300 pages into Ludwig von Mises’ economic masterpiece, Human Action, and I’ve found myself stopping for air. I’m not fatigued, as I was 300 pages into John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion; I’m not confused, like I was in the last portion of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Mises is a mastermind, too interesting and fresh to find tedious (though Calvin is mostly enjoyable), and far too clear and concise to be confusing. No, Human Action is one of the most profound books I’ve ever read. My momentary pause has far less to do with Mises’ difficulty, and far more to do with his spiritual emptiness: he must be read in segments because my soul buckles under the total burden of his meaninglessness.
I believe my reaction to Mises’ work underscores my particular problem with libertarianism in general, the fact that it has little to no soul, reducing man to a rational, pleasure-seeking animal. The central premise of Human Action, the basic theory of Mises’ praxeology, is that all men are united by one logic, one universal bent toward happiness, which they seek in the most advantageous way possible. In short, man, though capable of making poor decisions, will even in failure choose the most logical poor decision known to him; he furthermore always desires one object more than everything else at any given moment, and the object of his desire is revealed only by his logical action. Praxeology, the study of human action, doesn’t concern itself with whether men want the right things; it concerns itself with man’s attempt to become happy. Instead of making value judgments, as religions and ethics do, it simply says men want to experience happiness, and then concerns itself with whether or not a certain approach to society results in the desired ends.
Surely all thinkers can agree about man’s primary pursuit: both St Francis of Assissi and the banking tycoon did what they did because it brought them happiness. And voluntary cooperation, libertarians say, is the best method by which men may achieve their goals; but cooperation towards what? Mises says that division of labor brings societies together and provides them with luxuries unprecedented; he says this is the reason why men banded together in the first place, and gave themselves a collective name (I’m more inclined to believe men united in self-defense). But if man’s community, his happiness, can be largely predicated upon material gain, if men cooperate and behave ethically mainly because of production, and worldliness comprises our entire civilization, then it’s only fair to say that living man died long ago. His society is little more than a comfortable coffin, his family a breed of intelligent gnats.
I have no problem with the idea of man as a logical being (although I believe he’s frequently blinded by desire), nor do I find wealth and free markets offensive, nor do I find the pursuit of happiness to be insulting to virtue, provided that pursuit takes place within moral boundaries. The problem lies in the fact that Mises says society exists primarily for purposes of production, and must essentially create law to result in the maximum protection thereof. In reducing civilization to production, every ounce of romance is lost, every bit of glory stripped, and every ounce of patriotism defiled. If our ancestors died so that we could experience wealth, I suppose there’s some quasi-goodness in that. But if all for which civilization exists is luxury, not for defending justice in the name of God, the triumph of good over evil, nor other high ideals, then not only is their sacrifice cheapened, it is almost a waste. Mises’ work makes virtue and vice distinguishable only by outcome, and makes the tragic hero merely tragic; it entirely circumvents the wisdom of Madison, who said that justice is the sole aim of government, and that should justice not be pursued, that liberty would be lost. Mises didn’t revere our Founding Fathers; he intended to establish a new form of society, antithetical to our founding principles and Christianity.
Consider, further, what Mises’ philosophy implicitly declares about practicality. In making subjectively defined pleasurable cooperation the chief measure of morality, libertarianism proclaims that virtue needn’t be heeded when she beckons men to suffer, that justice is not the end of government, but the means. Will our chaplains call soldiers to fight valiantly, providing a mathematical formula which explains how the greater pleasure will be achieved on the whole? Mises says such calculations would be absurd, but yet how else could one argue to a truly praxeologically-minded society? Are we dogs, begging at Pleasure’s table for scraps of food, rolling and sitting, wagging and lifting the paw only on Her command? Or do we suffer in dignity, even should Pleasure retract her scraps? Doesn’t true pleasure come from something higher, a call to duty, the rallying cry to honor, to immortality, to heaven? Mises’ civilization defends nothing of the sort; it lowers man’s gaze from the sky to the barren desert sand, and confuses the human soul with that of a logical ape’s.
One may of course say that men, living under a libertarian government, aren’t necessarily bound to fight simply for the reasons the government says they fight: we say they can fight in the name of family, or friends, or even in the name of God. But subjectivity is a poor banner under which to die, a foundation comprising anything but the meaningful. Yes, men may individually stand for meaningful things: as Bastiat reasoned, the state’s refusal to subsidize farming doesn’t imply that it is against grain. But grain is very different from unalienable rights. Grain doesn’t need a firm metaphysical foundation for farming to exist; unalienable rights require a specific Deity. And while I wouldn’t for one second infer that the state must form its own religion, religious principles are the foundation for any meaningful system of law, a common discernment between what is right and what seems right, regardless of whether or not what’s right is pleasurable. One can only wonder how long justice can possibly last, when men are swindled, with statistical calculations and empty promises, into trampling the rights of others to find jobs, to balance the distribution of wealth and joy, to promote happiness for their particular race.
But of all libertarianism’s flaws, perhaps its most fallacious and destructive pertains to the notion of its neutrality, when libertarianism is anything but neutral. In a statement almost too ironic to bear, Mises himself stated that his philosophy accepts all religions — but only insofar as they bow to the golden goddess of libertarianism: Pleasure. Those whose purpose in life contradicts the sacred unity, overwatched by Her iron gaze, needn’t feel too comfortable: they are technically enemies of the state. Like to Daniel, who refused to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue under penalty of death, libertarianism grants all the hand of friendship, provided they acknowledge their supreme lord and master. The difference is, Mises’ system pretends the golden statue doesn’t exist. Libertarianism promises liberty for all, under its own subjective terms.
What am I to make of Mises and libertarianism? In the end, though I find them destructive to Western civilization, I pity them. They seek civilization in earthly pleasure, and meaning in meaninglessness. I have a destiny, have a God, have glory, have unalienable rights and The Law, have incorruptible joy — and should Pleasure ever stand between these and me, then with the Almighty’s help, She will know where Her dominion ends. Take your stand where you may; I cannot but with my whole heart reject libertarianism.