Was Mises an Anarchist?

by Stephan Kinsella on August 7, 2009

in Killer

As I wrote here, in response to another commentator who had said: “Ludwig von Mises himself was not an anarchist and went so far as to outright denounce anarchism as ‘altogether untenable’”:

Mises was wrong. However, his views on this matter were so close to anarchy to be almost indistinguishable. See Rothbard:

How far would Mises push the principle of secession, of self-determination? Down to a single village, he states; but would he press beyond even that? He calls the right of self-determination not of nations, “but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit.” But how about self-determination for the ultimate unit, for each individual? Allowing each individual to remain where he lives and yet secede from the State is tantamount to anarchism, and yet Mises comes very close to anarchism, blocked only by practical technical considerations:

If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done. This is impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations, which make it necessary that the right of self-determination be restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants of areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.

That Mises, at least in theory, believed in the right of individual secession and therefore came close to anarchism can also be seen in his description of liberalism, that “it forces no one against his will into the structure of the State.”

And Mises did believe in a vigorous right to secede, Liberalism pp. 109-10:

The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars. … However, the right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done.

See also Ludwig von Mises and the Justification of the Liberal Order, by William Baumgarth (“Mises, then, opened himself up to the claims of the individualist anarchists, who believe such a radical self-determination not only feasible but, on Mises’ own grounds, the ultimate source of social peace.”).

Update: Vijay Boyapati has persuaded me that this is a bit TTH. Mises was not an anarchist.



{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

LibertarianHuman September 6, 2009 at 6:41 pm

Sad that Mises didn’t make that final step.

But nevertheless thank you for this entry!


Zach Bibeault October 28, 2009 at 4:23 pm

Fascinating stuff. He was essentially an anarchist, in this sense, then.


Robert Taylor October 15, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Thank you so much for this clarification Stephan!


MichaelC October 18, 2010 at 11:49 pm

AEN: Was Mises better than the classical liberals on the question of the state?

HOPPE: Mises thought it was necessary to have an institution that suppresses those people who cannot behave appropriately in society, people who are a danger because they steal and murder. He calls this institution government.

But he has a unique idea of how government should work. To check its power, every group and every individual, if possible, must have the right to secede from the territory of the state. He called this the right of self determination, not of nations as the League of Nations said, but of villages, districts, and groups of any size. In Liberalism and Nation, State, and Economy, he elevates secession to a central principle of classical liberalism. If it were possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, he says, it would have to be done. Thus the democratic state becomes, for Mises, a voluntary organization.

AEN: Yet you have been a strong critic of democracy.

HOPPE: Yes, as that term is usually understood. But under Mises’s unique definition of democracy, the term means self rule or self government in its most literal sense. All organizations in society, including government, should be the result of voluntary interactions.

In a sense you can say that Mises was a near anarchist. If he stopped short of affirming the right of individual secession, it was only because of what he regarded as technical grounds. In modern democracy, we exalt the method of majority rule as the means of electing the rulers of a compulsory monopoly of taxation.

Mises frequently made an analogy between voting and the marketplace. But he was quite aware that voting in the marketplace means voting with your own property. The weight of your vote is in accord with your value productivity. In the political arena, you do not vote with your property; you vote concerning the property of everyone, including your own. People do not have votes according to their value productivity.

AEN: Yet Mises attacks anarchism in no uncertain terms.

HOPPE: His targets here are left-utopians. He attacks their theory that man is good enough not to need an organized defense against the enemies of civilization. But this is not what the private-property anarchist believes. Of course, murderers and thieves exist. There needs to be an institution that keeps these people at bay. Mises calls this institution government, while people who want no state at all point out that all essential defensive services can be better performed by firms in the market. We can call these firms government if we want to. – http://mises.org/journals/aen/aen18_1_1.asp

Also – http://mises.org/rothbard/ethics/hoppeintro.pdf , pg 9

“Rothbard’s anarchism was not the sort of anarchism that his teacher and mentor Mises had rejected as hopelessly naive, of course. “The anarchists,” Mises had written…”


Paul May 4, 2011 at 10:45 pm

“What is needed to make peace durable is neither international treaties and covenants nor international tribunals and organizations like the defunct League of Nations or its successor, the United Nations. If the principle of the market economy is universally accepted, such makeshifts are unnecessary; if it is not accepted, they are futile.”
- Ludwig von Mises, ‘Human action,’ Chapter 24.


Juan June 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Mises was clearly opposed to ‘anarchy’ and Kinsella’s interpretation is wrong and biased. Mises DOES NOT allow individuals to secede from government. ONLY to choose a different master.

“Liberalism is not anarchism, nor has it anything whatsoever to do with anarchism. The liberal understands quite clearly that without resort to compulsion, the existence of society would be endangered and that behind the rules of conduct whose observance is necessary to assure peaceful human cooperation must stand the threat of force if the whole edifice of society is not to be continually at the mercy of any one of its members. One must be in a position to compel the person who will not respect the lives, health, personal freedom, or private property of others to acquiesce in the rules of life in society. This is the function that the liberal doctrine assigns to the state: the protection of property, liberty, and peace.”


Major-Freedom November 29, 2012 at 8:49 am

Anarchism is “compulsion” and “master” at the individual level. It is self-master.

Anarchism does not imply LACK of protections of property. It does not imply disrespect for the lives, health, or personal freedoms of others either. One can enforce property protection without a monopoly state. Mises would have called this “government.”

Anarchism to Mises was absence of all laws. But that isn’t what anarcho-capitalists consider to be anarchism.


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