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Ludwig von Mises was born 135 years ago today. 104 years ago, his first great book, Theory of Money and Credit, was published. Mises wrote this treatise in the dark, foreboding days before World War I. This gave the project urgency and greatly affected its makeup. He would later write in his Notes and Recollections,
“If I could have worked quietly and taken my time, I would have begun with a theory of direct exchange in the first volume; and then I could proceed to the theory of indirect exchange. But I actually began with indirect exchange, because I believed that I did not have much time; I knew that we were on the eve of a great war and I wanted to complete my book before the war's outbreak. I thus decided that in a few points only I would go beyond the narrow field of strictly monetary theory, and would postpone my preparation of a more complete work.”
Although still young, the economist had already mastered his science. He probably could have written something like his later magnum opus Human Action — a systematic exposition of economics and the case for classical liberalism — right then in the second decade of the 20th century.
But as fate would have it, Mises — whose ideas represented the height of the classical-liberal tradition — came on the scene at the precise moment when the Western world completely foreswore that tradition, embraced the total state, and hurled itself headlong toward self-destruction. Peace and the market were abandoned for war and planning. Mises was the ultimate knight of liberalism in two senses: he was the greatest and the last.
Mises and the Great War
The death knell of the age of liberalism could be heard in the cannonades of the First World War. And Mises had barely enough time to finish, publish, and defend his treatise on money before he himself was sent to the eastern front as an artillery officer.
Other scholars of comparable qualifications were given safe roles in war-planning offices. But Mises, whose liberal ideas were out of step with the establishment in Austria, was put directly in harm's way. One of history's greatest geniuses was a single air burst away from having his career nipped in the bud.
How tragic that would have been! Mises had not yet even written his great 1920 essay Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, which contained the single most powerful argument against central planning that had ever been formulated. Imagine the mind of the greatest critic of central planning being snuffed out by the war that represented central planning's apotheosis.
Put yourself in Mises's shoes on the front line. You, better than anyone else in history, understand the workings of the peaceful market society. You understand the fatal flaws of socialism and interventionism, and the futility of war. You have the answers! You know the societal code that would unlock and unleash humanity's potential.
But nobody will listen to you, and you are surrounded by destruction and madness. Moreover, you yourself may at any moment be devoured by this war that rages around you, and all these unwritten ideas that are bubbling over in your mind will be lost to humanity forever.
Proceed Ever More Boldly
It would be enough to break almost any man. But, fortunately for us, Mises was not only a genius but also a paragon of moral courage. In this harrowing crisis, as in all his subsequent trials, Mises bolstered that courage with a scrap of Latin poetry he had learned as a schoolboy.
“How one carries on in the face of unavoidable catastrophe is a matter of temperament. In high school, as was custom, I had chosen a verse by Virgil to be my motto: Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito. Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it. I recalled these words during the darkest hours of the war. Again and again I had met with situations from which rational deliberation found no means of escape; but then the unexpected intervened, and with it came salvation. I would not lose courage even now. I wanted to do everything an economist could do. I would not tire in saying what I knew to be true.”
And he was forever faithful to that resolution. Throughout his career, Mises was ever the picture of principled intransigence. An intellectual Leonidas, surrounded by hordes of socialists, fascists, and money cranks, he stood his ground. Even as old allies — like those swept up in the Keynesian Revolution — fell away, still he stood his ground. Still he fought. And he fought not only for the sake of future generations, but for the sake of his own.
For Mises, it was not enough to theoretically expose the folly of inflationism in The Theory of Money and Credit, a book for the ages. He also personally fought the inflationism present in interwar Austria, using his influence to save his homeland from the hyperinflation that would soon after befall Weimar Germany and contribute toward the rise of Nazism.
For Mises, it was not enough to theoretically prove the madness of socialism in Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, another book for the ages. He also personally dissuaded the most powerful man in Vienna from imposing on that city the Bolshevism that would soon after lead to famine in Russia.
He also tried to save his civilization from the ravages of war. In his 1919 book Nation, State, and Economy, Mises presented a viable path forward for Europe. The idea of self determination should be applied not just as a wartime slogan but as a political reality. Every group, no matter how small, should be free to declare independence from its ruling political entity. The principle of secession, combined with universal free trade, would bring peace. Mises even said that, if at all possible, this principle of secession should be extended all the way down to the level of the individual.
Mises offered an ominous prediction. No matter how wronged Germany feels about the terms of peace, it should pursue no acts of vengeance. Should Germany’s anger turn to revenge, the country would be destroyed, along with what remains of old-world civilization in Europe. In short, he warned of what would later become the mass slaughter Second World War.
Tragically, his anti-war efforts were not as impactful as his economic activism. Yet Mises's efforts probably saved the lives of thousands — and the livelihoods of millions. And Mises's impact was not limited to Austria. He was even able to gain ground in Germany, which was previously intellectually dominated by the "Socialists of the Chair" (Kathedersozialisten). He managed to turn the brightest young German scholars working in the social sciences toward liberalism and the free market.
Mises Versus Hitler
In his biography of Mises, Guido Hülsmann tells us of the tragic turn that followed.
“Just as Mises was finally beginning to stir the spirit of liberty among the young generation of German economists, the old Kathedersozialisten had a final and devastating triumph. On January 30, 1933, their intellectual scion, Adolf Hitler, was appointed chancellor of the German Reich.”
As the Nazi threat grew, Mises as a Jewish liberal was impelled to leave his native Austria. Later the German police would break into Mises's Vienna apartment and confiscate his papers. The Nazis knew that an office full of the written ideas of Mises was more potentially dangerous to their kind than any Allied weapons cache.
In Switzerland, Mises finally found the repose necessary to write his systematic treatise: Nationaloekonomie, the German-language precursor to Human Action.
Here finally was the "more complete work" Mises envisioned in his 30s: a magisterial exposition of the social sciences, and an irrefutable case for the liberal society.
The book fell, as David Hume said of his own great treatise, "stillborn from the press." World War II was underway. The European mind was once again gripped with madness and bent on self-destruction. It had no time or attention to give to liberalism, even in such a refined and compelling form as this.
And once again, not only were Mises's ideas endangered but his own person as well. Mises came within a hair's breadth of being kidnapped by German agents. The Swiss Alps were no longer enough to keep Mises safe from Hitler's forces.
To escape the Continent, Mises and his new wife first had to travel by bus from Switzerland to Portugal, barely keeping one step ahead of the Nazis the whole way.
Mises and FEE
They finally found safe harbor in New York City. But financial security did not come with physical safety. Mises and his wife found themselves faced with austerity like they had never known before. Most of Mises's savings had been confiscated by the Nazis. And, as accomplished as he was, Mises could not find any faculty positions, because American universities had become almost as anti-capitalistic as European academia.
If he had sold out, as did so many of his colleagues did, he might have easily secured a place in a prestigious university. But Mises was not about to back down now. As always, he found ways to get by without giving in. Tu ne cede.
In America, there was still a remnant of individualists. Many of these freedom lovers found Mises's ideas to be a revelation. From their ranks, several stepped forward to provide Mises with the financial and professional support he needed to stay productive in his later years. A great many of these supporters were associated with the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).
With this support Mises was able to once again express, this time in English (which he had rapidly learned to write masterfully), his systematic social theory in his magnum opus, Human Action. FEE played a key role in making the publication of this timeless masterpiece possible.
For a young economist named Murray Rothbard, reading Human Action was a life-changing event. He was instantly converted into a hardcore Misesian. Rothbard immediately started building on Mises's work, paving the way for the renaissance of Austrian economics that would occur in America years later. The influence of Human Action touched the lives of many other great thinkers from Ayn Rand to Gordon Tullock, and continues to do so in our own time.
Mises fought for liberty until the very end, writing books into his 80s and giving speeches into his 90s. At one of his last speeches, in the year before he died, a young physician named Ron Paul was in attendance. Dr. Paul had driven 50 miles to see Mises, and would later recollect that the event was "an inspiration."
At the end of his life, Mises had only one regret: that his powers were then failing when he still had "so much to give to the people, to the world." Mises died as he had lived: brimming with goodwill toward his fellow human beings and animated by an unrelenting drive to improve their lot in the world.
The impacts of Mises's life and work have been resounding now for over a century. Yet in the midst of the challenges we now face, his writings and his example are as timely now as they ever were. His writings show us how we may one day remedy our greatest afflictions. And his example can inspire in us the courage needed for the trials we must unavoidably face in the meantime.
Five police officers were killed and six were injured in Dallas yesterday when snipers opened fire during a protest of the recent police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. This mass shooting was a despicable act of murder.
It was also blowback.
“Blowback” is a term generally reserved for foreign policy. It refers to the reverberating ill effects of foreign interventions. Ron Paul famously and persuasively characterized the 9/11 attacks as blowback from decades of US warfare and imperialism in the Greater Middle East.
In the 1980s, American support for the anti-Soviet Mujahideen in Afghanistan helped lay the groundwork for what would become Osama bin Laden’s jihadist network, Al Qaeda. And in the 1990s, further US interventions in the Middle East spurred the jihadis to turn on their former sponsors and to wage a terrorist war on the west that culminated in the attacks on September 11, 2001.
The outrage elicited by those attacks provided cover for a massive US-led war for the Greater Middle East that rages to this day. That Long War has only served to plummet the entire region into chaos and carnage, which has caused the number of jihadis and would-be terrorists to grow exponentially. As a result, western civilians continue to suffer blowback in the form of terror attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando, Paris, Brussels, etc. These attacks are fueling Islamophobia and driving calls for further violence and repression against Muslims.
The motor of this spinning cycle of reciprocal bloodshed is collectivism. Seeing fellows attacked prompts fear and anger. Fear and anger focused by the lens of reason pinpoints individual offenders for the delivery of justice. But refracted through the lens of collectivism and primal reaction, fear and anger disperses into indiscriminate terror and hate, which scatters to cover whole populations who are ascribed collective guilt and prescribed collective punishment.
This collective punishment of innocents then prompts fear and anger among the targeted population. If they too are afflicted with collectivism, some of them will also succumb to terror and hate, which will be expressed in retaliatory indiscriminate violence: blowback. This collectivist retaliation begets further collectivist retaliation, and the cycle of violence spins out of control.
The Home Front
But this phenomenon is by no means restricted to international affairs. It can characterize civil unrest as well. Again, what we saw yesterday in Dallas was, if not something even more diabolical, blowback.
The American people feel under siege. Different populations feel besieged by different forces. Black Americans especially have suffered decades of persecution by the American “justice” system: police brutality and harassment, mass incarceration, being nickel-and-dimed by tickets and fines, etc. And especially since the summer of 2014, they have been seeing a litany of viral photos and videos of black Americans having been gunned down, throttled, and broken by the police.
This violence too is driven by collectivism. Law enforcement officers are granted an exceptional status in society: a special dispensation to mete out violence with impunity. This caste privilege has instilled deep tribalism in many police officers, which is amplified by training and police union propaganda. Cops are trained to be obsessed with “officer safety” and to effectively treat those outside the “blue tribe” (whom they ostensibly “protect and serve”) as an enemy population: as if every American they detain is a potential quick-draw gunman ready to shoot them down in a millisecond. This paranoia, combined with the impunity of the badge, is what makes an encounter with the police so potentially lethal: especially for black civilians.
Take the collectivism of “blue” tribalism explained above and add, for some individuals, the collectivism of racial terror (irrational, hateful prejudice that every black male is a potential super-predator), and you begin to understand the epidemic of police violence against American blacks.
Hate and Terror
Badges do not grant extra rights, but neither do they negate the human rights of officers.
This police violence has elicited thoroughly justified fear and anger. Virtually all of this emotional response has expressed itself in peaceful protest, led by the Black Lives Matter movement.
However, for some already-unstable individuals, it can boil over into terror, hate, and indiscriminate violence: blowback. Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley was filled with hate when he killed two off-duty NYPD officers in 2014 following the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. So was whoever killed five police officers in Dallas yesterday following the killing of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
True justice is always individual and never collective. Badges do not grant extra rights, but neither do they negate the human rights of officers. Victims of police violence have a right to protect themselves from current attacks with proportional defensive force against actual perpetrators. They or their heirs also have a right to secure restitution from the specific individuals who violated their rights. But collectivist “retribution” is neither defense nor restitution.
Just as international terrorism is often blowback from international war and occupation, the sniper attack on cops in Dallas yesterday was blowback from American police acting as a domestic army of occupation. And just as the victims of terror attacks do not deserve to be killed for the crimes of war-making politicians, the victims of yesterday’s shootings did not deserve to be killed for the crimes of other cops.
Collectivist retaliatory violence is not justice. It is despicable warfare and murder. That does not change the fact that refraining from collectivist violence is not only the right thing to do, but is also the best way to avoid collectivist retaliatory violence: that is, to avoid blowback. We are not “blaming the victim” when we counsel a foreign policy of peace. It is not only right; it is also the best way to be safe from terrorism. Neither is it “blaming the victim” to counsel a domestic policy of justice. It is not only right; it is also the best way to be safe from civil unrest and domestic terrorism.
Originally published at fee.org on July 8, 2016.
Wednesday, two shocking videos of police officers fatally shooting civilians (Alton Stirling and Philando Castile) surfaced. The day before, many were appalled to hear the Director of the FBI announce that Hillary Clinton would not be charged for mishandling classified information. The two events may seem unrelated, but at bottom, they concern the same fundamental problem: impunity.
Impunity is the essence of power. What, after all, is power? Is it simply the capacity to exert unjust force? The ability to impress one’s will upon the flesh or belongings of another? No, it’s more than that.
Most anyone can wield unjust force. Anyone could walk out onto the street right now and exert their will on somebody weaker: say, pushing over an old lady or stealing candy from a baby. And the toughest, or most heavily-armed guy in town can strong-arm just about any other single person.
But isolated incidents of aggression do not constitute power. The “reign” of the rogue rampager is generally short-lived. It only lasts until the community recognizes him as the menace to society that he is and neutralizes him.
Power isn’t simply about the exertion of unjust force. It is about what happens next, after the exertion. Does the perpetrator generally get away with, or not? Systematically getting away with it — or impunity — is where power truly lies. And that is what makes agents of the State different from any other bully. State agents can violate rights with reliable impunity because a critical mass of the public considers the aggression of state agents to be exceptionally legitimate. Impunity is power, and as Lord Acton said, power corrupts.
The Impunity of the Badge
State impunity is at the root of the problem of police violence. As agents of the exalted State, the police are seen as paladins of public order. The populace grants cops a special dispensation to commit violence that would be considered criminal if perpetrated by anybody else. This privilege is enshrined in law most clearly as the doctrine of “qualified immunity.” As Evan Bernick of the Institute for Justice wrote:
In the 1967 case of Pierson v. Ray, the Supreme Court held that police officers sued for constitutional violations can raise ‘qualified immunity’ as a defense, and thereby escape paying out of their own pockets, even if they violated a person’s constitutional rights.
When victims of police violence or their heirs seek redress and are awarded monetary payments, it is taxpayers, and not the cops, who pick up the tab. Police officers are rarely even prosecuted for violence inflicted while they’re on the clock. The worst that an offending officer can generally expect to face is getting fired, but he will more likely just get a paid suspension.
Thus insulated from responsibility, officer treatment of “mundanes” is predictably often grossly irresponsible. Confident in being sheltered from consequences by their “blue privilege,” officers are far more prone to indulge in lethal cowardice: to place “officer safety” so far above civilian rights that they are willing to gun down a stranger at the slightest whiff of potential danger. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile each carried a gun, as they have the natural right to do. Neither threatened the officers with his weapon, or even brandished it. Yet in both cases, merely becoming aware of the guns sent a cop into a murderous panic. Both Sterling and Castile were fatally shot multiple times in the chest.
The Impunity of High Office
State impunity not only corrupts the regime’s low-level enforcers, but its elite policy makers as well. The FBI let Hillary Clinton off the hook for secrecy violations she committed as Secretary of State, even though these were much more egregious than violations that have earned lower-level personnel decades in prison. She used technology that was more open to being compromised by spies and hackers, while at the same less open to legal and public scrutiny.
But the kinds of activities she was hiding are far more criminal than the fact that she hid them. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton played a key role in bringing war to such places as Libya, Syria, and Honduras, and in escalating the war in Afghanistan. She is complicit in causing untold death and misery.
Yet, thanks to her connections and her position in the state power apparatus, she faces no consequences for her crimes, and is free to acquire even more immunity and power as a likely President of the United States.
It is the “sovereign immunity” she enjoys as an office-holder that has made Hillary Clinton so reckless and cavalier about the havoc she has wreaked around the world. If she thought she might ever be held accountable for upending entire countries, she would have likely been far less warlike in her policies.
From policing to foreign policy, impunity corrupts, and absolute impunity corrupts absolutely.
Originally published at fee.org on July 7, 2016.
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