The “One Salvation” of Ludwig von Mises


There is no doubt thatPillar10-History-French-Revolution-Delacroix the Catholic Church supports the idea of a just social order, and has expounded on that order in the great Social Encyclicals. However, and despite more than 100 years of constant Papal teaching on this subject, the average Catholic—indeed, the average Bishop—is confused about it meaning or even unaware of its existence. Most preaching concerns personal sin without ever considering the social implications or connecting sin to a violation of a just social order. And yet, this is strange, since what makes a sin sinful is that it violates what the right order between a person and his neighbor and his God. Without a violation of this order, a thing cannot be sinful. This is expressed negatively in the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt not kill, steal, covet, etc.”) and positively in the Sermon on the Mount (“do good to those who harm you…” etc.)

Church teaching does not, by itself, dictate a particular social or economic system; it only lays down the criteria by which any social or economic system is to be judged. It is up to the laity to devise systems in their own social and historical context that meet with the criteria. Most often, this task is refused. It is not that Catholics are not heavily involved in the political and social life of the nation. But often that involvement is disconnected with their religious beliefs and with Church teaching because they place social problems and religion in separate compartments. Many such examples can be found on the left, but the greatest example can be found on the right, specifically the attempt to baptize the essentially Enlightenment economics of Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian School.

Much of the Catholic intelligentsia has surrendered to this doctrine. The Austrian Catholic right boasts names like Michael Novak, George Weigel, Thomas Woods, Murry Rothbard, to name but a few. Further, these scholars are supported by well-funded institutes such as the Acton Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and a host of others. Money flows like water for these people, usually corporate money, water largely used in an attempt to baptize Mises. Still, there is one scholar who was absolute in his opposition to such a notion, who declared, over and over again, the fundamental opposition between the Austrian School and any genuine understanding of Christianity.

That scholar was Ludwig von Mises.

Mises recognized that Austrian order and Catholic order would always be at odds. “A living Christianity,” said Mises, “cannot exist side by side with, and within, Capitalism” (Quoted in Jorg Guido Hulsmann, Mises, the Last Knight of Liberalism, p. 982). Later in his career, Mises would allow that Christianity could exist within capitalism, but only if the Christians kept their opinions to themselves, only if they were marginalized and kept apart from the political and economic orders. As Murry Rothbard admits, Mises considered himself a “man of 1789, an heir of the Enlightenment, (,” that is, a man of the French Revolution. And the great advantage of the French Revolution, from the standpoint of liberalism, was that it destroyed the older social order in general and the social authority of the Church in particular. As Mises himself put it, “for us and for humanity there is only one salvation: return to the rationalistic liberalism of the ideas of 1789” (Mises, Nation, State and Economy, p. 239.)

Mises’s antipathy towards Christianity begins with his disdain for its founder.

[Jesus] rejects everything that exists without offering anything to replace it. He arrives at dissolving all existing social ties…. The motive force behind the purity and power of this complete negation is ecstatic inspiration and enthusiastic hope of a new world. Hence his passionate attack upon everything that exists. Everything may be destroyed because God in His omnipotence will rebuild the future order…. The clearest modern parallel to the attitude of complete negation of primitive Christianity is Bolshevism. (Socialism, p. 413)

Another thing about Jesus that rankles Mises is his attitude towards the Rich:

Jesus’s words are full of resentment against the rich, and the Apostles are no meeker in this respect. The Rich Man is condemned because he is rich, the Beggar praised because he is poor…. In God’s Kingdom the poor shall be rich, but the rich shall be made to suffer. Later revisers have tried to soften the words of Christ against the rich … but there is quite enough left to support those who incite the world to hatred of the rich, revenge, murder and arson…. This is a case in which the Redeemer’s words bore evil seed. More harm has been done, and more blood shed, on account of them than by the persecution of heretics and the burning of witches. They have always rendered the Church defenceless against all movements which aim at destroying human society. The church as an organization has certainly always stood on the side of those who tried to ward off communistic attack. But it … was continually disarmed by the words: “Blessed be ye poor; for yours is the Kingdom of God.” (Socialism, p. 420)

This rejection of Christ is hardly surprising, since Mises rejects the whole idea of an omnipotent God (Human Action, p. 70). An all-perfect, acting being is self-contradictory for Mises, since action itself is, quite literally, the sign of a disease, or rather a dis-ease; action can only arise from unhappiness. Mises rejects Christian love as the basis of social order, and reduces it to self-interest and the fear of violence:

Social cooperation has nothing to do with personal love or with a general commandment to love one another… [People] cooperate because this best serves their own interests. Neither love nor charity nor any other sympathetic sentiment but rightly understood selfishness is what originally impelled man to adjust himself to the requirements of society…and to substitute peaceful collaboration to enmity and conflict. (Human Action, p. 168-9)

This is about as far from Christian anthropology as it is possible to get. In rejecting caritas and the other forms of love as the basis of action, Mises deprives even “self-interest” of any rational basis, that is, of any possible basis of determining whether an action actually is in one’s own interest. “Self-interest” means no more than “what one wants” at some particular moment.

Now, one may agree or disagree with Mises in all of this, but in either case it simply cannot be reconciled with Catholic Social Teaching. It is not even, as Murray Rothbard notes, conservative in any possible meaning of that term. It is, rather, the quintessence of Enlightenment Liberalism, the French Revolution continued in our day. So why should we even be concerned with any of this? After all, there are any number of nutty liberals and by and large they certainly don’t get the attention from the right that Mises does.

The surrender to the Enlightenment among certain Catholic intellectuals on the right is more or less complete. For example, Michael Novak, a nominal Catholic, notes that an attempt “to try to run an economy by the highest Christian principles is certain to destroy both the economy and the reputation of Christianity” (The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, p. 70).

For Novak, there is no sacred canopy that covers society, but only an “empty altar” in which each man places the idols of his own choosing. Religion in this case is not really the repository of truth, but merely a consumer product giving the purchases whatever satisfactions can be purchased. This requires, Novak tells us, “not only a new theology but a new type of religion” (Novak, p. 69). Not that Christianity would be done away with; it would be allowed to modify itself to conform to the new ideology:

Yet if Jewish and Christian conceptions of human life are sound, and if they fit the new social order of pluralism, the widespread nostalgia for a traditional form of social order may be resisted…For the full exercise of their humanity, being both finite and sinful, free persons require pluralist institutions (Novak, p. 69-70).

For this “new theology” and “new religion,” Novak finds it necessary to drain Christian dogmas of their original meaning and convert them into mere supports for corporate capitalism. The Trinity, for example, is only a “symbol,” since “no one has ever seen God” (Novak, p. 337). The point of this symbolic Trinity is to teach us about pluralism. The Incarnation is the sign of religious futility: it is no longer the salvific act of a loving God but the ultimate demonstration of the futility of good intentions.

The point of the Incarnation is to respect the world as it is, to acknowledge its limits… and to disbelieve any promises that the world is now or ever will be transformed into the City of God. If Jesus could not effect that, how shall we? …The world is not going to become—ever—a kingdom of justice and love (Novak, p. 341).

I think it is clear that many conservatives have simply forgotten what it is we should be conserving. If our popular pundits have come to resemble more and more a Marat or a Robespierre, it is because they are conserving the values of the French Revolution under the tutelage of Ludwig von Mises. Increasingly, there is more of Danton than of Burke in American conservatism. They have, implicitly and often explicitly, accepted his these that the “one salvation” of mankind lies in the French Revolution. The “empty altar” of Novak is not really empty; or rather, its very emptiness is the point: nihilism as an idol.

I might point out to Mr. Novak that Jesus isn’t dead yet, or rather, he isn’t dead again, despite the neoconservative attempts to kill him off. He lives on in his Eucharist and in His Church, but the life of His Church waxes and wanes with the faith of His followers, and with their ability to transform the gospel from the printed page to the social order. But this is not likely to happen so long as the Austrian neoconservatives have such sway in Catholic intellectual circles. What is needed is a revolt of the masses in favor of the Mass, and for making the Eucharistic vision a part of social, economic, and political life. For this we have a model. Not indeed a modern model, but an effective one nevertheless. She was not an intellectual; indeed she was a mere peasant girl. But she was given, in a single instance, a vision of the full meaning of the Incarnation and its social implications. She gave full answer to the neoconservatives, to both Mises and Marx. Her words were:

My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

Behold! From this day all generations will call me blessed; The almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.

He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things while the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.

On their best days, neither Mises nor Marx wrote anything this good. All the money in corporate capitalism cannot buy a single drop of holy water with which to baptize Ludwig von Mises, and Mises would be the first to agree. The attempt to baptize Mises have made the Catholic politics of the right incoherent and therefore rendered it impotent; at best account, it is a mere appendage to corporate capitalism.

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