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AERC and the Mises Institute: Reflections
CJay Engel comment 0 Comments access_time 9 min read

As I write this, I am pressed against the window on a four-hour plane ride from Atlanta back to California. And my mind is in constant replay of the remarkable experience I had in Auburn, Alabama. I’m embarrassed to say that this was my first visit to the Mises Institute and I used the Austrian Economics Research Conference as the excuse to make my way to the home of Austro-Libertarian ideas. It was a period of learning and meeting a handful of our living heroes, of course, but also it was a time of reflection for me, an opportunity to think about the role that the Mises Institute specifically has in the battle for ideas.

Hans Hoppe once noted:

Ultimately, the course of history is determined by ideas, be they true or false, and by men acting upon and being inspired by true or false ideas. Only so long as false ideas rule is a catastrophe unavoidable. On the other hand, once correct ideas are adopted and prevail in public opinion — and ideas can, in principle, be changed almost instantaneously — a catastrophe will not have to occur at all.

Our task as libertarians, the role that we play in the historical struggle between Power and Market (as Rothbard referred to it), is to educate first ourselves and then those around us. We prepare for an uncertain future by maintaining physical and financial discipline; but it is just as important that we prepare our minds. Philosophy, history, political theory, economic theory– all these are the weapons that we have to combat the narrative of the state and its “court intellectuals.”

Austrian economics and libertarian theory can be studied online, and there is a lifetime of material to wade through in digital format; but what stands out about the Mises Institute itself is that it stands alone in the world of (professed) liberty-oriented institutions in its culture and immense appreciation for its own past. It’s easy to recognize the intellectual boundaries of libertarian theory qua libertarianism— the non-aggression principle is an apt summary of libertarian principles. But culture is important too, even if technically beyond the scope of political theory, and it is something I am increasingly interested in.

And yet, so many libertarian institutions, adopting the cultural spirit of the age, engage in tremendous efforts to fit in with the changing culture scene around them. After all, the argument appears to be: libertarianism must be made relevant if it is to succeed.

If cultural leftism is identified by its commitment to forms of social upheaval, a tendency to side with the cultural revolutionaries, and vocally opposing established cultural norms, then the majority of libertarian institutions can be said to be left-leaning— even if not on the extreme left. They certainly make every attempt to appear socially accepting of the trends.

One of the chief characteristics of the majority libertarian organizations is the adoption of the strategy that encourages one to “take the debate to Washington,” to change DC from the Beltway, to engage immense resources in policy analysis and to appear respectable to the outlets that are uncomfortably cozy with the establishment media. Perhaps it is a bit audacious to consider this an adoption of the Gramscian “long walk through the institutions” methodology of social change,” though I certainly think the tendency is far closer to that than the local dissent, decentralist, and secessionary position taken up by those who lean right.

But the Mises Institute stands unique in the libertarian world. It is unafraid to embrace the full Misesian framework in a world swarmed by sloppy empiricism and rogue pragmatism, and unashamed of their Rothbardianism despite the milquetoast repudiation of Murray, whose name shall never be mentioned. This is the organization that Mises and Rothbard and all their tireless defenders, disciples, and friendly peers truly deserve. It is no wonder that the Beltwaytarians seem to despise them. They are thriving on a strategy that is truly unapproved.

This strategy consists not of a “long march through the institutions,” but of a cheery stroll through main street. It is a strategy of appealing to the remnant, as Nock once called it, a strategy neither of agitating the underclasses against the wealthy, as the socialists do, nor of attempting to seduce the powerful (the state-empowered). As Mises once declared,

Economics must not be relegated to classrooms and statistical offices and must not be left to esoteric circles. It is the philosophy of human life and action and concerns everybody and everything. It is the pith of civilization and of man’s human existence.

The presence of economic science is truly a special and unique gift in the history of man. It is, as Mises explained, one of the youngest social sciences and the very existence of economics quickly became a threat to grand visions of social planning, which are ever-tempting to the managers of the state. And therefore, economics needs to be studied not merely by political scientists interested in planning society, but by the non-professionals, who might be persuaded that the claims of the state are empty and in vain.

It is because of this strategy that I was able to make my way to Mises’ conference and engage as a mere layman, educated simply at my own initiation and in pursuit of no formal higher education. I am grateful that Jeff Deist has taken it upon himself to invest in me on a personal level, to encourage me to be more involved in any way that I can and to become a familiar face at the Mises Institute. And I certainly plan to.

Now, the Mises Institute is special in its appreciation of the intellectual giants whose theories continue to be exposited and expanded upon today. Walking through the building and grounds itself, one notices the extent to which there is an obvious pride in their heritage. The fingerprints of Rothbard and Mises and others of their ilk are everywhere. The Rothbard library is available for anyone to browse and there are artifacts of interest, taken from the personal effects of Rothbard and Mises, around every corner. The Mises Institute therefore is specially exempt from Joe Salerno’s own concern about the tendency toward “Austro-Punkism,” which he describes as follows:

Austro-punkism, as I employ the term, then, identifies a movement within Austrian economics that recognizes no masters of the discipline and that, therefore, calls all received doctrine into question. It views Austrian economics as a discipline in a state of constant and radical flux, devoid of any fundamental and constant principles but rife with a myriad of endlessly debated questions. Indeed, leading proponents of Austro-punkism proudly trumpet that an Austrian economist is one for whom there should eternally exist more questions than answers. To venture a more meaningful definition of Austrian economics than this represents for Austro- punks an attempt to intolerantly close off the perpetual and open- ended conversation that they uphold as the hallmark of scientific inquiry.

With no acknowledged masters, any self-proclaimed Austrian (whether equipped with formal training in economics or not) is judged fit to try his hand at radically reconstructing the discipline. In other words, Austrian economics can and should be revolutionized on a daily basis, by anyone and everyone. This means that the works of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard are not treated as authoritative texts to be learned from and built upon in the painstaking labor of systematically adding to the inherited structure of economic theory

What especially pleases me about the Mises Institute is that it is tightly held in its decision making and planning for the future of its identity and brand. There is a certain danger in the non-profit world, especially for those that engage political theory in a quickly shifting cultural landscape, that the vision of its founders will begin to slip away in time. The purity of Lew Rockwell’s original vision, held in unison by Murray Rothbard, Burt Blumert, and others, is immensely important. It seems to me that those involved with determining the future of the Mises Institute are keenly aware of this need to pay attention not only to the academic purity of the organization, but to the cultural and strategic purity as well. As time progresses, and inevitable transitions come to pass, what will make the Mises Institute stand the test of time is its refusal to cater to increasing social and cultural trends. It is imperative that the Rockwellian vision is not lost— even if the world around it changes, the message and culture of the Institute must remain. And on this note, the prospects are bright. This, truly, is the foundation of my optimism.

One of the keynote lectures at the 2018 AERC event was given by the immensely interesting Richard Ebeling who gave a talk relating to his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Moscow to work through the Mises papers and notes that had been stolen by the Nazis when they raided Mises’ Vienna apartment. (My wife and I were lucky enough to visit the apartment in 2013 when we visited Austria.) Ebeling tells the tale of a Mises who, despite very real political odds set against him as an opponent of the rising tide of Economic Planning in the world of growing Nazism, continued with tremendous output. And not only was there an impressive quantity to this output, there was also a perhaps even more impressive quality.

For Mises truly lived up to the motto of his family crest, that one should never give in to evil. The principles held firm in the mind of Mises were of great worth. And not even the threat of academic neglect, of unpopularity, of certain death if he stayed in Austria– not even these could stay Mises’ pen. This commitment to the discovery and advancement of truth is why the Mises Institute exists today. And I am grateful that I get to involve myself more and more in the their efforts to stand as an intellectual bulwark against statism in our time. The Mises Institute is a wonderful testament to the achievements that can be made by sticking to principle and repudiating the economic, political, and social trends of the age.