Batman and Mises: Discovery of the Boulder Letters*
by Ari Armstrong, June 16, 2004 (released)
As Professor Richard Ebeling entered the classroom and the door swung shut behind him, he was engulfed in darkness. Then, suddenly, a powerful light shined on the chalkboard.
It was the Bat signal.
Some years earlier, in October, 1996, Ebeling found himself photocopying thousands of papers in Moscow. According to Ebeling's biography published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), where Ebeling now serves as president, he made several trips to the former Soviet Union during the 1990s to consult "on free market reform and privatization of the socialist economy." The bio adds, "He was in Vilnius, Lithuania, in January 1991, and witnessed the Soviet military crackdown in which 13 Lithuanians were killed. He was in Moscow in August 1991 during the failed coup-attempt and was at the barricades with the defenders of freedom at the Russian Parliament."
But his most intellectually exciting work involved those photocopies in '96. He was beginning the process of making available to the world the once-lost papers of the preeminent Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises.
Mises' wife Margit would later write, "On the night the Nazis came to Vienna" they took "his valuable library, his writings, his documents and everything they found of importance, packed it all into 38 cases, and drove away."
The Ludwig von Mises Institute (LvMI) notes Mises fled the Nazis in 1938, went to Switzerland, and then emigrated to the United States in 1940. He thought his papers were lost. In fact they were seized by the Russians toward the end of WWII and stored in a secret vault in Moscow for decades.
Then, in 1989, LvMI reports, scholars learned of these massive stores of documents. From 1990 to 1992, Stefan Karner of the University of Graz and Gerhard Jagschitz of the University of Vienna catalogued 34,000 crates of papers from Austria. Included in the catalog was a listing of Mises' papers, which Ebeling later used to locate those documents.
That brings us to the Bat. The Batman Chronicles, Winter 1998, features an alternate-reality "Baruch Wane," a Jewish orphan who grows up to fight the Nazi menace. In the comic book, Batman knows Mises and tries to thwart the Nazis' theft of his papers.
A female Robin describes in a postscript, "Von Mises' anti-authoritarian ideas were first a threat to the Nazis, then the Soviets, and to all increasingly regulatory governments in our own times. He was against socialism in all its many forms. He was an advocate of individual liberty, free speech, and free thinking... and so, should I add, was the Berlin Batman."
Mises' intellectual lineage extends to Boulder via economist John Valentine Van Sickle, who left his Harvard economics studies to volunteer for the Army during WWI. He stayed on in France as a translator for an ambassador. From there, Van Sickle traveled to Austria and met with Mises, who gave him a copy of his book Socialism. Van Sickle read the book all night into the morning and was converted to a free-market perspective. Van Sickle then earned his Ph.D. under Mises, writing his thesis about direct taxation in Austria.
Mises' book had a similar influence on other key figures. Nobel economist Friedrich A. von Hayek wrote, "When Socialism first appeared in 1922, its impact was profound. It gradually but fundamentally altered the outlook of many of the young idealists returning to their university studies after World War I. I know, for I was one of them... Socialism promised to fulfill our hopes for a more rational, more just world. And then came this book. Our hopes were dashed. Socialism told us that we had been looking for improvement in the wrong direction... Socialism shocked our generation..."
Following his academic career, Van Sickle moved to Boulder in 1966. His son Jerry, who was born in Paris, had moved to Boulder in 1960 and resides there now. John Van Sickle wrote Freedom In Jeopardy while in town.
I know Jerry from the Libertarian Party. In casual conversation some months ago, he mentioned he had met Hayek at his father's Boulder home. Hayek is one of my heroes, so this piqued my interest. Then Jerry told me his father had studied with Mises. Jerry recently came over so we could scan in original letters between his father, Hayek, Mises, Milton Friedman (another Nobel economist), and other scholars. Jerry also told me the stories of his father.
Ebeling went to Moscow to dig up hidden papers from Mises, and all I had to do was invite over a friend. Of course, these papers weren't twice-stolen by socialist armies, and I doubt our little project will inspire a comic book. Still, what a treasure! Original letters by Mises, Hayek, and Friedman!
After Mises came to the U.S., he taught at NYU. He had a profound influence on Ayn Rand, the Russian immigrant who wrote The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The ideas of Mises and Rand blossomed into the modern libertarian movement.
That Mises fled the Nazis, and Ayn Rand fled the Communists, impacted their own views and, by extension, those of most modern libertarians. Rand's 1936 novel We the Living is a scathing indictment of Soviet Communism. Mises' 1944 book, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of Total State and Total War, is described by LvMI as "the first full-scale examination of German-style National Socialism as a species of socialism in general." Hatred of totalitarianism and overreaching state power is seared into the libertarian psyche.
In America, notes student and biographer Israel Kirzner, Mises fell in with Henry Hazlitt, a journalist for The New York Times, and Leonard Reed, who founded FEE. One of Mises' more influential American students was Murray Rothbard.
Mises died in 1973. I lamented to Jerry that Mises's death came soon after Nixon dropped all pretense of the gold standard, before the fall of the USSR, and before Hayek won the Nobel in 1974. Thus, Mises didn't live to see the full influence of his ideas. "That's too bad," I said. "That's putting it mildly," Jerry answered.
It took me some time to figure out that "Fritz" as signed on many of the letters is Hayek. I mentioned to Jerry how strange it felt to think of this preeminent scholar, Nobel winner Friedrich A. von Hayek, as "Fritz." Jerry said, "We, second and third generation, don't call gods by their first name." But to Jerry's father, it was Fritz.
In a letter dated October 30, 1974, John wrote, "Dear Fritz, I need not tell you how delighted I was to learn of the Nobel Prize award. I hope I am wrong but I think it would have been awarded much earlier had you not written The Road to Serfdom."
Mises's letters are filled with free-market insights. On February 24, 1955, Mises explained: "Inequality of wealth and income is an essential feature of the market economy. It makes the consumers supreme in giving them the power to force all those engaged in production to fill the wishes of the consumers in the best possible and cheapest way. It shifts control of the material factors of production into the hands of those who know how to employ them to the best advantage of the consumers. It makes competition work. It is progressive in the best sense of the term and benefits all strata of the population.
"Those who look upon income and wealth inequality as upon an evil are romanticists. They are guided by the idea, very popular with many philosophers of the eighteenth century, that 'republican virtue' can thrive only in a society of farmers each of whom owns a small farm sufficient for the needs of his family. This country has the highest standard of living ever reached in history because for several generations no attempt was made toward 'redistribution' and 'equalization.' Where there is a 'lower degree of inequality,' there is necessarily a lower average standard of living.
"It is useless to discuss the problems involved if one starts with the assumption that inequality is an evil and combines the discussion with that of the problem of 'the relief of destitution.' Destitution is in a feudal society the corollary of income inequality, but not in a capitalist society. The fact that there is 'big business' does not impair, but improve the conditions of the rest of the people.
"I realize very well that my point of view is not the New Deal's point of view. People are fascinated by the idea that everybody could get 'according to his needs.' This is the root of their much talked about 'guilt complex' and of their more or less subconscious sympathies with the Soviets who pay lip service to the principle of equality.
"All declarations in favor of free enterprise, private initiative, democracy and so on, are vain if one does not openly endorse the principle of wealth and income inequality."
Only an Austrian economist such as Mises would refer to "the middle-of-the-road formulations of [Milton] Friedman." ("Austrian Economics" now designates a school of thought that includes many American-born scholars.) There's always been a tension between the Austrians and the Chicago economists like Friedman, even though most libertarians appreciate both schools. (Professor Van Sickle maintained friendly relations with all factions.) That many Austrians think Friedman strays too far from the free-market path tells you something about the Austrians. Yet Mises saw free markets not as an end in themselves, but as a means to a productive and broadly liberal society.
Jerry reached his own free-market conclusions after hearing both sides. "I took political science" as an undergraduate, he said, "and it was pretty scornful of free-market economists... I would bring it home to test, and vice versa, and that was a real pleasure for me."
Jerry spent his early years in Europe. "I do as a kid recall Hitler on the radio. A frightening voice to hear," he said. He moved with his family back to the U.S. After a stint in the Navy, he went to the Harvard Graduate School of Design. In a move reminiscent of Rand's character Howard Roark, "I got crosswise with them and did not get my degree." He had to fight through Colorado courts to be allowed to take the state architectural exams. "They just didn't think it was a good idea for someone without a degree to practice architecture." He described his troubles as "a typical story -- the exclusiveness of licensing."
Jerry's grandfather was a carpenter in Denver in the 1880s before he became a teacher. Thus, John Van Sickle was born in Denver in 1892 in a house that's still standing. Jerry combined the interests of his grandfather and father as he continued his family's tradition in the area.
In the building world, Jerry said, he was involved in a competitive industry with relatively free entry of firms. "You get a good sense of what a good system that is... I could see the virtue of private enterprise up close," he said.
Also like Roark, Jerry strove to create low-income housing. Unfortunately, he said, "codes are all written to create middle-class housing," and so building low-cost units can be a regulatory nightmare. Nevertheless, Jerry said, "I made some units that were smaller and thread-bare, all based on my belief that we could create affordable housing by reducing costs."
Around 1980, "I jumped at the chance to go to a Cato conference," Jerry said. The event lasted nine days and was attended by Cato founder Ed Crane, Rothbard, Rand-influenced philosopher Tibor Machan, and Roy Childs, an early participant with Laissez Faire Books. "Murray [Rothbard] was certainly the most memorable of the teachers," Jerry said.
"I got total immersion in the whole spectrum of libertarianism," Jerry continued. Speakers discussed both economics and morality, and the "pieces of the puzzle fit together." He explained, "Cato connected those things for me... the economic benefits coupled with the relationship of people to each other."
Around the same time of the Cato conference, the city was planning Boulder Crossroads Mall. Jerry claims the city previously stalled private efforts to develop the area, but then poured millions of tax dollars into the project. The city also used condemnation "if not outright, then threats of condemnation" to force the development. Jerry notes, "It's almost empty now. The ironies here are just incredible. This public-subsidized entity is now defunct."
In a November 10, 2003, essay, Jerry described a plan through which libertarians could help restore property rights at the local level. He wrote, "Local building, zoning, and planning deal with down-to-earth property rights and what is probably the most economically significant power used by local governments. The decisions about building and zoning codes by city and county officials can be appealed to appointed citizen boards... I suggest that libertarians review the issues involved, pick those that seem most significant to us, and offer solutions that we believe are fair for everyone impacted in any significant way. Based on our basic beliefs, we'll focus on property rights which should be at the core of land use decisions, but are usually ignored by non-libertarian office holders and their hand-picked board members."
Through these efforts, Jerry hopes libertarians "may restore concern and protection for individual victims and their loss of property rights, then the understanding that property rights are basic human rights, basic justice, basic freedoms... Legislation and regulations can be quietly humanized or even replaced by principles that protect individual rights or demand compensation."
And so the spirit of Mises lives on in Boulder through his student John Valentine Van Sickle, and through a stack of letters written by some of the world's greatest economists.
When you see a shadow passing in the night, crusading to protect the rights of local property owners, it might just be Van Sickle's son, Jerry. Like the Berlin Batman, Jerry is "an advocate of individual liberty, free speech, and free thinking." We owe that to Mises, the Economist Wonder. All we need now is the fancy light.
* Batman is a registered trademark.