Twofish's Blog

September 7, 2007

Comments on biography on von Mises

Filed under: academia, austrian economics, liberal arts, von mises — twofish @ 7:28 am

Great link, and I learned a bit more about why I find myself so attracted to von Mises and his ideas. The social situation of a Chinese-American circa 2007 is very similar to the social situation of an Austrian Jews circa 1880, and like von Mises, my family background is that of “fallen aristocracy.” Being “fallen aristocracy” puts you under a huge amount of psychological pressure, because you are surrounded by bits and pieces of past glory in the middle of the meagre present.

The conflicted and complex feelings that liberal Austrians had with the Habsburg monarchy and the irony of supporters of liberalism supporting an at times repressive monarchy parallels the very complex feelings that I have toward the Chinese Communist Party.

At times it is extremely painful for me to read about the history of Austria in the late 19th century because I know what happened in the 20th century. This is especially the case, because I doubt that anyone living in Austria would could have imagined how bad things would have gotten over the next 100 years, and that knowledge is frightening when you look around the United States in 2007, and realize that the fact things look nice and stable right now, doesn’t mean that it can’t all fall apart in horrific ways.

One reason I like Austrian economics over mainstrean economics is that in Austrian economics, people matter. In mainstream economics, there is no room for human will and human choice. We are all “robots” (and the word robot is related to the forms of serfdom described in the early parts of the book). My hope is that future people will look at what I did and note that I did what I could to keep the United States and indeed the entire world from going down the path that Austria did.

The one thing that I disagree with is with the title of the book, von Mises was not the last knight of liberalism.


The one other thing that I thought the book brought out in the conflict between von Mises and the Randians is how basic assumptions about how the world works influences human behavior. If one believes as von Mises and Hayek does that the knowledge of the invididual is limited, then one is going to be very nice and polite toward people who you disagree with since they might will be right, and even if they aren’t, the have access to part of the truth that you need.

If one believes that one is in possession of the truth, then there is no reason to be civil toward people who you disagree with.

One other point is that I once made the statement that I learned a huge amount about Chinese nationalism by studying Hungarian nationalism, and the biography about von Mises touches on some of the things that I found. For example, there was a very strong debate over what it meant to be “Hungarian” and one of the ideas that lost was the idea of “Hungaranius” which was an inclusive notion of Hungarianness based on Latin. One curious parallel was the vital role of Latin in the Hungarian identity in the 19th century and the important role of Latin in my own life and in the development of the idea of “Confucianism.”

Now I had no idea that there would be such deep parallels between the struggles and the debates about “What it means to be Hungarian?” versus the struggles and debates about “What it means to be Chinese?”  or ‘What does it mean to be American?”  I just randomly picked up a few books in an used book shop a few years ago, and one was about the last years of the Habsburgs.

December 12, 2006

Overachievers anonymous

To whom it my concern:

So tell me, what does it feel like to be perfect?  I’m really curious, since that might give me some insight in what I need to do in my own imperfect life…..




That’s actually what all of this is about.  I’m one of the first generation of Chinese-American overachievers, and I’ve reached a point in which there are very few guideposts, and the closest thing that I have to a role model is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, which should  be obvious given if you read the rest of my posts.

I’m actually trying to go back and find some historical analogues to figure out what to do.  The Jews of central Europe and the Middle East.  The Sheng-yuan scholars of the mid-Qing dynasty.  Earlier waves of Chinese immigration.  The Romans.  All are useful, but none of them quite exactly fit my current situation.  Which is not surprising since history doesn’t repeat.  I am sure I’ll figure out something.

The thing that keeps me in good shape is that I had a very strong liberal arts education when I was younger.  This focus on learning the liberal arts seemed merely interesting at the time, and it actually seriously hurt me when I tried applying for grad school, but it’s become very, very useful now, that I’m in a new situation for which there are no roadmaps and no guides.

Let me give you an example of a “real ethical dilemma.”  Suppose (hypothetically of course) I work at a company.  I don’t think that the company treats me particularly well.  I want to leave, however I believe that my leaving the company will cause extreme hardship to my co-workers.  What should I do?  Similarly, trying to figure out what to say on a blog and what not to blog brings up a whole host of ethical issues.  I will go insane if I don’t say certain things and I think I also have a moral duty to help 20 year olds realize that their problems won’t disappear when they reach 40.  However, I also have moral duties not to impose in other people’s privacy, and not to hurt other people.  But I also have moral duties to speak the truth.  So what do I do?  Every sentence is basically a balancing act.

It’s trying to figure out what to do with those issues, that is why I’m thankful that I have a liberal arts education so that I can at least begin to think through what should I do.  Now here is the problem…..

I had to fight the system in order to get a good liberal arts education.  Most of what I’ve read about history and philosophy, I’ve read outside of formal class.  Reading these sorts of things has actually hurt me in my academic career, because being interested in things other than the things that you are supposed to be interested in is the kiss of death in academia.  Academia has this industrial assembly line model of education which is just deadly for any sort of real education and research.  In fact the irony is that the industrial approach to education, really runs counter to the need for liberal arts.

A lot of twenty year olds think that they don’t need philosophy, and they are for the most part right.  If you are in a structured environment like the university, most of the decisions are made for you, and the number of real decisions that you make are limited.  Even the decisions you *can* make are hidden, because if everything is doing X, it makes it unobvious that you can do Y.  All of this philosophy stuff is not useful, if you can’t decide, which is why philosophy is not considered useful for slaves (and it is dangerous for slaves to learn philosophy since they start questioning the ideas that keep them chained).

It’s only after you end up in an unstructured environment where it is clear that there are real decisions with real consequences, that you find all of this liberal arts stuff useful.

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