Mises and Free Love

Mises and Free Love
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Quite a Valentine’s Day-esque controversy has erupted over Mises’ stance toward birth control and feminism over the past week.  The affair began when Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, writing under the pseudonym rortybomb, took libertarians to task by pointing out that Mises was supposedly against the birth control contraceptive.  Thanks to Gene Callahan, we can see that Mr. bomb didn’t take the time to actually read and figure out that Mises was, in fact, in favor of birth control:

“It is not the practice of birth control that is new, but merely the fact that it is more frequently resorted to. Especially new is the fact that the practice is no longer limited to the upper strata of the population, but is common to the whole population. For it is one of the most important social effects of capitalism that it deproletarianizes all strata of society. It raises the standard of living of the masses of the manual workers to such a height that they too turn into ‘bourgeois’ and think and act like well-to-do burghers. Eager to preserve their standard of living for themselves and for their children, they embark upon birth control. With the spread and progress of capitalism, birth control becomes a universal practice. The transition to capitalism is thus accompanied by two phenomena: a decline both in fertility rates and in mortality rates. The average duration of life is prolonged.” — Human Action

From this cited passage however, it isn’t clear whether or not Mises is talking directly about the contraceptive of birth control or the practice of less sexual intercourse in order to prevent the chance of impregnation.  If Mises was actually referring to birth control as the contraceptive, it begs to be asked why he didn’t refer to it as such instead of invoking the word “practice.”  As he points out, a rise in the standard of living tends to lead to lower birth and fertility rates.  Given that people are living longer and experiencing more material comfort, there is less of a need to reproduce in order to have support once the body deteriorates to a point where its labor becomes less productive.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that Mises was not opposed to the practice of birth control whereas he saw it as a natural progression of capitalism and humanity’s purposeful behavior.

At this point, Brooklyn College political science professor Corey Robin jumped into the fray to denounce Mises, not for his position on birth control, but his opposition to the “free love” doctrine.  He writes:

The real reason Mises’s arguments about women are so relevant, it seems to me, is that in the course of making them he reveals something larger about the libertarian worldview: libertarianism is not about liberty at all, or at least not about liberty for everyone. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Here’s Mises describing the socialist program of “free love”:

Free love is the socialists’ radical solution for sexual problems. The socialistic society abolishes the economic dependence of woman which results from the fact that woman is dependent on the income of her husband. Man and woman have the same economic rights and the same duties, as far as motherhood does not demand special consideration for the women. Public funds provide for the maintenance and education of the children, which are no longer the affairs of the parents but of society. Thus the relations between the sexes are no longer influenced by social and economic conditions….The family disappears and society is confronted with separate individuals only. Choice in love becomes completely free.

Sounds like a libertarian paradise, right? Society is dissolved into atomistic individuals, obstacles to our free choices are removed, everyone has the same rights and duties. But Mises is not celebrating this ideal; he’s criticizing it.  Not because it makes people unfree but because it makes people—specifically, women—free. The problem with liberating women from the constraints of “social and economic conditions” is that…women are liberated from the constraints of social and economic conditions.

I am going to go out on a limb here and assume Robin has not read the full breadth of theory contained in Socialism.  When Mises writes on socialism presenting the possibility of “freedom” from the duties of parenthood or motherhood, it is within the context of what socialism itself encompasses.  Specifically, free love through socialism doesn’t bring freedom but rather imposes different duties on other individuals through the force of the state.  The worker’s paradise envisioned by socialism is not a free utopia but a top down, forcefully planned vision of those who make up whatever grand council appoints itself to carry out the task.  Like Mises said, “Socialism means full government control of every sphere of the individuals life and the unrestricted supremacy of the government in its capacity as central board of production management.”

In a sense, the parenting dynamic present in market economies characterized by private property does present a burden on the mother and father who procreate.  Such is human nature as newborns and children are unable to provide for themselves till a certain point in their respective lives.  Stripping away the parenting aspect within socialism would indeed lead to a state of free, and most likely, promiscuous love.  But invoking the word “free” to describe this new societal relationship is misleading; nothing about socialism is “free.”  The burden of childcare must fall on someone or someones.

Robin does not understand this truth as he goes on to write:

But the underlying logic of Mises’s argument—in which the redistributive state is criticized not for making men and women slaves or equals but for making them free—cannot be so easily contained. It can easily be applied to other realms of social policy—labor unions, universal health care, robust public schools, unemployment benefits, and the like, which the left has always seen as the vital prerequisites of universal freedom—suggesting that the real target of the libertarian critique may be the proposition that Mises articulates here so well: that all men—not just the rich or the well born—and all women will in fact be liberated from the constraints of their “social and economic conditions.”

The disconnect between libertarians and other political ideologies comes down a definition of what freedom really entails.  Though not an anarchist or proponent of natural rights, Mises recognized “Government is beating into submission, imprisoning, and killing.”  Government owns no resources and must siphon all it has from the private sector through taxation.  Given that taxation is not voluntary or else it would fail to then be taxation, the state’s role as the monopolizer of violence and conflict arbitration is based purely off the force it yields over a given citizenry.  Therefore, the wealth redistributive functions of government are not some corollaries of “freedom” but a process through which one taxpayer is denied his freedom to keep a portion of his own income for another to receive the confiscated money.  In Power and Market, Murray Rothbard cites an important passage from John C. Calhoun on the myth that taxation is not a winners and losers game:

Such being the case, it must necessarily follow that some one portion of the community must pay in taxes more than it receives back in disbursements, while another receives in disbursements more than it pays in taxes.  It is, then, manifest, taking the whole process together, that taxes must be, in effect, bounties to that portion of the community which receives more in disbursements than it pays in taxes, while to the other which pays in taxes more than it receives in disbursements they are taxes in reality–burdens instead of bounties.

All of the examples of social policy Robin cites, such as universal health insurance, unemployment benefits, and public schools, are not prerequisites for freedom as their existence as tax funded endeavors necessarily means the economic freedom of some was violated for their provision.  Curiously, Robin mentions labor unions as vital for some type of freedom when the ability of any union to be recognized by an employer relies on the guns and courts of government to back them up.

As much as it breaks the hearts of egalitarians, the human condition is one of inherent inequality.  Market economies defined by the division of labor demand specialization in certain industries and production.  Put simply, the ability for man to excel in certain fields above his fellow man is not something to abhor but celebrate.  Knowledge is dispersed across a wide range of occupations.  Specialization allows for greater resources of labor and capital to be devoted toward specific lines of work to both improve production and develop technological advances.

Why anyone would want to promote egalitarianism in face of the fact that diversity in physical and mental attributes allows each of us to devote our energies toward specific professions is beyond this writer.  The loss of an opportunity to be server at Hooters or a coal miner is not a tragedy of capitalism but one of its enriching and endearing aspects.

How Robin comes to the conclusion that “libertarianism is not about liberty at all, or at least not about liberty for everyone” shows a complete and total lack of understanding for what liberty truly is.  Freedom is not the ability to loot your fellow man from his earned income via the state’s confiscation apparatus otherwise known as taxation.  It is merely the ability to obtain property by peaceful means, live, and establish working relationships with those whom you ultimately choose to.  The interference of such activities, whether it be through forcing the recognition of certain individuals on private property or the violent confiscation of wealth, negate freedom.

Mises long understood this (though to some Rothbardians didn’t take it far enough!) and actually attributed one of the hallmarks of liberty, the right to contract, to a woman truly seeking to liberate herself:

The woman may deny herself to anyone, she may demand fidelity and constancy from the man to whom she gives herself.  Only in this way is the foundation laid for the development of woman’s individuality.

So much for Mises being a closeted woman oppressor.

*Also of note, Brian Doherty does a fantastic job of refuting rortybomb’s initial post.

  • Connor

    perhaps once all the centrally planned socialist schools close our children will finally obtain a real education

  • Bill

    Great! With all our schools slowly closing where are our next generation of consumers coming from?

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James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of Mises Canada and a regular contributor to the Mitrailleuse . Send him mail

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