Lew Rockwell's Vienna Waltz

by Tom G. Palmer

Who is this Rockwell fellow, and why is he linking one of history's great libertarians to an imperialistic police state?

The Habsburg Dynasty was:
A) One of the more reactionary and anti-constitutional forces in 19th century and early 20th century Europe.

B) A popular American television evening soap opera from the mid-1980s.

C) A famed guardian of Western civilization and a noted patron of the Austrian School of Economics and of classical liberalism.

According to Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, the answer is "C." In a letter asking donors to "do us the honor of serving on the Dinner Committee" for the Institute's upcoming fifteenth anniversary, Rockwell gushes, "The honorary chairman of the Dinner Committee, also our guest of honor that evening, is Karl von Habsburg-Lothringen, Archduke of Austria. We are honored by his support of the Institute. His presence makes this the event of a lifetime."

As if this bowing-and-scraping were not enough, Rockwell continues with a remarkable rewriting of modern European history, asserting that "in European history, the Habsburg monarchy was a famed guardian of Western civilization. But even those of us devoted to the old American republic are aware of the warm and long relationship between the Austrian school and the House of Habsburg." In defense of this startling claim, Rockwell claims that "The Emperor Franz Joseph ennobled Mises' father, hired Carl Menger to teach classical liberalism to Crown Prince Rudolf, made Menger a member of the House of Lords, and appointed Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk twice as Finance Minister, to institute and strengthen the gold standard. Mises himself was decorated three times for bravery under fire as an artillery officer in the emperor's army."

How many silly things can Rockwell pack into one paragraph? Let's count. First, ennobling an obscure bureaucrat who was incidentally the father of a future classical liberal economist hardly counts as patronage of classical liberal thought. Second, the Emperor certainly did not hire Menger to teach classical liberalism to his son, since the Emperor despised liberal thinking; in any case, Menger was not known at the time as an outspoken classical liberal. Third, Menger was a full professor at the University of Vienna, and such notable persons were quite commonly given appointments to the upper house of the parliament, so this is not evidence of any attachment to liberalism or to Austrian economics. Fourth, Böhm-Bawerk was indeed Finance Minister from 1900 to 1904, and his visage today appears on the 100 schilling note of the Republic of Austria, and he did try to get the Empire's accounts in order -- but what this says about the Emperor's attachment to subjective value theory or praxeology is not clear. Fifth and finally, giving some medals to a soldier in an idiotic war -- occasioned by the Emperor's imperialistic grab for Bosnia and his sabre-rattling toward Serbia -- is pretty thin evidence of fondness for Austrian economics or classical liberalism, even if the young soldier would later become famous as a classical liberal and an Austrian economist. (Indeed, serving as a soldier in a conscripted imperial army at war with the United States, France, and Britain is hardly the proudest moment in a great liberal's life, and certainly an odd one to celebrate.)

Perhaps Rockwell has forgotten that Mises was a republican; that Mises strenuously opposed absolutism; that the Emperor Franz Joseph presided over the slaughter of the Hungarian classical liberal revolutionaries when he came to power in 1848 and pursued a policy of revenge murders against them; and that the Habsburg policy stressed protectionism, an established state church, neo-absolutism, powerful bureaucracies, and military expansion toward the Balkans, resulting in the very war that shattered European civilization. Or perhaps this kind of nonsense should come as no surprise from the man who defended in the Los Angeles Times the brutal beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles police force, who suggested government controls on video cameras as the solution to such problems, and who had the gall to sully the good name of Ludwig von Mises by mentioning his presidency of the Mises Institute as his identification.

As to whether the reign of Franz Joseph was especially liberal or supportive of Austrian economics, the scholar Oscar Jászi noted in his book, The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy , "If we look over the seven-decade reign of Francis Joseph, we are unable to find in his governmental system -- in spite of his proverbial energy and feeling of duty -- anything which could be called a standpoint based upon principle, a systematic endeavor, or even a modest program looking toward the future. The only real motives of his system were military power and diplomatic prestige."

Ludwig von Mises, far from being reverential toward the Habsburg dynasty, noted in his book Liberalism that "the impossibility of solving the problems of the Hapsburg monarchy against the will of the ruling dynasty ultimately led to the incident that became the immediate cause of the World War."

Lew Rockwell may have set a new standard for obsequiousness, even surpassing Edmund Burke, who wrote so rapturously of Marie Antoinette ("surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision"). It may be a shame that the Queen isn't alive to dance at Rockwell's ancien régime ball. But the greater shame is that his ball bears the name of a great defender of constitutional republicanism and classical liberalism.

Of course, one of Liberty's editors wasn't going to stand for this, and he responded in the next issue...

Liberty, September 1997, © Copyright 1997, Liberty Foundation

<Liberty> <Current Issue> <Regular Features> <Contributors> <Liberty Book Club>

LIBERTY Unbound Webmaster (