Mises’ Lessons for Gentlemanly Disputes

Many years after Nobel economist Friedrich Hayek visited Professor John Van Sickle in Boulder, I sat in the same living room where the two men had conversed.

Both Hayek and Van Sickle were friends and students of the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. Van Sickle had saved many letters to and from Hayek, Mises, and other free-market economists of their day. I got the chance to look through these letters and reproduce them. They now reside in the archives of the Foundation for Economic Education. (I’ve told this story before; I’ve received permission from Jerry Van Sickle and FEE to reproduce those letters at my discretion.)

I was glancing through those letters for possible use in an upcoming presentation, and I happened upon a letter for Mises that I think admirably illustrates the gentleman’s way of handling a dispute. (I read the letter during a time when a friend of mine was coming under some mean-spirited and frankly ridiculous attacks.) The letter is dated March 2, 1955.

Mises stuck to his principles and did not shy away from criticizing perceived errors and slights sharply and directly:

[M]y formulations are to be taken on the one side and should be opposed to the middle-of-the-road formulations of [Milton] Friedman… and others on the other side. To proceed in a different way is tantamount to the adoption of the official position of the New Deal philosophy. Then one does not discuss the economic meaning and function of inequality, but takes it for granted that inequality is bad and discusses whether it should be abolished altogether or whether some “loopholes” should be left. There is nothing that I could contribute to such a debate. … If you assign my formulations a lower rank than to those of other participants, then please forget about them, set aside the letters I wrote you and do not expect me to attend the meeting.

Several things here are noteworthy. Mises did not refrain from blasting Friedman over fundamental disagreements. Yet he did not refrain from debating the matter with Friedman, so long as he could debate on equal footing.

Mises closed with an equally interesting paragraph:

I want to emphasize that my attitude on this question in no way reflects upon our long established friendly relations and does not at all affect the high esteem in which I hold you personally.

In other words, even though Mises thought Van Sickle was setting up a conference in such a way that slighted Mises in favor of the “middle-of-the-roaders,” Mises maintained a remarkably cordial tone, even as he pointedly explained the reasons for his irritation. (Of course, that doesn’t imply one must always deliver roses to one’s ideological opponents.)

I think Mises’s approach goes a long way in explaining why he was so widely loved, and why he remains so influential.

From Van Sickle Documents

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