Mises on the Foundations of Classical Liberalism
LIBERALISM : The Classical Tradition
Human society is an association of persons for cooperative action. As against the isolated action of individuals, cooperative action on the basis of the principle of the division of labor has the advantage of greater productivity. If a number of men work in cooperation in accordance with the principle of the division of labor, they will produce (other things being equal) not only as much as the sum of what they would have produced by working as self-sufficient individuals, but considerably more. All human civilization is founded on this fact. It is by virtue of the division of labor that man is distinguished from the animals. It is the division of labor that has made feeble man, far inferior to most animals in physical strength, the lord of the earth and the creator of the marvels of technology. In the absence of the division of labor, we would not be in any respect further advanced today than our ancestors of a thousand or ten thousand years ago.
Human labor by itself is not capable of increasing our well-being. In order to be fruitful, it must be applied to the materials and resources of the earth that Nature has placed at our disposal. Land, with all the substances and powers resident within it, and human labor constitute the two factors of production from whose purposeful cooperation proceed all the commodities that serve for the satisfaction of our outer needs. In order to produce, one must deploy labor and the material factors of production, including not only the raw materials and resources placed at our disposal by Nature and mostly found in the earth, but also the intermediate products already fabricated of these primary natural factors of production by previously performed human labor. In the language of economics we distinguish, accordingly, three factors of production: labor, land, and capital. By land is to be understood everything that Nature places at our disposal in the way of substances and powers on, under, and above the surface of the earth, in the water, and in the air; by capital goods, all the intermediate goods produced from land with the help of human labor that are made to serve further production, such as machines, tools, half-manufactured articles of all kinds, etc.
Now we wish to consider two different systems of human cooperation under the division of labor—one based on private ownership of the means of production, and the other based on communal ownership of the means of production. The latter is called socialism or communism; the former, liberalism or also (ever since it created in the nineteenth century a division of labor encompassing the whole world) capitalism. The liberals maintain that the only workable system of human cooperation in a society based on the division of labor is private ownership of the means of production. They contend that socialism as a completely comprehensive system encompassing all the means of production is unworkable and that the application of the socialist principle to a part of the means of production, though not, of course, impossible, leads to a reduction in the productivity of labor, so that, far from creating greater wealth, it must, on the contrary, have the effect of diminishing wealth.
The program of liberalism, therefore, if condensed into a single word, would have to read: property, that is, private ownership of the means of production (for in regard to commodities ready for consumption, private ownership is a matter of course and is not disputed even by the socialists and communists). All the other demands of liberalism result from this fundamental demand.
Side by side with the word “property” in the program of liberalism one may quite appropriately place the words “freedom” and “peace.” This is not because the older program of liberalism generally placed them there. We have already said that the program of present-day liberalism has outgrown that of the older liberalism, that it is based on a deeper and better insight into interrelationships, since it can reap the benefit of the advances that science has made in the last decades. Freedom and peace have been placed in the forefront of the program of liberalism, not because many of the older liberals regarded them as coordinate with the fundamental principle of liberalism itself, rather than as merely a necessary consequence following from the one fundamental principle of the private ownership of the means of production; but solely because freedom and peace have come under especially violent attack from the opponents of liberalism, and liberals have not wanted to give the appearance, through the omission of these principles, that they in any way acknowledged the justness of the objections raised against them.
The idea of freedom has become so ingrained in all of us that for a long time no one dared to call it into question. People were accustomed always to speaking of freedom only with the greatest of reverence; it remained for Lenin to call it a “bourgeois prejudice.” Although the fact is often forgotten today, all this is an achievement of liberalism. The very name of liberalism is derived from freedom, and the name of the party in opposition to the liberals (both designations arose in the Spanish constitutional struggles of the first decades of the nineteenth century) was originally the “servile.”
Before the rise of liberalism even high-minded philosophers, founders of religions, clerics animated by the best of intentions, and statesmen who genuinely loved their people, viewed the thralldom of a part of the human race as a just, generally useful, and downright beneficial institution. Some men and peoples are, it was thought, destined by nature for freedom, and others for bondage. And it was not only the masters who thought so, but the greater number of the slaves as well. They put up with their servitude, not only because they had to yield to the superior force of the masters, but also because they found some good in it: the slave is relieved of concern for securing his daily bread, for the master is obliged to provide him with the necessities of life. When liberalism set out, in the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, to abolish the serfdom and subjection of the peasant population in Europe and the slavery of the Negroes in the overseas colonies, not a few sincere humanitarians declared themselves in opposition. Unfree laborers are used to their bondage and do not feel it as an evil. They are not ready for freedom and would not know how to make use of it. The discontinuation of the master’s care would be very harmful to them. They would not be capable of managing their affairs in such a way as always to provide more than just the bare necessities of life, and they would soon fall into want and misery. Emancipation would thus not only fail to gain for them anything of real value, but would seriously impair their material well-being.
What was astonishing was that one could hear these views expressed even by many of the slaves whom one questioned. In order to counter such opinions, many liberals believed it necessary to represent as the general rule and even on occasion to depict in an exaggerated manner the exceptional cases in which serfs and slaves had been cruelly abused. But these excesses were by no means the rule. There were, of course, isolated instances of abuse, and the fact that there were such cases was an additional reason for the abolition of this system. As a rule, however, the treatment of bondsmen by their masters was humane and mild.
When those who recommended the abolition of involuntary servitude on general humanitarian grounds were told that the retention of the system was also in the interest of the enslaved, they knew of nothing to say in rejoinder. For against this objection in favor of slavery there is only one argument that can and did refute all others—namely, that free labor is incomparably more productive than slave labor. The slave has no interest in exerting himself fully. He works only as much and as zealously as is necessary to escape the punishment attaching to failure to perform the minimum. The free worker, on the other hand, knows that the more his labor accomplishes, the more he will be paid. He exerts himself to the full in order to raise his income. One has only to compare the demands placed on the worker by the tending of a modern tractor with the relatively small expenditure of intelligence, strength, and industry that just two generations ago was deemed sufficient for the enthralled ploughmen of Russia. Only free labor can accomplish what must be demanded of the modern industrial worker.
Muddleheaded babblers may therefore argue interminably over whether all men are destined for freedom and are as yet ready for it. They may go on contending that there are races and peoples for whom Nature has prescribed a life of servitude and that the master races have the duty of keeping the rest of mankind in bondage. The liberal will not oppose their arguments in any way because his reasoning in favor of freedom for all, without distinction, is of an entirely different kind. We liberals do not assert that God or Nature meant all men to be free, because we are not instructed in the designs of God and of Nature, and we avoid, on principle, drawing God and Nature into a dispute over mundane questions. What we maintain is only that a system based on freedom for all workers warrants the greatest productivity of human labor and is therefore in the interest of all the inhabitants of the earth. We attack involuntary servitude, not in spite of the fact that it is advantageous to the “masters,” but because we are convinced that, in the last analysis, it hurts the interests of all members of human society, including the “masters.” If mankind had adhered to the practice of keeping the whole or even a part of the labor force in bondage, the magnificent economic developments of the last hundred and fifty years would not have been possible. We would have no railroads, no automobiles, no airplanes, no steamships, no electric light and power, no chemical industry, just as the ancient Greeks and Romans, with all their genius, were without these things. It suffices merely to mention this for everyone to realize that even the former masters of slaves or serfs have every reason to be satisfied with the course of events after the abolition of involuntary servitude. The European worker today lives under more favorable and more agreeable outward circumstances than the pharaoh of Egypt once did, in spite of the fact that the pharaoh commanded thousands of slaves, while the worker has nothing to depend on but the strength and skill of his hands. If a nabob of yore could be placed in the circumstances in which a common man lives today, he would declare without hesitation that his life had been a beggarly one in comparison with the life that even a man of moderate means can lead at present.
This is the fruit of free labor. It is able to create more wealth for everyone than slave labor once provided for the masters.
There are high-minded men who detest war because it brings death and suffering. However much one may admire their humanitarianism, their argument against war, in being based on philanthropic grounds, seems to lose much or all of its force when we consider the statements of the supporters and proponents of war. The latter by no means deny that war brings with it pain and sorrow. Nevertheless, they believe it is through war and war alone that mankind is able to make progress. War is the father of all things, said a Greek philosopher, and thousands have repeated it after him. Man degenerates in time of peace. Only war awakens in him slumbering talents and powers and imbues him with sublime ideals. If war were to be abolished, mankind would decay into indolence and stagnation.
It is difficult or even impossible to refute this line of reasoning on the part of the advocates of war if the only objection to war that one can think of is that it demands sacrifices. For the proponents of war are of the opinion that these sacrifices are not made in vain and that they are well worth making. If it were really true that war is the father of all things, then the human sacrifices it requires would be necessary to further the general welfare and the progress of humanity. One might lament the sacrifices, one might even strive to reduce their number, but one would not be warranted in wanting to abolish war and to bring about eternal peace.
The liberal critique of the argument in favor of war is fundamentally different from that of the humanitarians. It starts from the premise that not war, but peace, is the father of all things. What alone enables mankind to advance and distinguishes man from the animals is social cooperation. It is labor alone that is productive: it creates wealth and therewith lays the outward foundations for the inward flowering of man. War only destroys; it cannot create. War, carnage, destruction, and devastation we have in common with the predatory beasts of the jungle; constructive labor is our distinctively human characteristic. The liberal abhors war, not, like the humanitarian, in spite of the fact that it has beneficial consequences, but because it has only harmful ones.
The peace-loving humanitarian approaches the mighty potentate and addresses him thus: “Do not make war, even though you have the prospect of furthering your own welfare by a victory. Be noble and magnanimous and renounce the tempting victory even if it means a sacrifice for you and the loss of an advantage.” The liberal thinks otherwise. He is convinced that victorious war is an evil even for the victor, that peace is always better than war. He demands no sacrifice from the stronger, but only that he should come to realize where his true interests lie and should learn to understand that peace is for him, the stronger, just as advantageous as it is for the weaker.
When a peace-loving nation is attacked by a bellicose enemy, it must offer resistance and do everything to ward off the onslaught. Heroic deeds performed in such a war by those fighting for their freedom and their lives are entirely praiseworthy, and one rightly extols the manliness and courage of such fighters. Here daring, intrepidity, and contempt for death are praiseworthy because they are in the service of a good end. But people have made the mistake of representing these soldierly virtues as absolute virtues, as qualities good in and for themselves, without consideration of the end they serve. Whoever holds this opinion must, to be consistent, likewise acknowledge as noble virtues the daring, intrepidity, and contempt for death of the robber. In fact, however, there is nothing good or bad in and of itself. Human actions become good or bad only through the end that they serve and the consequences they entail. Even Leonidas would not be worthy of the esteem in which we hold him if he had fallen, not as the defender of his homeland, but as the leader of an invading army intent on robbing a peaceful people of its freedom and possessions.
How harmful war is to the development of human civilization becomes clearly apparent once one understands the advantages derived from the division of labor. The division of labor turns the self-sufficient individual into the ζῷον πολιτιϗόν [political animal] dependent on his fellow men, the social animal of which Aristotle spoke. Hostilities between one animal and another, or between one savage and another, in no way alter the economic basis of their existence. The matter is quite different when a quarrel that has to be decided by an appeal to arms breaks out among the members of a community in which labor is divided. In such a society each individual has a specialized function; no one is any longer in a position to live independently, because all have need of one another’s aid and support. Self-sufficient farmers, who produce on their own farms everything that they and their families need, can make war on one another. But when a village divides into factions, with the smith on one side and the shoemaker on the other, one faction will have to suffer from want of shoes, and the other from want of tools and weapons. Civil war destroys the division of labor inasmuch as it compels each group to content itself with the labor of its own adherents.
If the possibility of such hostilities had been considered likely in the first place, the division of labor would never have been allowed to develop to the point where, in case a fight really did break out, one would have to suffer privation. The progressive intensification of the division of labor is possible only in a society in which there is an assurance of lasting peace. Only under the shelter of such security can the division of labor develop. In the absence of this prerequisite, the division of labor does not extend beyond the limits of the village or even of the individual household. The division of labor between town and country—with the peasants of the surrounding villages furnishing grain, cattle, milk, and butter to the town in exchange for the manufactured products of the townsfolk—already presupposes that peace is assured at least within the region in question. If the division of labor is to embrace a whole nation, civil war must lie outside the realm of possibility; if it is to encompass the whole world, lasting peace among nations must be assured.
Everyone today would regard it as utterly senseless for a modern metropolis like London or Berlin to prepare to make war on the inhabitants of the adjacent countryside. Yet for many centuries the towns of Europe kept this possibility in mind and made economic provision for it. There were towns whose fortifications were, from the very beginning, so constructed that in case of need they could hold out for a while by keeping cattle and growing grain within the town walls.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century by far the greater part of the inhabited world was still divided into a number of economic regions that were, by and large, self-sufficient. Even in the more highly developed areas of Europe, the needs of a region were met, for the most part, by the production of the region itself. Trade that went beyond the narrow confines of the immediate vicinity was relatively insignificant and comprised, by and large, only such commodities as could not be produced in the area itself because of climatic conditions. In by far the greater part of the world, however, the production of the village itself supplied almost all the needs of its inhabitants. For these villagers, a disturbance in trade relations caused by war did not generally mean any impairment of their economic well-being. But even the inhabitants of the more advanced countries of Europe did not suffer very severely in time of war. If the Continental System, which Napoleon I imposed on Europe in order to exclude from the continent English goods and those coming from across the ocean only by way of England, had been enforced even more rigorously than it was, it would have still inflicted on the inhabitants of the continent hardly any appreciable privations. They would, of course, have had to do without coffee and sugar, cotton and cotton goods, spices, and many rare kinds of wood; but all these things then played only a subordinate role in the households of the great masses.
The development of a complex network of international economic relations is a product of nineteenth-century liberalism and capitalism. They alone made possible the extensive specialization of modern production with its concomitant improvement in technology. In order to provide the family of an English worker with all it consumes and desires, every nation of the five continents cooperates. Tea for the breakfast table is provided by Japan or Ceylon, coffee by Brazil or Java, sugar by the West Indies, meat by Australia or Argentina, cotton from America or Egypt, hides for leather from India or Russia, and so on. And in exchange for these things, English goods go to all parts of the world, to the most remote and out-of-the-way villages and farmsteads. This development was possible and conceivable only because, with the triumph of liberal principles, people no longer took seriously the idea that a great war could ever again break out. In the golden age of liberalism, war among members of the white race was generally considered a thing of the past.
But events have turned out quite differently. Liberal ideas and programs were supplanted by socialism, nationalism, protectionism, imperialism, etatism, and militarism. Whereas Kant and Von Humboldt, Bentham and Cobden had sung the praises of eternal peace, the spokesmen of a later age never tired of extolling war, both civil and international. And their success came only all too soon. The result was the World War, which has given our age a kind of object lesson on the incompatibility between war and the division of labor.
Nowhere is the difference between the reasoning of the older liberalism and that of neoliberalism clearer and easier to demonstrate than in their treatment of the problem of equality. The liberals of the eighteenth century, guided by the ideas of natural law and of the Enlightenment, demanded for everyone equality of political and civil rights because they assumed that all men are equal. God created all men equal, endowing them with fundamentally the same capabilities and talents, breathing into all of them the breath of His spirit. All distinctions between men are only artificial, the product of social, human—that is to say, transitory—institutions. What is imperishable in man—his spirit—is undoubtedly the same in rich and poor, noble and commoner, white and colored.
Nothing, however, is as ill-founded as the assertion of the alleged equality of all members of the human race. Men are altogether unequal. Even between brothers there exist the most marked differences in physical and mental attributes. Nature never repeats itself in its creations; it produces nothing by the dozen, nor are its products standardized. Each man who leaves her workshop bears the imprint of the individual, the unique, the never-to-recur. Men are not equal, and the demand for equality under the law can by no means be grounded in the contention that equal treatment is due to equals.
There are two distinct reasons why all men should receive equal treatment under the law. One was already mentioned when we analyzed the objections to involuntary servitude. In order for human labor to realize its highest attainable productivity, the worker must be free, because only the free worker, enjoying in the form of wages the fruits of his own industry, will exert himself to the full. The second consideration in favor of the equality of all men under the law is the maintenance of social peace. It has already been pointed out that every disturbance of the peaceful development of the division of labor must be avoided. But it is well-nigh impossible to preserve lasting peace in a society in which the rights and duties of the respective classes are different. Whoever denies rights to a part of the population must always be prepared for a united attack by the disenfranchised on the privileged. Class privileges must disappear so that the conflict over them may cease.
It is therefore quite unjustifiable to find fault with the manner in which liberalism put into effect its postulate of equality, on the ground that what it created was only equality before the law, and not real equality. All human power would be insufficient to make men really equal. Men are and will always remain unequal. It is sober considerations of utility such as those we have here presented that constitute the argument in favor of the equality of all men under the law. Liberalism never aimed at anything more than this, nor could it ask for anything more. It is beyond human power to make a Negro white. But the Negro can be granted the same rights as the white man and thereby offered the possibility of earning as much if he produces as much.
But, the socialists say, it is not enough to make men equal before the law. In order to make them really equal, one must also allot them the same income. It is not enough to abolish privileges of birth and of rank. One must finish the job and do away with the greatest and most important privilege of all, namely, that which is accorded by private property. Only then will the liberal program be completely realized, and a consistent liberalism thus leads ultimately to socialism, to the abolition of private ownership of the means of production.
Privilege is an institutional arrangement favoring some individuals or a certain group at the expense of the rest. The privilege exists, although it harms some—perhaps the majority—and benefits no one except those for whose advantage it was created. In the feudal order of the Middle Ages certain lords had the hereditary right to hold a judgeship. They were judges because they had inherited the position, regardless of whether they possessed the abilities and qualities of character that fit a man to be a judge. In their eyes this office was nothing more than a lucrative source of income. Here judgeship was the privilege of a class of noble birth.
If, however, as in modern states, judges are always drawn from the circle of those with legal knowledge and experience, this does not constitute a privilege in favor of lawyers. Preference is given to lawyers, not for their sake, but for the sake of the public welfare, because people are generally of the opinion that a knowledge of jurisprudence is an indispensable prerequisite for holding a judgeship. The question whether a certain institutional arrangement is or is not to be regarded as a privilege granted to a certain group, class, or person is not to be decided by whether or not it is advantageous to that group, class, or person, but according to how beneficial to the general public it is considered to be. The fact that on a ship at sea one man is captain and the rest constitute his crew and are subject to his command is certainly an advantage for the captain. Nevertheless, it is not a privilege of the captain if he possesses the ability to steer the ship between reefs in a storm and thereby to be of service not only to himself, but to the whole crew.
In order to determine whether an institutional arrangement is to be regarded as the special privilege of an individual or of a class, the question one should ask is not whether it benefits this or that individual or class, but only whether it is beneficial to the general public. If we reach the conclusion that only private ownership of the means of production makes possible the prosperous development of human society, it is clear that this is tantamount to saying that private property is not a privilege of the property owner, but a social institution for the good and benefit of all, even though it may at the same time be especially agreeable and advantageous to some.
It is not on behalf of property owners that liberalism favors the preservation of the institution of private property. It is not because the abolition of that institution would violate property rights that the liberals want to preserve it. If they considered the abolition of the institution of private property to be in the general interest, they would advocate that it be abolished, no matter how prejudicial such a policy might be to the interests of property owners. However, the preservation of that institution is in the interest of all strata of society. Even the poor man, who can call nothing his own, lives incomparably better in our society than he would in one that would prove incapable of producing even a fraction of what is produced in our own.
The Inequality of Wealth and Income
What is most criticized in our social order is the inequality in the distribution of wealth and income. There are rich and poor; there are very rich and very poor. The way out is not far to seek: the equal distribution of all wealth.
The first objection to this proposal is that it will not help the situation much because those of moderate means far outnumber the rich, so that each individual could expect from such a distribution only a quite insignificant increment in his standard of living. This is certainly correct, but the argument is not complete. Those who advocate equality of income distribution overlook the most important point, namely, that the total available for distribution, the annual product of social labor, is not independent of the manner in which it is divided. The fact that that product today is as great as it is, is not a natural or technological phenomenon independent of all social conditions, but entirely the result of our social institutions. Only because inequality of wealth is possible in our social order, only because it stimulates everyone to produce as much as he can and at the lowest cost, does mankind today have at its disposal the total annual wealth now available for consumption. Were this incentive to be destroyed, productivity would be so greatly reduced that the portion that an equal distribution would allot to each individual would be far less than what even the poorest receives today.
The inequality of income distribution has, however, still a second function quite as important as the one already mentioned: it makes possible the luxury of the rich.
Many foolish things have been said and written about luxury. Against luxury consumption it has been objected that it is unjust that some should enjoy great abundance while others are in want. This argument seems to have some merit. But it only seems so. For if it can be shown that luxury consumption performs a useful function in the system of social cooperation, then the argument will be proved invalid. This, however, is what we shall seek to demonstrate.
Our defense of luxury consumption is not, of course, the argument that one occasionally hears, that is, that it spreads money among the people. If the rich did not indulge themselves in luxuries, it is said, the poor would have no income. This is simply nonsense. For if there were no luxury consumption, the capital and labor that would otherwise have been applied to the production of luxury goods would produce other goods: articles of mass consumption, necessary articles, instead of “superfluous” ones.
To form a correct conception of the social significance of luxury consumption, one must first of all realize that the concept of luxury is an altogether relative one. Luxury consists in a way of living that stands in sharp contrast to that of the great mass of one’s contemporaries. The conception of luxury is, therefore, essentially historical. Many things that seem to us necessities today were once considered as luxuries. When, in the Middle Ages, an aristocratic Byzantine lady who had married a Venetian doge made use of a golden implement, which could be called the forerunner of the fork as we know it today, instead of her fingers, in eating her meals, the Venetians looked on this as a godless luxury, and they thought it only just when the lady was stricken with a dreadful disease; this must be, they supposed, the well-merited punishment of God for such unnatural extravagance. Two or three generations ago even in England an indoor bathroom was considered a luxury; today the home of every English worker of the better type contains one. Thirty-five years ago there were no automobiles; twenty years ago the possession of such a vehicle was the sign of a particularly luxurious mode of living; today in the United States even the worker has his Ford. This is the course of economic history. The luxury of today is the necessity of tomorrow. Every advance first comes into being as the luxury of a few rich people, only to become, after a time, the indispensable necessity taken for granted by everyone. Luxury consumption provides industry with the stimulus to discover and introduce new things. It is one of the dynamic factors in our economy. To it we owe the progressive innovations by which the standard of living of all strata of the population has been gradually raised.
Most of us have no sympathy with the rich idler who spends his life in pleasure without ever doing any work. But even he fulfills a function in the life of the social organism. He sets an example of luxury that awakens in the multitude a consciousness of new needs and gives industry the incentive to fulfill them. There was a time when only the rich could afford the luxury of visiting foreign countries. Schiller never saw the Swiss mountains, which he celebrated in Wilhelm Tell, although they bordered on his Swabian homeland. Goethe saw neither Paris nor Vienna nor London. Today, however, hundreds of thousands travel, and soon millions will do so.
Private Property and Ethics
In seeking to demonstrate the social function and necessity of private ownership of the means of production and of the concomitant inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, we are at the same time providing proof of the moral justification for private property and for the capitalist social order based upon it.
Morality consists in the regard for the necessary requirements of social existence that must be demanded of each individual member of society. A man living in isolation has no moral rules to follow. He need have no qualms about doing anything he finds it to his advantage to do, for he does not have to consider whether he is not thereby injuring others. But as a member of society, a man must take into consideration, in everything he does, not only his own immediate advantage, but also the necessity, in every action, of affirming society as such. For the life of the individual in society is possible only by virtue of social cooperation, and every individual would be most seriously harmed if the social organization of life and of production were to break down. In requiring of the individual that he should take society into consideration in all his actions, that he should forgo an action that, while advantageous to him, would be detrimental to social life, society does not demand that he sacrifice himself to the interests of others. For the sacrifice that it imposes is only a provisional one: the renunciation of an immediate and relatively minor advantage in exchange for a much greater ultimate benefit. The continued existence of society as the association of persons working in cooperation and sharing a common way of life is in the interest of every individual. Whoever gives up a momentary advantage in order to avoid imperiling the continued existence of society is sacrificing a lesser gain for a greater one.
The meaning of this regard for the general social interest has frequently been misunderstood. Its moral value was believed to consist in the fact of the sacrifice itself, in the renunciation of an immediate gratification. One refused to see that what is morally valuable is not the sacrifice, but the end served by the sacrifice, and one insisted on ascribing moral value to sacrifice, to renunciation, in and for itself alone. But sacrificing is moral only when it serves a moral end. There is a world of difference between a man who risks his life and property for a good cause and the man who sacrifices them without benefiting society in any way.
Everything that serves to preserve the social order is moral; everything that is detrimental to it is immoral. Accordingly, when we reach the conclusion that an institution is beneficial to society, one can no longer object that it is immoral. There may possibly be a difference of opinion about whether a particular institution is socially beneficial or harmful. But once it has been judged beneficial, one can no longer contend that, for some inexplicable reason, it must be condemned as immoral.
State and Government
The observance of the moral law is in the ultimate interest of every individual, because everyone benefits from the preservation of social cooperation; yet it imposes on everyone a sacrifice, even though only a provisional one that is more than counterbalanced by a greater gain. To perceive this, however, requires a certain insight into the connection between things, and to conform one’s actions in accordance with this perception demands a certain strength of will. Those who lack the perception, or, having the perception, lack the necessary will power to put it to use, are not able to conform to the moral law voluntarily. The situation here is no different from that involved in the observance of the rules of hygiene that the individual ought to follow in the interest of his own well-being. Someone may give himself over to unwholesome dissipation, such as indulgence in narcotics, whether because he does not know the consequences, or because he considers them less disadvantageous than the renunciation of the momentary pleasure, or because he lacks the requisite will power to adjust his behavior to his knowledge. There are people who consider that society is justified in resorting to coercive measures to set such a person on the right path and to correct anyone whose heedless actions imperil his own life and health. They advocate that alcoholics and drug addicts be forcibly deterred from indulging their vices and compelled to protect their good health.
The question whether compulsion really answers the purpose in such cases we shall reserve for later consideration. What concerns us here is something quite different, namely, the question whether people whose actions endanger the continued existence of society should be compelled to refrain from doing so. The alcoholic and the drug addict harm only themselves by their behavior; the person who violates the rules of morality governing man’s life in society harms not only himself, but everyone. Life in society would be quite impossible if the people who desire its continued existence and who conduct themselves accordingly had to forgo the use of force and compulsion against those who are prepared to undermine society by their behavior. A small number of antisocial individuals, i.e., persons who are not willing or able to make the temporary sacrifices that society demands of them, could make all society impossible. Without the application of compulsion and coercion against the enemies of society, there could not be any life in society.
We call the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion that induces people to abide by the rules of life in society, the state; the rules according to which the state proceeds, law; and the organs charged with the responsibility of administering the apparatus of compulsion, government.
There is, to be sure, a sect that believes that one could quite safely dispense with every form of compulsion and base society entirely on the voluntary observance of the moral code. The anarchists consider state, law, and government as superfluous institutions in a social order that would really serve the good of all, and not just the special interests of a privileged few. Only because the present social order is based on private ownership of the means of production is it necessary to resort to compulsion and coercion in its defense. If private property were abolished, then everyone, without exception, would spontaneously observe the rules demanded by social cooperation.
It has already been pointed out that this doctrine is mistaken in so far as it concerns the character of private ownership of the means of production. But even apart from this, it is altogether untenable. The anarchist, rightly enough, does not deny that every form of human cooperation in a society based on the division of labor demands the observance of some rules of conduct that are not always agreeable to the individual, since they impose on him a sacrifice, only temporary, it is true, but, for all that, at least for the moment, painful. But the anarchist is mistaken in assuming that everyone, without exception, will be willing to observe these rules voluntarily. There are dyspeptics who, though they know very well that indulgence in a certain food will, after a short time, cause them severe, even scarcely bearable pains, are nevertheless unable to forgo the enjoyment of the delectable dish. Now the interrelationships of life in society are not as easy to trace as the physiological effects of a food, nor do the consequences follow so quickly and, above all, so palpably for the evildoer. Can it, then, be assumed, without falling completely into absurdity, that, in spite of all this, every individual in an anarchist society will have greater foresight and will power than a gluttonous dyspeptic? In an anarchist society is the possibility entirely to be excluded that someone may negligently throw away a lighted match and start a fire or, in a fit of anger, jealousy, or revenge, inflict injury on his fellow man? Anarchism misunderstands the real nature of man. It would be practicable only in a world of angels and saints.
Liberalism is not anarchism, nor has it anything whatsoever to do with anarchism. The liberal understands quite clearly that without resort to compulsion, the existence of society would be endangered and that behind the rules of conduct whose observance is necessary to assure peaceful human cooperation must stand the threat of force if the whole edifice of society is not to be continually at the mercy of any one of its members. One must be in a position to compel the person who will not respect the lives, health, personal freedom, or private property of others to acquiesce in the rules of life in society. This is the function that the liberal doctrine assigns to the state: the protection of property, liberty, and peace.
The German socialist, Ferdinand Lassalle, tried to make the conception of a government limited exclusively to this sphere appear ridiculous by calling the state constituted on the basis of liberal principles the “night-watchman state.” But it is difficult to see why the night-watchman state should be any more ridiculous or worse than the state that concerns itself with the preparation of sauerkraut, with the manufacture of trouser buttons, or with the publication of newspapers. In order to understand the impression that Lassalle was seeking to create with this witticism, one must keep in mind that the Germans of his time had not yet forgotten the state of the monarchical despots, with its vast multiplicity of administrative and regulatory functions, and that they were still very much under the influence of the philosophy of Hegel, which had elevated the state to the position of a divine entity. If one looked upon the state, with Hegel, as “the self-conscious moral substance,” as the “Universal in and for itself, the rationality of the will,” then, of course, one had to view as blasphemous any attempt to limit the function of the state to that of serving as a night watchman.
It is only thus that one can understand how it was possible for people to go so far as to reproach liberalism for its “hostility” or enmity towards the state. If I am of the opinion that it is inexpedient to assign to the government the task of operating railroads, hotels, or mines, I am not an “enemy of the state” any more than I can be called an enemy of sulphuric acid because I am of the opinion that, useful though it may be for many purposes, it is not suitable either for drinking or for washing one’s hands.
It is incorrect to represent the attitude of liberalism toward the state by saying that it wishes to restrict the latter’s sphere of possible activity or that it abhors, in principle, all activity on the part of the state in relation to economic life. Such an interpretation is altogether out of the question. The stand that liberalism takes in regard to the problem of the function of the state is the necessary consequence of its advocacy of private ownership of the means of production. If one is in favor of the latter, one cannot, of course, also be in favor of communal ownership of the means of production, i.e., of placing them at the disposition of the government rather than of individual owners. Thus, the advocacy of private ownership of the means of production already implies a very severe circumscription of the functions assigned to the state.
The socialists are sometimes wont to reproach liberalism with a lack of consistency. It is, they maintain, illogical to restrict the activity of the state in the economic sphere exclusively to the protection of property. It is difficult to see why, if the state is not to remain completely neutral, its intervention has to be limited to protecting the rights of property owners.
This reproach would be justified only if the opposition of liberalism to all governmental activity in the economic sphere going beyond the protection of property stemmed from an aversion in principle against any activity on the part of the state. But that is by no means the case. The reason why liberalism opposes a further extension of the sphere of governmental activity is precisely that this would, in effect, abolish private ownership of the means of production. And in private property the liberal sees the principle most suitable for the organization of man’s life in society.
Liberalism is therefore far from disputing the necessity of a machinery of state, a system of law, and a government. It is a grave misunderstanding to associate it in any way with the idea of anarchism. For the liberal, the state is an absolute necessity, since the most important tasks are incumbent upon it: the protection not only of private property, but also of peace, for in the absence of the latter the full benefits of private property cannot be reaped.
These considerations alone suffice to determine the conditions that a state must fulfill in order to correspond to the liberal ideal. It must not only be able to protect private property; it must also be so constituted that the smooth and peaceful course of its development is never interrupted by civil wars, revolutions, or insurrections.
Many people are still haunted by the idea, which dates back to the preliberal era, that a certain nobility and dignity attaches to the exercise of governmental functions. Up to very recently public officials in Germany enjoyed, and indeed still enjoy even today, a prestige that has made the most highly respected career that of a civil servant. The social esteem in which a young “assessor”* or lieutenant is held far exceeds that of a businessman or an attorney grown old in honest labor. Writers, scholars, and artists whose fame and glory have spread far beyond Germany enjoy in their own homeland only the respect corresponding to the often rather modest rank they occupied in the bureaucratic hierarchy.
There is no rational basis for this overestimation of the activities carried on in the offices of the administrative authorities. It is a form of atavism, a vestige from the days when the burgher had to fear the prince and his knights because at any moment he might be spoliated by them. In itself it is no finer, nobler, or more honorable to spend one’s days in a government office filling out documents than, for example, to work in the blueprint room of a machine factory. The tax collector has no more distinguished an occupation than those who are engaged in creating wealth directly, a part of which is skimmed off in the form of taxes to defray the expenses of the apparatus of government.
This notion of the special distinction and dignity attaching to the exercise of all the functions of government is what constitutes the basis of the pseudodemocratic theory of the state. According to this doctrine, it is shameful for anyone to allow himself to be ruled by others. Its ideal is a constitution in which the whole people rules and governs. This, of course, never has been, never can be, and never will be possible, not even under the conditions prevailing in a small state. It was once thought that this ideal had been realized in the Greek city-states of antiquity and in the small cantons of the Swiss mountains. This too was a mistake. In Greece only a part of the populace, the free citizens, had any share in the government; the metics and slaves had none. In the Swiss cantons only certain matters of a purely local character were and still are settled on the constitutional principle of direct democracy; all affairs transcending these narrow territorial bounds are managed by the Federation, whose government by no means corresponds to the ideal of direct democracy.
It is not at all shameful for a man to allow himself to be ruled by others. Government and administration, the enforcement of police regulations and similar ordinances, also require specialists: professional civil servants and professional politicians. The principle of the division of labor does not stop short even of the functions of government. One cannot be an engineer and a policeman at the same time. It in no way detracts from my dignity, my well-being, or my freedom that I am not myself a policeman. It is no more undemocratic for a few people to have the responsibility of providing protection for everyone else than it is for a few people to undertake to produce shoes for everyone else. There is not the slightest reason to object to professional politicians and professional civil servants if the institutions of the state are democratic. But democracy is something entirely different from what the romantic visionaries who prattle about direct democracy imagine.
Government by a handful of people—and the rulers are always as much in the minority as against those ruled as the producers of shoes are as against the consumers of shoes—depends on the consent of the governed, i.e., on their acceptance of the existing administration. They may see it only as the lesser evil, or as an unavoidable evil, yet they must be of the opinion that a change in the existing situation would have no purpose. But once the majority of the governed becomes convinced that it is necessary and possible to change the form of government and to replace the old regime and the old personnel with a new regime and new personnel, the days of the former are numbered. The majority will have the power to carry out its wishes by force even against the will of the old regime. In the long run no government can maintain itself in power if it does not have public opinion behind it, i.e., if those governed are not convinced that the government is good. The force to which the government resorts in order to make refractory spirits compliant can be successfully applied only as long as the majority does not stand solidly in opposition.
There is, therefore, in every form of polity a means for making the government at least ultimately dependent on the will of the governed, viz., civil war, revolution, insurrection. But it is just this expedient that liberalism wants to avoid. There can be no lasting economic improvement if the peaceful course of affairs is continually interrupted by internal struggles. A political situation such as existed in England at the time of the Wars of the Roses would plunge modern England in a few years into the deepest and most dreadful misery. The present level of economic development would never have been attained if no solution had been found to the problem of preventing the continual outbreak of civil wars. A fratricidal struggle like the French Revolution of 1789 cost a heavy loss in life and property. Our present economy could no longer endure such convulsions. The population of a modern metropolis would have to suffer so frightfully from a revolutionary uprising that could bar the importation of food and coal and cut off the flow of electricity, gas, and water that even the fear that such disturbances might break out would paralyze the life of the city.
Here is where the social function performed by democracy finds its point of application. Democracy is that form of political constitution which makes possible the adaptation of the government to the wishes of the governed without violent struggles. If in a democratic state the government is no longer being conducted as the majority of the population would have it, no civil war is necessary to put into office those who are willing to work to suit the majority. By means of elections and parliamentary arrangements, the change of government is executed smoothly and without friction, violence, or bloodshed.
Critique of the Doctrine of Force
The champions of democracy in the eighteenth century argued that only monarchs and their ministers are morally depraved, injudicious, and evil. The people, however, are altogether good, pure, and noble, and have, besides, the intellectual gifts needed in order always to know and to do what is right. This is, of course, all nonsense, no less so than the flattery of the courtiers who ascribed all good and noble qualities to their princes. The people are the sum of all individual citizens; and if some individuals are not intelligent and noble, then neither are all together.
Since mankind entered the age of democracy with such high-flown expectations, it is not surprising that disillusionment should soon have set in. It was quickly discovered that the democracies committed at least as many errors as the monarchies and aristocracies had. The comparison that people drew between the men whom the democracies placed at the head of the government and those whom the emperors and kings, in the exercise of their absolute power, had elevated to that position, proved by no means favorable to the new wielders of power. The French are wont to speak of “killing with ridicule.” And indeed, the statesmen representative of democracy soon rendered it everywhere ridiculous. Those of the old regime had displayed a certain aristocratic dignity, at least in their outward demeanor. The new ones, who replaced them, made themselves contemptible by their behavior. Nothing has done more harm to democracy in Germany and Austria than the hollow arrogance and impudent vanity with which the Social-Democratic leaders who rose to power after the collapse of the empire conducted themselves.
Thus, wherever democracy triumphed, an antidemocratic doctrine soon arose in fundamental opposition to it. There is no sense, it was said, in allowing the majority to rule. The best ought to govern, even if they are in the minority. This seems so obvious that the supporters of antidemocratic movements of all kinds have steadily increased in number. The more contemptible the men whom democracy has placed at the top have proved themselves to be, the greater has grown the number of the enemies of democracy.
There are, however, serious fallacies in the antidemocratic doctrine. What, after all, does it mean to speak of “the best man” or “the best men”? The Republic of Poland placed a piano virtuoso* at its head because it considered him the best Pole of the age. But the qualities that the leader of a state must have are very different from those of a musician. The opponents of democracy, when they use the expression “the best,” can mean nothing else than the man or the men best fitted to conduct the affairs of the government, even if they understand little or nothing of music. But this leads to the same political question: Who is the best fitted? Was it Disraeli or Gladstone? The Tory saw the best man in the former; the Whig, in the latter. Who should decide this if not the majority?
And so we reach the decisive point of all antidemocratic doctrines, whether advanced by the descendants of the old aristocracy and the supporters of hereditary monarchy, or by the syndicalists, Bolsheviks, and socialists, viz., the doctrine of force. The opponents of democracy champion the right of a minority to seize control of the state by force and to rule over the majority. The moral justification of this procedure consists, it is thought, precisely in the power actually to seize the reins of government. One recognizes the best, those who alone are competent to govern and command, by virtue of their demonstrated ability to impose their rule on the majority against its will. Here the teaching of l’Action Française coincides with that of the syndicalists, and the doctrine of Ludendorff and Hitler, with that of Lenin and Trotsky.
Many arguments can be urged for and against these doctrines, depending on one’s religious and philosophical convictions, about which any agreement is scarcely to be expected. This is not the place to present and discuss the arguments pro and con, for they are not conclusive. The only consideration that can be decisive is one that bases itself on the fundamental argument in favor of democracy.
If every group that believes itself capable of imposing its rule on the rest is to be entitled to undertake the attempt, we must be prepared for an uninterrupted series of civil wars. But such a state of affairs is incompatible with the stage of the division of labor that we have reached today. Modern society, based as it is on the division of labor, can be preserved only under conditions of lasting peace. If we had to prepare for the possibility of continual civil wars and internal struggles, we should have to retrogress to such a primitive stage of the division of labor that each province at least, if not each village, would become virtually autarkic, i.e., capable of feeding and maintaining itself for a time as a self-sufficient economic entity without importing anything from the outside. This would mean such an enormous decline in the productivity of labor that the earth could feed only a fraction of the population that it supports today. The antidemocratic ideal leads to the kind of economic order known to the Middle Ages and antiquity. Every city, every village, indeed, every individual dwelling was fortified and equipped for defense, and every province was as independent of the rest of the world as possible in its provision of commodities.
The democrat too is of the opinion that the best man ought to rule. But he believes that the fitness of a man or of a group of men to govern is better demonstrated if they succeed in convincing their fellow citizens of their qualifications for that position, so that they are voluntarily entrusted with the conduct of public affairs, than if they resort to force to compel others to acknowledge their claims. Whoever does not succeed in attaining to a position of leadership by virtue of the power of his arguments and the confidence that his person inspires has no reason to complain about the fact that his fellow citizens prefer others to him.
To be sure, it should not and need not be denied that there is one situation in which the temptation to deviate from the democratic principles of liberalism becomes very great indeed. If judicious men see their nation, or all the nations of the world, on the road to destruction, and if they find it impossible to induce their fellow citizens to heed their counsel, they may be inclined to think it only fair and just to resort to any means whatever, in so far as it is feasible and will lead to the desired goal, in order to save everyone from disaster. Then the idea of a dictatorship of the elite, of a government by the minority maintained in power by force and ruling in the interests of all, may arise and find supporters. But force is never a means of overcoming these difficulties. The tyranny of a minority can never endure unless it succeeds in convincing the majority of the necessity or, at any rate, of the utility, of its rule. But then the minority no longer needs force to maintain itself in power.
History provides an abundance of striking examples to show that, in the long run, even the most ruthless policy of repression does not suffice to maintain a government in power. To cite but one, the most recent and the best known: when the Bolsheviks seized control in Russia, they were a small minority, and their program found scant support among the great masses of their countrymen. For the peasantry, who constitute the bulk of the Russian people, would have nothing to do with the Bolshevik policy of farm collectivization. What they wanted was the division of the land among the “landed poverty,” as the Bolsheviks call this part of the population. And it was this program of the peasantry, not that of the Marxist leaders, which was actually put into effect. In order to remain in power, Lenin and Trotsky not only accepted this agrarian reform, but even made it a part of their own program, which they undertook to defend against all attacks, domestic and foreign. Only thus were the Bolsheviks able to win the confidence of the great mass of the Russian people. Since they adopted this policy of land distribution, the Bolsheviks rule no longer against the will of the great mass of the people, but with their consent and support. There were only two possible alternatives open to them: either their program or their control of the government had to be sacrificed. They chose the first and remained in power. The third possibility, to carry out their program by force against the will of the great mass of the people, did not exist at all. Like every determined and well-led minority, the Bolsheviks were able to seize control by force and retain it for a short time. In the long run, however, they would have been no better able to keep it than any other minority. The various attempts of the Whites to dislodge the Bolsheviks all failed because the mass of the Russian people were against them. But even if they had succeeded, the victors too would have had to respect the desires of the overwhelming majority of the population. It would have been impossible for them to alter in any way after the event the already accomplished fact of the land distribution and to restore to the landowners what had been stolen from them.
Only a group that can count on the consent of the governed can establish a lasting regime. Whoever wants to see the world governed according to his own ideas must strive for dominion over men’s minds. It is impossible, in the long run, to subject men against their will to a regime that they reject. Whoever tries to do so by force will ultimately come to grief, and the struggles provoked by his attempt will do more harm than the worst government based on the consent of the governed could ever do. Men cannot be made happy against their will.
The Argument of Fascism*
If liberalism nowhere found complete acceptance, its success in the nineteenth century went so far at least as that some of the most important of its principles were considered beyond dispute. Before 1914, even the most dogged and bitter enemies of liberalism had to resign themselves to allowing many liberal principles to pass unchallenged. Even in Russia, where only a few feeble rays of liberalism had penetrated, the supporters of the Czarist despotism, in persecuting their opponents, still had to take into consideration the liberal opinions of Europe; and during the World War, the war parties in the belligerent nations, with all their zeal, still had to practice a certain moderation in their struggle against internal opposition.
Only when the Marxist Social Democrats had gained the upper hand and taken power in the belief that the age of liberalism and capitalism had passed forever did the last concessions disappear that it had still been thought necessary to make to the liberal ideology. The parties of the Third International consider any means as permissible if it seems to give promise of helping them in their struggle to achieve their ends. Whoever does not unconditionally acknowledge all their teachings as the only correct ones and stand by them through thick and thin has, in their opinion, incurred the penalty of death; and they do not hesitate to exterminate him and his whole family, infants included, whenever and wherever it is physically possible.
The frank espousal of a policy of annihilating opponents and the murders committed in the pursuance of it have given rise to an opposition movement. All at once the scales fell from the eyes of the non-Communist enemies of liberalism. Until then they had believed that even in a struggle against a hateful opponent one still had to respect certain liberal principles. They had had, even though reluctantly, to exclude murder and assassination from the list of measures to be resorted to in political struggles. They had had to resign themselves to many limitations in persecuting the opposition press and in suppressing the spoken word. Now, all at once, they saw that opponents had risen up who gave no heed to such considerations and for whom any means was good enough to defeat an adversary. The militaristic and nationalistic enemies of the Third International felt themselves cheated by liberalism. Liberalism, they thought, stayed their hand when they desired to strike a blow against the revolutionary parties while it was still possible to do so. If liberalism had not hindered them, they would, so they believe, have bloodily nipped the revolutionary movements in the bud. Revolutionary ideas had been able to take root and flourish only because of the tolerance they had been accorded by their opponents, whose will power had been enfeebled by a regard for liberal principles that, as events subsequently proved, was overscrupulous. If the idea had occurred to them years ago that it is permissible to crush ruthlessly every revolutionary movement, the victories that the Third International has won since 1917 would never have been possible. For the militarists and nationalists believe that when it comes to shooting and fighting, they themselves are the most accurate marksmen and the most adroit fighters.
The fundamental idea of these movements—which, from the name of the most grandiose and tightly disciplined among them, the Italian, may, in general, be designated as Fascist—consists in the proposal to make use of the same unscrupulous methods in the struggle against the Third International as the latter employs against its opponents. The Third International seeks to exterminate its adversaries and their ideas in the same way that the hygienist strives to exterminate a pestilential bacillus; it considers itself in no way bound by the terms of any compact that it may conclude with opponents, and it deems any crime, any lie, and any calumny permissible in carrying on its struggle. The Fascists, at least in principle, profess the same intentions. That they have not yet succeeded as fully as the Russian Bolsheviks in freeing themselves from a certain regard for liberal notions and ideas and traditional ethical precepts is to be attributed solely to the fact that the Fascists carry on their work among nations in which the intellectual and moral heritage of some thousands of years of civilization cannot be destroyed at one blow, and not among the barbarian peoples on both sides of the Urals, whose relationship to civilization has never been any other than that of marauding denizens of forest and desert accustomed to engage, from time to time, in predatory raids on civilized lands in the hunt for booty. Because of this difference, Fascism will never succeed as completely as Russian Bolshevism in freeing itself from the power of liberal ideas. Only under the fresh impression of the murders and atrocities perpetrated by the supporters of the Soviets were Germans and Italians able to block out the remembrance of the traditional restraints of justice and morality and find the impulse to bloody counteraction. The deeds of the Fascists and of other parties corresponding to them were emotional reflex actions evoked by indignation at the deeds of the Bolsheviks and Communists. As soon as the first flush of anger had passed, their policy took a more moderate course and will probably become even more so with the passage of time.
This moderation is the result of the fact that traditional liberal views still continue to have an unconscious influence on the Fascists. But however far this may go, one must not fail to recognize that the conversion of the Rightist parties to the tactics of Fascism shows that the battle against liberalism has resulted in successes that, only a short time ago, would have been considered completely unthinkable. Many people approve of the methods of Fascism, even though its economic program is altogether antiliberal and its policy completely interventionist, because it is far from practicing the senseless and unrestrained destructionism that has stamped the Communists as the arch-enemies of civilization. Still others, in full knowledge of the evil that Fascist economic policy brings with it, view Fascism, in comparison with Bolshevism and Sovietism, as at least the lesser evil. For the majority of its public and secret supporters and admirers, however, its appeal consists precisely in the violence of its methods.
Now it cannot be denied that the only way one can offer effective resistance to violent assaults is by violence. Against the weapons of the Bolsheviks, weapons must be used in reprisal, and it would be a mistake to display weakness before murderers. No liberal has ever called this into question. What distinguishes liberal from Fascist political tactics is not a difference of opinion in regard to the necessity of using armed force to resist armed attackers, but a difference in the fundamental estimation of the role of violence in a struggle for power. The great danger threatening domestic policy from the side of Fascism lies in its complete faith in the decisive power of violence. In order to assure success, one must be imbued with the will to victory and always proceed violently. This is its highest principle. What happens, however, when one’s opponent, similarly animated by the will to be victorious, acts just as violently? The result must be a battle, a civil war. The ultimate victor to emerge from such conflicts will be the faction strongest in number. In the long run, a minority—even if it is composed of the most capable and energetic—cannot succeed in resisting the majority. The decisive question, therefore, always remains: How does one obtain a majority for one’s own party? This, however, is a purely intellectual matter. It is a victory that can be won only with the weapons of the intellect, never by force. The suppression of all opposition by sheer violence is a most unsuitable way to win adherents to one’s cause. Resort to naked force—that is, without justification in terms of intellectual arguments accepted by public opinion—merely gains new friends for those whom one is thereby trying to combat. In a battle between force and an idea, the latter always prevails.
Fascism can triumph today because universal indignation at the infamies committed by the socialists and communists has obtained for it the sympathies of wide circles. But when the fresh impression of the crimes of the Bolsheviks has paled, the socialist program will once again exercise its power of attraction on the masses. For Fascism does nothing to combat it except to suppress socialist ideas and to persecute the people who spread them. If it wanted really to combat socialism, it would have to oppose it with ideas. There is, however, only one idea that can be effectively opposed to socialism, viz., that of liberalism.
It has often been said that nothing furthers a cause more than creating martyrs for it. This is only approximately correct. What strengthens the cause of the persecuted faction is not the martyrdom of its adherents, but the fact that they are being attacked by force, and not by intellectual weapons. Repression by brute force is always a confession of the inability to make use of the better weapons of the intellect—better because they alone give promise of final success. This is the fundamental error from which Fascism suffers and which will ultimately cause its downfall. The victory of Fascism in a number of countries is only an episode in the long series of struggles over the problem of property. The next episode will be the victory of Communism. The ultimate outcome of the struggle, however, will not be decided by arms, but by ideas. It is ideas that group men into fighting factions, that press the weapons into their hands, and that determine against whom and for whom the weapons shall be used. It is they alone, and not arms, that, in the last analysis, turn the scales.
So much for the domestic policy of Fascism. That its foreign policy, based as it is on the avowed principle of force in international relations, cannot fail to give rise to an endless series of wars that must destroy all of modern civilization requires no further discussion. To maintain and further raise our present level of economic development, peace among nations must be assured. But they cannot live together in peace if the basic tenet of the ideology by which they are governed is the belief that one’s own nation can secure its place in the community of nations by force alone.
It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history. But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error.
The Limits of Governmental Activity
As the liberal sees it, the task of the state consists solely and exclusively in guaranteeing the protection of life, health, liberty, and private property against violent attacks. Everything that goes beyond this is an evil. A government that, instead of fulfilling its task, sought to go so far as actually to infringe on personal security of life and health, freedom, and property would, of course, be altogether bad.
Still, as Jacob Burckhardt says, power is evil in itself, no matter who exercises it. It tends to corrupt those who wield it and leads to abuse. Not only absolute sovereigns and aristocrats, but the masses also, in whose hands democracy entrusts the supreme power of government, are only too easily inclined to excesses.
In the United States, the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages are prohibited. Other countries do not go so far, but nearly everywhere some restrictions are imposed on the sale of opium, cocaine, and similar narcotics. It is universally deemed one of the tasks of legislation and government to protect the individual from himself. Even those who otherwise generally have misgivings about extending the area of governmental activity consider it quite proper that the freedom of the individual should be curtailed in this respect, and they think that only a benighted doctrinairism could oppose such prohibitions. Indeed, so general is the acceptance of this kind of interference by the authorities in the life of the individual that those who are opposed to liberalism on principle are prone to base their argument on the ostensibly undisputed acknowledgment of the necessity of such prohibitions and to draw from it the conclusion that complete freedom is an evil and that some measure of restriction must be imposed upon the freedom of the individual by the governmental authorities in their capacity as guardians of his welfare. The question cannot be whether the authorities ought to impose restrictions upon the freedom of the individual, but only how far they ought to go in this respect.
No words need be wasted over the fact that all these narcotics are harmful. The question whether even a small quantity of alcohol is harmful or whether the harm results only from the abuse of alcoholic beverages is not at issue here. It is an established fact that alcoholism, cocainism, and morphinism are deadly enemies of life, of health, and of the capacity for work and enjoyment; and a utilitarian must therefore consider them as vices. But this is far from demonstrating that the authorities must interpose to suppress these vices by commercial prohibitions, nor is it by any means evident that such intervention on the part of the government is really capable of suppressing them or that, even if this end could be attained, it might not therewith open up a Pandora’s box of other dangers, no less mischievous than alcoholism and morphinism.
Whoever is convinced that indulgence or excessive indulgence in these poisons is pernicious is not hindered from living abstemiously or temperately. This question cannot be treated exclusively in reference to alcoholism, morphinism, cocainism, etc., which all reasonable men acknowledge to be evils. For if the majority of citizens is, in principle, conceded the right to impose its way of life upon a minority, it is impossible to stop at prohibitions against indulgence in alcohol, morphine, cocaine, and similar poisons. Why should not what is valid for these poisons be valid also for nicotine, caffein, and the like? Why should not the state generally prescribe which foods may be indulged in and which must be avoided because they are injurious? In sports too, many people are prone to carry their indulgence further than their strength will allow. Why should not the state interfere here as well? Few men know how to be temperate in their sexual life, and it seems especially difficult for aging persons to understand that they should cease entirely to indulge in such pleasures or, at least, do so in moderation. Should not the state intervene here too? More harmful still than all these pleasures, many will say, is the reading of evil literature. Should a press pandering to the lowest instincts of man be allowed to corrupt the soul? Should not the exhibition of pornographic pictures, of obscene plays, in short, of all allurements to immorality, be prohibited? And is not the dissemination of false sociological doctrines just as injurious to men and nations? Should men be permitted to incite others to civil war and to wars against foreign countries? And should scurrilous lampoons and blasphemous diatribes be allowed to undermine respect for God and the Church?
We see that as soon as we surrender the principle that the state should not interfere in any questions touching on the individual’s mode of life, we end by regulating and restricting the latter down to the smallest detail. The personal freedom of the individual is abrogated. He becomes a slave of the community, bound to obey the dictates of the majority. It is hardly necessary to expatiate on the ways in which such powers could be abused by malevolent persons in authority. The wielding of powers of this kind even by men imbued with the best of intentions must needs reduce the world to a graveyard of the spirit. All mankind’s progress has been achieved as a result of the initiative of a small minority that began to deviate from the ideas and customs of the majority until their example finally moved the others to accept the innovation themselves. To give the majority the right to dictate to the minority what it is to think, to read, and to do is to put a stop to progress once and for all.
Let no one object that the struggle against morphinism and the struggle against “evil” literature are two quite different things. The only difference between them is that some of the same people who favor the prohibition of the former will not agree to the prohibition of the latter. In the United States, the Methodists and Fundamentalists, right after the passage of the law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, took up the struggle for the suppression of the theory of evolution, and they have already succeeded in ousting Darwinism from the schools in a number of states. In Soviet Russia, every free expression of opinion is suppressed. Whether or not permission is granted for a book to be published depends on the discretion of a number of uneducated and uncultivated fanatics who have been placed in charge of the arm of the government empowered to concern itself with such matters.
The propensity of our contemporaries to demand authoritarian prohibition as soon as something does not please them, and their readiness to submit to such prohibitions even when what is prohibited is quite agreeable to them shows how deeply ingrained the spirit of servility still remains within them. It will require many long years of self-education until the subject can turn himself into the citizen. A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.
Liberalism limits its concern entirely and exclusively to earthly life and earthly endeavor. The kingdom of religion, on the other hand, is not of this world. Thus, liberalism and religion could both exist side by side without their spheres’ touching. That they should have reached the point of collision was not the fault of liberalism. It did not transgress its proper sphere; it did not intrude into the domain of religious faith or of metaphysical doctrine. Nevertheless, it encountered the church as a political power claiming the right to regulate according to its judgment not only the relationship of man to the world to come, but also the affairs of this world. It was at this point that the battle lines had to be drawn.
So overwhelming was the victory won by liberalism in this conflict that the church had to give up, once and for all, claims that it had vigorously maintained for thousands of years. The burning of heretics, inquisitorial persecutions, religious wars—these today belong to history. No one can understand any longer how quiet people, who practiced their devotions as they believed right within the four walls of their own home, could have been dragged before courts, incarcerated, martyred, and burned. But even if no more stakes are kindled ad majorem Dei gloriam [for the greater glory of God], a great deal of intolerance still persists.
Liberalism, however, must be intolerant of every kind of intolerance. If one considers the peaceful cooperation of all men as the goal of social evolution, one cannot permit the peace to be disturbed by priests and fanatics. Liberalism proclaims tolerance for every religious faith and every metaphysical belief, not out of indifference for these “higher” things, but from the conviction that the assurance of peace within society must take precedence over everything and everyone. And because it demands toleration of all opinions and all churches and sects, it must recall them all to their proper bounds whenever they venture intolerantly beyond them. In a social order based on peaceful cooperation, there is no room for the claim of the churches to monopolize the instruction and education of the young. Everything that their supporters accord them of their own free will may and must be granted to the churches; nothing may be permitted to them in respect to persons who want to have nothing to do with them.
It is difficult to understand how these principles of liberalism could make enemies among the communicants of the various faiths. If they make it impossible for a church to make converts by force, whether its own or that placed at its disposal by the state, on the other hand they also protect that church against coercive proselytization by other churches and sects. What liberalism takes from the church with one hand it gives back again with the other. Even religious zealots must concede that liberalism takes nothing from faith of what belongs to its proper sphere.
To be sure, the churches and sects that, where they have the upper hand, cannot do enough in their persecution of dissenters, also demand, where they find themselves in the minority, tolerance at least for themselves. However, this demand for tolerance has nothing whatever in common with the liberal demand for tolerance. Liberalism demands tolerance as a matter of principle, not from opportunism. It demands toleration even of obviously nonsensical teachings, absurd forms of heterodoxy, and childishly silly superstitions. It demands toleration for doctrines and opinions that it deems detrimental and ruinous to society and even for movements that it indefatigably combats. For what impels liberalism to demand and accord toleration is not consideration for the content of the doctrine to be tolerated, but the knowledge that only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace without which humanity must relapse into the barbarism and penury of centuries long past.
Against what is stupid, nonsensical, erroneous, and evil, liberalism fights with the weapons of the mind, and not with brute force and repression.
The State and Antisocial Conduct
The state is the apparatus of compulsion and coercion. This holds not only for the “night-watchman” state, but just as much for every other, and most of all for the socialist state. Everything that the state is capable of doing it does by compulsion and the application of force. To suppress conduct dangerous to the existence of the social order is the sum and substance of state activity; to this is added, in a socialist community, control over the means of production.
The sober logic of the Romans expressed this fact symbolically by adopting the axe and the bundle of rods as the emblem of the state. Abstruse mysticism, calling itself philosophy, has done as much as possible in modern times to obscure the truth of the matter. For Schelling, the state is the direct and visible image of absolute life, a phase in the revelation of the Absolute or World Soul. It exists only for its own sake, and its activity is directed exclusively to the maintenance of both the substance and the form of its existence. For Hegel, Absolute Reason reveals itself in the state, and Objective Spirit realizes itself in it. It is ethical mind developed into an organic reality—reality and the ethical idea as the revealed substantial will intelligible to itself. The epigones of idealist philosophy outdid even their masters in their deification of the state. To be sure, one comes no closer to the truth if, in reaction to these and similar doctrines, one calls the state, with Nietzsche, the coldest of all cold monsters. The state is neither cold nor warm, for it is an abstract concept in whose name living men—the organs of the state, the government—act. All state activity is human action, an evil inflicted by men on men. The goal—the preservation of society—justifies the action of the organs of the state, but the evils inflicted are not felt as any less evil by those who suffer under them.
The evil that a man inflicts on his fellow man injures both—not only the one to whom it is done, but also the one who does it. Nothing corrupts a man so much as being an arm of the law and making men suffer. The lot of the subject is anxiety, a spirit of servility and fawning adulation; but the pharisaical self-righteousness, conceit, and arrogance of the master are no better.
Liberalism seeks to take the sting out of the relationship of the government official to the citizen. In doing so, of course, it does not follow in the footsteps of those romantics who defend the antisocial behavior of the lawbreaker and condemn not only judges and policemen, but also the social order as such. Liberalism neither wishes to nor can deny that the coercive power of the state and the lawful punishment of criminals are institutions that society could never, under any circumstances, do without. However, the liberal believes that the purpose of punishment is solely to rule out, as far as possible, behavior dangerous to society. Punishment should not be vindictive or retaliatory. The criminal has incurred the penalties of the law, but not the hate and sadism of the judge, the policeman, and the ever lynch-thirsty mob.
What is most mischievous about the coercive power that justifies itself in the name of the “state” is that, because it is always of necessity ultimately sustained by the consent of the majority, it directs its attack against germinating innovations. Human society cannot do without the apparatus of the state, but the whole of mankind’s progress has had to be achieved against the resistance and opposition of the state and its power of coercion. No wonder that all who have had something new to offer humanity have had nothing good to say of the state or its laws! Incorrigible etatist mystics and state-worshippers may hold this against them; liberals will understand their position even if they cannot approve it. Yet every liberal must oppose this understandable aversion to everything that pertains to jailers and policemen when it is carried to the point of such overweening self-esteem as to proclaim the right of the individual to rebel against the state. Violent resistance against the power of the state is the last resort of the minority in its effort to break loose from the oppression of the majority. The minority that desires to see its ideas triumph must strive by intellectual means to become the majority. The state must be so constituted that the scope of its laws permits the individual a certain amount of latitude within which he can move freely. The citizen must not be so narrowly circumscribed in his activities that, if he thinks differently from those in power, his only choice is either to perish or to destroy the machinery of state.
[* ][One who has passed his second state examination.—Editor. (Original note from the 1st English translation, 1962.)]
[* ]Ignace Jan Paderewski (1860–1941), Polish statesman, patriot, and composer.
[* ]In this section, Mises distinguishes between (1) antiliberals who were Communists, Bolsheviks, and Marxians and (2) antiliberals whom he called “Fascists.” Mises recognized no redeeming feature in Communism. The “intellectual and moral heritage” of the Communists descended from “barbarian peoples . . . whose relationship to civilization has never been any other than that of marauding denizens of forest and desert,” and whose “senseless and unrestrained destructionism . . . has stamped the Communists as the archenemies of civilization.” On the other hand, the anti-Communist and anti-Marxist Fascists, which included nationalists, socialists, collectivists, and interventionists, had operated among nations—notably Italy and Germany—“in which the intellectual and moral heritage of some thousands of years of civilization” had prevailed. This “liberal and moral heritage” temporarily stayed their governments’ use of unscrupulous methods and saved civilization in the short run. However, Mises warned (1927) that in time their reliance on naked force to impose their antiliberal socialist programs would give rise to dictatorship and “an endless series of wars that must destroy modern civilization.” Incidentally, it was the anti-Communist anti-Marxists who later became National-Socialists or Nazis.
Ludwig von Mises
- Chronology: The Life and Work of Ludwig von Mises
- Lachmann, Mises and the Market Process
- Ludwig von Mises, “Liberty and Property” (1958)
- Mises on Bureaucracy
- Mises on Human Action
- Mises on Monetary and Economic Problems Before, During, and After WW1
- Mises on Popular Errors and Economic Method
- Mises on the Economic Foundations of Freedom
- Mises on the Foundations of Classical Liberalism
- Mises on the Impossibility of Economic Calculation under Socialism
- Mises on the Market Society
- Mises, Human Action: A Glossary
- Mises, Keynes and the Versailles Treaty
- Mises, Literature under Capitalism
- Mises, Ludwig von (1881-1973)
- Mises, Money, and the Fall and Rise of Classical Liberalism in the 20thC
- Mises, The Place of Economics in Learning
- Mises: His LIfe & Influence
- Mises: Major Translated Writings
- Resources on Mises in the OLL
- Richard Ebeling, “Introductions to the Selected Works of Ludwig von Mises (2000-12)”
- Rothbard, Lange, Mises, and Praxeology