Ludwig von Mises, “Human Action: A Treatise on Economics” (1949) – Part of me thought, as I read this, “ok, this is the real shit” — not as in “this has a bearing on reality” (quite the opposite), but, “this is the mack daddy, this is the guy the libertarians are all trying and failing to be.” Von Mises came out of Dolfuss’s clerical fascist Vienna post-Anschluss (he worked for Dolfuss, but as a Jew, by blood if not by conviction, Nazism was a bridge too far). He had the haughtiness of European high culture, the world-building faustian self-belief and system-building ambitions of the great age of secular lawgivers that ran from Rousseau’s time to Freud’s. I had a vision of him as the pit bull of libertarianism, with people like Rothbard and Nozick as so many yapping terriers making noise from behind him.
Well, yes and no. He certainly had more going for him than either libertarian philosopher, or any of the others who came in his wake. But it wasn’t necessarily brains or even originality that he had. It was the sort of Yiddishism an assimilé Viennese Jew smiling and nodding for the likes of Dolfuss would avoid like botulism: chutzpah. And really, that’s a charitable reading. We associate chutzpah with underdogs. That’s never what he was, never how he’d even want to be seen (if this offends libertarians the way some of my reviews offend fascists, I’m sure they’ll try to get across the idea he was an underdog in the face of liberal statism blah blah etc etc fuck off).
But that’s basically what he had. He had… maybe “the face” is the right term… to just declare vast bodies of knowledge and many perspectives taken by numerous thoughtful people just verboten to human consideration. “Human Action” is about how anything other than the most intentionally naive positivism is flatly wrong, useless, and morally suspect. He calls this “praxeology,” “the study of human action.” Intent doesn’t matter, he smugly declares, not just as a consequentialist — that would make some sense — but out of a smug assumption of something like perfect, or at least sufficient, knowledge. In one of the great whoppers of supposedly educated writing — the sort of thing the worst positive thinker or evangelist you could imagine would probably demur from saying so baldly — declares that human action, it’s success and failure, actually creates happiness or sadness! You’re happy if you achieve your aims. The end!!
Quite apart from whatever else it is, von Mises and his followers (for those playing the home game, of the two lesser libertarians I mentioned, Rothbard really was a hype man for von Mises and believed in this praxeology shit, where Nozick had some other dumb philosophical basis) basically see this stuff as taking irony and tragedy out of the box of life. Things work rationally. Not being able to see things rationally is the closest thing to a tragedy you’ll ever get- not for those who so see things, but because those people keep rational people from thriving (there’s reasons von Mises warmly praised Ayn Rand before some stupid quarrel split them up). That’s it. Any intellectual construct that acknowledges that sometimes, the best laid plans don’t work out and maybe collective action differs in some important way from individual action — everything from Marxism to the most anodyne progressive liberalism to, von Mises hastily adds, burnishing his antifascist credentials for the big jump to America, racism — is intellectually bankrupt and oppressive to even be around. There’s a reason anarchocapitalism is, at best, a hop or two from mass slaughters ala Parkland- there are the main characters (you, and people you think about) and everyone else is a malignant sheep whose lives aren’t really lives.
What’s left of the European tradition — what von Mises supposedly brings to the table — if you take tragedy and irony out of it? If everything is a just-so story where the heroes just need to realize their heroism/rationality? Well, not much. Just the face, like I said, more or less, the chutzpah, the ability to get over with those rubes who want pedigreed ideas but not the existential bummers that often come with them (i.e. Americans with money), to write nearly nine hundred pages of this garbage and not get laughed off as a crank. *