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.

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