Economics out of a crucible describes the way World War and “war socialism” crystallized the scientific mind of Ludwig Mises. During WWI Mises spend 2 years at the front lines commanding an artillery unit. In 1916 — between front line assignments — Mises spent a further 7 months at the Scientific Committee for War Economics at the War Ministry. It must have been jarring to move from combat to an “Ivory Tower” government think tank and back again to combat. War gives men a surprising amount of time to think. At the same time war concentrates the mind like few other emotional experiences. We know what Mises was thinking about. In the summer of 1916 he spent his time writing about and speaking out about the contesting claims of economic imperialism and economic liberalism.
At the time of the war no full and systematic presentation of economic liberalism in its widest dimensions had ever been presented. The closest thing to it, Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, was from generations in the past, and a world away in terms of the science and culture of “modern times”. Many of the elites were embracing new intellectual fashions, most all of them celebrating one non-liberal economic panacea or another, all of them celebrating the state and its potential for controlling and advancing the destiny of men. All of this came to a head with onset of the war — the great symbol of the crack-up of the liberal international order of the 19th century.
Hulsmann takes an interesting approach to the war. He doesn’t give us any account of how World War 1 got started, so there’s nothing here about the shooting of a prince or unstoppable railroad mobilizations. At some point the war is simply underway — “And the war came” — to use Lincoln’s words. Hulsmann’s narrative strategy, which is becoming familiar at this point, is to give the reader a sympathetic account of Mises’ historical interpretation of events derived from Mises’ own theoretical writings, and not a great deal is added to this analysis in the way of alternative historical or theoretical narrative. So what we get in Mises — and from Hulsmann — is an understanding of the onset of the war as something like an historical inevitability, set up by the German population growth and the increasingly popular companion doctrines of economic nationalism and imperialistic expansion.
Mises approached the disaster of the war from the standpoint of the Carl Menger understanding of social science — the problem was to figure out whether war, trade controls and territorial expansion were the best means to ends sought by the German elites. In Mises’ view the sort of thinking which led to war got started with the use of trade restrictions and authoritarian politics to deal with the problems of population growth, German out-migration, and the minority status of Germans in many parts of Eastern Europe.
I’ll pick this up in the next post.