themselves “liberals” today are asking for policies which are precisely the opposite of those policies which the liberals of the nineteenth century advocated in their liberal programs. The so-called liberals of today have the very popular idea that freedom of speech, of thought, of the press, freedom of religion, freedom from imprisonment without trial—that all these freedoms can be preserved in the absence of what is called economic freedom. They do not realize that, in a system where there is no market, where the government directs everything, all those other freedoms are illusory, even if they are made into laws and written up in constitutions. (p. 18)

Human Action (Yale University Press/Henry Regnery, 1949, 1966)

Action, if successful, attains the end sought. It produces the product. Production is not an act of creation; it does not bring about something that did not exist before. It is a transformation of given elements through arrangement and combination. The producer is not a creator. Man is creative only in thinking and in the realm of imagination. In the world of external phenomena he is only a transformer. All that he can accomplish is to combine the means available in such a way that according to the laws of nature the result aimed at is bound to emerge. (p. 140)

Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom. (p. 719)

Liberalism: A Socio-Economic Exposition (Sheed Andrews and McMeel,1962, 1978)

Human society is an association of persons for cooperative action. As against the isolated action of individuals, cooperative action on the basis of the principle of the division of labor has the advantage of greater productivity. If a number of men work in cooperation in accordance with the principle of the division of labor, they will produce (other things being equal) not only as much as the sum of what they would have produced by working as self-sufficient individuals, but considerably more. All human civilization is founded on this fact. It is by virtue of the division of labor that man is distinguished from the animals. It is the division of labor that has made feeble man, far inferior to most animals in physical strength, the lord of the earth and the creator of the marvels of technology. In the absence of the division of labor, we would not be in any respect further advanced today than our ancestors of a thousand or ten thousand years ago. (p. 18)

Image of Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (Liberty Fund Library of the Works of Ludwig von Mises)
Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (Liberty Fund Library of the Works of Ludwig von Mises) by Mises, Ludwig von (Author), Greaves, Bettina Bien (Editor) Amazon logo

Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (Yale University Press/Libertarian Press, 1944, 1985)

Nobody ever recommended a dictatorship aiming at ends other than those he himself approved. He who advocates dictatorship always advocates the unrestricted rule of his own will, although operated by an intermediary, an amanuensis. He wants a dictator made in his own image…

Many popular fallacies concerning socialism are due to the mistaken belief that all friends of socialism advocate the same system. On the contrary, every socialist wants his own socialism, not the other fellow’s. He disputes the other socialists’ right to call themselves socialists. In the eyes of Stalin the Mensheviks and the Trotskyists are not socialists but traitors, and vice versa. The Marxians call the Nazis supporters of capitalism; the Nazis call the Marxians supporters of Jewish capital. If a man says socialism, or planning, he always has in view his own brand of socialism, his own plan. Thus planning does not in fact mean preparedness to cooperate peacefully. It means conflict. (pp. 242-243)

With human nature as it is, the state is a necessary and indispensable institution. The state is, if properly administered, the foundation of society, of human coöperation and civilization. It is the most beneficial and most useful instrument in the endeavors of man to promote human happiness and welfare. But it is a tool and a means only, not the ultimate goal. It is not God. It is simply compulsion and coercion; it is the police power.…

He who says: The state is God, deifies arms and prisons. The worship of the state is the worship of force. There is no more dangerous menace to civilization than a government of incompetent, corrupt, or vile men. The worst evils which mankind ever had to endure were inflicted by bad governments. The state can be and has often been in the course of history the main source of mischief and disaster. (p. 47)

Planned Chaos (The Foundation for Economic Education, 1947, 1972)

The interventionists do not approach the study of economic matters with scientific disinterestedness. Most of them are driven by an envious resentment against those whose incomes are larger than their own. This bias makes it impossible for them to see things as they really are. For them the main thing is not to improve the conditions of the masses, but to harm the entrepreneurs and capitalists even if this policy victimizes the immense majority of the people. (p. 6

Planning for Freedom: And Other Essays and Addresses (Libertarian Press, 1952, 1962)

The liberal program is an indivisible and indissoluble whole, not an arbitrarily assembled patchwork of diverse components. Its various parts condition one another. The idea that political freedom can be preserved in the absence of economic freedom, and vice versa, is an illusion. Political freedom is the corollary of economic freedom. It is no accident that the age of capitalism became also the age of government by the people. If individuals are not free to buy and to sell on the market, they turn into virtual slaves dependent on the good graces of the omnipotent government, whatever the wording of the constitution may be. (p. 38)

Socialism (LibertyClassics, 1922, 1981)

Socialism derives its strength from two different sources. On the one hand it is an ethical, political, and economico-political challenge. The socialist order of society, fulfilling the claims of higher morality, is to replace the ‘immoral’ capitalist economy; the ‘economic rule’ of the few over the many is to give way to a co-operative order which alone can make true democracy possible; planned economy, the only rational system working according to uniform principles, is to sweep away the irrational private economic order, the anarchical production for profit. Socialism thus appears as a goal towards which we ought to strive because it is morally and rationally desirable. The task therefore of men of good will is to defeat the resistance to it which is inspired by misunderstanding and prejudice. This is the basic idea of that Socialism which Marx and his school call Utopian.

On the other hand, however, Socialism is made to appear as the inevitable goal and end of historical evolution. An obscure force from which we cannot escape leads humanity step by step to higher planes of social and moral being. History is a progressive process of purification, with perfection, in the form of Socialism, at the end. This train of thought does not run counter to the ideas of Utopian Socialism. Rather it includes them, for it presupposes, as obviously self-evident, that the socialist condition would be better, nobler, and more beautiful than the non-socialist. But it goes farther; it sees the change to Socialism — envisioned as progress, an evolution to a higher stage — as something independent of human will. A necessity of Nature, Socialism is the inevitable outcome of the forces underlying social life: this is the fundamental idea of evolutionary socialism, which, in its Marxist form, has taken the proud name of ‘Scientific’ Socialism. (p. 249)

Theory of Money and Credit (The Foundation for Economic Education, 1912, 1971)

When both parties to an exchange fulfill their obligations immediately and surrender a commodity for ready cash, there is usually no motive for the judicial intervention of the state. But when the exchange is one of present goods against future goods it may happen that one party fails to fulfill his obligations although the other has carried out his share of the contract. Then the judiciary may be invoked. (p. 68)

As with all authors, one need not agree with everything they write. But given the very important impact von Mises has had for so many decades now, it is worth at least being somewhat familiar with who he was and what he thought and wrote.

Happy reading.

[1988 words]

4 Replies to “On Ludwig von Mises”

  1. Has anyone ever come across a socialist who was not covetous?

    Unfortunately even when societies emerge from socialism there is still a price to pay. We see this in Russia and emerging in Chine where the elite party oligarchs simply switch to being organised crime bosses when socialism fails.

    The fact is tyranny is massively difficult to overcome. What people have failed to understand is how exceptional what Christian culture has been able to achieve over just the last two hundred years or so, is. It is definitly the exception in history, not the rule. Normally people in the past have suffered greatly under tyranny but what is also remarkable about what Christian culture has achieved is that it was based on quite simple and easily understood rules such as the ten commandments, the golden rule and principles of justice and mercy applied equally to all.

    Socialism always introduces concepts such as “social justice” or other end-justifies-the-means concepts which, of course, are inevitably abused and inevitably lead back to tyranny and corruption no matter what variety of socialism is implemented. History is very clear on this.

  2. Thanks for this Bill. Do you share my concern that capitalism has gone rogue in recent years and that we have become mere serfs and slaves to the rampant power of Big Tech? The promise that capitalism would lift all boats seems to have become a system that lifts a few huge ships while the vast majority of us sink into the swamp in our flimsy canoes. We now have a very lopsided society where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

    I’m reading a book called Techno Feudalism by economist Yanis Varoufakis which expands on these issues and proposes ways in which we might restore our freedom.

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