The account of Ludwig Mises’ legal and institutional research in chapter 3 of Hulsmann’s biography is helpful in understanding the empirical base upon which Mises would later build his understanding of the effect of regulations upon social relations and economic conditions. I think the importance of this kind of thing for a young scholar is often under-estimated. I often think of my own youthful studies into the nuclear construction mess in the Pacific Northwest known as the WPPSS fiasco, and what a lasting eye-opener that was into the various dimensions of situational “price theory”, interest group politics, and “public choice theory”. There is no theoretical substitute for concrete examples of these social processes in action — especially ones with meaningful consequences to the student.
I find Hulsmann’s account of the intellectual background of Mises teachers Carl Grunberg and Eugen Philippovich less helpful. The reader gets thrown a sort of blizzard of bare technical labels, many of these used as substitutes for substantive explanations of complex theoretical differences. Some of these labels are even confusing or misleading, and they steam roll over all sorts of historical complexities. Hulsmann is on his most solid ground when he gives us concrete examples of what he is talking about — but even here often his examples are too bare to carry much weight in giving content to his abstract verbiage. The burden of a biographer is to bring a reader into an unknown world without too much ‘cartooning”. But it’s just a cartoon to label all 19th century German economics as “historicism” without theory, and all German economists as simply “Socialists of the Chair”. Further, without prior definitions, explanations, and examples it’s not evident what the telling difference between a “scientific” economics and a “historicist” economics might be — and whole mess of complexities get washed over in the bare use of these lables, among others the contested and evolving state of the notions of “science” and “history”. It needs also to be mentioned that there is one further complexity here not mentioned by Hulsmann with serious historiographical significance in this context — the fact that the word “science” is used much differently in German than it is in English, covering a much broader range of phenomena.
The over-reliance on rubber-stamp labels as substitutes for examples and explanations becomes particularly troublesome in the account of Mises teacher Eugen Philippovich, an account which left me rather bewildered. Philippovich is characterized variously as a statist, an advocate of property rights, a Socialist of the Chair, a celebrator of liberalism, an interventionist, an advocate for the working class, a critic of the unintended consequences of government intervention, an “Austrian” economists, a social reformer, and an economic theorist. I get the idea that this was a complex man with complex ideas and a complex understanding of the social world. But if the blizzard of labels thrown out by Hulsmann was intended to suggest that the thinking of this man was simply a mess, he’s nearly succeeded. I doubt, however, this is fully fair to Philippovich.