A Short History of Mises Institute Publishing
[This talk was delivered at the Mises Institute's Supporters Summit, November 1, 2008, Auburn, Alabama. An MP3 audio version of this talk is available for download.]
Each year I like to give a roundup of where we stand in terms of publishing and online resources, and every year I'm struck by how much progress we've made. And yet this year, there is something astounding to share with you.
With 300 books in our catalog, the overwhelming majority of which have been internally published; with an online store that is second to none in the world of pro-liberty publishing; with a website delivering nearly 7 terabytes of data out the door every month to one million unique visitors per month; with nearly the entire corpus of Mises, Rothbard, Hazlitt, Röpke, Hayek, Hutt, Spadaro, Chodorov, Nock, Garrett, Ron Paul, John T. Flynn, Böhm-Bawerk, Menger, Bastiat, Hahn, Say, and Wicksell, among many others, in print and available for free download or purchase in hardcopy; with the complete run of seven journals online, many of which would have otherwise sunk without a trace; and with 30,000 rare books in this physical library begging to be scanned; it is fair to say that the Mises Institute has achieved a level of productivity and effectiveness that none of us imagined possible in the past.
By the way, people wonder what 7 terabytes means. To get an idea of how much that is, this is nearly equivalent to the entire printed collection of the Library of Congress. Another measure: it is 335,000 trees made into paper and printed. This is a volume of information in the material world that would have been inconceivable even a decade ago. And by delivering digitally, just think of the glorious things that Mises.org is doing to help the environment! The tree huggers should love us. That's our kind of recycling.
Many people write or drop by to ask how it that this has been accomplished. As with all endeavors, it has been a matter of tiny steps taken every day by the staff, along with the willingness of our members and donors to provide support through faith in the ideals that the Mises Institute represents.
The guiding principle of management here can always and everywhere be summed up in a single principle: generosity. The Mises Institute gives as much as it can as often as it can.
The Mises Institute has never believed in withholding education. We've never closed these treasures behind locked walls. We've never hesitated to make ideas available to as many people as possible, insofar as technology has permitted it. Our focus has never been growth as such but rather service. The growth part takes care of itself.
This is a model that Lew Rockwell adopted at the very outset. The first book that the Mises Institute published, for example, has a very special place in my heart and mind. It was Theory and History, by Mises himself. The institute published it in 1985, and I somehow got hold of a copy my last year in college. It had a new introduction by Murray Rothbard that explained that this book, though written very late in life, was among Mises's most important works. I still have that edition I read, and read not once but several times through.
My copy is marked up with exclamation marks, "ah ha" notes, and plenty of shocked objections. In fact, as I look through it today, I'm struck by how incredibly stupid I was before I finally absorbed the lessons of the book. The point is this: that book shook me to my very foundations. His core argument is for methodological dualism, the idea that a different method of understanding and a different standard of proof apply to the social sciences versus the natural sciences. He argues for pure theory as applied to economics: deductive theory as the core of economic reasoning. He further argues that the great ideological errors of our time—socialism, fascism, racialism, interventionism, inflationism, legal positivism, historicism, whatever—have roots in a refusal to bow to the truths gleaned from economic reasoning. To read this book is a mind-blowing experience for anyone who has sat through hundreds of hours of lectures in any college. It is utterly and completely transformative.
Now, I like to imagine how history might have worked itself out in my own life in absence of the Mises Institute publishing program. There is no way I would have seen the book or been challenged by Mises's ideas. In fact, this text—and probably many of Mises's other works—would have remained in obscurity. That applies to millions of people and thousands of titles.
The founder of the Mises Institute, Lew Rockwell, had worked at Arlington House publishers, which was yet another case of a publisher that charted its own course against the mainstream. Lew had seen the power of Mises's prose, and he was struck by the fact that it was left to this one tiny publisher to keep Mises's books in print, long after Yale University Press had bailed out. Part of his goal of founding the institute was to make sure that Mises's works—and hence his ideas—would enjoy a more permanent home, so that they would always be available.
This he has done. The Mises Institute has a vast publishing apparatus in place more than 25 years later, pushing not only Mises but his students Rothbard, Sennholz, and Kirzner as well as Mises's colleagues such as Hayek, Hutt, and Robbins. But there is more to it than that. The institute is hard at work bringing to print and to the public eye the work of Misesian economists, philosophers, and historians who wrote for the past one hundred years, as well as the work of predecessors and the writings of today's scholars.
I'm privileged to have watched the program grow and change with the technology through the years. So I would like to tell the short history, and then talk about the impact of the digital revolution, and speak of some issues for the future.
In the beginning, publishing was a priority for the institute. But resources only allowed for short monographs, such as Rothbard's Essential von Mises, Sennholz's Underground Economy, our own publication called The Free Market. He planned to start a journal with Murray Rothbard, called The Review of Austrian Economics. There was a monograph on business-cycle theory, and a few other titles. In those days, this was a real stretch for a tiny institute with no large donors, a staff of only a few, and a very precarious existence in general.
But consider what this provided. Mises had a home. Rothbard had a reliable writing and teaching outlet, so that he could concentrate on what he did best, and the result was another eight or so books, among which his history of thought, before he died some years later. Students were getting scholarships to study economics. And there were suddenly venues in which to publish. It's important to remember that Lew had no assurance at all that there would be a market in place to be interested in these titles and programs. Nor did he have any way to reach that market had it existed. We have a hard time remembering this now, but in those days, the only way to find out about new publications was to slog to the library's reference section and open Books in Print or lug around the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature.
The year 1986 was a huge one for the Mises Institute, for this was the year of the first issue of the Review of Austrian Economics. The appearance of that journal drained a vast amount of resources, emotional and financial, from the institute. Someday someone will have to write up the details, but let me just say that Lew and Murray came face to face with some very powerful interest groups that did not want that journal published. The enemies of the RAE did everything in their power to kill it and destroy any prospect for an Austrian-focused academic journal.
Typical of both of them, they took this as a sign that they were on the right track. It took incredible moral courage to persevere, but against all odds, they did it. The journal appeared, and later became the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. Now, all these years later, it seems inevitable that there had to be such a journal. We take it for granted, just an inevitable part of the scholarly landscape. We need to appreciate that this almost didn't happen, and only did happen because of an incredibly rare combination of moral stamina and intellectual dedication.
Let me return now to the whole issue of the market for these ideas. Lew suspected that there was hunger for the ideas of liberty in the form in which Mises and Rothbard presented them. But he couldn't know for sure. Mostly this was not the issue that concerned him. What drove him forward was a passion for truth, and the belief that there should be a market for these ideas. If one didn't currently exist, he would make sure that one would be created.
My friends, this is an incredible act of faith—one not driven by the desire for fame, fortune (heaven knows there is none of that), or power (quite the opposite!) but by a kind of crazy idealism that sets out to make a difference in the world and takes the concrete steps necessary to achieve that. It is driven by the belief that something can be created out of nothing—the same motivation that has driven entrepreneurs from the beginning of time.
But what were Lew and Murray selling? What were they trying to convince the world to accept? Not a good or service, but an idea. That is just about the most implausible notion one can imagine. And through this implausible possibility, they made a huge dent in the universe.
Let me fast forward now to the 1990s, when more books began to come out, including Mises's Money, Method, and the Market Process, The Economics of Ludwig von Mises, Rothbard's Scholar, Creator, Hero, Gordon's Secession, State, and Liberty, Rothbard's Case Against the Fed and What Has Government Done to Our Money, as well as Denson's Costs of War.
Putting all this together, we begin to see the emergence of a comprehensive intellectual arsenal in defense of human liberty. It was a combination of new material plus old that challenged the dominant political and economic trends of the time. Lew was commissioning new works at every step, while looking for older works to bring back in print.
In those days, the preferred model was to publish our own smaller books but depend on academic publishers with which to cooperate on the larger books. Part of the reason was financial. There were also considerations of marketing: the bigger publishers had a better infrastructure for getting books out the door. Of course in publishing this way, there was a major cost, though we didn't think of it as a cost at the time: we lost copyright control of the book—or, more precisely, some other institution gained control of the book.
This factor wouldn't turn out to be hugely important until the great digital revolution of 1995 and following. I date it all from this year because this was the year that web browsing began to enter the mainstream. It was also the year that Murray Rothbard died, and at that moment there was a profound sense that we had lost the asset that made everything else we had seem tiny by comparison. It was a time of total transformation.
Lew was personally devastated of course but determined to press on exactly as Murray would have him do. Our senior faculty redoubled their efforts. The same happened among our staff. We had to push forward for the sake of the ideals. This was what Lew said and he provided the model. Also, the rejoicing of all our enemies spurred us onward.
We had lost Murray but his passing coincided in time with the appearance of the most remarkable publishing tool in human history, a tool that would take his ideas and that of the Austro-libertarian tradition on to new heights.
The first Mises Institute website went live in 1996. This was the year that a choice was forced on every existing institution in the world: go online or keep doing business the old way. It was widely assumed that by choosing one path, you were forgoing the other, and this was especially true in the world of publishing.
The most obvious reason why this was an ominous choice dealt with money. Going online was an extra expense and it wasn't clear how it would pay off financially. For many years, in fact, the whole web business seemed like a huge money pit, and for many institutions it remains so.
But for the institute, the choice wasn't that difficult to make. Yes it was costly, but look at the payoff: we could reach people who would otherwise never know about our work. Over time, we began to realize ever more just how powerful this medium really is.
One of the great thrills was the reality of retrospective publishing. We were able to bring extremely rare publications, some of which had very low circulation, back into the mainstream of life—publications such Left and Right and early issues of the Journal of Libertarian Studies. The consciousness of what was possible began to rise even as technology advanced month by month. There was a time when scanning was difficult and inaccurate and overly heavy relative to what bandwidth would support. Today, scanning is accessible, beautiful, and light. As a result, we've been moving forward with a drive to put as much online as humanly possible. Our online editions are superior to any others because you can always copy and paste out of them. You can find them easily. We give the entire text with no fussy frames or odd software.
Then there is their media. We were able to dig through archives and find speeches by Mises and Rothbard, and also Hayek, in addition to the complete lecture series by Robert LeFevre, among many others. Our own conferences were put online in audio and video—a collection amounting to thousands of hours.
As a result of this, the vast corpus of work in our own tradition is increasingly available, either in print or online or both.
Earlier I spoke about the challenge and opportunity that digital media meant for all institutions. What we discovered over time is that digital and physical are complements, not substitutes. Sometimes we use digital and sometimes we use physical. In the course of our lives, we rely on both, with each medium enhancing the value of both.
When we publish a book now, we put it online the same time it comes out physically. Actually lately, we've been publishing the digital version before the physical version. This was made possible by a major change in our operations: we stopped giving away copyrights for others to control, precisely so that the material could reach the broadest possible audience. We have even taken the step of putting the entire empire of Mises.org in the status of Creative Commons.
The immediate objection to this policy is that it cuts into sales of the physical versions. If that is the worry, you really have to ask yourself why you would want to charge people for a physical version they don't want or need. If they are happy with the digital version, or don't like the book enough to buy it, there is no reason to sell it. To put it plainly, it is very bad management and very short-sighted commerce to ask people to cough up for something they won't be happy with.
If you have a good product that you are proud to distribute, it is never a mistake to give more information rather than less, especially if you can do it at low cost. Even today, I run into institutions that don't understand this point.
The second major error that people make is not exclusive to the digital problem but afflicts all institutions. They assume a fixed market for their product and forget their evangelical aims. Lew has never made this mistake. As I mentioned, he began with virtually no market at all. The educational efforts created something out of nothing. Following this model, the institute has been half evangelism and half delivery from the very beginning.
The Mises Institute is now the only reason that the major works of all the Austrians and major American libertarian writers are in print and available to the world. To conjure up a world without the institute's publishing program is to observe a dimly lit scene turning to darkness. But with this program, we can more easily imagine a bright future for humanity, the very one for which lovers of liberty have longed.