Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2.: The Alleged Irrationality of Nationalism - Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War
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2.: The Alleged Irrationality of Nationalism - Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War 
Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, edited with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Indiana, 2011).
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The Alleged Irrationality of Nationalism
There are people who believe that they have satisfactorily explained nationalism by establishing its irrationality. They hold it a serious mistake, common mostly to economists, to assume that human action is always rational. Man is not, they say, a rational being. The ultimate goals of his actions are often if not always irrational. The glory and the greatness of their own nation, state, race, linguistic group, or social class are such irrational goals, which men prefer to increase in wealth and welfare or to the improvement of their standard of living. Men do not like peace, security, and a quiet life. They long for the vicissitudes of war and conquest, for change, adventure, and danger. They enjoy killing, robbing, and destroying. They yearn to march against the enemy when the drums beat, when the trumpets sound, and flags flutter in the wind.
We must recognize, however, that the concepts rational and irrational apply only to means, never to ultimate ends. The judgments of value through which people make their choice among conflicting ultimate ends are neither rational nor irrational. They are arbitrary, subjective, and the outcome of individual points of view. There are no such things as objective absolute values, independent of the individual’s preferences. The preservation of life is as a rule considered an ultimate goal. But there have always been men who preferred death to life, when life could be preserved only under conditions that they considered unbearable. Human actions consist always in a choice between two goods or two evils which are not deemed equivalent. Where there is perfect equivalence, man stays neutral; and no action results. But what is good and what is better, or what is bad and what is worse, is decided according to subjective standards, different with different individuals, and changing with the same individuals according to circumstances.
As soon as we apply the concepts rational and irrational to judgments of value we reduce ends to means. We are referring to something which we have set as a provisional end, and considering the choice made on the basis of whether it is an efficient means to attain this end. If we are dealing with other people’s actions we are substituting our own judgment for theirs, and if we are dealing with our own past actions we are substituting our present valuations for our valuations at the instant in which we acted.
Rational and irrational always mean: reasonable or not from the point of view of the ends sought. There is no such thing as absolute rationality or irrationality.
We may now understand what people are trying to say when they ascribe irrational motives to nationalism. They mean that liberalism was wrong in assuming that men are more eager to improve the material conditions of their well-being than to attain other ends, e.g., national glory, the enjoyment of the dangerous life, or an indulgence in a taste for sadistic pleasures. Men, they say, have rejected capitalism and free trade because they aim at goals other than those that liberalism considers supreme. They do not seek a life free from want and fear, or one of steadily increasing security and riches, but the particular satisfactions with which the totalitarian dictators provide them.
Whether these statments are true or untrue cannot be determined by philosophical or a priori considerations. These are statements about facts. We need to ask whether the attitude of our contemporaries is really such as these explanations would have us believe.
There is no doubt that there really are some people who prefer the attainment of other ends to the improvement of their own material well-being. There have always been men who voluntarily renounced many pleasures and satisfactions in order to do what they considered right and moral. Men have preferred martyrdom to the renunciation of what they believed to be true. They have chosen poverty and exile because they wanted to be free in the search for truth and wisdom. All that is noblest in the progress of civilization, welfare, and enlightenment has been the achievement of such men, who braved every danger and defied the tyranny of powerful kings and fanatical masses. The pages of history tell us the epic of heretics burned at the stake, of philosophers put to death from Socrates to Giordano Bruno, of Christians and Jews heroically clinging to their faith in spite of murderous persecutions, and of many other champions of honesty and fidelity whose martyrdom was less spectacular but no less genuine. But these examples of self-denial and readiness to sacrifice have always been exceptional; they have been the privilege of a small elite.
It is furthermore true that there have always been people who sought power and glory. But such aspirations are not contrary to the common longing for more wealth, higher income, and more luxuries. The thirst for power does not involve the renunciation of material improvement. On the contrary, men want to be powerful in order to acquire more wealth than they could get by other methods. Many expect to acquire more treasures by robbing others than they could get by serving consumers. Many chose an adventurous career because they were confident that they could succeed better that way. Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering were simply unfit for any honest job. They were complete failures in the peaceful business of capitalist society. They strove for power, glory, and leadership, and thus became the richest men in present-day Germany. It is nonsense to assert that the “will to power” with them is something contrary to the longing for more material well-being.
The explanation of modern nationalism and war with which we have to deal at this point in our investigation refers not only to the leaders but also to their followers. With regard to these the question is: Is it true that people—the voters, the masses of our contemporaries—have intentionally abandoned liberalism, capitalism, and free trade and substituted for them etatism—interventionism or socialism—economic nationalism, and wars and revolutions, because they care more for a dangerous life in poverty than for a good life in peace and security? Do they really prefer being poorer in an environment where no one is better off than they to being richer within a market society where there are people wealthier than they? Do they choose the chaos of interventionism, socialism, and endless wars although they are fully aware that this must mean poverty and hardships for them? Only a man lacking all sense of reality or common observation could venture to answer these questions in the affirmative. Clearly men have abandoned liberalism and are fighting capitalism because they believe that interventionism, socialism, and economic nationalism will make them richer, not poorer. The socialists did not and do not say to the masses: We want to lower your standard of living. The protectionists do not say: Your material well-being will suffer by import duties. The interventionists do not recommend their measures by pointing out their detrimental effects for the commonweal. On the contrary, all these groups insist again and again that their policy will make their partisans richer. People favor etatism because they believe that it will make them richer. They denounce capitalism because they believe that it deprives them of their fair share.
The main point in the propaganda of Nazism between 1919 and 1933 was: World Jewry and Western capitalism have caused your misery; we will fight these foes, thus rendering you more prosperous. German Nazis and Italian Fascists fought for raw materials and fertile soil, and they promised their followers a life of wealth and luxury. The sacro egoismo of the Italians is not the mentality of idealists but that of robbers. Mussolini did not praise the dangerous life for its own sake but as a means of getting rich booty. When Goering said that guns are more important than butter he explained that Germans in the immediate future had to restrict their consumption of butter in order to get the guns necessary for the conquest of all the treasures of the world. If this is altruism, self-denial, or irrational idealism, then the gentlemen of Brooklyn’s Murder Syndicate were the most perfect altruists and idealists.
The nationalists of all countries have succeeded in convincing their followers that only the policies they recommend are really advantageous to the well-being of the whole nation and of all its honest citizens, of the we; and that all other parties are treacherously ready to sell their own nation’s prosperity to foreigners, to the they. By taking the name “nationalist” they insinuate that the other parties favor foreign interests. The German nationalists in the first World War called themselves the party of the Fatherland, thus labeling all those who favored a negotiated peace, a sincere declaration that Germany did not want to annex Belgium, or no more sinking of liners by submarines, as treacherous foes of the nation. They were not prepared to admit that their adversaries also were honest in their affection for the commonweal. Whoever was not a nationalist was in their eyes an apostate and traitor.
This attitude is common to all contemporary antiliberal parties. The so-called “labor parties,” for example, pretend to recommend the only means favorable to the—of course—material interests of labor. Whoever opposes their program becomes for them a foe of labor. They do not permit rational discussion concerning the expediency of their policies for the workers. They are infatuated enough to pay no attention at all to the objections raised against them by economists. What they recommend is good, what their critics urge is bad, for labor.
This intransigent dogmatism does not mean that nationalists or labor leaders are in favor of goals other than those of the material well-being of their nations or classes. It merely illustrates a characteristic feature of our day, the replacement of reasonable discussion by the errors of polylogism. We will deal with this phenomenon in a later chapter.