Mises on the worship of the state or statolatry (1944)

Ludwig von Mises

At the height of WW2 when states on both sides of the conflict had massively increased government intervention in the economy, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) warned against “worship of the state”, or statolatry as he also called it, seeing in it the cause of “the worst evils which mankind ever had to endure”:

It has been necessary to dwell upon these truisms because the mythologies and metaphysics of etatism have succeeded in wrapping them in mystery. The state is a human institution, not a superhuman being. He who says “state” means coercion and compulsion. He who says: There should be a law concerning this matter, means: The armed men of the government should force people to do what they do not want to do, or not to do what they like. He who says: This law should be better enforced, means: The police should force people to obey this law. He who says: The state is God, deifies arms and prisons. The worship of the state is the worship of force. There is no more dangerous menace to civilization than a government of incompetent, corrupt, or vile men. The worst evils which mankind ever had to endure were inflicted by bad governments. The state can be and has often been in the course of history the main source of mischief and disaster.

A theme in Mises' writings is his critique of “the worship of the state”, which he also called “etatism” or “statolatry.” By this he meant the belief that the rulers of the state and their bureaucrats were more knowledgeable than others, less prone than ordinary people to allow their personal interests to overshadow their civi duty, accountable to a higher moral order, justified in using force against others to achieve the goals of “society”, and so on. Hence, they should be treated as godlike in their powers and virtue. One can trace his use of the words from the Theory of Money and Credit (1912) and Socialism (1922) at the time of WW1, where “etatism” was the preferred term, to WW2 and its immediate aftermath when he introduced the word “statolatry” in Omnipotent Government (1944), Bureaucracy (1944), and Human Action (1949) as a harsher way of saying the same thing. The key point for Mises is the distinction between the State’s way of carrying out its affairs, and the the way things are done in the free market. The former “means coercion and compulsion”, the latter means cooperation and peaceful exchange. In the modern era, Mises points out, the presence of democratic governments does not alter the fundamental equation as “majorities are no less exposed to error and frustration than kings and dictators.” He concludes that we must not forget that, like monarchs who ruled by divine right, “The individuals who form the majority are not gods, and their joint conclusions are not necessarily godlike.”