Front Page Titles (by Subject) 6: Liberalism as the Party of Capital - Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (LF ed.)
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6: Liberalism as the “Party of Capital” - Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (LF ed.) 
Liberalism: The Classical Tradition, trans. Ralph Raico, ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).
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Liberalism as the “Party of Capital”
Thus, it is easily seen that liberalism cannot be put into the same class with the parties of special interests without denying its very nature. It is something radically different from them all. They are out for battle and extol violence; liberalism, on the contrary, desires peace and the ascendancy of ideas. It is for this reason that all parties, however badly disunited they may otherwise be, form a united front against liberalism.
The enemies of liberalism have branded it as the party of the special interests of the capitalists. This is characteristic of their mentality. They simply cannot understand a political ideology as anything but the advocacy of certain special privileges opposed to the general welfare.
One cannot look on liberalism as a party of special interests, privileges, and prerogatives, because private ownership of the means of production is not a privilege redounding to the exclusive advantage of the capitalists, but an institution in the interest of the whole of society and consequently an institution that benefits everyone. This is the opinion not only of the liberals, but even, up to a certain point, of their opponents. When the Marxists champion the view that socialism cannot be made a reality until the world is “ripe” for it, because a social system never becomes extinct before “all the productive forces have developed for which it is broad enough,” they concede, at least for the present, the social indispensability of the institution of private property. Even the Bolsheviks, who only a little while ago propagated with fire, sword, and the gallows their interpretation of Marxism—that is, that “ripeness” had already been achieved—now have to admit that it is still too early. If, however, even if it is only for the moment, conditions are such that capitalism and its juridical “superstructure,” private property, cannot be dispensed with, can one say of an ideology that considers private property the foundation of society that it serves only to promote the selfish interests of the owners of capital against the interests of everyone else?
To be sure, if the antiliberal ideologies treat private property as indispensable, whether just for the present or forever, they believe, nevertheless, that it must be regulated and restricted by authoritarian decrees and similar acts of intervention on the part of the state. They recommend, not liberalism and capitalism, but interventionism. But economics has demonstrated that the system of interventionism is contrary to purpose and self-defeating. It cannot attain the ends that its advocates intend it to attain. Consequently, it is an error to suppose that besides socialism (communal property) and capitalism (private property) still a third system of organizing social cooperation is thinkable and workable, namely, interventionism. Attempts to put interventionism into effect must, of necessity, lead to conditions that run counter to the intentions of their authors, who are then faced with the alternative either of abstaining from all acts of intervention, and thereby leaving private property on its own, or of replacing private property by socialism.
This too is a thesis that liberal economists are not alone in maintaining. (Of course, the popular idea that economists are divided along party lines is altogether mistaken.) Marx too, in all his theoretical discussions, saw only the alternatives of socialism or capitalism and had nothing but derision and contempt for those reformers who, imprisoned in “petty-bourgeois thinking,” reject socialism and, at the same time, still want to remodel capitalism. Economics has never even attempted to show that a system of private property regulated and restricted by government intervention would be practicable. When the “socialists of the chair” wanted to prove this at any cost, they began by denying the possibility of scientific knowledge in the economic field and ultimately ended by declaring that whatever the state does must surely be rational. Since science demonstrated the absurdity of the policy that they wished to recommend, they sought to invalidate logic and science.
The same is true of the proof of the possibility and practicability of socialism. The pre-Marxist writers had labored in vain to provide it. They could not do so, nor were they able in any way to attack the validity of the weighty objections to the practicability of their utopia that their critics based on the findings of science. Around the middle of the nineteenth century the socialist idea seemed already to have been effectively disposed of. Then Marx made his appearance. He did not, to be sure, adduce the proof—which, indeed, cannot be adduced—that socialism is realizable, but he simply declared—of course, without being able to demonstrate it—that the coming of socialism is inevitable. From this arbitrary assumption and from the axiom, which seemed to him self-evident, that everything occurring later in human history represents an advance over what came earlier, Marx drew the conclusion that socialism is therefore more perfect than capitalism and so there could naturally be no doubt as to its practicability. Consequently, it is altogether unscientific to concern oneself with the question of the possibility of a socialist society or even to study the problems of such a social order at all. Whoever wanted to try it was ostracized by the socialists and excommunicated by public opinion, which they controlled. Heedless of all these—to be sure, only external—difficulties, economics occupied itself with the theoretical construction of a socialist system and demonstrated irrefutably that every type of socialism is unworkable because economic calculation is impossible in a socialist community. The advocates of socialism have scarcely ventured to make any reply to this, and what they have advanced in rebuttal has been altogether trivial and devoid of significance.
What was proved by science theoretically was corroborated in practice by the failure of all socialist and interventionist experiments.
Hence, it is nothing but specious propaganda designed to rely for its effectiveness on the lack of judgment of the thoughtless to assert, as people do, that the defense of capitalism is purely an affair of the capitalists and the entrepreneurs, whose special interests, as opposed to those of other groups, are furthered by the capitalist system. The “have’s” do not have any more reason to support the institution of private ownership of the means of production than do the “have-not’s.” If their immediate special interests come into question, they are scarcely liberal. The notion that, if only capitalism is preserved, the propertied classes could remain forever in possession of their wealth stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of the capitalist economy, in which property is continually being shifted from the less efficient to the more efficient businessman. In a capitalist society one can hold on to one’s fortune only if one perpetually acquires it anew by investing it wisely. The rich, who are already in possession of wealth, have no special reason to desire the preservation of a system of unhampered competition open to all; particularly if they did not themselves earn their fortune, but inherited it, they have more to fear than to hope from competition. They do have a special interest in interventionism, which always has a tendency to preserve the existing division of wealth among those in possession of it. But they cannot hope for any special treatment from liberalism, a system in which no heed is paid to the time-honored claims of tradition advanced by the vested interests of established wealth.
The entrepreneur can prosper only if he provides what the consumers demand. When the world is afire with the lust for war, the liberal seeks to expound the advantages of peace; the entrepreneur, however, produces artillery and machine-guns. If public opinion today favors capital investment in Russia, the liberal may endeavor to explain that it is as intelligent to invest capital in a land whose government openly proclaims as the ultimate goal of its policy the expropriation of all capital as it would be to dump goods into the sea; but the entrepreneur does not hesitate to furnish supplies to Russia if only he is in a position to shift the risk to others, whether it be to the state or to some less clever capitalists, who allow themselves to be misled by public opinion, itself manipulated by Russian money. The liberal struggles against the trend toward commercial autarky; the German manufacturer, however, builds a factory in the eastern province, which excludes German goods, in order to serve this market while under the protection of the tariff. Clear-thinking entrepreneurs and capitalists may view the consequences of an antiliberal policy as ruinous for the whole of society; but in their capacity as entrepreneurs and capitalists they must seek, not to oppose it, but to adjust themselves to the given conditions.
There is no class that could champion liberalism for its own selfish interests to the detriment of the whole of society and the other strata of the population, simply because liberalism serves no special interest. Liberalism cannot count on the help that the antiliberal parties receive from the fact that everyone who seeks to win some privilege for himself at the expense of the rest of society attaches himself to them. When the liberal comes before the electorate as a candidate for public office and is asked by those whose votes he solicits what he or his party intends to do for them and their group, the only answer he can give is: Liberalism serves everyone, but it serves no special interest.
To be a liberal is to have realized that a special privilege conceded to a small group to the disadvantage of others cannot, in the long run, be preserved without a fight (civil war), but that, on the other hand, one cannot bestow privileges on the majority, since these then cancel one another out in their value for those whom they are supposed to specially favor, and the only net result is a reduction in the productivity of social labor.
The Future of Liberalism
All earlier civilizations perished, or at least reached a state of stagnation, long before they had attained the level of material development that modern European civilization has succeeded in achieving. Nations were destroyed by wars with foreign enemies as well as by internecine strife. Anarchy forced a retrogression in the division of labor; cities, commerce, and industry declined; and, with the decay of their economic foundations, intellectual and moral refinements had to give way to ignorance and brutality. The Europeans of the modern age have succeeded in intensifying the social bonds among individuals and nations much more strongly than was ever the case before in history. This was an achievement of the ideology of liberalism, which, from the end of the seventeenth century, was elaborated with ever increasing clarity and precision and continually gained in influence over men’s minds. Liberalism and capitalism created the foundations on which are based all the marvels characteristic of our modern way of life.
Now our civilization is beginning to scent a whiff of death in the air. Dilettantes loudly proclaim that all civilizations, including our own, must perish: this is an inexorable law. Europe’s final hour has come, warn these prophets of doom, and they find credence. An autumnal mood is perceptibly beginning to set in everywhere.
But modern civilization will not perish unless it does so by its own act of self-destruction. No external enemy can destroy it the way the Spaniards once destroyed the civilization of the Aztecs, for no one on earth can match his strength against the standard-bearers of modern civilization. Only inner enemies can threaten it. It can come to an end only if the ideas of liberalism are supplanted by an antiliberal ideology hostile to social cooperation.
There has come to be a growing realization that material progress is possible only in a liberal, capitalist society. Even if this point is not expressly conceded by the antiliberal, it is fully acknowledged indirectly in the panegyrics extolling the idea of stability and a state of rest.
The material advances of recent generations, it is said, have, of course, been really very agreeable and beneficial. Now, however, it is time to call a halt. The frantic hustle and bustle of modern capitalism must make way for tranquil contemplation. One must acquire time for self-communion, and so another economic system must take the place of capitalism, one that is not always restlessly chasing after novelties and innovations. The romantic looks back nostalgically to the economic conditions of the Middle Ages—not to the Middle Ages as they actually were, but to an image of them constructed by his fancy without any counterpart in historical reality. Or he turns his gaze upon the Orient—again not, of course, the real Orient, but a dream-vision of his phantasy. How happy men were without modern technology and modern culture! How could we ever have renounced this paradise so light-mindedly?
Whoever preaches the return to simple forms of the economic organization of society ought to keep in mind that only our type of economic system offers the possibility of supporting in the style to which we have become accustomed today the number of people who now populate the earth. A return to the Middle Ages means the extermination of many hundreds of millions of people. The friends of stability and rest, it is true, say that one by no means has to go as far as that. It suffices to hold fast to what has already been achieved and to forgo further advances.
Those who extol the state of rest and stable equilibrium forget that there is in man, in so far as he is a thinking being, an inherent desire for the improvement of his material condition. This impulse cannot be eradicated; it is the motive power of all human action. If one prevents a man from working for the good of society while at the same time providing for the satisfaction of his own needs, then only one way remains open to him: to make himself richer and others poorer by the violent oppression and spoliation of his fellow men.
It is true that all this straining and struggling to increase their standard of living does not make men any happier. Nevertheless, it is in the nature of man continually to strive for an improvement in his material condition. If he is forbidden the satisfaction of this aspiration, he becomes dull and brutish. The masses will not listen to exhortations to be moderate and contented; it may be that the philosophers who preach such admonitions are laboring under a serious self-delusion. If one tells people that their fathers had it much worse, they answer that they do not know why they should not have it still better.
Now, whether it is good or bad, whether it receives the sanction of the moral censor or not, it is certain that men always strive for an improvement in their conditions and always will. This is man’s inescapable destiny. The restlessness and inquietude of modern man is a stirring of the mind, the nerves, and the senses. One can as easily restore to him the innocence of childhood as lead him back to the passivity of past periods of human history.
But, after all, what is being offered in return for the renunciation of further material progress? Happiness and contentment, inner harmony and peace will not be created simply because people are no longer intent on further improvement in the satisfaction of their needs. Soured by resentment, the literati imagine that poverty and the absence of wants create especially favorable conditions for the development of man’s spiritual capacities, but this is nonsense. In discussing these questions, one should avoid euphemisms and call things by their right names. Modern wealth expresses itself above all in the cult of the body: hygiene, cleanliness, sport. Today still the luxury of the well-to-do—no longer, perhaps, in the United States, but everywhere else—these will come within the reach of everyone in the not too distant future if economic development progresses as it has hitherto. Is it thought that man’s inner life is in any way furthered by excluding the masses from the attainment of the level of physical culture that the well-to-do already enjoy? Is happiness to be found in the unkempt body?
To the panegyrists of the Middle Ages one can only answer that we know nothing about whether the medieval man felt happier than the modern man. But we may leave it to those who hold up the mode of life of the Orientals as a model for us to answer the question whether Asia is really the paradise that they describe it as.
The fulsome praise of the stationary economy as a social ideal is the last remaining argument that the enemies of liberalism have to fall back upon in order to justify their doctrines. Let us keep clearly in mind, however, that the starting-point of their critique was that liberalism and capitalism impede the development of productive forces, that they are responsible for the poverty of the masses. The opponents of liberalism have alleged that what they are aiming at is a social order that could create more wealth than the one they are attacking. And now, driven to the wall by the counterattack of economics and sociology, they must concede that only capitalism and liberalism, only private property and the unhampered activity of entrepreneurs, can guarantee the highest productivity of human labor.
It is often maintained that what divides present-day political parties is a basic opposition in their ultimate philosophical commitments that cannot be settled by rational argument. The discussion of these antagonisms must therefore necessarily prove fruitless. Each side will remain unshaken in its conviction because the latter is based on a comprehensive world view that cannot be altered by any considerations proposed by the reason. The ultimate ends toward which men strive are diverse. Hence, it is altogether out of the question that men aiming at these diverse ends could agree on a uniform procedure.
Nothing is more absurd than this belief. Aside from the few consistent ascetics, who seek to divest life of all its external trappings and who finally succeed in attaining to a state of renunciation of all desire and action and, indeed, of self-annihilation, all men of the white race, however diverse may be their views on supernatural matters, agree in preferring a social system in which labor is more productive to one in which it is less productive. Even those who believe that an ever progressing improvement in the satisfaction of human wants does no good and that it would be better if we produced fewer material goods—though it is doubtful whether the number of those who are sincerely of this opinion is very large—would not wish that the same amount of labor should result in fewer goods. At most, they would wish that there should be less labor and consequently less production, but not that the same amount of labor should produce less.
The political antagonisms of today are not controversies over ultimate questions of philosophy, but opposing answers to the question how a goal that all acknowledge as legitimate can be achieved most quickly and with the least sacrifice. This goal, at which all men aim, is the best possible satisfaction of human wants; it is prosperity and abundance. Of course, this is not all that men aspire to, but it is all that they can expect to attain by resort to external means and by way of social cooperation. The inner blessings—happiness, peace of mind, exaltation—must be sought by each man within himself alone.
Liberalism is no religion, no world view, no party of special interests. It is no religion because it demands neither faith nor devotion, because there is nothing mystical about it, and because it has no dogmas. It is no world view because it does not try to explain the cosmos and because it says nothing and does not seek to say anything about the meaning and purpose of human existence. It is no party of special interests because it does not provide or seek to provide any special advantage whatsoever to any individual or any group. It is something entirely different. It is an ideology, a doctrine of the mutual relationship among the members of society and, at the same time, the application of this doctrine to the conduct of men in actual society. It promises nothing that exceeds what can be accomplished in society and through society. It seeks to give men only one thing, the peaceful, undisturbed development of material well-being for all, in order thereby to shield them from the external causes of pain and suffering as far as it lies within the power of social institutions to do so at all. To diminish suffering, to increase happiness: that is its aim.
No sect and no political party has believed that it could afford to forgo advancing its cause by appealing to men’s senses. Rhetorical bombast, music and song resound, banners wave, flowers and colors serve as symbols, and the leaders seek to attach their followers to their own person. Liberalism has nothing to do with all this. It has no party flower and no party color, no party song and no party idols, no symbols and no slogans. It has the substance and the arguments. These must lead it to victory.