Austrian schoolboy

There is, and there has always been, little overlap between the world of politics and the world of truth. This is something to bear in mind during a season of voting, as the politicians stake their claims and give their prescriptions for all that ails us.

Example: a large bureaucracy will, in approximately 100 percent of cases, become extremely wasteful, and essentially corrupt. It will perpetuate the “problem” that it was founded to solve, and at its most creative, invent new and quite imaginative evils. It will become a vested interest — an “economic player” in its own right — and spread, like a cancer, well beyond the flesh it first inhabited. Any attempt to restrain it will then engender new bureaucracies. The idea of a “humane” bureaucracy is a contradiction of terms. There is no such thing.

Gentle reader must understand that I am not speaking only of “guvmint,” but of bureaucracy, at large. The thing is not necessarily a government department. Any big corporation will quickly show symptoms. The only difference between “public” and “private” is in longevity. A private bureaucracy will kill its host, but thanks to the power of taxation, a public bureaucracy can be long sustained. It is also backed by law and police action, which even today is more effective than mere pointless rules and regulations. The latter, however, are more nimble in expansion, and prepare the ground for law — the full spiritual stasis.

This was, anyway, the view of that “Austrian school economist,” Ludwig von Mises, proponent like the rest in that school of “classical liberalism.” His hatred of bureaucracy was a wonderful, animated thing. In his great book, Human Action, and many others, he could become almost boring on the topic. What distinguishes the Austrian school from, say, the famous Chicago school of Milton Friedman and his ilk, was its European origin. (They were, however, consciously allied.) The “Austrians” go back, to Catholic antecedents, and their interests are not reducible to “pure economics” (scare quotes because there is no such thing). Over time it extended to broad social questions, and through a constant interest in the history of ideas. These were multilingual and multicultural, in the manner of the old Habsburg empire; where our American classical liberalism has been almost unilingually English, provincially distrustful of foreign thinkers, and buzzing with statistics. (You’ll need a degree in math.)

War propelled the “Austrian” thinkers westward, and the fall of the Berlin wall propelled the “Chicago” school east. The terms no longer have geographical significance.

What all classical liberals have in common is the passionate vindication and defence of human freedom. That is what makes them, unlike progressives, readable in subsequent generations. Their subject matter cannot become dated. The “Austrians” are also necessary to understand modern history, positively as well as negatively, in the evolution of, for instance, the Christian Democratic movement that conceived a peaceful post-war Europe, in defiance of secularizing bureaucratic trends and mass-man “ideals.” Alas, this was overall defeated by the Eurocratic trend-setters, determined to build a magnificent autocratic monument to themselves.

I have the most enchanting memory of opening the box that contained an American reprint of Human Action (big thick book), which I had ordered at the age of fifteen. I no longer own a copy, but gather it still stands as a monument to the resistance — a study of “praxeology,” or purposeful human choices, stretching so wide that even religion and morality could be touched. (Conventional economics has no time for either.) A half-century later, I can even remember the construction of an earnest reading list, that was soon abandoned when I went on the road.

One may see the great division in Western thought and politics, which the Austrian-school Friedrich Hayek traced back to Bacon and Descartes, and can be traced farther to the Nominalists of the later Middle Ages. Humans live in freedom and make choices, to be restrained only by the plainest moral codes. Or, by the alternative thesis, we are components of a machine, which the man with Power can monkey with, by implanting stimuli here and there.

We are creatures of God, or — we are replaceable parts in a bureaucracy.