Mises on the Beach

When Michelle Bachmann confessed to taking the writings of Ludwig von Mises with her on vacation, I assumed she used the august Austrian economist as a soporific — not because Mises isn’t worth reading, or not exciting to read (I can’t tell you how my heart pounded when I first unleashed myself onto The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science), but because Bachmann has never said anything to suggest a scholarly or subtle mind, the kind of mind best suited for pleasure in reading Mises.

But a Salon writer, Andrew Leonard, has proven himself less dismissive of Bachmann than I. He, knowing nothing of Mises, set out to read Human Action. His conclusion? Well, he didn’t get very far into the book. But he did get far enough to tell us what he found. After reading a few chapters, he was struck by

Mises’ absolute certainty that he was right, beyond any reasonable doubt, that he had grasped an essential truth of existence, comprehended the primary engine of progress, and that anyone who might think differently is a fool or a tyrant  —  or, perhaps worst of all from my vantage-point, a “servile scribbler” fostering complacency in the face of harsh enlightenment.

Now it all makes sense to me. On the one hand, Michelle Bachmann has the word of God to guide her, as expressed through His son Jesus. On the other, there’s the word of von Mises, as expressed through the price mechanism.

This is a familiar refrain. “Mises the Dogmatist” — a man, a thinker, too certain. Dagnabit.

Funny thing is, when I read almost any deeply anti-Misesian author — say, Paul Krugman — I encounter no small amount of certainty. Indeed, Krugman calls people he disagrees with names. Often, he won’t even take the trouble to make an argument. And he’s a Nobel Prize-winning economist!

Truth is, only a few people employ a rhetoric of inquiry. Mises, like Herbert Spencer before him — indeed, like most writers — favored the rhetoric of conclusions. This is fine. Readers often prefer this style.

And here’s something I noticed: They tend to object only when they disagree with the conclusions.

Indeed, if you only notice the rhetoric of conclusions — that “sense of certainty” — when you read writers whose message you oppose, your standing as a critic of rhetoric and method seems a tad suspect. To complain about “certainty” only in enemies is one of the many “beam/mote”  tactics that (as if led by an invisible hand) embarrasses partisan debaters.

Full disclosure: I read Mises not “on the beach” with Michelle Bachmann, but in the privacy of my own study. And I do tend to agree with his conclusions.

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  • In the thousands and thousands of pages of Mises I’ve read, I’ve NEVER seen him to say either: (a) this is what I think, but I’m not sure; nor (b) this is what I think, and I’m certain I’m correct.

    Mises doesn’t waste verbiage on mumbling such as this. I’ve always inferred that he was sure enough of his conclusions to write them down for other people, but never did I infer that he was absolutely convinced of them, though his style, if superficially apprehended, could give that (incorrect) impression. The style is clear and efficient, just the way I like it.

    And yes, I agree with almost everything he says (I’ve cataloged the exceptions).