Friday, October 19, 2018

Mises: Scientist and Fighter

By Israel Kirzner

Mises was a towering figure, representing uncompromising intellectual integrity, the courageous pursuit of ideas regardless of the crop of unpopularity which he well knew he would reap. His scholarship was extraordinary; his wisdom legendary; the profundity of his insights into social processes has probably never been surpassed.

Much has been written about his passionate championship of individual liberty; it is only natural that exponents of the several different streams of social philosophy to whom individual liberty is of importance are each eager to recognize Mises as a source for their respective positions on the ideological spectrum. I, too, wish to draw attention to Mises the proponent of individual liberty, but I wish to do so in a context for which matters of ideological emphasis are, nonetheless, wholly irrelevant. Let me explain.

A number of writers have, on occasion, claimed to have perceived a contradiction in Mises. On the one hand Mises was an outspoken exponent of the Weberian view that economic science can and must be wertfrei (value free). Economic science can and must be pursued in a manner that carefully distinguishes between the personal opinions and value judgments of the economist, and the objective, interpersonally valid conclusions of science. On the other hand Mises was the impassioned defender of the free market, full of scorn for the pretensions of central planners and interventionists to replace or supplement the spontaneous market with contrived arrangements by the state. It has seemed difficult, for a number of writers, to reconcile these different aspects of Mises. Yet, to anyone who heard Mises lecture on these topics, there can be no doubts concerning his position; there is certainly no contradiction in that position.

For Mises economic science is very definitely wertfrei. The demonstrations that wage controls tend to produce specific consequences, that rent controls tend to produce specific consequences, or that foreign exchange controls tend to produce specific consequences—these are not matters of opinion, they are the conclusions of science. Whether one approves or disapproves of these consequences, whether the fulfillment of these lessons of science be welcomed or feared, affects not in the slightest the truth of the proportions which assert these tendencies. Yet for Mises economics does not operate in an ivy-clad vacuum; it is impossible to ignore the fact that these consequences do not in general coincide with the goals which the proponents of controls purport to cherish. From the perspective of these goals, then, these policies are simply wrong and muddleheaded policies.

No doubt, in articulating these judgments it was difficult for Mises altogether to conceal his own passionate sense of human tragedy entailed by the pursuit of such bad policies. But what made these policies bad policies in the view of Misesian applied economic science was not Mises’s own opinions, but the opinions of those who wrong-headedly sought to promote their announced goals by policies that tend to produce consequences precisely the opposite of these goals.

Now, there can be no doubt that for Mises, the value of the value-free pursuit of economic truth, was extremely high. For Mises the systematic search for economic truths is an activity that is eminently worthy of human endeavor. This sense of worth had its source in Mises’s passionate belief in human liberty and the dignity of the individual. For Mises the preservation of a society in which these values can find expression depends, in the last resort, upon the recognition of economic truths.

But, paradoxically enough, Mises was convinced that these deeply held values can be promoted, through the advancement of social science, only if scientific activity is itself conducted as an austerely dispassionate undertaking. If economic science is to attain a credibility beyond that achieved by crass propaganda, it must earn that credibility by impartial concern for truth. The values to be achieved by economics require value-freedom in economic investigation.

How tragic, then, it must have been for Mises in the latter half of his life to observe the direction taken by economics. So far from economic science demonstrating those truths upon which, for Mises, the very future of civilized society depends, we had an atmosphere of professional opinion in which the prestige of science was deployed to deride the very possibility of spontaneous market solutions to social problems. In virtually every area in economics, it seemed to turn out, chaos and misery were shown to be bound to ensue unless market forces are curbed, redirected or superseded by the firm, benevolent hand of an all-wise government.

For Mises these sadly mistaken conclusions meant a two-fold tragedy. First, they represented serious error in the understanding of economic phenomena; second, they constituted a tragic perversion of science for ends diametrically opposed to those which, for Mises, confer worth and beneficent purpose upon the distinterested study of economics. The possibility that today, as we mark the one-hundredth birthday of our teacher, the climate of professional opinion may to some extent be changing, offers us an opportunity to appraise the place of Mises within the broader perspective of the history of economic understanding.

The historic contribution of Mises, I submit, was represented not so much, perhaps, by the magisterial works that he produced in 1912, or 1922, in 1933, or 1940—as by his courageous, lonely vigil during the arid decades of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, a vigil marked by a stream of unpopular books and papers, and by patient, unperturbed teaching and lecturing to whomever he was able to influence. It was this painful, unappreciated work which kept Austrian ideas alive during the years of eclipse.

Thus it was that, during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Austrian economics declined to permit itself to be relegated to the dustbin of intellectual history. Instead Austrian economics identified itself with unprecedented clarity not as a primitive approach displaced by intellectual advance, but rather as a unique set of ideas the subtlety of which had hitherto escaped attention. Sooner or later the richness of these ideas, and the depth of understanding they convey, would come to be appreciated.

If there is hope today for a resurgence in Austrian economics, then the unsung contributions of Mises during the decades of eclipse indeed assume historic proportions.

There is, in fact, considerable room for hope. Looking to the future, I would submit, it is our obligation to see to it that indeed Mises will be remembered in the long sweep of the history of economic thought as the pivotal figure responsible for a late-twentieth-century rediscovery of the fruitfulness and the subtlety of subjectivist economics. In this rediscovery process, the Misesian commitment to strict ideological neutrality, to an almost puritanical wertfreiheit, must never be relaxed. And yet, one senses, it is precisely the truths that such a wertfrei pursuit of praxeology can reveal, that would be likely to gladden the heart of Mises, the devoted adherent of the ideals of Western civilization, the passionate lover of human liberty.

The above originally appeared in The Free Market 26, no. 2 (February 2005) and online at

1 comment:

  1. “The possibility that today, as we mark the one-hundredth birthday of our teacher, the climate of professional opinion may to some extent be changing, offers us an opportunity to appraise the place of Mises within the broader perspective of the history of economic understanding.”
    Since Mises was born in 1881, it’s likely this article was written in 1981.