Last year often felt like the “worst of times,” in Dickens’ phrase, but the 20th century saw other terrible times. Following the Great War, political and economic instability in Europe gave rise to totalitarian ideologies that fundamentally threatened civilization itself.
Not everyone saw it coming but one intellectual who did was Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973).
While his friends and colleagues dabbled in various forms of socialist and fascist ideology, and firmly rejected liberalism as classically understood, he sent out warning shots in a 1919 book, a 1920 essay that rocked academia, and a 1922 book that pretty well settled the matter.
The 1922 treatise was Socialism. It went “viral,” as they say today. It was a devastating takedown of every conceivable form of socialist ideology, including that which was later known as national socialism. It begins with a robust theory of social cooperation and ends with a warning that once the dictators realize that their plans are failing, they will turn to purely destructive pursuits, both to save face and to exercise revenge on the social order that resisted their brilliance.
F.A. Hayek writes that it was this book which shook him of his illusions that intellectuals backed by the power of the state could drive the world into some kind of utopian state of perfect equality, holiness, efficiency, cultural homogeneity, or whatever one’s unconstrained vision happened to be. He proved that socialist ideology was a totalitarian intellectual illusion that tried to restructure the world in forms that could not be, given the realities and constraints of the world as we know it.
Near the end of the book, Mises writes a paragraph that is overwhelming in its rhetorical power. However, if you read the passage in times of peace and prosperity, it sounds admittedly overwrought, hyperbolic, perhaps designed to stir up pointless panic. However, rereading it in light of lockdowns, and the entire catastrophic year of 2020, it takes on a different cast. Indeed, it seems prescient and convicting.
I offer the whole passage here. I follow with a detailed commentary and defense.
Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders; no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle. No one can stand aside with unconcern: the interests of everyone hang on the result. Whether he chooses or not, every man is drawn into the great historical struggle, the decisive battle into which our epoch has plunged us. ~ Ludwig von Mises
It’s even better and more shocking if you read it out loud, and read it in light of the times in which we live. Let us consider this statement phrase by phrase.
“Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders,” Mises writes. Such a claim might at first be seen to be at odds with individualism – certainly rejecting what one might call “atomistic individualism.” Mises’s conviction that we all share in the burden of civilization is part empirical and part moral. His central insight in his book, as with Adam Smith’s book 150 years earlier, concerns what economists called the “division of labor,” which Mises preferred to re-render as the law of association: material productivity in society is heightened in proportion to which people of all types cooperate through trade and exchange.
It has a technical definition but the aesthetic is more powerful: it means mutual dependence of everyone on everyone else, and therefore the potential inclusion of every human person, within the structure of the market society. We only progress by focusing and specializing and that is only possible by depending on the skills and talents of others. Alone we can do nothing but languish in poverty, groveling in dirt to feed ourselves. Together we can build whole worlds that emancipate the population from the state of nature.
To whom does society owe gratitude? Not a ruling class. Not even great inventors or single companies. The pure market minus intervention does not lead to growing oligarchic control – competition, discovery, and unrelenting changes in supply and demand prevent that – but rather distributes ever more widely the burden of and credit for productivity across all sectors of society. Everyone owes everyone else a debt of gratitude because our personal well-being relies upon the contributions of everyone else in the great project – not perhaps overtly but unconsciously, implicitly, and systemically.
Because of this network of cooperation, you and I are as dependent on Tim Cook as we are on the soap makers, the fishmongers, the technicians who repair cars and bridges, the people who build and fix machines, the truck drivers who keep the pharmacies supplied with therapeutics, the marketeers, the bookkeepers, the stock traders, and the people who specialize in making music, painting, and dancing. In a remarkable way – and in ways not everyone appreciates and is in fact impossible fully to appreciate – the market economy and resulting prosperity widens ever further the network of mutual obligation.
Becoming aware of that is an intellectual obligation and implies a burden of gratitude that we must deliver. This sense of gratitude is informed by our realization that no man is an island.
Mises concludes the opening sentence that moves from the “is” to the “ought:” “no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others.” There can be outsourcing of our moral responsibility, not to the state, not to a working class, ruling class, or priestly class. To defend the system under which we all benefit is the obligation of every living person – every enlightened person who becomes aware of the truth that society functions well only when everyone is included in the matrix of ownership, choice, exchange, and equality in freedom.
Mises’s next sentence follows: “And no one can find a safe way for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction.” No safe spaces in a crisis. Destroy the market, smash the normal functioning of the social order, and you threaten everything that matters to our material well-being. You smash life and well-being. You crush the ability of people to provide for themselves, everyone’s sense of self worth, access to food and housing and health care, and the very notion of material progress. You reduce life to subsistence and servitude. The world becomes Hobbesian: solitary, poor, nastty, brutish, and short.
The emphasis here is on the word “no one.” No one can free ride off others in the long run. There is no essential and nonessential, no one person with more priors and privileges than anyone else. Not in the long run, in any case. The Zoom class might imagine it has hid and thereby saved itself from wreckage but like Prince Prospeo in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic, the pathogen eventually finds its own.
“Therefore,” Mises continues, “everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle.” No hiding, no seclusion, no silence, no “stay home stay safe.” We must all enter the battle of ideas. Perhaps this one seems to be a stretch because not everyone qualifies as an intellectual. We know that. And yet good ideas, and good instincts about how life should work, is more distributed throughout the population that is normally supposed.
Bill Buckley once said that he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phonebook than the faculty of Harvard. Interesting. Also interesting is that the many intense lockdown states – Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Connecticut, New York – have highly educated and credentialled populations and leaders, relative to many states that either did not close or opened up earlier with great benefit to the population. And yet the “best and brightest” pursued the most preposterous and destructive policies imaginable. Or consider the UK: centuries of great schooling and careful education and observe what has happened.
This suggests that we’ve long misconstrued who precisely can be part of the intellectual battle. Everyone without exception can qualify as an intellectual provided he or she is willing to take ideas seriously. Anyone and everyone is entitled to be part of it. Those who feel the burden and the passion of ideas more intensely, in Mises’s view, have a greater obligation to thrust themselves into the battle, even when doing so can bring disdain and isolation from one’s fellows – and doing so most certainly will (which is why so many people who should have known better have fallen silent).
“No one can stand aside with unconcern,” says Mises, continuing the theme of social obligation. ”The interests of everyone hang on the result.” Again Mises reinforces his broad social outlook that might seem in tension with a pop “libertarian” and individualist point of view. We might purport to be indifferent, pretend not to care, make the excuse that our own voices do not matter, or invoke slogans that justify our indifference and laziness. In fact, in times of crisis, a crude selfishness is not in our self-interest. It’s not our own interests that are at stake but everyone else’s too.
The final sentence of this brief soliloquy sounds a certain Hegelian notes but actually speaks to Mises’s underlying view concerning the authentic desideratum of the historical narrative. He writes: “Whether he chooses or not, every man is drawn into the great historical struggle, the decisive battle into which our epoch has plunged us.”
This amounts to a recognition that there are the best of times and there are the worst of times. Whether and to what extent either happens to be true is not out of our control. History is a force that is not written by some external entity, whether some exogenous winds of change or the state itself. People themselves are the authors of their own fate.
That is why there is a struggle. Nothing is written. Everything is determined by what people believe, which in turn drives what they do. We are all conscripted into the battle by virtue of our membership in the social order. We can be fortunate to live in times of peace and plenty, or find ourselves in conditions of tyranny and destruction. Regardless we must fight for what is right and true, because the social order is not automatically benevolent. The idea of progress is something gained one generation at a time.
Our epoch today, as with Mises in 1922, has indeed plunged us into a decisive battle. This has been the case since mid-March 2020. Some saw it coming. The signs were all around us. We observed the disregard for rights, the new fashion for computer-driven social and economic planning, the overreliance on the statist means, the disparagement of basic postulates of civilization we once took for granted. Perhaps we saw them as unfortunate intellectual or academic fashions. These ideas had been gaining traction for years, decades, even longer. We perhaps never imagined that they would prevail. I certainly did not.
Then in a fateful few days, we found ourselves locked in our homes, shut out from our houses of worship, unable to travel, blocked from medical services, schools padlocked, our offices and businesses shut for reasons of “health.” Unsurprisingly if you know the nature of central planning, the opposite social results were thereupon realized: the largest decline in public health in a generation.
This was our crisis. The ideas, and very bad ones, preceded its onset, but once it happened, there was no denying it. We realized that bad ideas have bad consequences. And sure enough, as Mises said, no one was safe.
We are still not safe. Yes, the lockdowns are going away and things seem to be returning to normal, mostly because of growing public pressure on our elites to stop ruining our lives. That is true in the US generally but not in many parts of the world where disease mitigation remains the main excuse for the suppression of rights and liberties. Mises was right: none of us are really safe from state-imposed violence in the name of disease control until all of us are.
The real question we have to ask ourselves now is whether and to what extent we are really protected from a repeat and whether and to what extent we have really learned a lesson from this.
Are we willing to throw ourselves into the intellectual battle to make things right, to restore and secure essential liberties and rights, to erect barriers that make it impossible for the ruling class ever to attempt such an experiment again? Or will we be grateful that we can at least exercise some limited freedoms, however temporarily, and acquiesce to the idea that there is nothing wrong with a medical/industrial regime that acts arbitrarily and at its own discretion?
The notion of social obligation has too long been owned by the collectivists and socialists of all stripes. It’s always been wrong because it misunderstood the interconnectedness of the social order of freedom and individual rights. Mises’s great contribution – one of many – was to flip the script. We are not atomistic. We do not live in isolation. We live as a decentralized network of free people, cooperating together out of choice and to our mutual betterment. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to fight for the right to continue to do so, and to beat back any and every attempt to take that right away.
This article, Ludwig von Mises on Intellectual Obligation in Times of Crisis, was originally published by the American Institute for Economic Research and appears here with permission. Please support their efforts.