The free enterprise system within a rule of law is the best engine for prosperity. Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) is recognized by many as its greatest advocate. His name was largely ignored for decades, today, however, more than 20 think tanks around the world are named after him. No other famous economist comes close.
Those who started these “Mises Institutes” were inspired mostly by the theoretical work of this Austrian scholar, books such as “Socialism,” “Theory of Money and Credit,” and “Human Action.” When I studied economics at Grove City College under Dr. Hans F.Sennholz (1922-2007), one of Mises’ disciples, these three books were required reading.
The clear logic, impeccable analysis, and consistency of Mises analysis captivated not only some economists disillusioned with Keynesianism and other interventionist dogmas, but especially businessmen. Both the Spanish and Portuguese versions of “Human Action” were translated by businessmen. I do not mean that they paid for it, they actually translated the large book (1000 pages). Joaquin Reig Albiol did the Spanish edition in 1960 and Donald Stewart Jr., founder of the Instituto Liberal in Rio de Janeiro, translated the Brazilian edition in 1990. Talented young businessmen and entrepreneurs, such as Helio Beltrão in Brazil, continue to play key roles in the Mises Institutes peppered around the globe.
Ludwig von Mises knew the importance of theory, but he also thought it was essential that “the eminent citizens, the intellectual leaders of the community,” be “in a position to form their own opinion on the basic social, economic, and political principles of policies.” For that they also need access to facts, and statistical information and analysis. There is considerable truth in the famousKurt Lewin statement that “there is nothing more practical than a good theory,” but these theories should guide applied research and applied research should create incentives for theoretical refinements.
Few of the many Mises Institutes around the globe focus on the type of policy research that Ludwig von Mises conducted during an important part of his life. In an academic paper published by the Cevro Institut and presented at theMont Pelerin Society in Prague in 2012, Richard Ebeling described this “other Mises.” Ebeling wrote:
From 1909 to 1934 (except during the First World War when he served in the Austrian Army), Mises worked as an economic-policy analyst and advisor to the Vienna Chamber of Commerce … he spent his working day as a ‘policy wonk.’ He immersed himself in the factual details and economic policy specifics of, first, the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and, then, the Austrian Republic between the two World Wars. His statistical knowledge of ‘the facts’ relating to Austrian fiscal policy, regulatory legislation, and monetary institutions and policy was precise and minute.
Ludwig von Mises conducted policy research and offered practical, middle-of-the-road policy solutions. Some of his recommendations might shock those who only pay attention to his theories: from retaliatory tariffs against the enemies of Austria, to numerous second-best proposals including indexation, indirect consumption taxes, and even subsidies to the poor to help in transitions to more developed market economies.
J. Guido Hülsmann, author of “Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism,” describes that when Mises moved to the United States there was an effort to create a university-based think tank for him to lead. Conducting research at the archives of Grove City College, which holds Mises’ correspondence, Hülsmann discovered that Frederick Nymeyer (1897-1981), an industrialist who was inspired by Mises’s books, tried to create a Liberal Institute at theUniversity of Chicago. The Austrian professor was willing but the university declined the offer arguing that they only wanted to receive unrestricted money. If the Liberal Institute in Chicago would have been launched, would Mises have continued with his policy analysis? It is difficult to know, but what we know is that after his death, many of his great admirers, disciples and students launched several think tanks around the globe.
The U.S. based Mises Institute has the largest budget (over $4 million). Founded in 1982, it is also the oldest and most active. The groups in Belarus, Canada, and especially Brazil, are also increasingly active but have much smaller budgets.
Why does the name of Mises carry so much weight? Helio Beltrão, president and founder of the Instituto Ludwig von Mises in Brazil argues that the appeal of this Austrian economist is founded on his role in reversing the intellectual decline of classical liberalism, its more radical and purist approach, and the way in which he integrated economics and political science.
Few of these think tanks conduct public policy research. Most focus on education and dissemination. Some research, especially from secondary sources, goes into the numerous op-eds published by these groups. If they publish a piece on free trade, they will state with utmost clarity why free trade is more efficient. Some will even venture into moral philosophy and will write that free trade is also more moral and more just. Few of their publications, however, make an effort to quantify the efficiency of un-hampered markets, or the waste of protectionism.
With the proliferation of Mises Institutes it is possible, and it would be much needed, that they embark on sponsoring and promoting more books such as Murray Rothbard’s “America’s Great Depression,” that combine sound theory with empirical analysis. A good example is “Out of Poverty,” by Ben Powell, who founded and heads the Free-Market Institute at Texas Tech University.
New efforts of “Austrian” inspired public policy research will likely emerge from the Austrian Economics Research Conference (planned for March 2015) which offers opportunities for going beyond theory, or from research focusing just on studying each other or from focusing on “what other Austrians wrote.” At least two of the Mises Institutes recently started journals: the Revista Misesin Brazil, an Inter-disciplinary Journal of Philosophy, Law and Economics; and the Journal of Prices and Markets in Canada. The latter already included a few public-policy papers. Other centers with leaders inspired by Mises, such as the Juan de Mariana Institute in Spain, or the Istituto Bruno Leoni (IBL), in Italy, frequently publish “Austrian” inspired policy research. IBL conducts a yearly Mises Seminar, already in its tenth year, where young scholars present policy as well as theoretical papers.
Networks are becoming increasingly important in all areas of life. Although there is some overlap on their academic and advisory boards, and several agreed to start a Misesglobal Facebook group, all the free-market think tanks named after Mises are independent. The one working in the most challenging territory, the Minsk Mises Center, in Belarus, is one of the most active, and least connected with the others.
Is it a drawback that there are few formal ties between these Mises Institutes? Not at all says Beltrão: “There cannot be lasting policy change without a preceding cultural and ideological change. Due to globalization and the internet, competing ideologies and their shifts have become increasingly interconnected across nations, while nonetheless enclosed in their distinct local characters. Therefore, decentralized networks of idea-powerhouses, such as the Mises Institutes informal network, enjoy a key advantage.”
ALEX CHAFUEN | FORBES