Friday, March 15, 2013

Mises on Ayn Rand - yikes!

"You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you."

 from Corey Robin, HT Brad DeLong

Granted, Robin is writing in Keynes's old rag.

So I don't like litigating whole lives from snippets of quotes, but these are awfully crazy quotes. It's one thing to praise Mussolini for getting the trains to run on time. Lots of people didn't but lots of people did. It's another thing entirely to call him the savior of Europe for bashing the heads of communists. That's not skirting around the edges. That's actually celebrating (if not personally embracing) what was really, really bad about Mussolini.

It's one thing to express a preference for aristocratic life and culture, like Keynes did. It's another to simply think of "the masses" that they are inferior and owe their position to their betters.

I don't want to completely litigate the guy from these sorts of quotes, but honestly - shouldn't they at least color our view of him? He's been called "the last night of liberalism". Then why does he always come across as so damned illiberal?


  1. If you think Mises' letter is crazy, take a look at Rothbard's, which is quite simply grotesque ...

    These Austrians always did give me the creeps.

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  3. Maybe this doesn't happen to some people, but there's time when you're more cautious and there's time when you're so confident for whatever reason that you end up saying exaggerations. I think this is what happened with Mises here. The message he wanted to convey was that entrepreneurs provide "the masses" with the goods that improve their standard of living. Something less vulgar probably would have gone unnoticed, but sometimes people make a poor choice of words. I'm not trying to cover for him -- I really don't know the motivation --; I'm just making an educated guess based on what I know.

  4. I don't see much wrong with what Mises says here.

    Most people don't contribute greatly to the progress of mankind. Economically speaking, the masses sustain civilisation, but they don't expand it. Most of them do low skilled work, which doesn't create anything fundamentally new. That doesn't mean they don't have a contribution, their diligence and hard work are important. But the greater contribution comes from those who expand the possibilities of what humans can do. You could say that such people come from the masses, that's a reasonable counterargument. But, those people aren't really the masses, and that's the point.

    In some cases; when capital is very scarce, for example, then what the masses do really makes a differencet. For example, their willingness to save and invest is important. And they always make a difference when they vote. But, otherwise Mises is quite right.

    1. The question is not about whether "the masses" make a difference (because obviously their impact is quite large). Mises says that "the masses" are qualitatively inferior. That is to say, if it weren't for creative thinkers showing humans the way forward, we would still be living in caves and, to quote Rand, would "starve in [our] hopeless ineptitude", because the "average" human is too stupid ever to be capable of original thought.

      Which I take it, you swallow wholly.

    2. "For my part, I put the blame squarely on YOU, the home viewer!"

      Yeah, tell people they're worthless vermin. Good luck with that. Keep at it though, please.

  5. Mises could have been a bit more tactful in his choice of words. But let's take a deep breath and think this through.

    Am I "inferior" to Lebron James in terms of my ability to play basketball? Yes (as is every other human on the planet). Not a particularly controversial statement, right?

    Likewise, it's perfectly legitimate to say that, in terms of being able to generate improvements in human welfare, I (and "the masses") are clearly inferior to people like Steve Jobs, Brin & Page, Jeff Bezos, Sam Walton, or most of the other modern captains of industry and inventive geniuses.

    Human history wouldn't be different at all if I hadn't been born. But we'd all be a lot worse off if Shockley et al hadn't invented the transistor. Yes, in terms of my contribution to society, I'm clearly inferior to many, many technical and business giants. Can you really argue otherwise?

  6. Jonathan Catalan has a point - during certain times, people end up making exaggerated statements. This may be one of those moments when Ludwig von Mises did make an exaggerated statement.

    I don't deny that entrepreneurs do make contributions to society that most of us probably wouldn't be capable of doing ourselves. While there's a kernel of truth in what Mises may have been intending to say, I think this neglects something else.

    Even though entrepreneurs may have the vision, the intelligence, and the leadership skills to execute things that the average person wouldn't be able to do - at the end of the day, regardless of their greatness, the entrepreneur is still but one individual.

    And individuals don't exist in vacuums - there's a reason why there's a saying that goes, "No man is an island."

    Let's take Steve Jobs. I'm not his biggest fan, but there are some basic facts in order.

    Even though Jobs may have had all these skills, he still needed to work with other people. And this kept on mattering as his baby, Apple, grew bigger and bigger.

    If he was impossible to work with, and thought he could do it truly all by himself with no one else's help...well, would Apple have become as large or been as successful as it is today?

    The same would apply to Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates.

    At the end of the day, human beings - great or otherwise - don't live in some solipsistic vacuum. And people need to be interested and receptive to their contributions.

    If literally no one were interested in the products that Steve Jobs offered, well, would he and his company still exist in the public eye today?

    The masses *also* vote with their feet by deciding what products to acquire.

    I believe Keynes once said something along the lines of this: "At the end of the day, an economy grows and works at its best not when a small amount of people gain, but when all of its members do so."

    And I'm afraid I have to agree with Keynes on this point, even though there is no doubt that entrepreneurship and innovation is important.

  7. Sure, Jobs needed the help of co-workers and consumers of Apple products. But on a per capita basis, his contributions massively outweighed those of any one of those other people.

    "The masses *also* vote with their feet by deciding what products to acquire."

    The masses get a good deal (by getting a quality product/service) and the elites benefit (by getting $$$). It's win-win.

    **Jobs was an a-hole wrt intellectual property and Android. But fortunately, the market is ignoring him, as Android wins in both phones and tablets.

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  9. DK wrote: "Then why does he always come across as so damned illiberal?"
    Really? He 'ALWAYS comes across as so damned illiberal'? Even the 2 quotes you mention in your post aren't as 'awfully crazy' as you interpret them to be (see below), and those are just two quotes. He's written like thousands of pages. You know, those books in which he attacks communism, socialism, fascism, war and bases his political beliefs on what system he thinks yield the best lives for the masses and what not.

    And you say he 'ALWAYS comes across as so damn illiberal'?

    That's bizarre and frankly quite embarrassing.

    DK wrote: " It's one thing to praise Mussolini for getting the trains to run on time. Lots of people didn't but lots of people did. It's another thing entirely to call him the savior of Europe for bashing the heads of communists. That's not skirting around the edges. That's actually celebrating (if not personally embracing) what was really, really bad about Mussolini."
    Well, if (I don't know if this is true) Mussolini saved Italy (and by extension Europe?) from communism while communism was already killing millions of people in Russia, and if Mussolini's fascism was not yet Nazism, then Mises's words don't sound that unreasonable. Especially when you read the whole section (in which, mind you, he clearly calls fascism 'evil') I mean, if you read that section it seems pretty damn wise and prescient.

    re Mises's words about the inferiority of the masses: it seems to me that the commenters above have already provided sensible interpretations of how Mises meant those words and again, they don't sound that unreasonable.

  10. Daniel,
    Did you also find it crazy when Obama said, "You didn't build that"?

    1. David, it is obvious Obama meant the infrastructure. I can't believe anyone is still pulling this crap!

  11. to be sure, with that remark Obama didn't mean 'if you have a successful business, you didn't build that business. The government did'.

    With 'that' he was (I am pretty sure) referring to the sentence before where he mentions infrastructural works. And what he meant was that successful businesses benefit from those bridges etc but that they didn't built them.

  12. Daniel, obviously I wouldn't have phrased it the way Mises did, but I'm curious: Why are you taking this as a sign of his illiberality? This is perfectly consistent with Mises' stated reasons for supporting (classical) liberalism. He specifically goes out of his way in the book Liberalism to say people don't have equal intelligence or moral virtue, and that that's a bad reason for supporting democracy. Instead he supports it because of the "ballots not bullets" reason.

  13. Daniel,

    Once again I am reminded of that plate of beef stew, only the first bite is horse meat. That someone has such an immense ego that they do not understand that a waitress in a diner would make a better choice when voting for an elected official shows what a sick puppy you have on our hands. And, you read this guy?

    To have so little regard for the dignity and worth of people. Appalling, truly appalling.

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  15. We keep coming back to Steve Jobs a lot. But I think most seemingly great contributions are really kind of the last in chain of discoveries and sometime near misses on the same thing, that the final great contribution was built upon. The series Connections with James Burke makes that point in an an entertaining and amusing way I think.

    Other have the point others have made, at least implicitly, is just because someone is ordinary suggests they aren't valued as human being. That's just wrong.

    Your blog has arrived in that it is getting a fair amount of span comments apparently.


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