Ludwig von Mises, Libertarianism, and Traditionalism | Myles Watts
Ludwig von Mises, the leader of the Austrian School of economics in the 20th century, was unquestionably the foremost economist of his age, if not of all ages. He is best known for his ground-breaking contributions to economic theory; some of his greatest insights include his demonstration of the total impossibility of socialism due to its lack of market prices, the explication of the monetary origins of the business trade cycle, and the elucidation and systematisation of economics as the science of human action.
In matters of political economy, Mises was a trenchant proponent of the free and unhampered market economy – a fervent laissez-faire radical. Mises’ radicalism, however, did not imply an aversion to traditional social institutions. On the contrary, Mises was a vehement opponent of cultural libertinism and a staunch defender of cultural traditionalism. Indeed, as I shall endeavour to show, the views Mises held on cultural matters are harmonious with traditionalist conservatism. If Mises were alive today, he would undoubtedly be regarded as a reactionary on account of his social-cultural views. The aim of this article is to analyse Mises’ cultural thought in the hope that it provides a deeper understanding of the relationship between a private property (libertarian) social order and a traditionalist position on cultural matters.
Mises was very much typical of twentieth-century laissez-faire thinkers, the majority of whom were cultural traditionalists: defenders of traditional bourgeois morality and institutions. Contrariwise, the advocates of socialism and interventionism have invariably been affiliated with moral libertinism. The Marxists, for example, advocated free love and the liquidation of marriage.
In Mises, the connection between the free market and traditionalism emerges in two distinct ways. In the first place, Mises regarded the market economy and traditional social institutions as features of the natural order. It is in this sense that Mises, despite explicitly denouncing conservatism, qualifies as a traditionalist conservative. Conservatism can mean different things and can be interpreted in vastly different ways. One interpretation of conservatism is that it pertains to a disposition to preserve the status quo; this is the crude form of conservatism Mises deprecated as stagnant and rigid. When Mises denigrated conservatism, he was referring to doctrines and systems that stymie “any innovations that could endanger its own supremacy.” Conversely, conservatism can mean something else entirely. Traditionalist conservatism denotes not a tendency to simply conserve what is, but a political and social philosophy predicated on the notion that there exists a natural order, a natural state of things.
What is the natural order then? It is the order of private property, natural authority, family and marriage, societal structure, the division of labour, capital production, and so forth—natural social institutions that have their origins in social cooperation. The conservative natural order recognises the necessity of social units, via family-based communities in which households cooperate with one another under the division of labour and private property. Mises did not repudiate this latter form of conservatism; rather, traditionalist conservatism permeated Mises’ political and cultural thought.
The second important way in which the connection between traditionalism and libertarianism manifests itself in Mises’ thought is in his anti-egalitarianism. Mises was a vociferous and ardent opponent of egalitarianism of all stripes. Lew Rockwell and Jeffrey Tucker have suggested that the principal theme in Mises’ cultural traditionalism was the fact of natural human inequality. “The fact that men are born unequal in regard to physical and mental capabilities cannot be argued away,” wrote Mises. This basic, axiomatic reality led Mises to reject all forms of egalitarianism as a revolt against nature.
A salient illustration of Mises’ anti-egalitarian cultural traditionalism can be found in his writings on marriage and free love. Mises thought marriage was a highly civilised and highly virtuous institution that evolved from the natural interaction of men and women; he viewed marriage as part of “an adjustment of the individual to the social order by which a certain field of activity, with all its tasks and requirements is assigned to him.”
The Marxists, on the other hand, deride marriage as a veritable evil and thus seek to destroy it. “Marxism indeed seeks to combat marriage just as it seeks to justify the abolition of private property”. The Marxist claim is that marriage is profoundly unnatural and that, along with every other conceivable evil, it was the creation of capitalism. In the Marxist view, the function of marriage as a social institution is nothing more than the violent subjugation of women by men. Mises rejected this view as spurious and advanced the idea that all modern concepts of marriage derive from contract: “that marriage unites one man and one woman, that it can be entered into only with the free will of both parties, that it imposes a duty of mutual fidelity, that a man’s violations of the marriage vows are to be judged no differently from a woman’s, that the rights of husband and wife are essentially the same”.
Marriage joins man and woman “as equal, freeborn companions and comrades.” The marriage relation permits the woman to “deny herself to anyone” and to “demand fidelity and constancy from the man to whom she gives herself”. For Mises, family and marital fidelity were not only entirely natural institutions, but essential to a free and virtuous civilisation.
The concept of free love is advanced by the socialists as the remedy for the supposedly oppressive and tyrannical relations between the sexes. Marriage enslaves women and free love shall liberate them. Free love means that “choice in love becomes completely free”. Under free love, sexual desire is totally unsubdued, and fidelity and monogamy are abrogated. Clearly, the effect of free love is the degradation of sexuality and the usurpation of sensuality and constancy by promiscuity and baseness. Mises perceived socialistic free love as an assault against nature, like all other “pseudo-democratic” attempts to “efface natural and socially conditioned inequalities.”
Furthermore, free love entails the dissolution of the family and therefore that all children are reared, educated, and maintained by the state. On this Mises wrote that “to take away a woman’s children and put them in an institution is to take away part of her life; and children are deprived of the most far-reaching influences when they are torn from the bosom of the family.” The family (father, mother, children) constitutes the basic societal unit and, insofar as free love abolishes the family, it is profoundly and inherently destructive of the natural order.
In short, Ludwig von Mises, the last knight of liberalism, held many cultural and social views that were imbued with traditionalist conservatism. The source of Mises’ traditionalism has been shown to be twofold: on the one hand, it stems from his anti-egalitarianism and, on the other hand, his belief in the existence of a natural order derived from the natural, extended interaction of men under an arrangement of social cooperation.
It should now be clear that the notion that libertarianism is intrinsically hostile to tradition or that it is necessarily libertine in its approach to morality is, contrary to the demented suggestions of so-called “left-libertarians”, purely fallacious. As aforestated, the majority of leading libertarian thinkers were (and are), as a matter of empirical fact, social-cultural conservatives. This alone should be sufficient to dispel the erroneous belief that libertarianism and cultural traditionalism are somehow incompatible.
Libertarianism, properly understood, is about private property. On a conceptual level, libertarian political theory can be divorced from all considerations of cultural matters, but, as Lew Rockwell has said, no political doctrine can exist in a vacuum. Just as private property and free markets are a moral and economic imperative, so too are the traditional social institutions of the natural order. Both are necessary for a free and civilised society, and the absence of either is ruinous for human civilisation.