Front Page Titles (by Subject) 4: Liberalism and the Parties of Special Interests - Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (LF ed.)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
4: Liberalism and the Parties of Special Interests - Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (LF ed.) 
Liberalism: The Classical Tradition, trans. Ralph Raico, ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Liberalism and the Parties of Special Interests
The parties of special interests, which see nothing more in politics than the securing of privileges and prerogatives for their own groups, not only make the parliamentary system impossible; they rupture the unity of the state and of society. They lead not merely to the crisis of parliamentarism, but to a general political and social crisis. Society cannot, in the long run, exist if it is divided into sharply defined groups, each intent on wresting special privileges for its own members, continually on the alert to see that it does not suffer any setback, and prepared, at any moment, to sacrifice the most important political institutions for the sake of winning some petty advantage.
To the parties of special interests, all political questions appear exclusively as problems of political tactics. Their ultimate goal is fixed for them from the start. Their aim is to obtain, at the cost of the rest of the population, the greatest possible advantages and privileges for the groups they represent. The party platform is intended to disguise this objective and give it a certain appearance of justification, but under no circumstances to announce it publicly as the goal of party policy. The members of the party, in any case, know what their goal is; they do not need to have it explained to them. How much of it ought to be imparted to the world is, however, a purely tactical question.
All antiliberal parties want nothing but to secure special favors for their own members, in complete disregard of the resulting disintegration of the whole structure of society. They cannot withstand for a moment the criticism that liberalism makes of their aims. They cannot deny, when their demands are subjected to the test of logical scrutiny, that their activity, in the last analysis, has antisocial and destructive effects and that even on the most cursory examination it must prove impossible for any social order to arise from the operations of parties of special interests continually working against one another. To be sure, the obviousness of these facts has not been able to damage the parties of special interests in the eyes of those who lack the capacity to look beyond the immediate present. The great mass of people do not inquire what will happen the day after tomorrow or later on. They think of today and, at most, of the next day. They do not ask what must follow if all other groups too, in the pursuit of their special interests, were to display the same unconcern for the general welfare. They hope to succeed not only in realizing their own demands, but also in beating down those of others. For the few who apply higher standards to the activities of political parties, who demand that even in political action Kant’s categorical imperative be followed (“Act only on that principle which you can will—at the same time—to be a universal law, i.e., so that no contradiction results from the attempt to conceive of your action as a law to be universally complied with”), the ideology of the parties of special interests certainly has nothing to offer.
Socialism has gained a considerable advantage from this logical deficiency in the position adopted by the parties of special interests. For many who are unable to grasp the great ideal of liberalism, but who think too clearly to be content with demands for privileged treatment on behalf of particular groups, the principle of socialism took on a special significance. The idea of a socialist society—to which one cannot, in spite of its necessarily inherent defects, which we have already discussed in detail, deny a certain grandeur of conception—served to conceal and, at the same time, to vindicate the weakness of the position taken by the parties of special interests. It had the effect of diverting the attention of the critic from the activities of the party to a great problem, which, whatever one may think of it, was at all events deserving of serious and exhaustive consideration.
In the last hundred years, the socialist ideal, in one form or another, has found adherents among many sincere and honest people. A number of the best and noblest men and women have accepted it with enthusiasm. It has been the guiding star of distinguished statesmen. It has achieved a dominant position at the universities and has served as a source of inspiration to youth. It has so filled the thoughts and fed the emotions of both the past and the present generation that history will some day quite justly characterize our era as the age of socialism. In the last decades, in all countries people have done as much as they could to make the socialist ideal a reality by nationalizing and municipalizing enterprises and by adopting measures designed to lead to a planned economy. The defects necessarily involved in socialist management—its unfavorable effects on the productivity of human labor and the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism—everywhere brought these endeavors to the point where virtually every step further in the direction of socialism threatened too flagrant an impairment of the supply of goods available to the public. From sheer necessity one had to pause on the road to socialism; and the socialist ideal—even while preserving its ideological ascendancy—became, in practical politics, merely a cloak for the labor parties in their scramble for privileges.
This could be shown to be true of each of the many socialist parties, such as, for instance, the various factions among the Christian socialists. We propose, however, to confine our discussion to the case of the Marxian socialists, who undoubtedly were and are the most important socialist party.
Marx and his followers were really serious about socialism. Marx rejected all those measures on behalf of particular groups and strata of society that are demanded by the parties of special interests. He did not dispute the validity of the liberal argument that the outcome of such acts of interference can only be a general reduction in the productivity of labor. When he thought, wrote, and spoke consistently, he always took the position that every attempt to tamper with the mechanism of the capitalist system by acts of intervention on the part of the government or of other social organs armed with the same coercive power is pointless because it does not bring about the result intended by its advocates, but instead reduces the productivity of the economy. Marx wanted to organize the workers for the conflict that would lead to the establishment of socialism, but not for the achievement of certain special privileges within a society still based on private ownership of the means of production. He wanted a socialist labor party, but not, as he put it, a “petty-bourgeois” party aiming at individual, piecemeal reforms.
Prevented by blind adherence to the preconceptions of his scholastic system from taking an unbiased view of things as they are, he thought that the workers, whom the writers under his intellectual influence had organized into “socialist” parties, would be content to stand by quietly watching the evolution of the capitalist system according to doctrine, so as not to postpone the day when it would be fully ripe for the expropriation of the expropriators and would “turn into” socialism. He did not see that the labor parties, just like the other parties of special interests that were simultaneously springing up everywhere, while acknowledging the socialist program as correct in principle, in practical politics were concerned only with the immediate goal of winning special privileges for the workers. The Marxist theory of the solidarity of the interests of all workers, which Marx had developed with quite other political ends in view, rendered excellent service in skillfully concealing the fact that the costs of the victories won by some groups of workers had to be borne by other groups of workers; that is to say, that in the field of allegedly “prolabor” legislation, as well as in trade-union struggles, the interests of the proletarians by no means coincide. In this respect, the Marxist doctrine performed the same service for the party championing the special interests of the workers as was accomplished for the German Centrist and other clerical parties by the appeal to religion; for the nationalist parties, by the appeal to national solidarity; for the agrarian parties, by the contention that the interests of the various groups of agricultural producers are identical; and for the protectionist parties, by the doctrine of the necessity of a comprehensive tariff for the protection of national labor. The more the social-democratic parties grew, the stronger became the influence of the trade unions within them and the more they became an association of trade unions that saw everything from the point of view of the closed shop and the increase of wages.
Liberalism does not have the least thing in common with any of these parties. It stands at the very opposite pole from all of them. It promises special favors to no one. It demands from everyone sacrifices on behalf of the preservation of society. These sacrifices—or, more accurately, the renunciation of immediately attainable advantages—are, to be sure, merely provisional; they quickly pay for themselves in greater and more lasting gains. Nevertheless, for the time being, they are sacrifices. Because of this, liberalism finds itself, from the very outset, in a peculiar position in the competition among parties. The antiliberal candidate promises special privileges to every particular group of voters: higher prices to the producers and lower prices to the consumers; higher salaries to public officeholders and lower taxes to taxpayers. He is prepared to agree to any desired expenditure at the cost of the public treasury or of the rich. No group is too small for him to disdain to seek its favor by a gift from the pocket of the “general public.” The liberal candidate can only say to all voters that the pursuit of such special favors is antisocial.