The Life and Works of Ludwig Von Mises

Article excerpt

Ludwig von Mises ( 18 81 - 19 7 3) was one of the most important economists of the twentieth century. Even if he had made no other contribution over a professional lifetime that spanned seven decades, his place in the history of economic ideas would be assured by his devastating analysis of why socialist central planning is inherently "impossible." Besides this achievement, however, he also formulated a monetary theory of the business cycle that at one point in the 1930s rivaled even the emerging Keynesian Revolution for attention.

In addition, Mises was a leading contributor to the philosophy of the social sciences, building on the legacy of the classical economists, the early Austrian school, Max Weber's sociology of meaningful action, and the "intentionalist" tradition in continental philosophy. His major economic treatise Human Action ([1949] 1996a) is a work in the grand style of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers. It lays before the reader not only a thorough analysis of the logic of human decision making and the market process, but also a theory of society and the social order with all of its philosophical, sociological, economic, and political dimensions. Though "Renaissance man" is a much misused and abused appellation, it may rightly be said that the breadth and depth of Mises's writings marked him truly as such a man even in an age of growing scientific specialization.

Finally, through his writings, teaching, and personal contacts, Mises cultivated new generations of both Austrian economists and classical liberals, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, if not for Mises's influence on a significant number of European and American scholars, writers, and even policymakers, the vision and the ideal of the liberal free-market order might have been lost in the dark decades of totalitarian collectivism and the rise of the interventionist welfare state. It is doubtful that a vibrant and growing Austrian school of economics would now exist if not for Mises's relocation to the United States, where he made a great personal and literary impact on a number of American scholars during the years of Keynesian domination in the 1950s and 1960s.

Although a number of his former students have pointed out that Mises was neither a great orator nor an especially dynamic speaker in the classroom, he fostered a deep devotion and following among groups of people beyond professional economists. Long before he came to the United States during World War II, this effect often irritated his critics, who sometimes referred rudely to a "cult" that had formed around him. (1)

In spite of this major influence on "Austrian" and classical-liberal thought, very few studies have been devoted to Mises's life and contributions, and, until recently, no detailed intellectual biography of the man and his ideas existed. (2) This scant attention stands in contrast to that devoted to the other twentieth-century giant of the Austrian school and classical liberalism, Friedrich A. Hayek (1899-1992). Indeed, in the decades that have followed Hayek's receiving the Nobel Prize in 1974, an intellectual "cottage industry" has grown up as writers across the political spectrum have devoted themselves to analyzing his ideas. Yet more than once Hayek pointed out that virtually all of his own contributions to monetary and business-cycle theory, his critique of socialism and planning, his analysis of competition and the market process, and his critical studies of scientism, positivism, and historicism were all deeply influenced, if not directly inspired, by Mises's earlier writings in every one of these areas of research.

The lack of an intellectual biography of Mises has reflected in part the paucity of knowledge about Mises the man. He was an extremely private individual who shared little about his personal life. His memoir Notes and Recollections ([1940] 1978), which was written in the autumn of 1940, shortly after he arrived in the United States, and not published until 1978, tells very little about his intellectual development or his family history. …