The Story of the Mises Institute
[The Free Market, May 1988]
The Mises Institute comes at both economic scholarship and applied political philosophy from a very different perspective. It believes that “policy analysis” without principle is mere flim-flam and ad-hocery—murky political conclusions resting on foundations of sand. It also believes that policy analysis that does not rest on scholarly principles is scarcely worth the paper it is written on or the time and money devoted to it. In short, that the only worthwhile analysis of the contemporary political and economic scene rests consistently on firm scholarly principles.
On the other hand, the Mises Institute challenges the all-too-prevalent view that to be scholarly means never, ever to take an ideological position. On the contrary, to the Mises Institute, the very devotion to truth on which scholarship rests necessarily implies that truth must be pursued and applied wherever it may lead—including the realm of current affairs. Economic scholarship divorced from application is only emasculated intellectual game-playing, just as public policy analysis without scholarship is chaos cut off from principle.
And so we see the real point underlying the uniqueness of the Mises Institute’s twin programs of scholarship and application: the artificial split between the two realms is healed at last. Scholarly principles are carried forward into the analysis of government and its machinations, just as contemporary political economy now rests on sound scholarly research. From first axioms to applications, both scholarship and applied economics are an integrated whole, at long last.
And now, too, we see the real point behind the title of the Mises Institute. It is no accident that the Institute is the only organization in the United States that honors Ludwig von Mises in its title. For Ludwig von Mises, in his life and in his work, exemplified as no other man the fusion, the integration, of scholarly principle and principled application. Mises, one of the greatest intellects and scholars of the 20th century, scorned any notion that scholarship should remain content with abstract theorizing and never, ever apply its principles to public policy.
On the contrary, Mises always combined scholarship with policy conclusions. A man of high courage, a scholar with unusual integrity, Ludwig von Mises never knew any other way than pursuing truth to its ultimate conclusions, however unpopular or unpalatable. And, as a result, Ludwig von Mises was the greatest and most uncompromising champion of human freedom in the 20th century.
It is no wonder, then, that the timorous and the venal habitually shy away from the very name of Ludwig von Mises. For Mises scorned all obstacles and temptations in the pursuit of truth and freedom. In raising the proud banner of Ludwig von Mises, the Mises Institute has indeed set up a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.
The Mises Institute is expanding and flourishing as never before. Its scholarly journal, a high level journal in the theory and applications of Austrian economics, serves to expand and develop the truths of Austrian economics. But it also nurtures Austrians, encourages new, young Austrians to read and write for the journal, and finds mature Austrians heretofore isolated and scattered in often lonely academic outposts, but who are now stimulated to write and submit articles.
These men and women now know that they are not isolated, that they are part of a large and growing nationwide and even international movement. Any of us who remember what it was like to find even one other person who agreed with our seemingly eccentric views in favor of freedom and the free market will appreciate what I mean, and how vitally important has been the growing role of the Mises Institute.
The Institute’s comprehensive program in Austrian education also includes publishing and distributing working papers, books, and monographs, original and reprinted, and holding conferences on a variety of important economic topics, and later publishing the conference papers in book form. Its monthly policy letter, The Free Market, provides incisive commentary on the world of political economy from an Austrian perspective.
Last but emphatically not least, the Institute sponsors a phenomenally successful week-long summer conference in the Austrian School. This program, which features a remarkable faculty, has attracted the best young minds from the world over, and gained deserved recognition as the most rigorous and comprehensive program anywhere. Here, leading Austrian economists engage in intensive instruction and discussion with students in a lovely campus setting. Participants are literally the best, the brightest and the most eager budding Austrians. From there they go on to develop, graduate, and themselves teach as Austrian scholars, or become businessmen or other opinion leaders imbued with the truth and the importance of Austrian and free- market economics.
The Institute encourages fellowship and an esprit de corps among faculty and students. These friendships and associations may be lifelong, and they are vital for building any sort of vibrant or cohesive long-run movement for Austrian economics and the free society.
The basic point of this glittering spectrum of activities is twofold: to advance the discipline, the expanding, integrated body of truth that is Austrian economics; and to build a flourishing movement of Austrian economists. No science, no discipline, develops in thin air, in the abstract; it must be nurtured and advanced by people, by individual men and women who talk to each other, write to and for each other, interact and help build the body of Austrian economics and the people who sustain it.
The remarkable achievement of the Mises Institute can only be understood in the context of what preceded it, and of the conditions it faced when it began in 1982. In 1974, leading Mises student F.A. Hayek won the Nobel Prize in economics, a startling change from previous Nobel awards, exclusively for mathematical Keynesians. 1974 was also the year after the death of the great modern Austrian theorist and champion of freedom, Ludwig von Mises. Hayek’s prize sparked a veritable revival in this long-for-gotten school of economic thought. For several years thereafter, annual scholarly week-long conferences gathered the leading Austrian economists of the day, as well as the brightest young students; and the papers delivered at these meetings became published volumes, reviving and advancing the Austrian approach. Austrian economics was being revived from forty years of neglect imposed by the Keynesian Revolution—a revolution that sent the contrasting and once flourishing school of Austrian economics down the Orwellian memory hole.
In this burgeoning Austrian revival, there was one fixed point so obvious that it was virtually taken for granted: that the heart and soul of Austrianism was, is, and can only be Ludwig von Mises, this great creative mind who had launched, established and developed the twentieth-century Austrian school, and the man whose courage and devotion to unvarnished, uncompromised truth led him to be the outstanding battler for freedom and laissez-faire economics in our century. In his ideas, and in the glory of his personal example, Mises was an inspiration and a beacon-light for us all.
But then, in the midst of this flourishing development, something began to go wrong. After the last successful conference in the summer of 1976, the annual high-level seminars disappeared. Proposals to solidify and expand the success of the boom by launching a scholarly Austrian journal, were repeatedly rebuffed. The elementary instructional summer seminars continued, buttheir tone began to change. Increasingly, we began to hear disturbing news of an odious new line being spread: Mises, they whispered, had been “too dogmatic, too extreme,” he “thought he knew the truth,” he “alienated people.”
Yes, of course, Mises was “dogmatic,” i.e. he was totally devoted to truth and to freedom and free enterprise. Yes, indeed, Mises, even though the kindliest and most inspiring of men, “alienated people” all the time, that is, he systematically alienated collectivists, socialists, statists, and trimmers and opportunists of all stripes.
And of course such charges were nothing new. Mises had been hit with these smears all of his valiant and indomitable life. The terribly disturbing thing was that the people mouthing these canards all knew better: for they had all been seemingly dedicated Misesians before and during the “boom” period.
It soon became all too clear what game was afoot. Whether independently or in concert, the various people and groups involved in this shift had made a conscious critical decision: they had come to the conclusion they should have understood long before, that praxeology, Austrian economics, uncompromising laissez-faire were popular neither with politicians nor with the Establishment. Nor were these views very “respectable” among mainstream academics. The small knot of wealthy donors decided that the route to money and power lay elsewhere, while many young scholars decided that the road to academic tenure was through cozying up to attitudes popular in academia instead of maintaining a commitment to often despised truth.
But these trimmers did not wish to attack Mises or Austrianism directly; they knew that Ludwig von Mises was admired and literally beloved by a large number of businessmen and members of the intelligent public, and they did not want to alienate their existing or potential support. What to do? The same thing that was done by groups a century ago that captured the noble word “liberal” and twisted it to mean its opposite—statism and tyranny, instead of liberty. The same thing that was done when the meaning of the U.S. Constitution was changed from a document that restricted government power over the individual, to one that endorsed and legitimated such power. As the noted economic journalist Garet Garrett wrote about the New Deal: “Revolution within the form,” keep the name Austrian, but change the content to its virtual opposite. Change the content from devotion to economic law and free markets, to a fuzzy nihilism, to a mushy acceptance of Mises’s ancient foes: historicism, institutionalism, even Marxism and collectivism. All, no doubt, more “respectable” in many academic circles. And Mises? Instead of attacking him openly, ignore him, and once in a while intimate that Mises really, down deep, would have agreed with this new dispensation.
Into this miasma, into this blight, at the point when the ideas of Ludwig von Mises were about to be lost to history for the second and last time, and when the very name of “Austrian” had been captured from within by its opposite, there entered the fledgling Mises Institute.
The Ludwig von Mises Institute began in the fall of 1982 with only an idea; it had no sugar daddies, no endowments, no billionaires to help it make its way in the world. In fact, the powers-that-be in what was now the Austrian “Establishment” tried their very worst to see that the Mises Institute did not succeed.
The Mises Institute persisted, however, inspired by the light of truth and liberty, and gradually but surely we began to find friends and supporters who had a great love for Ludwig von Mises and the ideals and principles he fought for throughout his life. The Institute found that its hopes were justified: that there are indeed many more devoted champions of freedom and the free market in America. Our journal and conferences and centers and fellowships have flourished, and we were able to launch a scholarly but uncompromising assault on the nihilism and statism that had been sold to the unsuspecting world as “Austrian” economics.
The result of this struggle has been highly gratifying. Thousands of students are exposed to the Austrian School as a radical alternative to mainstream theory. For the light of truth has prevailed over duplicity. There are no longer any viable competitors for the name of Austrian. The free market again has principled and courageous champions. Justice, for once, has triumphed. Not only is the Austrian economic revival flourishing as never before, but it is now developing soundly within a genuine Austrian framework. Above all, Austrian economics is once again, as it ever shall be, Misesian.
Editor’s Note: Rothbard wrote this article in 1988 when the Institute was less than six years old, so it contains no news of such programs as the Austrian Economics Research Conference, dissertation, post-doctoral and summer fellows, Mises.org, nor the 21 other Mises Institutes in as many foreign countries. NB: this article is nevertheless slightly updated.
Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995) was chief academic officer of the Mises Institute and professor of economics at UNLV. He was the author of thousands of articles and 25 books, including the one that launched the Austrian Revival, Man, Economy, and State. See Murray N. Rothbard’s article archives.
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