Mises on Inflationary Pride and Deflationary Blame | Hayek on the Success of Socialist Ideas | Block’s “Is There an ‘Anomalous’ Section of the Laffer Curve?” | “Grounding Political Debate”
Mises on Inflationary Pride and Deflationary Blame
Mencken’s low opinion of humanity and their prospects for improvement is further supported by Ludwig von Mises’s summary of the world economy:
The boom produces impoverishment. But still more disastrous are its moral ravages. It makes people despondent and dispirited. The more optimistic they were under the illusory prosperity of the boom, the greater is their despair and their feeling of frustration. The individual is always ready to ascribe his good luck to his own efficiency and to take it as a well-deserved reward for his talent, application, and probity. But reverses of fortune he always charges to other people, and most of all to the absurdity of social and political institutions. He does not blame the authorities for having fostered the boom. He reviles them for the inevitable collapse. In the opinion of the public, more inflation and more credit expansion are the only remedy against the evils which inflation and credit expansion have brought about.1
The entire passage, especially the last sentence, is very Menckenian.
F.A. Hayek’s “The Intellectuals and Socialism” explores why socialists were so successful in communicating their ideas. Hayek said it is because the socialist experts remained radical and utopian, had long-term aims, and left the compromising to others. They did not have a “naive view of mass democracy” and try “directly to reach and to persuade the individual voter.” Rather, they “directed their main effort toward gaining the support of [the intellectual] ‘elite.’”2 The definition of “elite,” “expert” and “intellectual” that Hayek uses may not be the most intuitive definitions, and perhaps that alone explains why some think tanks erroneously think they are following Hayek’s strategy when they gain the ear of ambitious present and future politicians. Many self-proclaimed free market think tanks quote Hayek’s flowery call to action and ultimatum from the end of that essay prominently on their mission statements:
Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.3
The passage is found at the conclusion of the essay. It is a concluding statement that had many reasons behind it, but the passage itself does not emphasise them clearly, probably because it is meant more as a signing-off than a summary. In the paragraph immediately above the previous quote, Hayek is as plainspoken and content-strong as can be:
What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty (including the trade unions), which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are prepared to resist the blandishments of power and influence and who are willing to work for an ideal, however small the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote. The practical compromises they must leave to the politicians. Free trade and freedom of opportunity are ideals which still may arouse the imaginations of large numbers, but a mere “reasonable freedom of trade” or a mere “relaxation of controls” is neither intellectually respectable nor likely to inspire any enthusiasm.4
Most think tanks that use the first block-quote in this subsection, ignore the second. They avoid utopian thought, and, seemingly as a result, have utopian expectations for their strategy of compromising to the current intellectual climate and espousing a mere “reasonable freedom of trade” and “relaxation of controls.”
Ignoring the Austrian school of economics is bad enough, but quoting Hayek on strategy misleadingly, that’s a different dimension of debasement. Perhaps no one in those think tanks has read the essay, and just repeat the quote they found elsewhere. That Hayek himself did not always follow his own instructions may also be to blame.
Hayek displays a more polite and “constructive” tone in his writing compared to Mencken. Hayek believed “it is neither selfish interests nor evil intentions but mostly honest convictions and good intentions”5 that determine the views of political apologists, and that what is needed is for them to be shown the error of their ways. It is interesting to note how perfectly compatible Hayek and Mencken are on strategy, despite having different reasons for being so.
Block’s “Is There an ‘Anomalous’ Section of the Laffer Curve?”
Walter Block’s “Is There an ‘Anomalous’ Section of the Laffer Curve?” explains why lower taxes, drug legalisation and a voluntary rather than drafted military may not result in libertarian outcomes.6 Lower taxes, with the Laffer Curve, may result in the enrichment and enlargement of government through taxes. Drug legalisation may result in government taxing drugs and enriching and englarging itself from it. And a voluntary military may mean that wars are not as unpopular and rare as they would be with a draft.
Block explores what this means from the perspective of enforcing law and punishing law-breakers. Applying the same arguments to the question of activism strategy raises an even larger difficulty for the libertarian movement. For example, consider Hayek’s comment:
It may be that a free society as we have known it carries in itself the forces of its own destruction, that once freedom has been achieved it is taken for granted and ceases to be valued, and that the free growth of ideas which is the essence of a free society will bring about the destruction of the foundations on which it depends.7
As the saying goes, “he who endeavors to conquer more efficiently the passing over of a ditch sometimes reduces the difficulty by stepping back eight or ten paces.”8 Libertarians often find that taking things to their logical extremes with verbal argumentation is a good way to get the message across. Surely, taking things to their logical extremes with real world occurrences would serve the same purpose. And when all is calm it may make sense to stick to the straight and narrow, but rarely are people calm and considerate when it comes to politics, so sailing in a crooked zig-zag manner, depending on which way the winds of sentiment are blowing, may make political sense and be less precarious than trying to stick to the straight and narrow.
Given these arguments, Mencken’s attitude, beliefs and choices are further vindicated. Writing to persuade can leave you with many peculiar stances. But writing to express your libertarian beliefs is a much more straightforward enterprise, and your writing is then relevant forever and won’t come back to haunt you.
“Grounding Political Debate”
Lastly, in my essay, “Grounding Political Debate,”9 I address some common errors by libertarians that mislead them into believing: that libertarian reform would be easier than it is; that it would please and benefit as many people as they claim; and that pleasing and benefiting others is such a worthwhile aim.Footnotes
- Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 1998), p. 574. [↩]
- F.A. Hayek, The Intellectuals and Socialism (California: Institute for Humane Studies, 1971), p. 6. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 26. [↩]
- Ibid., pp. 25-26. The emboldening is my own. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 12. [↩]
- Walter E. Block, “Is There an ‘Anomalous’ Section of the Laffer Curve?“ Libertarian Papers 2, 8 (2010). [↩]
- The Intellectuals and Socialism, p. 25. That the opposite may also be true, see Alexis de Tocqueville, The State of Society in France Before the Revolution of 1789, trans. Henry Reeve (London: John Murray, 1888), p. 152:
[T]he French found their position the more intolerable the better it became … It is not always by going from bad to worse that a country falls into revolution. It happens most frequently that a people, which had supported the most crushing laws without complaint, and apparently as if they were unfelt, throws them off with violence as soon as the burden begins to be diminished. The state of things destroyed by a revolution is always slightly better than that which had immediately preceded it; and experience has shown that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is usually that when it enters upon the work of reform. Nothing short of a great political genius can save the sovereign who undertakes to relieve his subjects after a long period of oppression. The evils which were endured with patience so long as they were inevitable seem intolerable as soon as hope can be entertained about escaping from them. The abuses which are removed seem to lay bare those which remain, and to render the sense of them more acute; the evil has decreased, it is true, but the perception of the evil is more keen.
- Giordano Bruno, The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, trans. and ed. Arthur D. Imerti (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), p. 91. I don’t know if this is where the phrase originated. I’d appreciate being informed of earlier occurrences. [↩]
- Benjamin Marks, “Grounding Political Debate,” Libertarian Papers 1, 18 (2009). [↩]