Is All Action Rational?

ludwig-von-misesWell, Ludwig von Mises thought so. I quote from Human Action:

Human action is necessarily always rational. The term “rational action” is pleonastic and must be rejected as such (P. 21.).

In view of all the irrationality we observe around us, this statement sounds … well, not exactly rational. “Weird” or even “insane” would be good descriptive terms.

So what is so immensely rational about all human action that all human action is to be labeled rational? Well, all human action is about relating means to ends. Mises has some examples:

The very existence of ascetics and of men who renounce material gains for the sake of clinging to their convictions and of preserving their dignity and self-respect is evidence that the striving after more tangible amenities is not inevitable but rather the result of a choice. Of course, the immense majority prefer life to death and wealth to poverty. (P. 20.)

But nothing could be said against those who make the opposite choice and prefer death to life and poverty to wealth. They have a different end from the immense majority and choose means accordingly.

The doctors who a hundred years ago employed certain methods for the treatment of cancer whish our contemporary doctors reject were – from the point of view of present-day pathology – badly instructed and therefore inefficient. But they did not act irrationally; they did their best. (P. 20.)

In other words: people may be wrong in their choice of means; but being wrong is not the same as being irrational.

The opposite of action is not irrational behavior, but a reactive response to stimuli on the part of the bodily organs and instincts which cannot be controlled by the volition of the person concerned. (P. 20.)

So when a man acts “irrationally”, he actually does not act at all; he merely reacts, just the way animals do.

Conspicuously absent here is any attempt to analyze criminal behavior. But a criminal also relates means to ends. A bank robber has to use reason to plan and carry out his robbery – it is certainly not just a bodily reaction. Someone who wants to get rid of his rich grand-uncle in order to inherit his money has to carefully plan and perform the murder, and in a way that minimizes the risk of discovery. (He should, for example, abstain from the attempt if there is an Hercule Poirot or a Jane Marple in the vicinity.) According to Mises, he is as rational as anyone else. Only murders committed at the spur of the moment in a drunken brawl would classify as irrational, since the murderer then does not have time to consider his means or his ends.

So what makes Mises make such a statement and seriously mean it? It should come as no surprise that it is because of his idea that ultimate ends fall outside the realm of reason. Continuing the first quote above:

When applied to the ultimate ends of action, the terms rational and irrational are inappropriate and meaningless. The ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting man. Since nobody is in a position to substitute his own value judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass judgment on other people’s aims and volitions. No man is qualified to declare what would make another man happier or less discontented. (P. 20.)

So we should not pass judgment on the bank robber or grand-uncle murderer mentioned above. Who are we to substitute our own value judgments for theirs? But it is even worse::

The critic either tells us what he would aim at if he were in the place of his fellow; or, in dictatorial arrogance blithely disposing of his fellow’s will and aspirations, declares what condition of this other man would better suit himself, the critic. (P. 20; italics mine.)

Passing judgment on the bank robber or the murderer would be dictatorial arrogance!

Of course, Mises did not mean this – he forgot to think about criminal action – but this is still what he says!

What, then, is the ultimate end of the bank robber/murderer? Is it – like for any honest worker or millionaire – to make money or to earn his living? Is it just the means that are somehow inappropriate? But the bank robber did not make the money – it was made by the persons who had deposited their money in the bank. The murdered grand-uncle, not his dishonest heir, made his money (provided he earned it honestly).[1] And, as for “earning a living”, this shows some confusion about the meaning of “earn”.

Or is it, more broadly, the pursuit of happiness? Well, most bank robbers (and murderers) get caught, and those who don’t have to live in constant fear of getting caught. It could only be called “pursuit of happiness”, if someone preferred living in jail than outside – or living in fear rather than in safety.

And what about suicide bombers? Those, too, are conspicuously absent in Mises’ reasoning – probably because he had no experience of them and could not even imagine this kind of evil. Otherwise, the existence of suicide bombers is as much proof as the existence of ascetics that some people do no not prefer life to death. And the suicide bomber can hardly be said to pursue happiness, at least not here, on earth. He would have to take the promise of paradise in the hereafter quite seriously. – But given this end – life and well-being when you are already dead – they, too, relate means to ends. But they are badly mistaken, both about the end and the means![2]

Ayn Rand made some harsh remarks in the margin of Human Action, of which I will quote just one:

Nobody can get anywhere with such a terminology! (Ayn Rand’s Merginalia, ed. by Robert Mayhew, p. 110.)

Objectivism, as you all know, holds the preservation and enhancement of life as the ultimate end and claims that this can be objectively proven. (I will not attempt to present the proof, since both “Galt’s speech” and “The Objectivist Ethics” are available for anyone to read.) This does not mean that everyone automatically agrees about this end, merely that everyone should agree. Mises claims that the majority does agree, but that is not the same thing – it leaves the possibility open that the majority is wrong.

Saying that the ultimate end is “beyond reason” and can neither be proved or disproved makes it impossible to go anywhere!

Much as I admire Ludwig von Mises, on this issue he was dead wrong.

Earlier blog posts on Mises.

[1] Off topic, but worth mentioning: If you want to equivocate, you might claim that a counterfeiter “makes money”, but that money is just that: counterfeit. The same goes for the inflation money that governments and central banks pour on us and only makes us poorer. The only ones that could be said to “make money” in this sense are those who mine and mint the precious metals.

[2] I refer you to this article in The Onion.

Ludwig von Mises on Anarchism

This is a Facebook note I published in February 2011.

Anarchists (”free market anarchists” or ”anarcho-capitalists)” are flocking in and around the Ludwig von Mises Institute, both in the US and here in Sweden. So what did Mises himself think about anarchism and anarchists? He covers the subject in a section in The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, p. 98f, so let me quote:

Government as such is not only not an evil, but the most necessary and beneficial institution, as without it no lasting social cooperation and no civilization would be possible.

And a bit later on:

A shallow-minded school of social philosophers, the anarchists, chose to ignore the matter by suggesting a stateless organization of mankind. They simply passed over the fact that men are not angels. They were too dull to realize that in the short run an individual or a group of individuals can certainly further their own interests at the expense of their own and all other peoples’ long-run interests. A society that is not prepared to thwart the attacks of such asocial and short-sighted aggressors is helpless and at the mercy of its least intelligent and most brutal members. While Plato founded his utopia on the hope that a small group of perfectly wise and morally impeccable philosophers will be available for the supreme conduct of affairs, anarchists implied that all men without any exception will be endowed with perfect wisdom and moral impeccability. They failed to conceive that no system of social cooperation can remove the dilemma between a man’s or a group’s interests in the short run and those in the long run.

Note the insultory language here: anarchists are “shallow-minded” and “dull”. If I said that of an anarchist, I would probably be accused of making an ad hominem argument.

But that was an aside. The substantive thing here is that we have a group of social philosophers – “free market anarchists” – who believe that a government or a state is evil by its very nature (and sometimes even the source of all evil) – and yet are willing to accept as their mentor, master and dean someone who claims the exact opposite: that government is “the most necessary and beneficial institution”.

The main flaw of “free market anarchism” is that it refuses to make a distinction between initiatory and retaliatory force. They oppose any government, even the most limited government, one that only engages in retaliatory force against initiators of force (such as criminals and foreign invaders), on the grounds that it uses force. (And they are of course blind to the fact that those “protection agencies” with which they propose to replace government, would also use force.)

Mises is aware of this distinction. When he says that “men are not angels”, he refers to the fact that some men are criminals, and that criminal acts will have to be thwarted. Thwarting criminality and foreign aggression is certainly both necessary and beneficial.

Mises had a psychological explanation for the fact that some fairly intelligent people become anarchists: it was “a reaction to the deification of the state”. (I got this from Hülsmann’s Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism, p. 1025.) I have said virtually the same thing myself: people become anarchists because they are fed up with the way governments conduct their affairs today; and they cannot conceive of a limited government that does nothing but protect our rights against domestic and foreign aggressors. But that there is a psychological explanation for anarchism does not make anarchism right.

Also, compare my Mises quotes to what Ayn Rand writes in her essay “The Nature of Government”:

In unthinking protest against this trend [the trend toward more and more statism], some people are raising the question of whether government as such is evil and whether anarchy is the ideal social system. Anarchy, as a political concept, is a naïve floating abstraction: for all the reasons discussed above, a society without an organized government would be at the mercy of the first criminal who came along and would precipitate it into the chaos of gang warfare.

I see no difference between Rand and Mises on this issue. And I’m neither shallow-minded nor dull.

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The response to this note was largely positive, although (of course) a couple of anarchists admonished me to wade through all the anarchocapitalist literature before I open my mouth. There was also some lively and friendly discussion. I will quote one of my own comments, because I think I am on to something important here:

There is one thing I think needs to be emphasized:

We have plenty of historical experience with various forms of government, or various forms of organizing society. We have primitive tribes, Greek city states, the Roman empire, feudalism, absolute monarchy. representative government, modern dictatorships (to name those that readily come to mind). We can study the historical evidence and draw conclusions from it, e.g. that representative government is a great step forward, or that there is a strong correlation between the degree of freedom in a society and the degree of wealth.

But we have absolutely no experience with a situation where a proper limited government (or “night watchman state” as I usually call it) is vying with anarchocapitalist protection agencies. So there is no historical evidence to point to and draw conclusions from. All we can do is imagine scenarios.

I think this is one reason it is so difficult to get the point across to the anarchocapitalists. They paint a rosy scenario of protection agencies peacefully competing with one another; and we paint a bleak scenario of protection agencies fighting it out in the streets. When we are fighting the anarchocapitalists, we are fighting against floating abstractions and fantasies.

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Addendum 2016: An objection one commonly hears from anarcho-capitalists is that Mises is merely referring to left-wing anarchism and that his view does not apply to right-wing capitalism or anarcho-capitalism. This was a development he simply did not know about and thus could not criticize.

But this objection does not hold water. Murray Rothbard, the father of modern anarcho-capitalism, first developed this idea as early as the late 40’s. Mises certainly was aware of this. (See on this Jörg Guido Hülsmann’s Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism, the section “Last Skirmishes with the Anarchists”, p. 1023–1030.)

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PS. On Facebook I was asked this question:

Why is it so important that Rand and Mises were in agreement?

Yes, why on earth? Obviously, this whole blog post is a gross ad verecundiam or “argument from authority”. I just feel so much better having two great authorities behind me than just one.

However, it so happens that they are both right.

Irrational facts?

I suppose you all know what an irrational number is. And I trust you don’t take the existence of such numbers as an assault on rationality or an injunction against using reason when dealing with mathematics.

Now I came across this in Ludwig von Mises’ Theory and history:

The human search for knowledge cannot go on endlessly. Inevitably, sooner or later, it will reach a point beyond which it cannot proceed. It will then be faced with an ultimate given, a datum that man’s reason cannot trace back to other data. In the course of the evolution of knowledge science has succeeded in tracing back to other data some things and events which previously had been viewed as ultimate. We may expect that this will also occur in the future. But there will always remain something that is for the human mind an ultimate given, unanalyzable and irreducible. Human reason cannot even conceive a kind of knowledge that would not encounter such an insurmountable obstacle. There is for man no such thing as omniscience. […] It is customary, although not very expedient, to call the mental process by means of which a datum is traced back to other data rational. Then an ultimate datum is called irrational. No historical research can be thought of that would not ultimately meet such irrational facts. (P. 183f; italics mine.)

Now wait a minute. Facts are neither rational nor irrational. They are just facts. The terms “rational” and “irrational” pertain to what we do in our minds with the facts. It is a misnomer and an equivocation to call the facts rational or irrational.

Or does he mean that reason cannot deal with those “ultimate givens”, just because it cannot trace them back to something even more ultimate? But this is ridiculous. If reason encounters an ultimate given that cannot be traced further back, it simply accepts it as an ultimate given. There is nothing irrational about that.

Apart from this objection (and some others I may come to think of later),Theory and History is a book I heartily recommend.

Irrational ends?

(Added May 16.)

The following quote is more troublesome:

All ultimate ends aimed at by men are beyond the criticism of reason. Judgments of value can be neither justified nor refuted by reasoning. The terms “reasoning” and “rationality” always refer only to the suitability of means chosen for attaining ultimate ends. The choice of ultimate ends in this sense is always irrational. (P. 167.)

And if you know your Mises, you know that this idea is repeated over and over in his works.

Obviously, Mises never considered Ayn Rand’s explanation of the link between “life” and “value” (or if he did, he might have considered it “irrational” and “beyond reason”).

But her derivation is fact-based. To take some high-lights: That living organisms require a specific course of action to remain alive is a fact. For lower organisms this is automatic, but for man it involves deliberation and choice, and that is a fact. And it is a fact in the sense of an “ultimate given”, because it can hardly be traced back to even more basic facts. To choose life, and the preservation and enhancement of one’s life, is certainly the rational thing to do.

A couple of pages later Mises writes:

… there is a far-reaching unanimity among people with regard to the choice of ultimate ends. With almost negligible exceptions, all people want to preserve their lives and health and improve the material conditions of their existence. (P. 269f.)

True enough. Very few people, I would venture to guess, deliberately act to harm their lives, their health, their well-being. There are exceptions, but most people, when they harm themselves, do it because of some error in their reasoning. They find the wrong means, means not suitable the end sought, to use Mises’ way of expressing it.

But an appeal to majority is not a good argument. Majorities are sometimes wrong. And on Mises’ own reasoning and with his terminology, the majority here is as irrational as the small minority that does not take life and health as their ultimate goal.

There is a similar quote in the very beginning of the book:

Judgments of value […] express feelings, tastes or preferences of the individual who utters them. With regard to them there cannot be any question of truth and falsity. They are ultimate and not subject to any proof or evidence. (P. 19.)

That values or value judgments have no “truth value” and are just expressions of feelings or tastes is something we are taught by virtually every philosopher who is not an Objectivist. It is as common and ubiquitous as the closely connected idea that one cannot (and must not) try to derive an “ought” from an “is” – and as wrong.

Mises uses the example of someone preferring Beethoven to Lehar (or vice versa). This is a value judgment. The person who says it is saying that Beethoven, to him, is a higher value than Lehar (or vice versa). And here it is OK to talk about a difference in taste, and there is no point in trying to dispute it.

But there are so many issues where this would be nonsensical. If we prefer capitalism to socialism, this is not a matter of taste. Neither is it a matter of taste whether we prefer life to death, health to illness, happiness to misery or wealth to poverty. Such an issue can only come up when a man is so ill, or so disappointed, that he loses his taste for life. (Situations where Immanuel Kant would demand that he continues to live out of duty.)

Closely connected is the idea, so often repeated by Mises, that economics (and science in general) should be value-free (or wertfrei; for some reason Mises retains the German word). But this idea is contradictory on the face of it. It says that a theory should be “value-free” rather than “value-laden” – i.e. that such a theory is better than other theories – i.e. that is more valuable.

Now, I have not said anything about the very good things to be found in Theory and History. That will have to wait for another time.

(See also Is Action an A Priori Category?, Is Life Worth Living?, On the Objectivity of Values, and Objectivism versus “Austrian” Economics on Value. Also Ayn Rand and Böhm-Bawerk on Value.)

PS 2016: It would make some sense to call facts “pre-rational”, since all reasoning has to start with facts. And by the same token, it would make some sense to call the value of life a “pre-rational” value. We do not originally choose to be alive – that choice was made by out parents and all their ancestors before them: the choice to have children. But the bottom line of all other values we choose is remaining alive and make the best possible of our lives.

Murray Rothbard on the Soviet Union

My latest blog post, Murray Rothbard on Organized Crime, was shared by a couple of persons on Facebook – and in one comment, I was accused of “cherry picking”, because I chose only one article and took it as representative of Rothbard’s entire view.

Cherry picking” is an inductive fallacy which consists in taking the inductive generalization one wants to reach for granted and then only giving examples that support this generalization and ignoring or suppressing evidence that points in another direction. Proper induction, of course does not start with a generalization; the generalization is the end product of the induction. (This fallacy could also be called “inductive circularity”: it begs the question, just like deductive circularity does.)

As an aside, I was not accused of “cherry picking” for linking to several books and pamphlets by Rothbard, leading to the inductive generalization that he was a great economist. But if Rothbard has made major mistakes as an economist (as opposed to a political thinker), I have not discovered them; so I can hardly be accused of deliberately ignoring or suppressing them.

Anyway, I will now “cherry pick” some things that Rothbard has written about Communism and the Soviet Union in particular.

In his pamphlet Left, Right, & the Prospects for Liberty (first published in 1965) one can read the following:

Libertarians of the present day are accustomed to think of socialism as the polar opposite of the libertarian creed. But this is a grave mistake, responsible for a severe ideological disorientation of libertarians in the present world. […] Socialism, like Liberalism and against Conservatism, accepted the industrial system and the liberal goals of freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards [for] the masses, and an end to theocracy and war; but it tried to achieve these ends by the use of incompatible, Conservative means: statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc. Or rather, to be more precise, there were from the beginning two different strands within Socialism: one was the Right-wing, authoritarian strand, from Saint-Simon down, which glorified statism, hierarchy, and collectivism and which was thus a projection of Conservatism trying to accept and dominate the new industrial civilization. The other was the Left-wing, relatively libertarian strand, exemplified in their different ways by Marx and Bakunin, revolutionary and far more interested in achieving the libertarian goals of liberalism and socialism: but especially the smashing of the State apparatus to achieve the “withering away of the State” and the “end of the exploitation of man by man.” (P. 15f; italics mine.)

So Libertarianism (of the Rothbardian variety) has the same ultimate goal as Bakunin and Marx: the smashing, or withering away, of the State. Bakunin and Marx are allies in this struggle. (While thinkers like Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand, who did not want to smash the State, only to reduce it to its proper functions, are not allies but rather enemies. Rothbard would not call Mises an enemy, but this is the clear implication.[1])

It was in reaction to this collapse that Lenin broke out of the Second International, to re-establish classic revolutionary Marxism in a revival of Left Socialism. […] In fact, Lenin, almost without knowing it, accomplished more than this. […] There were, indeed, marked “conservative” strains in the writings of Marx and Engels themselves which often justified the State, Western imperialism and aggressive nationalism […] Lenin’s camp turned more “left” than had Marx and Engels themselves. Lenin had a decidedly more revolutionary stance toward the State, and consistently defended and supported movements of national liberation against imperialism. The Leninist shift was more “leftist” in other important senses as well. For while Marx had centered his attack on market capitalism per se, the major focus of Lenin’s concerns was on what he conceives to be the highest stages of capitalism: imperialism and monopoly. Hence Lenin’s focus, centering as it did in practice on State monopoly and imperialism rather than on laissez-faire capitalism, was in that way far more congenial to the libertarian than that of Karl Marx. (P. 22f.)

In other words: Bakunin and Marx are regarded as allies, because they were against the State; but Lenin is even more of an ally, since he was even more against the State!

There is, of course, one big question that Rothbard should have had the sense to ask of himself: How come those state haters and would-be state-smashers, Marx and Lenin even more, founded what is probably the most totalitarian and most oppressive state in all of history? Rothbard has no explanation for this – unless you call this an “explanation”:

… the Communists did not attempt to impose socialism upon the economy for many years after taking power: in Soviet Russia until Stalin’s forced collectivization of the early 1930s reversed the wisdom of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which Lenin’s favorite theoretician Bukharin would have extended onward towards a free market. (P. 45.)

What, then, does Rothbard have to say about Communism’s and the Soviet Union’s quest for world domination, about the fact that the whole of Eastern Europe were satellites to the Soviet Union from the end of World War II and until the late 1980’s, about its efforts to export Communism to Cuba and to Third World countries? Rothbard explains that those thing have never taken place. In his For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto there is a chapter on Libertarian foreign policy, in which he writes:

Any idea of “exporting” communism to other countries on the backs of the Soviet military is totally contradictory to Marxist-Leninist theory. […] When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in1917, they had given little thought to a future Soviet foreign policy, for they were convinced that Communist revolution would soon follow in the advanced industrial countries of Western Europe. When such hopes were dashed after the end of World War I, Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks adopted the theory of “peaceful coexistence” as the basic foreign policy for a Communist State. The idea was this: as the first successful Communist movement, Soviet Russia would serve as a beacon for and supporter of other Communist parties throughout the world. But the Soviet State qua State would devote itself to peaceful relations with all other countries, and would not attempt to export communism through inter-State warfare. The idea here was not just to follow Marxist-Leninist theory, but was the highly practical course of holding the survival of the existing Communist State as the foremost goal of foreign policy: that is, never to endanger the Soviet State by courting inter-State warfare. Other countries would be expected to become Communist by their own internal processes. Thus, fortuitously, from a mixture of theoretical and practical grounds of their own, the Soviets arrived early at what libertarians consider to be the only proper and principled foreign policy. As time went on, furthermore, this policy was reinforced by a “conservatism” that comes upon all movements after they have acquired and retained power for any length of time, in which the interests of keeping power over one’s nation-state begins to take more and more precedence over the initial ideal of world revolution. This increasing conservatism under Stalin and his successors strengthened and reinforced the nonaggressive, “peaceful coexistence” policy. (P. 290f.)

So Stalin was a man of peace, according to Rothbard. No explanation is given for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the joint attack on Poland that inaugurated World War II; but he makes some fuss about the necessity for the Soviet Union to defend itself against the German attack later in the war. Another quote:

So unprepared was Stalin for the assault, so trusting was he in the rationality of the German-Russian accord for peace in Eastern Europe, that he had allowed the Russian army to fall into disrepair. So unwarlike was Stalin, in fact, that Germany was almost able to conquer Russia in the face of enormous odds. (P. 292.)

And to the question why Stalin, after the end of World War II, took the opportunity to take over the whole of Eastern Europe, Rothbard does have an answer: It was to protect the Soviet Union from the threat of invasion from the West!

Since their victory over German and associated military aggression [from, e.g. Finland] in World War II, the Soviets have continued to be conservative in their military policy. Their only use of troops has been to defend their territory in the Communist bloc, rather than to extend it further. Thus, when Hungary threatened to leave the Soviet bloc in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets intervened with troops—reprehensibly, to be sure, but still acting in a conservative and defensive rather than expansionist manner. (P. 295.)


Russia, therefore, governed Eastern Europe as military occupier after winning a war launched against her. Russia’s initial goal was not to communize Eastern Europe on the backs of the Soviet army. Her goal was to gain assurances that Eastern Europe would not be the broad highway for an assault on Russia, as it had been three times in half a century—the last time in a war in which over twenty million Russians had been slaughtered. In short, Russia wanted countries on her border which would not be anti-Communist in a military sense, and which would not be used as a springboard for another invasion. Political conditions in Eastern Europe were such that only in more modernized Finland did non-Communist politicians exist whom Russia could trust to pursue a peaceful line in foreign affairs. And in Finland, this situation was the work of one far-seeing statesman, the agrarian leader Julio Paasikivi. It was because Finland, then and since, has firmly followed the “Paasikivi line” that Russia was willing to pull its troops out of Finland and not to insist on the communization of that country—even though it had fought two wars with Finland in the previous six years. (P. 294.)

Another word for the “Paasikivi line” is Finlandization. In short, Finland had to very carefully toe the line in its dealing with the Soviet Union.

If the Soviet Union and Communist states in general were so peaceful and never waged war except in self-defense, then what states are not that peaceful?

… empirically, taking the twentieth century as a whole, the single most warlike, most interventionist, most imperialist government has been the United States. (P. 277.)

If it is understood and expected, then, that the United States will try to impose its will on every crisis everywhere in the world, then this is clear indication that America is the great interventionary and imperial power. The one place where the United States does not now attempt to work its will is the Soviet Union and the Communist countries … (P. 278.)

One does not have to be an ardent admirer of US foreign policy to sense that there is something wrong here …[2]

Well, I think this is just about enough “cherry picking” for today.[3]

(For Scandinavian speaking readers: I said much the same in an article I wrote in 1993.)

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Update August 5 2014: Rothbard also admired Che Guevara. Why? Well …

… we all knew that his enemy was our enemy – that great Colossus that oppresses and threatens all the people of the world, U.S. imperialism.

The obituary is not signed, but it was published as an editorial in Rothbard’s own newsletter, so if he did not write is himself, he at least must have approved of it.

(Hat tip to Justin Templer.)

Back in the late 50’s, on the other hand, he admired Ayn Rand. (Hat tip to Stephen Hicks.)

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Update June 11 2015: With regard to Soviet foreign policy, Mises held the exact opposite view. I quote from Planned Chaos:

For the time being [1947], the ominous peril of the communist parties in the West lies in their stand on foreign affairs. The distinctive mark of all present-day communist parties is their devotion to the aggressive foreign policy of the Soviets. Whenever they must choose between Russia and their own country, they do not hesitate to prefer Russia. Their principle is: Right or wrong, my Russia. They strictly obey all orders issued from Moscow. When Russia was an ally of Hitler, the French communists sabotaged their own country’s war effort and American communists passionately opposed President Roosevelt’s plans to aid the democracies in their struggle against the Nazis. The communists all over the world branded all those who defended themselves against the German invaders as “imperialist warmongers”. But as soon as Hitler attacked Russia, the imperialistic war of the capitalists over night changed into a just war of defense. Whenever Stalin conquers one more country, the communists justify this aggression as an act of self-defense against “Fascists”. (P. 43f; or p. 504 in Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, where this short book is included as an epilogue.)

According to Rothbard, the Soviets foreign policy after World War II was not aggressive at all! It was all a matter of self-defense! Mises certainly was more realistic.

[1]) On Mises’ view, see my short piece Ludwig von Mises on Anarchism. – Rothbard did view Ayn Rand as an enemy, but that is beside the point in this context.

[2]) Murray Rothbard was not personally oppressed by the Soviet Union, since he did not live there. He was, no doubt, oppressed by the government of the United States. But I am oppressed by the Swedish government, and it does not make me an apologist for the Soviet Union.

[3]) Just one epistemological note: If one has reached an inductive generalization from observing a few instances, one would expect future observations to fall into line – just as one expects all future tables to be pretty much similar to the few tables from which one originally formed the concept. This is not “cherry picking”.

One may find exceptions – and then one will have to look into what explains those exceptions. A simple example: One has formed the inductive generalization that paper quickly starts burning, when it comes into contact with fire. Then one finds a counter-example: paper that does not catch fire or does so only slowly. Looking into the matter, one finds that this particular paper bundle is soaked with water. The exception is explained.

And it might just happen that one finds some instance of Rothbard making sense, even when he writes about politics; and then one has to look for an explanation …

Ludwig von Mises on Bureaucracy

(Plus a couple of thoughts of my own.)

There is one book by Ludwig von Mises that I think is slightly neglected, namely Bureaucracy, first published in 1962. (I may be wrong, but I have never seen any discussion of it.) It deals with the difference between profit-and-loss management and bureaucratic management, and I think it is important for our understanding of the difference between market and government. I just want to give some illustrative quotes:

In public administration there is no market price for achievements. This makes it indispensable to operate public offices according to principles entirely different from those applied under the profit motive.

Now we are in a position to provide a definition of bureaucratic management: Bureaucratic management is the method applied in the conduct of administrative affairs the result of which has no cash value on the market. Remember: we do not say that a successful handling of public affairs has no value, but that it has no price on the market, that its value cannot be realized in a market transaction and consequently cannot be expressed in terms of money. […] Bureaucratic management is management of affairs which cannot be checked by economic calculation. (P. 47f.)


The conduct of government affairs is as different from the industrial processes as is prosecuting, convicting, and sentencing a murderer from the growing of crops or the manufacturing of shoes. Government efficiency and industrial efficiency are entirely different things. A factory’s management cannot be improved by taking a police department as its model, and a tax collector’s office cannot become more efficient by adopting the methods of a motor-car plant. (P. 52.)


In the field of profit-seeking enterprise the objective of the management engineer’s activity is clearly determined by the primacy of the profit motive. His task is to reduce costs without impairing the market value of the result or to reduce costs more than the ensuing reduction of the market value of the result or to raise the market value of the result more than the required rise in costs. But in the field of government the result has no price on the market. It can neither be bought nor sold. (P. 49f.)

And so, governments and government agencies simply cannot be run by profit-and-loss management; and neither could private enterprises be run by bureaucratic management. The spheres are entirely different. (This is also an implicit criticism of anarcho-capitalism.)

The later chapters of the book deal with what happens when governments take over what should properly be run by private enterprises, i.e. the dangers of bureaucratization.

Bureaucratization is especially dangerous in the field of education. Here is an illustrative quote:

After the old professors [in 19th century Germany] who had got their chairs in the short flowering of German liberalism had died, it became impossible to hear anything about economics at the universities of the Reich. There were no longer any German economists, and the books of foreign economists could not be found in the libraries of the university seminars. […] All that the students of the social sciences learned from their teachers was that economics is a spurious subject and that the so-called economists are, as Marx said, sycophantic apologists or the unfair class interests of bourgeois exploiters, ready to sell the people to big business and finance capital. The graduates left the universities convinced advocates of totalitarianism either of the Nazi variety or of the Marxian brand. […]

European totalitarianism is an upshot of bureaucracy’s preëminence in the field of education. The universities paved the way for the dictators.

Is the situation much different today? Is it an exaggeration to say that Marxism may be dead in the former Communist countries, but alive and well at our universities?

$ $ $

It might be objected (and I am sure many will object) that such fields as education and health care should not be run by profit-and-loss management, since the primary purpose here is not to make money but to educate students and make people well. But in a free economy there would be no such conflict of purposes: the best schools and universities and the best hospitals would also be the ones who make the most money.

But I do see a problem with such institutions as libraries and archives. (I myself worked at the Swedish Royal Library before I retired, and it is certainly not managed by profit and loss; it is subsidized by the tax payers.) Such institutions provide a valuable service: they are “a country’s memory” and are necessary for historical research. But would they be able to survive, if they were suddenly privatized? Well, they may be taken over by private foundations; but are there such foundations today that are rich enough and interested enough to take them over? Privatizing such institutions will have to be a goal for a more distant future.

Meanwhile, bureaucratization just goes on and on and on …

Ludwig von Mises on Buying Soap

I haven’t blogged in English for almost two months (there is more activity on my Swedish blog), so I will write a short post just to show I am still alive.

I found this Mises quote while looking for something about catallactic theorems being valid under the “ceteris paribus” or “everything else being equal” assumption – and what to do about the fact that it is very seldom that everything else is equal. After a discussion of “Gresham’s law” and an apparent counter-example to it,  I found the following:

If I simply want buy soap, I will inquire about the price in many stores and then buy in the cheapest one. If I consider the trouble and loss of time which such shopping requires so bothersome that I would rather pay a few cents more, then I will go into the nearest store without making any further inquiries. If I also want to combine the support of a poor disabled veteran with the purchase of soap, then I will buy from the invalid peddler, though this may be more expensive. In these cases, if I wanted to enter my expenditures accurately in my household account book, I should have to set down the cost of the soap at its common selling price and make a separate entry of the overpayment, in the one instance as “for my convenience”, and in the other as “for charity”. (Epistemological Problems of Economics, p. 95; translated by no less a person than George Reisman.)

This is of course a very simple catallactic theorem: Everything else being equal, one buys in the cheaper market and sells in the dearer market. And here are just two examples of everything else not being quite equal.

Not the most ambitious blog post I have written…

Precious Metals Inflation?

In the past, I have written extensively on the evil of inflation and of fractional reserve banking; and I have pointed out, time and again, that newly created money reaches some people before prices have risen and others after prices have risen; and that this is a way of defrauding the latter category. Nobody has been intelligent enough to ask me the question: “Would this not also be true with an increase in the precious metals? If a vast new gold and silver mine were to be discovered and mined, would this not have the same effects?” Since I am intelligent enough to ask this question, I will also answer it.

First, this is what Ludwig von Mises has to say:

If the supply of caviar were as plentiful as the supply of potatoes, the price of caviar—that is, the exchange ratio between caviar and money or caviar and other commodities—would change considerably. In that case, one could obtain caviar at a much smaller sacrifice than is required today. Likewise, if the quantity of money is increased, the purchasing power of the monetary unit decreases, and the quantity of goods that can be obtained for one unit of this money decreases also.

When, in the sixteenth century, American resources of gold and silver were discovered and exploited, enormous quantities of the precious metals were transported to Europe. The result of this increase in the quantity of money was a general tendency toward an upward movement of prices in Europe. In the same way, today, when a government increases the quantity of paper money, the result is that the purchasing power of the monetary unit begins to drop, and so prices rise. This is called inflation. (Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow, p. 55.)

So, yes: An increase in the amount of precious metals will have this inflationary effect; and it is also true that also in this case the money would reach some people first and others only later. But there are some important differences between this and paper money and/fractional reserve inflation.

First of all: Who will be the first ones to receive this new money? The persons who mine the metals and those who then mint it. But this is eminently just: It is simply their payment for the work they have done. This cannot be compared with the “work” of a counterfeiter, be he a private criminal or a central bank.

Second: Fiat paper money and fractional reserve money pretend to be real money, although they are not. But a new gold or silver coin does not pretend to be anything else than it really is.

Thus, there can be no moral objection to this kind of increase of the money supply. But there is a more practical point that needs to be stressed – if only to show, once again, that the moral is the practical.

Both fiat money and fractional reserve money (fiduciary media) will eventually disappear. They are created “out of thin air” and will eventually disappear into the same thin air. Fiat paper money will inevitably someday lead to hyperinflation, and the paper currency will collapse. As for fiduciary media, they will disappear the day the inflation bubble bursts and we get a depression.

By contrast, gold and silver once mined remains in existence, and so do gold and silver coins once coined. They cannot disappear. (Even the gold and silver occasionally lost in ship wrecks may one day be retrieved.) For this reason – and this one of the important things one can learn from George Reisman, in particular – it is not just inflation proof, it is also deflation proof.

Earlier on this subject:

Debating Fractional Reserve Banking
A Belated Open Letter to Ayn Rand on Fractional Reserve Banking
More on Fractional Reserve Banking
Fractional Reserve Banking Yesterday and Today
Should Pick-Pocketing Be Legalized?
Is “Fractional Reserve Banking” Compatible with Objectivism?

And, in Swedish:
Varför “fractional reserve banking” bör förbjudas
“Fraktionella reserver” än en gång

Is Life Worth Living?

You may think I must be severely depressed to even ask such a question, but I am not; it was prompted by an excerpt from Human Action (the very last chapter of the book) which was recently posted at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. I quote:

Science does not value, but it provides acting man with all the information he may need with regard to his valuations. It keeps silence only when the question is raised whether life itself is worth living.

This is eminently true. If you were to ask this question of yourself, no science could tell you the answer; the only one who can answer it is you. – But if you even read this, this is proof enough that you do find life worth living; if not, you would already be dead: you would have committed suicide in any manner available, including stopping eating.[1]

Not even the science of ethics could tell you the answer. This science (and I refer here, of course, to the Objectivist ethics) can tell you that there is an inextricable link between “life” and “value” – that it is only to living beings that values are possible and necessary – and it can tell you that life is the ultimate standard of value. And then it can offer you advice about how to go about living successfully to make it even more worth living: use your reason, use your own mind, be productive, honest, just – all the things enumerated in the catalog of virtues in Galt’s speech. And you have to apply this as best you can to all the concrete situations in your life (which is not always easy). But if you really think that “life is not worth living”, all this is of no avail. If life itself loses its value, what else could be of value?

Mises repeats his point a little later in the text:

It is true, praxeology and economics do not tell a man whether he should preserve or abandon life. Life itself and the unknown forces that originate it and keep it burning are an ultimate given, and as such beyond the pale of human science. The subject matter of praxeology is merely the essential manifestation of human life, viz., action.

Praxeology and economics can tell you many things – for example, it can tell you why capitalism is the proper social system and why socialism is doomed to fail. But this, too, is based on the idea that life is worth living: if it were not, what would it matter if you live in a free society or under tyranny and slavery? If your life were truly not worth living, neither would it matter whether you are free or a slave.[2]

This far, I agree with Mises. (The point is virtually self-evident, so I have merely elaborated on a self-evidence above.) Now to a “bone of contention”: Mises’ insistence that science is – and should be – wertfrei or value-free. In other words, science does not, and should not, pass judgments of value. Such judgments are outside the scope of science. Wherever they belong, they do not belong in science; neither in the natural sciences, nor in the humanities.

Well, the natural sciences do not make value judgments – for example, physics does not tell us whether gravity is good or bad; it just tells us that there is such a phenomenon as gravity. But even so, it tells us that it is a bad thing to jump from an airplane without the aid of a parachute. But this concerns the implications of scientific knowledge, not the content of the science. – And the very pursuit of science is based on the idea that knowledge is a value. But that concerns the scientist’s motivation in pursuing science, not the content of the science.

But is this true about economics as well? (Or about the humanities in general, but I want to focus on economics.) Well, the economist as well as the natural scientist must be motivated by the idea that knowledge is a value; and the knowledge, once acquired, implies “oughts” and value judgments. For example, once an economist has arrived at the insight that capitalism leads to prosperity and socialism to misery, it would be ludicrous to abstain from saying that we ought to have capitalism, and that socialism is bad.

But what about the content of economics, apart from the motivation to study it and the implications of it? This is what Mises has to say:

While many people blame economics for its neutrality with regard to value judgments, other people blame it for its alleged indulgence in them. Some contend that economics must necessarily express judgments of value and is therefore not really scientific, as the criterion of science is its valuational indifference. Others maintain that good economics should be and could be impartial, and that only bad economists sin against this postulate.

The semantic confusion in the discussion of the problems concerned is due to an inaccurate use of terms on the part of many economists. An economist investigates whether a measure a can bring about the result p for the attainment of which it is recommended, and finds that a does not result in p but in g, an effect which even the supporters of the measure a consider undesirable. If this economist states the outcome of his investigation by saying that a is a bad measure, he does not pronounce a judgment of value. He merely says that from the point of view of those aiming at the goal p, the measure a is inappropriate.

Observe that the word “bad” here expresses a value judgment. But the economist should not have used this word? He should have used words like “undesirable” or “inappropriate” instead? This may be semantic hair-splitting, but certainly those words, too, express value judgments.

There is no escape from value judgments. As Ayn Rand explains:

In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought”. (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 17.)

And later in the same book:

Moral evaluations are implicit in most intellectual issues; it is not merely permissible, but mandatory to pass moral judgments when and where appropriate; to suppress such judgment is an act of moral cowardice. But a moral judgment must always follow, not precede (or supersede), the reasons on which it is based. (P. 143.)

In my own words: Value judgments, or moral judgments, must never be divorced from the facts of reality.

But saying this in a modern philosophy class is like swearing in church. Modern philosophy takes it for granted, even axiomatic, that values are divorced from reality. No “ought”, it teaches to young, defenseless minds, can ever be derived from an “is”; no value can ever be derived from facts.[3]

I think this idea is the most stupid idea ever uttered in the whole history of philosophy. Anyone who has not yet passed through a modern philosophy class (and punished with a lower grade for disagreeing with this idea) knows that an “ought” is derived from an “is”. To take an example I have used before: what clothes you should wear is determined by the weather; when it is 30o cold outside, you don’t go out in shorts; when it is 30o warm, you don’t put on your fur coat. But modern philosophy teaches you this does not matter; not even the fact that you might freeze to death matters.

Every time anyone makes an analysis of the facts and then makes a recommendation based on this analysis, he is deriving an “ought” from an “is”. He may study gravity and then recommend a parachute, to repeat the example above. Or he may be an economist and be asked to analyze the pros and cons of taxation; if he is a good, “Austrian”, economist, he will find that taxes are harmful and that taxes on “the rich” will eventually harm “the poor” as well. So he will recommend lower taxes, or even the abolishment of taxes.[4] But on the premise that an “ought” must not be derived from an “is”, he cannot allow himself to make that recommendation!

I will not insult Mises by calling him a “modern philosopher”; but in this case I believe he has bought the Humean idea of the is/ought or fact/value dichotomy.

In case someone should think I am unfair to Mises, that I have refrained from quoting some good stuff, and that my criticisms are mere nit-picking, I would like to end by quoting George Reisman:

Even on the occasions when I found it necessary to disagree with him […] I always found what he had to say to be extremely valuable and a powerful stimulus to my own thinking. I do not believe that anyone can claim to be really educated who has not absorbed a substantial measure of the immense wisdom present in his works. (Ludwig von Mises: Defender of Capitalism.)

He is a powerful stimulus to my thinking, too. And you are not educated until you have read him.

This blog post is getting long; an “is” that implies an “ought”: that I should stop here.

[1]) Old people often lose their appetite when death is approaching. Unlike suicide, this is not a choice; it is nature’s way of telling that life is about to end.

[2]) One famous philosopher has claimed that it is one’s duty to preserve one’s life only when life has become unbearable – before that, preserving life is just an “inclination”. But this amounts to saying that life is worth living only when it is not worth living any longer. I could hardly agree less.

[3]) The origin of this idea is David Hume; but you already know this.

[4]) For the question how the legitimate functions of government should be financed, I refer you to Ayn Rand’s essay “Government Financing in a Free Society” in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Ludwig von Mises on Free Will

I am currently reading (or rather re-reading) Ludwig von Mises’ Theory and History. I may have more to say about it later; but for now I will just take up his views on determinism and free will. But first my own view:

“Free will” means the ability to choose between alternatives. Where there are no alternatives, there can be no choice; but where there are alternatives, man has to choose between them. (He may choose not to choose, but that too is a choice.) But what is free about this choice? The alternatives merely present themselves; and the consequences of the choice one makes, for good or for evil, are inescapable. What is free is merely the very act of choosing.

Take a trivial example: I wake up in the morning with a slightly sore throat. Now I have two alternatives: getting up and go to work despite the sore throat (hoping it will get better during the day) – or to report sick and stay in bed. The sore throat makes it necessary to make this choice; this necessity is determined by the circumstances. The consequences are inescapable: if I go to work, it may happen that my throat gets worse; reporting sick and staying in bed will result in the loss of one day’s pay; those possible outcomes are, at least partly, determined by my choice. The only thing that is truly free is the choice itself. And if someone were to ask me what caused the choice, the only possible answer is that I caused it; I made the choice.

It is often claimed that free will or the power of choice is in conflict with the law of causality; so that either free will is an illusion or that, if there is free will, this is an exception to the law of causality and proves that there are “uncaused” or “random” events in the universe. But it is not an exception to causality; it is a special kind of causality.[1]

Now to what Mises has to say (all quotes are from pp. 76–78, the section on “The Free-Will Controversy”):

Man chooses between modes of action incompatible with one another. Such decisions, says the free-will doctrine, are basically undetermined and uncaused; they are not the inevitable outcome of antecedent conditions. (Emphasis mine.)

This is of course precisely what I answered in presenting my own view of free will above. I cause the choice, I determine what it will be; it is caused and determined by me.

Determinists reject this doctrine as illusory. Man, they say, deceives himself in believing that he chooses. Something unknown to the individual directs his will. He thinks that he weighs in his mind the pros and cons of the alternatives left to his choice and then makes a decision. He fails to realize that the antecedent state of things enjoins upon him a definite line of conduct and that there is no means to elude this pressure. Man does not act, he is acted upon.

This is the standard determinist argument one hears all the time: you merely fool yourself if you believe in free will; in fact, you are a puppet and will always remain a puppet. (Determinists disagree over what you are a puppet of; it may be your genes, your environment, the material productive forces, your toilet training, or even God.)

Also, “determinism” is an ambiguous term. When contrasted to “indeterminism” it means simply that causality is omnipresent throughout the universe; there no such thing as a “contingent” or “random” event. But then it is also used in contrast to the idea of free will. This equivocation on the term “determinism” has played a lot of havoc. The determinist says to the free will advocate: “So you don’t believe in causality?”, and the free will advocate can only retort: “So you believe you’re a puppet of forces you cannot control?”; and the debate just stops there.

But since Mises accepts the idea that our choices are “undetermined and uncaused”, he has to give the determinists a slightly different answer:

Both doctrines neglect to pay due attention to the role of ideas. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas he adopts.

True enough; but it is also a choice to adopt a certain idea! One hears a new idea; and then there is the alternative of accepting the idea or rejecting it. What determines which ideas one chooses, except oneself by making the choice?

One still may ask: What makes a man adopt a new idea? (It is not a matter of tossing coins or adopting it arbitrarily.) It may be that the new idea agrees with other ideas already held: it is seen as an implication of the old idea or a further development of the old idea or something that sheds new light on the old idea. But the old idea must at some time in the past have been adopted by choice. This reasoning seems to lead to an infinite regress (the choice to adopt idea A depends on earlier having adopted idea B, which in its turn depends on even earlier have adopted idea C, etc., ad infinitum).

So where does this regress stop? Probably with the first idea within a given field that a person decides to pay attention to.

But I’m digressing. Back to Mises:

The determinists are right in asserting that everything that happens is the necessary sequel of the preceding state of things. What a man does at any instant of his life is entirely dependent on his past, that is, on his physiological inheritance as well as of all he went through in his previous days.

I could add to this that it is also dependent on all the choices he has made in his previous days. A man’s character is shaped by the choices (big or small) that he has made. A man becomes brave by making many brave choices; and he becomes a coward by making many cowardly choices (just to take one example).

Yet the significance of this thesis is considerably weakened by the fact that nothing is known about the way in which ideas arise.

Very little is known. I said something earlier about how ideas arise, but it is just a preliminary sketch. (And what Mises has in mind is the fact that we know very little about the relation between what goes on in our mind and the neurology of our brain.)

The free-will doctrine is correct in pointing out the fundamental difference between human action and animal behavior. While the animal cannot help yielding to the physiological impulse that prevails at the moment, man chooses between alternative modes of conduct.

This, of course, is true. Animals are goal-directed in the sense that they act (or react) to preserve their lives and the life of the species (by procreating); but it is only man who can consciously set goals and purposes and who has to do this consciously in order to survive and prosper.

There is another quote later in the book about this crucial difference between man and the other animals:

Free will means that man can aim at definite ends because he is familiar with some of the laws determining the flux of world affairs. There is a sphere within which man can choose between alternatives. He is not, like other animals, inevitably and irremediably subject to the operation of blind fate. He can, within definite narrow limits, divert events from the course they would take if left alone. He is an acting being. (P. 179.)

Agreed. Mises continues:

The will is unbendable and must not yield to any violence and oppression, because man is capable of choosing between life and death …

“Life and death” is the fundamental alternative for all living organisms, including man, but man is the only organism that needs to be aware of this alternative. – I’d like to add that most choices we make are not literal “life-or-death” choices: when we make our choices and weigh pro and con, we simply take it for granted that the choice we make should be the most life-promoting choice; if we have a choice between an edible mushroom and a poisonous one, we do not even bother to consider picking the poisonous one. There is one exception:

…and of preferring death if life can be preserved only at the price of submitting to unbearable conditions.

It is very rarely that death is actually preferable to life. One instance is if one is suffering from a painful and incurable illness. But I don’t think this is what Mises has in mind here; it is more likely that he thinks of risking one’s life fighting against tyranny. It reminds me of that famous Patrick Henry quote: “Give me liberty or give me death!”

This blog post is beginning to meander, so I stop here. For the time being. And this choice was mine to make.

(Scandinavian readers may also read Mises och determinismen and Spridda tankar om den fria viljan.)

[1]) Leonard Peikoff discusses this at some length in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 62–69.

Latin and Greek Phrases in Ludwig von Mises’ “Socialism”

(This is something that has bothered me ever since I read Mises’ Socialism some thirty years ago.)

Ludwig von Mises’ epoch-making Die Gemeinwirtschaft from 1922 (2. ed. 1932) was translated into English by J. Kahane and published in 1936 under the title Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Enlarged editions have been published later; the last one by Liberty Classics in 1981. I quote from the publisher’s preface to this last edition:

This edition leaves the text as translated by Kahane in 1936 and added to by Mises in 1951 undisturbed. The present publisher has, however, undertaken to add certain features to aid the contemporary reader. Translations have been provided for all non-English expressions left untranslated in the Jonathan Cape edition. These translations appear in parentheses after the expressions or passages in question. (P. xv; emphasis added.)

Well this would certainly aid the contemporary reader, who (one has to suppose) has no knowledge whatsoever of ancient Greek and Latin. There is, however, one big problem: some of those phrases are grossly mistranslated. Here is an inventory:

P. 55: The collective view of history, which is thoroughly asocial, cannot therefore conceive that social institutions could have arisen in any way except from the intervention of a “world shaper” of the Platonic δημιουργός[1] (one who works for the people).

This is not completely wrong, since the original meaning of “δημιουργός” was ”public worker”; but it is still misleading, since what Mises refers to here is Plato’s idea of a “world shaper” or “world creator”. (See the Wikipedia article on “demiurge”.)

P. 188: The great mass of people […] regard the existing state of affairs as eternal; as it has been so shall it always be. But even if they were in a position to envision the πάντα ρεϊ[2] (everything simple or all so easy) they would be baffled by the problems to be solved.

This translation does not even come close to the meaning of the term translated. “Πάντα ρεϊ” is a phrase that is commonly attributed to the philosopher Heraclitus and means “everything flows” or “everything is in a state of flux”. (The phrase itself is not to be found in the surviving works of Heraclitus; but he has said many similar things and it is a good, concise summary of his philosophy.)

P. 259: Evolution from the human animal to the human being was made possible by and achieved by means of social cooperation and by that alone. And therein lies the interpretation of Aristotle’s dictum that man is the ζῷον πολιτικόν[3] (the living body politic).

”Ζῷον πολιτικόν” means ”political animal”! (Or possibly “social animal”; the idea is that man cannot live outside of society and that society has to be organized some way.)

P. 357: Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (let justice be done even though the world be destroyed)…

Yes, this is a correct translation. But Mises has a point, expressed a couple of pages later:

P. 360: [A man] can never reject that which has been recognized as beneficial and reasonable simply because a norm, based on some mysterious intuition, declares it to be immoral – a norm the sense and purpose of which he is not entitled even to investigate. His principle is not fiat justitia, pereat mundus, but fiat justitia, ne pereat mundus (let justice be done, but do not destroy the world).

The conjunction “ne” is the Latin equivalent of the English “lest”, so the translation should be “let justice be done, lest the world be destroyed” (or perhaps “so that the world will not be destroyed”). And this is a profound insight – but it gets completely lost, if the Latin is not correctly translated!

Why those mistranslations? After all, one does not have to be a professor in those languages to spot them. (I took four years of Latin and two years of ancient Greek in school, but that doesn’t mean I master those languages.) And those expressions are by no means obscure: both “πάντα ρεϊ” and “ζῷον πολιτικόν” are well known and often quoted expressions. Your guess is as good as mine, but I would guess they are the result of pure guesswork.

[1]) Transliterated “dēmiourgós”.

[2]) Transliterated  ”pánta rhei”.

[3]) Transliterated ”zōon politikón”.