The Long FAQ on Liberalism
A Critique of the Austrian School of Economics:
POLITICS OF THE AUSTRIAN SCHOOL
Reviewing the political culture of the Austrian school is important for
two reasons. First, it shows what kind of world the Austrians were trying
to create when they devised their methodology. Second, it shows what kind
of political opinions are engendered by applying their methodology to
various issues. There is probably a chicken-and-egg effect here, as
political views inform theory, and theory informs political views. At
any rate, it useful to know the intended consequences of Austrian policies.
Austrian professor David Prychitko describes the political culture of
his movement best:
"Policy-wise, Austrians as a group tend to be political conservatives,
although there are one or two of us (including yours truly) who
question its strictly conservative ideology. And, like all other
schools of thought, Austrians have their share of cranks, crackpots,
and weirdos, who are best left ignored." (1)
Prychitko would appear to be one of the more reasonable members
of the Austrian School. But for the most part, the Austrian School
has been remarkably hostile towards women, minorities, workers
and the environment. Rockwell, the president of the Mises Institute,
"Environmental regulation has been among the worst offenders
in recent years. Nobody can calculate the extraordinary losses
associated with the Clean Air Act or the absurdities associated
with wetlands or endangered species policies."(2)
One presumes the "extraordinary losses" evoked
in the above quote refer to corporate profits. Regardless, it's worth
noting that in the hundred years before the Clean
Air and Clean Water Acts, the environment grew increasingly polluted.
In the two decades since, it has grown cleaner. Rockwell's claim
is simply unhistorical.
Some of the Rockwell's attacks on liberal constituencies are equally
"Civil rights legislation is the worst regulatory intervention
in labor markets." (3)
The worst? Affirmative action doesn't even exist in the
private sector -- only in the public sector, or for public contractors.
It is curious that Rockwell would single out a racial issue as
the prime example of government meddling in the labor market,
especially since private labor markets are infinitely more affected
by the minimum wage, overtime pay, worker's compensation or OSHA
safety regulations. But perhaps Rockwell isn't even referring
to affirmative action when he mentions "civil rights legislation"
-- perhaps he is alluding to the Civil Rights Act and other legislation
that ended Jim Crow laws.
Rockwell also defended the Los Angeles Police Department after
its brutal beating of Rodney King was caught on videotape. His
public comments drew mixed reactions from the libertarian community;
the editor of Liberty heatedly criticized him, but other
noted libertarians, like Murray Rothbard, publicly defended him.
The foundational Austrian works, when they wander away from economics and
start commenting on social issues, are filled with much unintentional
humor. Mises' views on sex and gender equality were neanderthalic
even for his time. Before the advent of capitalism, Mises believed,
men and women lived by the law of the jungle. Primitive
man was greedy and horny, and took defenseless primitive woman
"like an object without any will of its own." (5) Only
the rise of capitalism brought monogamy into this world, because
the "capitalist way of thinking and calculation" gave
rise to ordered relationships. (6) As late as 1925 he saw no need
for giving women the right to vote, since motherhood is the "highest
state of female happiness." (7) He also saw no need to give
women equal rights, since "a woman
is simply the lover
and mother who serves the sexual drive." (8)
Mises' views of race are similarly enlightened:
"It is perfectly legitimate to assume that the races are
different in their cognitive abilities and in their willpower
and accordingly are unequally suited for the task of setting up
societies, and that the better races are characterized in particular
by their special ability to strengthen social bonds." (9)
Mises also had high praise for British colonialism, which he felt
benefited all its subjugated peoples, and, indeed, the entire
As for workers and everyday people, Mises had nothing but contempt
for them. He wrote:
"The masses do not think. This is precisely the reason why
they follow those who do think. The intellectual leadership of
mankind is a position held by the very few who are able to think."
And who are the thinkers? Entrepreneurs, of course.
Another important Austrian is Murray Rothbard, whose writings
advocating liberty and peace often masked a hostility and prejudice
towards the less fortunate. He believed that society is filled
with "ineducable masses" who, through public school,
are "being dragooned into an institution for which they have
little interest or aptitude." (11) Rothbard is a little vague
on what these ineducable masses might be suitable for: perhaps
cheap and exploitable labor? And all the more exploitable, lacking
the education needed to understand and combat their plight.
Rothbard does not attribute the problems of blacks or other minorities
to racism and prejudice, but to "those very parasitic values
of idleness and irresponsibility" found in those communities.
Rothbard's philosophies are especially harsh against children,
stemming from a formulaic application of property rights dogma to the
whole subject. His arguments favoring abortion are ones that most
pro-choice advocates would reject out of hand. Rothbard viewed
the fetus as an invader of the mother's property:
"What the mother is doing in abortion is causing an unwanted
entity within her body to be ejected from it: If the fetus dies,
this does not rebut the point that no being has a right to live,
unbidden, as a parasite within or upon some person's body."
Once the child is born, it cannot be killed or maimed, but otherwise
it is the absolute property of its parents. They can do whatever
they please with it, even sell it on a "flourishing free
child market." (14) Nor does age bring any additional rights
to the child, as long as it lives with its parents. In fact, parents
have no obligation or responsibility to the child in any way;
they are entirely within their rights to let it starve to death.
Rothbard further argues that no authority should force them to
feed, clothe, shelter or care for the child in any way, for to
do so would be a violation of the parents' rights.
On several issues, Austrians (like libertarians in general) do
favor leftist policies. For example, they generally oppose
censorship, war, and drug prohibition. Indeed, libertarians pride themselves
with being "socially liberal but economically conservative." Unfortunately, the
social views often get short shrift. The Cato Institute, for example, learned
long ago to highlight its economic beliefs while ignoring any parallel social philosophies.
Likewise, Austrian politics
flow from their economic beliefs: that the forces of competition
should be completely unleashed, and whatever the losers get is
what they deserve. Rothbard candidly admits that "the 'rightist'
libertarian is not opposed to inequality." (15). He also
"In contrast to such utopians as Marxists
do not assume that the ushering in of the purely free society
of their dreams will also bring with it a new, magically transformed
Libertarian Man. We do not assume that the lion will lie down
with the lamb, or that no one will have criminal or fraudulent
designs upon his neighbor." (16)
How Austrians propose to sell such a dour vision to the nation
is a good question. Perhaps they are counting on the "ineducable
masses" to accept a hopelessly one-sided deal. To defeat
the Austrian School's proposal, all liberals need to do is publicize
the Hobbesian nature of it as much as possible.
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1. David Prychitko, "What is Austrian Economics,"
2. Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. (president and founder of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute), "Why Austrian Economics Matters,"
4. Ulrike Heider, Anarchism: Left, Right and Green (San
Francisco: City Lights Books, 1994), p. 150.
5. Ludwig von Mises, The Market Economy, trans. Danny Lewis,
(Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1932), p. 68.
6. Ibid., p. 72.
7. Ibid., p. 78.
8. Ibid., p. 80.
9. Ibid., p. 297
10. Ibid., p. 472
11. Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty (New York: Collier
Macmillan Publishers, 1978), p. 122.
12. Ibid., p. 154.
13. Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty (New York: Humanities
Press, 1978), p. 108.
14. Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (Atlantic Highlands:
Humanities Press, 1982), p. 102.
15. Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty (New York: Collier
Macmillan Publishers, 1978), p. 47.
16. Ibid., p. 234.