The Greatest Thinker You’ve [Maybe] Never Read: Ludwig von Mises
Mises started–and in my humble opinion, ended–the debate over whether an economic system based on common or social ownership of the means of production could function with his essay “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth.” He demonstrated that it was impossible to know whether a particular production process was wise (resource-optimizing) or unwise (resource-wasting) in the absence of prices for the means of production. His socialist critics accepted this, and Oskar Lange suggested that a statue of Mises be given a place of honor by the socialist Central Planning Board (here is Murray Rothbard with more).
Mises carried his argument step further, though: he argued that these prices cannot emerge without exchange, and exchange in turn cannot happen without private ownership of the means of production. Many economists laud the market for its efficiency properties as free markets generally direct resources to their highest-valued ends while minimizing costs of production. In the Misesian tradition, however, the market plays a much more essential role. It is not merely one of a number of possible allocative mechanisms. Exchange in a free market is an information- and knowledge-generating process. To adapt the title of one of Hayek’s essays, competition in the free market is “a discovery procedure.” This emphasis on the coordinating and knowledge-generating properties of exchange in a free market with secure private property rights is one of the distinctive features of the modern Misesian tradition, which is discussed in a three-part series by my occasional co-author Steven Horwitz (1, 2, 3).
Mises’s arguments, and the arguments of those who have followed him, do not merely undermine arguments for pure, global socialism. They also undermine arguments for interventionism more generally. Economists take a lot of heat for focusing on market exchange and material prosperity, and it is fashionable in some circles to say that “there is more to life than economic efficiency” as if that decides an argument in favor of intervention. Not so: people respond to incentives, even when you don’t want them to, and the knowledge-destroying and incentive-distorting effects of interventionism all too often bring with them unintended consequences that not only reduce economic efficiency but also harm precisely the intended beneficiaries of the intervention.
Precisely! To call Mises’ insights rare would be unfair. He was unique, both brilliant and uncompromising. The Ludwig von Mises Institute is a gold mine for those seeking to better understand the free market and limited government and an antidote for those believing in socialism.