Ludwig von Mises:
Oscar B. Johannsen
[Reprinted from Fragments, January-March
As the libertarian movement in America gains in strength, the name of
Ludwig von Mises crops up increasingly in economic and social
literature. Who was he? He was an economist of the Austrian School,
born 1n Lemberg, Austria-Hungary (now Lvov in the Russian Ukraine) in
1881, dying 92 years later in New York City in 1973. For most
libertarians, the Austrian School is the one on which they base much
of their economic rationale.
Mises, a member of the upper class of his country, was fortunate in
being the son of cultured and educated parents. His younger brother,
Richard, made a name for himself as a positivist and mathematician.
(Ironically, Ludwig was violently opposed to positivism.)
Mises was graduated from the University of Vienna with a Dr. Jr.
degree, Doctor of both Canon and Roman Laws. Although throughout most
of his life he was a steadfast end uncompromising foe of collectivism,
in his youth he had adopted the mild socialism prevalent among the
younger generation at that time. But almost overnight, by himself, he
discovered classical liberalism and spent the rest of his life
fighting socialism and communism and upholding capitalism, as he
Long before I met Mises, I had read most of his major works,
including his magnum opus, Human Action, so I was well
acquainted with his thinking. At New York University's Graduate School
of Business Administration, I took a year's work under him shortly
before he died, and learned to admire and respect his intellectual
integrity and honesty.
As a Georgist, I would have liked to argue with him about the
treatment of land, but unfortunately, at his advanced age, because of
his impaired hearing, it was difficult to communicate with him.
However, I had the pleasure of listening to a learned scholar, who at
all times was the epitome of a 19th century gentleman, expound on the
virtues of the free market and, indirectly, on individualism.
Early in his life, he wrote The Theory of Money and Credit,
one of the finest expositions on money ever written, and as pertinent
today as when it was published. He argued that money and credit belong
in the domain of private enterprise with no interference whatsoever
from the government. As this was its primary theme, naturally it
received all manner of criticism and attack by advocates of government
spending and interference.
When Hitler arose and was about to pounce on Austria, Mises fled to
Switzerland, for he knew that if he stayed, he would be one of the
first to be liquidated. Possibly it was fortunate for society that he
had to emigrate to Switzerland. for in its tranquil atmosphere he
wrote his monumental work which ultimately became Human Action.
After the two leaders of the Austrian School, Carl Menger, the
founder, end Bohm-Bawerk, the prolific expositor, died, Mises became
the School's leading authority. One would have assumed that as such he
would have been accorded the honor and prestige which his scholarship
and work merited. However, neither in his homeland nor in America,
where he finally settled, was he given the honors due him.
What intrigued me was that here we had a recognized academician of
international standing, who was a member of the academic
establishment. advocating a free market economy so free as to be
almost anarchistic. But he paid a price. He was avoided for the most
part by his peers. It was not that he was attacked so much as that he
was treated as though his views were irrelevant.
But, of course, his views were relevant, only too relevant, for he
recognized quite clearly the direction in which the so-called
civilized nations of the world were moving-the dictatorship by the few
over the masses in the name of that great god-Socialism.
As Carl Menger had been one of the originators of the subjective
theory of value and marginal utility, it is not surprising that the
essential element in the Austrian School's approach to economics is
subjectivist. For Mises, however, the subjective theory of value was
not merely an important new economic concept. It led to an expansion
of sociological thought which went far beyond the realm of economics
into a general theory of human choice. He conceived of a universal
science, labeled praxeology, which is defined as the general theory of
human action. Economics is just one part of this science, but its most
Since praxeology is a science dealing with the actions of human
beings, economics, as a part of this general science, is really not
about goods and services, but about the actions of living men. And
what is human action? It is purposeful behavior. And what is the aim
of purposeful behavior? The end of all behavior, of all human action,
is the happiness of the individual, a delightfully Epicurean concept.
In our lifetime, we meet men and women who leave an indelible mark
upon us. I was fortunate, for example, in having known intimately such
an outstanding fighter for the individual as Frank Chodorov. Although
I did not know Mises intimately, as a result of his writings and the
little exposure I had to him, I came away with the feeling that I had
met a truly great man who believed that civilization depended on
individual freedom, and who, someday, would be accorded the honors he
was denied in his lifetime.
If Mises taught me nothing else, he did teach me by his example to
stand up and fight for what I believe in, regardless of the cost, but
always with due regard for the views of those opposing me, and with
that respectful courtesy which distinguishes a gentleman from a boor.