Carl Menger: The Consumate Modernist?

“Alle Dinge stehen unter dem Gesetze von Ursache und Wirkung.” So Carl Menger begins his magisterial Grundsatze der Volkswirthschaftslehre (1871), better known by the more recent generation of libertarians as “Principles of Economics.”

What we would not learn from the English language literature is how militantly modern was Professor Menger. Menger was a militant opponent of the Austrian and German aristocracies. He fiercely opposed all forms of nationalism. And, perhaps most noted (and feared) by his friends was his dismissal of all things spiritual or religious—this cultural Catholic. Indeed, so dismissive was this Austrian of cultural conservativism that not only did he openly take his Jewish housemaid for his lifelong female companion, but, when she bore him an heir, he did not hesitate to demand that she and he be legally named as such, choosing to give up his prestigious chair at the University of Vienna rather than deny his wife and progeny. Now, in any nation, that is modern! And in turn-of-the-century Austria?

Perhaps a more productive line of attack might be to ask whether his modernism bled, just a bit, into the kind of idealism that Hannah Arendt once derided as domination by the idea.

When Menger wrote his Grundsatze, in 1871, Bismarck had only just shed retrograde Germany, i.e., conservative, agricultural, landed, backwards-looking Germany, preferring Kleindeutschland to Grossdeutschland for, it was openly known, purely political reasons. This displayed a preference of science over superstition, the future over the past. And Menger was a wholehearted supporter.

But did it not also display a certain naiveté when it came to the persistence of what we today might call “family” or “religious” values? The Ancien Régime was alive and well. And, yet, to it Menger proved entirely tone-deaf. What would replace long-standing traditional social and cultural relations? Would science?

Yes. Evidently, Menger believed that science would make a good substitute for the values of traditional religion and culture. And, yet, as the classically trained Menger must certainly have known, there is no path that leads from the “is” to the “ought,” no path that yields a “thou shalt” from a “this is.”

When Menger reduced economic science to cause and effect—Ursache und Wirkung—therein he conceded that the world of the future would be, he felt, based solely on need and the satisfaction of need. Nothing else.

But, of course, human society might be composed of something more. And failing to recognize, acknowledge, or account for this something more might yield disastrous results. Which makes me wonder whether Menger was a modernist or simply a dangerous ideologue.