Ludwig von Mises has some characteristically acute and important comments on the idea of progress in history, and in what follows, I’d like to address some of these. In the way he develops his views, one of the key themes of his notion of ethics plays an important role.
In contrast to those, like Herbert Spencer, who think that human history is progressive because it forms part of larger process of biological evolution, also viewed as progressive, Mises says that in biological evolution, what develops later is not “better,” or for that matter worse, than what has gone before. If natural selection results in one species’ supplanting another, that does not make the second species superior, even if it has traits that we prefer to those of the first. Mises puts the point in this way:
It was one of the shortcomings of nineteenth-century philosophies to have misinterpreted the meaning of cosmic change and to have smuggled into the theory of biological transformation the idea of progress. Looking backward from any given state of things to the states of the past one can fairly use the terms development and evolution in a neutral sense. Then evolution signifies the process which led from past conditions to the present. But one must guard against the fatal error of confusing change with improvement and evolution with evolution toward higher forms of life. Neither is it permissible to substitute a pseudoscientific anthropocentrism for the anthropocentrism of religion and the older metaphysical doctrines.
In what he says about evolution, Mises is in accord with the understanding of most modern biologists.
When Mises speaks of “pseudoscientific anthropocentrism,” what he means is that we human beings project our own importance to ourselves onto the process of evolution, so that we take ourselves to be the goal of history. But, he says, this is not part of science, which is purely descriptive.
As the argument stands so far, it contains a gap. From the fact that science is limited to describing and explaining change and cannot, within its own terms, properly speak of “improvements,” it does not follow that evolution has no goal. That would be true only if the standpoint of scientific description were the only way to assess what has occurred in the historical development of life or if no other way of assessment allowed room for a goal. In speaking of “goal” here, I have in mind a goal of the whole process, rather than the goals of individual persons. It is not part of descriptive science that such goals are precluded but only that they are not included within it.
Mises has anticipated this objection. He says: “The term progress is nonsensical when applied to cosmic events or to a comprehensive world view. We have no information about the plans of the prime mover.” I must say that Mises has given rather short shrift to claims of cosmic design, but to him his point was obvious, and one can see why he makes it. His fundamental aim in all his economic and social writing is to defend the system of social cooperation through the free market from all attacks against it. If people were to say that they have access to God’s plans for history, this might lead them to support interference with the free market, and it is Mises’s opinion that almost all those who did claim such direct access propose interfering with the market. For that reason, he opposes them. It doesn’t follow from this that Mises rejects religion, but to the extent he views it positively, it is religion that confines itself to individual salvation and avoids social doctrines that oppose the free market.
Mises takes aim also at another doctrine of progress. During the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many intellectuals thought that the growth of science and reason made progress inevitable. Mises rejects this view also, as it overestimates the influence of reason on human conduct. He says,
Eighteenth-century social philosophy was convinced that mankind has now finally entered the age of reason. While in the past theological and metaphysical errors were dominant, henceforth reason will be supreme. People will free themselves more and more from the chains of tradition and superstition and will dedicate all their efforts to the continuous improvement of social institutions. Every new generation will contribute its part to this glorious task. With the progress of time society will more and more become the society of free men, aiming at the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Temporary setbacks are, of course, not impossible. But finally the good cause will triumph because it is the cause of reason…. All these hopes were founded on the firm conviction, proper to the age, that the masses are both morally good and reasonable. The upper strata, the privileged aristocrats living on the fat of the land, were thought depraved. The common people, especially the peasants and the workers, were glorified in a romantic mood as noble and unerring in their judgment. Thus the philosophers were confident that democracy, government by the people, would bring about social perfection.
This prejudice was the fateful error of the humanitarians, the philosophers, and the liberals. Men are not infallible; they err very often. It is not true that the masses are always right and know the means for attaining the ends aimed at. ‘Belief in the common man’ is no better founded than was belief in the supernatural gifts of kings, priests, and noblemen.
You might think from all this that Mises has no use at all for the concept of progress, but that is not correct, and it is here that his view of ethics enters the scene. He thinks that ultimate ends cannot be rationally assessed. Nevertheless, almost everyone wants peace and material prosperity and these aims, we can show by strictly scientific, value-free argument, only the free market can achieve. To the extent that the free market is accepted, we can properly speak of progress; but we cannot say that the desirability of the market will lead to its general acceptance. That only time will tell.
In the foregoing, I have as usual confined myself to an account of Mises’s thought and have not sought to assess it critically.