Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Mises Institute as a Religion: A Heretical Libertarian's Response

Recently, there has been some controversy over an essay by Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute over his use of the term "blood and soil." This term has Nazi associations though I do not think anyone is actually accusing the Mises Institute of being a Nazi or otherwise white supremacist organization. I would even be open to a charitable reading of Deist as describing the reality on the ground of people being concerned with blood and soil if it were not for the fact that Deist is an exercise in totally uncharitable readings of other libertarians. What is certainly a real issue, particularly in this age of Trump, is a willingness of even elements within the libertarian movement to tolerate bigotry. This is the inheritance of a mistaken Rothbardian strategy that imagines that white men angry over desegregation and immigration are going to, somehow, turn into friends of the free market and of liberty.

I would like to call attention to another issue in the essay. At the very beginning of the piece, Deist states:  

Thanks to the great thinkers who came before us, and still among us, we don’t have to do the hard work — which is good news, because not many of us are smart enough to come up with new theory! We can all very happily serve as second-hand dealers in ideas.

This is followed by an attack on libertarians for falling into the "modernity trap" and imagining that technology might render government obsolete. To my mind, this sounds as if the Mises Institue is now treating the works of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard as religious holy texts, "capital T truths" that must be submitted to without question. 

The essential features of a canonized religious text are that one cannot disagree with it and it must be viewed as essential to being part of the group. This serves to draw a line to establish who is a true believer in the group. For example, I consider Jesus to be a great Jewish teacher. What makes me not a Christian is that, despite my high opinion of Jesus, he does not play an essential role in my relationship with God. This renders the entire New Testament to be of historical and spiritual interest but ultimately of marginal value. One can be a good Jew and certainly a good monotheist without ever reading it. In a sense, I am worse than a heretic. It is not as if I actively reject Christianity as much as I am indifferent to it. Raised as a Jew, I never developed any emotional attachment to Christian ritual nor did I ever develop a deep-seated psychological fear of burning in Hell for all eternity for rejecting it. (Haredi Hell, on the other hand, does keep me up at night.) 

As with Christianity, I would argue that Chabad, at this point, should be viewed as a separate religion from Judaism. Chabad views its texts, such as Tanya and the sichas of the late rebbe, not just as one legitimate interpretation of Judaism among many but as the True Judaism. Without the teachings of Chabad Chassidus, one cannot be a truly "complete" Jew. 

To be clear, as a traditionally observant Maimonidean Jew, I do not completely reject the notion of religious texts. It is important to draw lines and establish signaling devices to decide who is in and who is out. I am not a fundamentalist and my relationship to my God and my holy books is one more of arguing than submission. That being said, just as Christians are right to reject me as a Christian for my indifference to the New Testament, I am justified in rejecting, as a theological Jew (distinct from a biological/halakhic Jew), any person who is indifferent to the Talmud and the Bible. (Like Chabad, Karaite Judaism should be seen as a related but still distinct religion from Judaism.)      

One of the problems with canonized texts and authors, in the most fanatical sense, is that, because they cannot be argued with, one can never develop a mature relationship with them and never learn from them. For example, I can learn from Plato and Aristotle because I have never been tempted to treat them as articles of faith. There has never been any need to reinterpret them to suit my ideological preferences as I have always felt willing to say that I believed that they were wrong. Ironically, this has made it possible, over time, for me to become convinced of their wisdom. I admit that, in recent years, I have gained much respect for Aristotelian virtue ethics for its ability to deal with real human beings instead of theoretical abstractions.   

Like the Gospels, Deist offers us "good news." The truths of liberty have been revealed to us. Our job is now simply to spread these truths through the entire world. This is a simple task because there is now no need to argue with anyone. The Truth of Mises and Rothbard is so obvious that only the satanically perverse would ever question it. Hence, like a good Calvinist missionary, the purpose of spreading the libertarian gospel is not to actually argue with anyone and refute their beliefs but to demonstrate that opponents actively hate the truth and were never worth arguing with from the beginning.   

From the perspective of the Mises Institute, is it possible to be a good libertarian without an understanding of Mises? Speaking for myself, I came to libertarianism largely through the questioning of my own Republican orthodoxies. Hence, I was a libertarian before I read much of libertarian thought. It was because I was a libertarian that I discovered Milton Friedman's Free to Choose as a better articulation of what I was already trying to say and then later I became aware that there was something called Austrian economics. I confess that I only read Atlas Shrugged after several years of being a libertarian. I think that this was a healthy path to liberty, one that preserved my intellectual honesty from factional politics. I do not claim to be an expert on libertarianism; I am a mere student of liberty, humbly trying to put things together for myself. 

With the Mises Institute, particularly someone like Tom Woods, I can never escape having a clearer sense of how right they believe they are than what they are right about. It is like they have received a revelation that seems to boil down to them having received a revelation, its content being secondary to the fact that it is a revelation and they are right. Thus, revelation becomes, not a book to be read, but a heavy object to beat people over the head with and claim moral supremacy over.         

Mises was never Euclid, let alone Jesus. I have a hard time believing that anyone could read through a thousand pages of Human Action, understand it, and, in good faith, claim to agree with all of it. Furthermore, even Mises himself, if he were alive today, would, despite his genius, face a challenge in how to apply his own work. How much more so with us little minds. We who cannot comprehend every word of this brilliant mind and who might even find ourselves disagreeing with him and, thus, have no recourse but to cobble together our own understandings of liberty. Not only that but we must then face the very hard task of applying our theories of liberty to a rapidly changing world. Let us face it, our arguments could be logically unassailable and people will still ignore us if we cannot show, in concrete terms, how liberty will make their lives better. 

I support a big tent libertarianism. If you are acting in good faith to decrease the power of government and increase the autonomy of individuals over their own bodies then welcome to the club. As for the details, welcome to the debate, the most fun part of being a libertarian. If you wish to be an effective participant in this debate, I can suggest a reading list of material to get you up to speed. That being said, we are not a religion with sacred texts that you must accept. On the contrary, we invite you to create your own path to liberty. 


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