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Mises on wealth creation and stopping the spirit of predatory militarism (1949)

Ludwig von Mises notes that western Europe developed economically first because it was able to check the wealth destroying “spirit of predatory militarism” first (1949)

The eminence of the Western nations consisted in the fact that they succeeded better in checking the spirit of predatory militarism than the rest of mankind and that they thus brought forth the social institutions required for saving and investment on a broader scale. Even Marx did not contest the fact that private initiative and private ownership of the means of production were indispensable stages in the progress from primitive man’s penury to the more satisfactory conditions of nineteenth-century Western Europe and North America.

Against such possible misinterpretations one must emphasize the fact that the temporal head start gained by the Western nations was conditioned by ideological factors which cannot be reduced simply to the operation of environment. What is called human civilization has up to now been a progress from cooperation by virtue of hegemonic bonds to cooperation by virtue of contractual bonds. But while many races and peoples were arrested at an early stage of this movement, others kept on advancing. The eminence of the Western nations consisted in the fact that they succeeded better in checking the spirit of predatory militarism than the rest of mankind and that they thus brought forth the social institutions required for saving and investment on a broader scale. Even Marx did not contest the fact that private initiative and private ownership of the means of production were indispensable stages in the progress from primitive man’s penury to the more satisfactory conditions of nineteenth-century Western Europe and North America. What the East Indies, China, Japan, and the Mohammedan countries lacked were institutions for safeguarding the individual’s rights. The arbitrary administration of pashas, kadis, rajahs, mandarins, and daimios was not conducive to large-scale accumulation of capital. The legal guarantees effectively protecting the individual against expropriation and confiscation were the foundations upon which the unprecedented economic progress of the West came into flower. These laws were not an outgrowth of chance, historical accidents, and geographical environment. They were the product of reason.

We do not know what course the history of Asia and Africa would have taken if these peoples had been left alone. What happened was that some of these peoples were subject to European rule and others—like China and Japan—were forced by the display of naval power to open their frontiers. The achievements of Western industrialism came to them from abroad. They were ready to take advantage of the foreign capital lent to them and invested in their territories. But they [501] were rather slow in the reception of the ideologies from which modern industrialism had sprung. Their assimilation to Western ways of life is superficial.

About this Quotation:

In a section in Human Action (1949) dealing with time preference, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) turns to the problem of the economic under-development of the third world. This was increasingly a problem following the Second World War as the leading European colonial powers had suffered severe economic losses during the war and domestic movements for political independence were growing in strength and would soon be victorious. Marxists argued that the west was rich because it looted their colonies by trading with them and investing money in their economies. Mises challenged this view by arguing that key parts of Western Europe and North America grew rich ahead of other regions because they were able to “check the spirit of predatory militarism” which had traditionally prevented wealth accumulation in all countries. He further argued that, the developing world would not be able to develop economically if it did not do the same thing, whether this “predatory militarism” came from without (the colonial powers) or within their countries (the new Marxist or military regimes which took power). Another interesting thing to note here is his division of history into two periods - the first and more traditional period when “cooperation” took place as a result of “hegemonic bonds”, out of which only a few places in the world were able to break free and introduce a new and truer form of “cooperation” “by virtue of contractual bonds.” This is an argument which was also put forward in the 19th century by Henry Maine and Herbert Spencer with their distinction between societies based upon “status” vs. “contract.”

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