On Menger, Mises, and Not Despairing

Three days ago we celebrated Carl Menger’s birthday. Today we mourn his death. For almost the last two decades of his life, the founder of the Austrian School of Economics, one of the three economists who initiated the marginal revolution, did not publish anything. Why did such a great intellect go silent, almost dropping off the face of the earth?

The Mises Institute on Menger’s birthday posted a wonderful article which is well worth reading. In it, Ludwig von Mises explains why he thinks Menger stopped writing.

I believe I know what discouraged Menger and what silenced him so early. His sharp mind had recognized the destiny of Austria, of Europe, and of the world. He saw the greatest and most advanced of all civilizations rushing to the abyss of destruction. He foresaw all the horrors which we are experiencing today [1940, World War II]. He knew the consequences of the world’s turning away from true [Classical] Liberalism and Capitalism. Nonetheless, he did what he could do to stem the tide. His book [Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences with Special Reference to Economics] was meant as a polemic essay against all those pernicious intellectual currents that were poisoning the world from the universities of “Great Prussia.” The knowledge that his fight was without expectation of success, however, sapped his strength. …

According to my grandfather, as told to me around 1910, Carl Menger had made the following remarks: “The policies as conducted by the European powers will lead to a horrible war that will end with gruesome revolutions, with the extinction of European culture and the destruction of prosperity of all nations.” …

Whoever foresees so clearly before the age of forty the disaster and the destruction of everything he deems of value, cannot escape pessimism and psychic depression. What kind of a life would King Priam have had, the old rhetors were accustomed to ask, if at the age of twenty he already would have foreseen the fall of ancient Troy! Carl Menger had barely half of his life behind him when he foresaw the inevitability of the fall of his Troy.

It is certainly tempting to many to throw in the towel. We live in an era of central planning, soft police states, and perpetual erosion of basic human freedoms. Society seems to be in a slow motion suicide, with most people more concerned about the lives of movie stars and TV personalities than with overturning the myriad policies that enslave them more and more. How can anything we do or say stand against what seems like an inevitable tide washing against us? How many people are even reading this article today? A few hundred? A few thousand maybe? How many millions more are more concerned with looking forward to the fun things they’re planning for Friday night, the music they’re going to hear, the drinks they’ll drink, the food they’ll eat, etc.?

Being concerned with freedom doesn’t mean you have to become a total bore, but consistently prioritizing fun and pleasurable activities will eventually erode your will to live in freedom. Isn’t that why people in the United States have become so soft and so willing to accept things that would have led previous generations to rebel? The average American lives far more comfortably than kings did a century ago, with fast cars, air conditioning, hot water on demand, television, Internet, smartphones, etc. It is certainly tempting to throw up your hands, dismiss the possibility of any positive change, and decide to go with the flow by living in the moment. Besides, advocating for freedom often requires taking positions that are considered “controversial” by the majority of people in society. Being consistent and defending your beliefs can cost you friendships, lead to friction amongst your work colleagues, and even cost you job opportunities or chances at career advancement. It can require great sacrifices, which not everyone is willing or prepared to accept.

Perhaps that is why Mises took as his motto the quote from Virgil’s Aeneid: “Do not give in to evil, but proceed every more boldly against it.” To Pope St. Felix III, whose feast day is today (February 25th in non-leap years), is attributed the quote: “Not to oppose error is to approve it; and not to defend truth is to suppress it, and, indeed, to neglect to confound evil men — when we can do it — is no less a sin than to encourage them.” Keeping those quotes in the forefront of our minds can keep us focused and determined when we feel despair. Even when all seems lost, even when we despair about ever improving the prospects for freedom, even when tempted to take the easy way out by selling out or downplaying our beliefs, if we keep our minds fixed on the end goal – freedom – it can help us maintain our focus. The task can seem daunting, exhausting, insurmountable, and it might require us to take short breaks here and there to maintain our sanity. But we all have a role to play, no matter how large or how small. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to do everything we can to roll back the tide of creeping totalitarianism and restore our freedoms.

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