You can’t trust everything you read in a Batman comic book. Ron Paul, the engaging libertarian-minded candidate in the Republican presidential nomination race, told an interviewer that his favorite comic book character is “Berlin Batman,” an alternative world superhero who, as Julian Sanchez notes, rescues “the manuscript of Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action from the Nazis.” The assumption of the story seems to be that Mises is some sort of unambiguous champion of freedom. The reality is a little different.
Mises styled himself a classical liberal, a position which after the First World War lost its political salience in Central Europe. Amid the strife of the era, Mises hated above all else any form of working class militancy, not just in the manifestation of Bolshevism but also moderate social democracy. This led him to look with favour on some authoritarian regimes. In his 1927 book Liberalism, Mises expressed great ambivalence about Mussolini’s new political doctrine of fascism. He recognized that, of course, that fascism was illiberal and was even farsighted in seeing that it would lead to another European war. Still, Mises thought that as a reaction to communism, fascism was understandable and even admirable. As he wrote:
It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history. But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error.
During the early 1930s in Austria, Mises served as an economic advisor to the authoritarian regime of Engelbert Dollfuss, one of the many tin-pot dictators that sprang up in central Europe in Mussolini’s wake. It was more than simply anti-communism that made Mises a supporter of Dollfuss: a hatred of social democracy was also a factor. To his credit, Mises was at least more critical of National Socialism than he was of fascism. (With his Jewish ancestry, Mises would have been a victim of Nazi race laws if he hadn’t escaped to America).
The approval that Mises gave to Dollfuss was a precursor to the squirmy support Friedrich August von Hayek and Milton Friedman gave to the Pinochet regime in Chile. All three men were in some ways acting in consistency with the doctrines of classical liberalism, which prizes private property while being fearful of democracy. What they failed to realize is that under modern dictatorships, neither property nor any other right is secure. I like classical liberals and libertarians well enough but I don’t think they can be depended upon to defend liberty.