Thursday, March 20, 2014

Unacceptable Greatness in an Interventionist Age


This review has two major parts. The first part is about the book, which I divided into three sections: writing style, content, and other benefits in reading the book. The second part is about my personal reflection, which I presented Margit's response to the silence of journalists and economists about the influence of Mises, and three reasons for the greatness of the man. And then I concluded with the danger of mainstream ignorance.

About the Book

1. Writing style

I am impressed with the author's writing style, I was hooked, and did not stop reading until I finished it. I think it took me around 10 to 12 hours to complete it. I really enjoyed reading the book. 

While reading, I sense numerous connections between the writer's stories and my world. I cannot enumerate them all. This review will show those connections. 

I like Margit's joke that she is "the human touch" (p. 44) in her husband's life. I need a reminder like that.

I admire Margit's memory and mastery of English language. Her stories were so detailed, and like an artist she beautifully painted her words especially in describing their friends and acquaintances, the places they visited, and the sad stories she narrated. I feel as if I am watching a beautiful movie leaving me with an unusual impression. 

2. Content

  • As to Mises' weaknesses

True to her words, Margit von Mises showed us the other side of her husband. She described her man as lonely and mysterious, not a good driver, didn't like to wait, and not interested in money. This last description puzzled me for if I were in his case, I would have used my economic knowledge in a more profitable way. 

Mises had other limitations. All his political and economic foresights came true except one, his mistaken assessment of France's strength to resist Hitler's aggressions. As normal man, Mises also had his own share of fears, and among them, I think losing Margit was the greatest of all. He showed it when he met Margit and Gitta at the station in Zurich. His other fears were related to his hesitation and temper. When Margit convinced him to leave Geneva due to Hitler's threat, he was hesitant that time to move to America, and one reason was his fear of language difference (p. 54). And still another fear was connected to his work as an economist. He knew that the world was in serious danger due to its rejection of capitalism and liberalism. And this gave him depression and sense of hopelessness that caused him to flare up even on small things. Margit explained the nature of this fear and outbursts of emotion: 

". . . . I believe I understand the reason for them. Lu wrote some notes in 1940, and I read them again and again. He wrote of Austria and of Carl Menger, who as early as 1910 recognized that not only Austria but the whole world was getting nearer to a catastrophe. Lu, thinking alike, tried to fight this with all the means he had at his disposal. But he recognized the fight would be hopeless, and he got depressed as were all the best minds in Europe in the twenties and thirties. He knew that if the world would turn its back to capitalism and liberalism (in the old sense of the word) it would tumble into wars and destruction that would mean the end of civilization. This terrible fight against corruption, against the foes of liberty and the free market had broken the spirit of Menger, had thrown a dark shadow over the life of Lu's teacher and friend Max Weber, and had destroyed the vitality and the will to live of his friend and collaborator Wilhelm Rosenberg" (pp. 44-45).
"Theirs was a fight for a world that did not want to be helped. Few people recognized the danger, and even fewer were ready to fight alongside Lu. It was like being on a sinking ship on which people were dancing though the end was near. Lu recognized the danger. He knew how to help his fellow passengers. He tried to lead them to the right exit, but they did not follow him-and now doom knocked at the door" (ibid.). 
  • Margit as a mother and wife
Ludwig von Mises was a blessed man to have Margit as a wife. As a widow with two children, she managed to support them through her job. She also displayed strength of character by waiting for Mises' decision to marry her despite the existence of other options, which economically speaking would be more advantageous on her part (pp. 29-30). Her love for Mises is far more important to her than material well-being. As a wife aiming for a successful marriage, she was also willing to change her priority to make her husband happy by making her husband's life her life (p. 45). I think Margit achieved such union of life. We know that she possessed her husband's mind by sharing to us her special dream:
"If I myself could realize one special dream, it would be that every president of the United States should get for his inauguration a complete set of Lu's books, destined for the Oval Office in the White House. These books should be marked for special recommended readings concerning government interference, socialism, and inflation. Perhaps they would help to preserve freedom in the United States. My second wish would be that every university or college where economics and political science are taught would - of their own free will - add a course on freedom of the market to their curriculum" (p. 181).
  • Other qualities of Mises
Margit saw her husband as punctual and patient with the shortcomings of others. She also described him as "a great defender of women" (p. 141). Many of those who attended his seminar in Vienna were intelligent women who "later became leading figures in economics and education" (ibid.). Proving Mises high regard for women, Margit quoted from Socialism: " 'All mankind would suffer if woman should fail to develop her ego and be unable to unite with man as equal, freeborn companions and comrades . . . . To preserve the freedom of inner life for the woman, is the real problem of women: it is part of the cultural problem of humanity' " (ibid.).

Another interesting aspect of Mises' personality was his concern for the intellectual development of his wife. Prior to their marriage, Mises gave Socialism and The Theory of Money and Credit to Margit. The latter admitted that the content of these two books was difficult for her, and it took her years to understand them (p. 30). Moreover, even after marriage, Margit perceived that travelling with Mises was like taking "a private course in history and art" (p. 49).

3. Other benefits in reading the book 

Besides from what have already been mentioned, other benefits in reading the book include practical suggestion in the use of waiting time, wise advice to students with socialist professors, and insights as to the basic tools for public speakers. Ludwig once told his wife that Boehm-Bawerk gave a suggestion to his male students to bring a book always with them once they decided to get married (p. 50). In this way, they can wisely use their time while waiting for their wives. 

Moreover, in the case of students forced "to read socialist and leftist literature" (p.172), Mises advised them to follow their professors so that they will know "the subject from every point of view, be it socialist-Marxist, liberal, libertarian" (p. 173), and only in that way they can "decide what is right and what is wrong," only then they are prepared to engage in intellectual exchange because they are aware of all questions their opponents will throw at them. 

Furthermore, a public speaker of substance is first of all a thinker and a writer. As a thinker, the role of an active audience or listeners is very important in processing ideas (p. 65). And as a writer, for Ludwig, paper and pen should always be handy to express one's ideas in writing; Margit added peace of mind (pp. 60-61). And still another skill required for public speakers is proper pronunciation of the language being used (pp. 72-73). 

Nevertheless, there are other lessons we can learn in facing critical times. If we fail to learn them, there is a big possibility that the past will be repeated due to absence of awareness about the destructive consequence of the expansion of statist and interventionist ideas. In a time of crisis, the ability to survive is crucial in order to escape the powerful claws of the state. In particular, I remember here the situation of certain Dr. Helene Lieser, a very intelligent woman who married an unknown man in order to avoid Hitler's power. Margit narrated that such unfortunate event was common in Austria: 
"Such marriages were very common. They were marriages in name only and were never consummated. The man who married a woman in this way asked a high price for giving her his name and the opportunity for her to leave Austria. He also consented to immediate divorce once his 'wife' was safely out of the country" (p. 52). 
Finally, I could not erase in my mind the scene of Mises' last day here on earth. I include this here as part of benefits in reading the book to remind us of our own mortality. Margit described this in the last chapter, Our Last Years Together:
"We now lived very quietly, but nevertheless I invited friends every week, for I did not want Lu to feel isolated. The ones he loved to see most were Larry Fertig, Henry Hazlitt, and Percy and Bettina. They all had strong, clear voices, spoke distinctly, and chose subjects that interested Lu, so he could participate in the conversation. But mostly he wanted to be alone with me. 'If it were not for you,' he often said, 'I would not want to live anymore' " (p. 179). 
"Lu's mind was especially clear the day before his death. He held my hand all day long, but he was very weak and his voice was barely audible when he told me in the evening, 'You look so tired; you must go home now and get some rest.' At 9 P. M. the doctor insisted on my leaving. Shortly afterward, Lu went into a coma and never woke up. He died at 8:30 in the morning of October 10, 1973. His doctor and three of the kindest young floor nurses were with him" (p. 180). 
I wish to be reminded by this section of the book or similar to this in facing my own death. However, I want my sons to be with me and one of them reading selected portion of the Bible with a hymn praising God as a background music. 

Personal Reflection

1. Margit's Response

Margit von Mises provided a response to the question about the silence of economists and journalists after Mises' death. Her response will give us a hint about the reason for such silence. I consider this kind of silence really intriguing for there is no question in the mind of those who are familiar with Mises' works about the greatness of the man. 

Margit saw her husband as a great man - "a great thinker, a great scholar, a great teacher" (p. 7). I am not sure if "greatness" is suitable to describe other aspects of Mises' life - his courage, love for his wife, and friendship. But one thing is sure, these aspects of Mises' life contributed to the man that he is. 

In chapter 8, Margit narrated the story of her husband's magnum opus, the Human Action. In it we learn how a coward and an invisible enemy hid behind the impersonality of Yale University Press to sabotage the spread of Mises' ideas, and yet at the same time his enemy refused to reject the publication of Mises' book due to anticipated profit. Such an attack happened during the second revised edition of the book. Margit quoted Henry Hazlitt's explanation of that attack "in 'Mangling a Masterpiece,' an article in the May 5, 1964, National Review":
The Press does not honor Professor Mises in this new edition. And it does not honor itself. The new edition is a typographical disgrace.

The 1949 edition was originally priced at $10; the revised edition is offered at $15. Yet qualitatively it is cheaper in every respect. It is full of misprints. On page 322 four lines are omitted. Page 468 is missing altogether. Page 469 is printed twice. On page 563 two paragraphs are transposed. On page 615 eight lines are wrong. The running heads that appeared at the top of each page of the 1949 edition are all gone.

In belated reparation, the Yale University Press has printed errata pages (though they are not bound in). But these make wholly inadequate amends for an inexcusable printing job. On page after page one finds some paragraphs printed in a comparatively light type, and others in a blacker, thicker type that can only be described as at least quasi-boldface. The reader will inevitably assume that this marked contrast is intentional, and that the author meant to give special emphasis to the passages printed in Accidental Bold....

I started to note merely the pages on which the contrast in type between various paragraphs was particularly glaring, and got a list of seventy. I leave it to the Yale Press to explain the technical reasons for the type contrasts....

I have said nothing about the uncountable instances in which whole pages of quasi-boldface are found opposite whole pages of lighter type. This must irritate any reader sensitive to typographical tidiness; but it is at least less likely to mislead him into supposing that changes in emphasis are intended. What possible human explanation can there be for this typographical botch, which would disgrace a third-rate commercial publisher? Who reads galley proofs? Who saw page proofs? Who let this mess pass?

I asked Professor Mises what light he could throw on the matter. He was able to supply very little, because the publishers had been extraordinarily reticent. It appears that, in order to do as cheap a job as possible, the press had resorted to some mixture of photo-offset and reset never tried before. When Dr. Mises asked for page proofs, they were denied "for mechanical reasons." When he protested, Chester Kerr, director of the press, replied on Jan. 22, 1963: "We are entirely willing to take responsibility for seeing that the new edition of Human Action is printed without error. I am confident that you will have no cause to regret not having seen page proofs." When the first copies were sent out to the distributors, the author did not receive one.

The Press has conceded in a letter of Sept. 30 that "the general quality of the work is undeniably below our customary standard." But it apparently does not intend to do anything but go on selling the new edition at $15. The least reparation that could be made, to the author and to the readers of Human Action, would be to order the press to start on a new edition immediately (instead of waiting till the present botched edition is exhausted), and meanwhile to sell copies of the present edition at a cut price in candid recognition of their defectiveness.

A final question. Why, in a press that has shown itself capable of producing first-rate work, did this particular book go wrong? Do the present editors of the Yale University Press (who are not those who originally accepted the book) know that this is the most important work on general economic theory that has appeared In our generation? They know it is commercially profitable; they know it sold six printings and brought in revenues from translation and quotation. But if they had any idea of its true greatness, if they even had any real respect for its author and its readers, if they had any respect for their press' own reputation, would they have permitted such a slovenly edition to go out under its imprint? (pp. 110-112). 
The person behind the attack on Mises and his book remained unidentified until his death. His wife knew that ideological differences were the primary reasons. And though Mises' ideas are now gaining increasing number of followers, such differences are still evident today. The common descriptions associated to Austrian school attest to this. Revisionist, alternative, and contrarian are the usual designations given to the school championed by Mises. 

2. Three Reasons for Mises' Greatness

Besides being a great man in the eyes of his wife, the greatness of Mises can also be measured by the size and number of his ideological enemies, and the extent of his intellectual influence. 

Mises' name was on the black list of both the Nazis and the Russians (pp. 35, 53). His writings were hated by all socialists including the American version. Margit recalled what the Nazis did on the night they arrived to Vienna: "They had rushed into the apartment where Lu had lived with his mother, had taken his valuable library, his writings, his documents and everything they found of importance, packed it all into thirty-eight cases, and drove away" (p. 35). Primarily, chapters 2 to 4 gave us an overview of Mises' ideological enemies. The story of Human Action mentioned earlier in chapter 8 also provides us another concrete example of hostility to Mises' ideas. 

Concerning Mises' influence, we can just select here few examples for its extent reaches numerous prominent personalities who became strong defenders of free market in various institutions and different parts of the world. We see here what someone said "the power of compound ideas." The material is scattered throughout the book, and specifically found in chapters 5 to 7, 9, and 10. 

At the end of chapter 8, you will see pictures from pages 115 to 132, which I assume the personalities in those pictures have been influenced by Ludwig von Mises in one way or another. You can see there Wilhelm Roepke, F. A. von Hayek, Philip Cortney, Sylvester Petro, Professor Vernon Carbonari, George Koether, Henry Hazlitt, Otto von Habsburg, Fritz Matchlup, Leonard E. Read, Lawrence Fertig, and Jacques Rueff. I googled each of them, and most of them are influential free market defenders. 

In browsing other chapters of the book, you will gain an overview of Mises' intellectual influence by identifying several key positions that he held. He became "the full-time legal adviser and financial expert of the Chamber of Commerce; he had his lectures at the University of Vienna; he had his seminar; he had conferences and luncheons with visiting authorities . . . . " (pp. 31-32). 

"The Austrian ambassador, Baron von Phuegl," was a frequent visitor (p. 49). In 1940, Mises "delivered a lecture before a banking seminar at the School of Business, Columbia University, on 'Postwar Economic Reconstruction of Europe'; on November 19 he spoke at the Political Economy Club on the 'Non-Neutrality of Money' " (p. 64). On the same year, "he had lunch with Drs. Herbert B. Dorau and J. T. Madden, dean of the School of Commerce and Finance," which both demonstrated "a lively interest in him" (p. 69). 

In 1941, he "met Senor Montes de Oca, former secretary of the treasury of Mexico and at that time president of Mexico's Banco Internationale" (p. 74). This bank president displayed familiarity with all of Mises' books. In 1942, Mises held a lecture in Mexico attended by Dr. Gustavo Velasco, Montes de Oca's relative, and Eduardo Suarez, the Mexican Minister of finance (pp. 78-79). The former "is one of Lu's greatest admirers" and claimed that he "translated at least half a dozen of Mises' writings" (p. 79). (I think translating Mises' books into other languages is another practical project to spread his ideas to greater number of readers). 

Other names influenced by Mises include "Frank Dierson, a prominent lawyer in New York City. . . ." (p. 133); "Jack Holman, who for many years was director of Johnson & Johnson and has a Ph.D. in economics and is a licensed professional engineer in the state of New York, . . . ." (p. 134); Hans Sennholz who "had studied law and political science in Germany, and in 1949" studied economics at NYU, attended Lu's seminar for years, and became the head "of the Economics Department at Grove City College" (p. 136); even the famous Ayn Rand once attended Mises' lecture in 1957-58 (p. 138); and of course not to mention other influential economists such as F. A. Hayek, Israel Kirzner, and Henry Hazlitt. Furthermore, just want to add three unusual students, which include a Filipina, Phebes Tan (p. 139), and two Jesuit priests, William McInnes and Michael Mansfeld who are also both professors of economics (p. 138). 

Reaching chapters 10 and 11, we find Mises remained active even months after his illness. "He wrote articles for The Freeman" and contributed few to "Dr. Howard E. Kershner's Christian Economics" (p. 153). 

Three more people deserve concluding attention due to the importance of their words about the influence of Mises. One is Sylvester Petro, "professor of labor law at NYU" and also served as "director of Wake Forest Institute for Labor Policy Analysis in WinstonSalem, North Carolina" (p. 157). He described Mises intellect and books as follows: 
"I told him in that letter that I had never encountered such a work and thought it should easily rank among the greatest writings of mankind.... The main things that attracted me to Lu were the virtually superhuman qualities of intellect, of judgment, and of wisdom that he possessed in such extraordinary abundance. I have done my fair share of reading in the classics, in logic, in philosophy, in epistemology, in law, in economics, in social theory, in politics and all the rest. In spite of this rather wide reading, Lu's work seemed to stand out sharply and brilliantly. It was on a different level from anything I had ever read before" (ibid.).
The second person is Lawrence Fertig. His comparison between mainstream economists and Ludwig von Mises is worthy of attention:
"Economic historians of the 21st Century will undoubtedly bepuzzled by the reception accorded to economic theorists of the 20th Century. They will be particularly puzzled by what occurred in the span of years between World War I and 1970.... Great honors were showered on economists whose major accomplishments had been to promote a major inflation which, by the end of the 20th Century, was acknowledged to be the source of tremendous social unrest and economic crises. These were the fashionable economists who were sponsored by wealthy Foundations and indeed by most of the intellectuals of Academe. But when economic historians of the future came to evaluate precisely who had made the most significant contributions to economic theory-to those broad and fundamental principles which explain human actions in the practical world people must live in-their puzzlement increased. For they could find only a meager record of academic honors or monetary prizes by leading ivy-league universities accorded to the one economist who had discovered and formulated some of the most brilliant economic theories of that century. His name was Ludwig von Mises" (p.178).
And then the third person is Leonard Read. The message of the plaque he presented on the 89th birthday of Ludwig von Mises captured the greatness of Mises' ideas:
"To A Great Teacher: You, Mises, are truly a Teacher. Two generations of students have studied under you, and countless thousands of others have learned from your books. Books and students are enduring monuments of a Teacher, and these monuments are yours. This generation of students will pass away, but the ideas set in motion by your writings will be a fountain source of new students for generations to come" (p.133). 
And of course the most important of all is the personal assessment of the writer herself, the wife of Ludwig von Mises. This is how Margit summed up her husband's character:
"His most eminent qualities were his inflexible honesty, his unhesitating sincerity and his unflinching patriotism. He never yielded. He always freely enunciated what he considered to be true. If he had been prepared to suppress or only to soften his criticism of popular, but obnoxious policies the most influential positions and offices would have been offered to him. But he never compromised. This firmness marks him as one of the outstanding characters in this age" (p. 181).
Conclusion

One time, I read a reputable professor described Mises' ideas as concrete and superb, but old-fashioned, and no longer applicable in guiding us from the maze of present-day problems. I see it as an excuse for laziness and ignorance. 

If Mises' ideas are inapplicable today, what type of answers can we expect in facing critical issues, which are taken for granted by the majority of intellectuals and those in authority? The violation of moral law of existing monetary system, the many faces of socialism, the popularity of the mindset against free-market capitalism, the harm caused by statist and interventionist policies, and the unproductivibility of state bureaucratism are the primary economic issues need to be dealt with if we hope to see a brighter future for our civilization. What will give the entrepreneurs, non-professional economists and writers, or any citizen willing to seriously thinks the necessary mental tools to be able to see the consequences of destructive ideas? Perhaps, it is more appropriate to say that exactly the absence of such analytical tools provided by Mises both in mainstream education and media is the primary reason for the invisibility and widespread influence of those destructive forces.