A Perfect System of Government?
DECEMBER 01, 1972 by LUDWIG VON MISES
Dr. Mises needs no introduction to Freeman readers. This article is reprinted by permission from The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science (Princeton, New Jersey: Van Nostrand, ¹962) pp. 94-¹0¹, now out of print.
The "social engineer" is the reformer who is prepared to "liquidate" all those who do not fit into his plan for the arrangement of human affairs. Yet historians and sometimes even victims whom he puts to death are not averse to finding some extenuating circumstances for his massacres or planned massacres by pointing out that he was ultimately motivated by a noble ambition: he wanted to establish the perfect state of mankind. They assign to him a place in the long line of the designers of utopian schemes.
Now it is certainly folly to excuse in this way the mass murders of such sadistic gangsters as Stalin and Hitler. But there is no doubt that many of the most bloody "liquidators" were guided by the ideas that inspired from time immemorial the attempts of philosophers to meditate on a perfect constitution. Having once hatched out the design of such an ideal order, the author is in search of the man who would establish it by suppressing the opposition of all those who disagree. In this vein, Plato was anxious to find a tyrant who would use his power for the realization of the Platonic ideal state. The question whether other people would like or dislike what he himself had in store for them never occurred to Plato. It was an understood thing for him that the king who turned philosopher or the philosopher who became king was alone entitled to act and that all other people had, without a will of their own, to submit to his orders. Seen from the point of view of the philosopher who is firmly convinced of his own infallibility, all dissenters appear merely as stubborn rebels resisting what will benefit them.
The experience provided by history, especially by that of the last two hundred years, has not shaken this belief in salvation by tyranny and the liquidation of dissenters. Many of our contemporaries are firmly convinced that what is needed to render all human affairs perfectly satisfactory is brutal suppression of all "bad" people, i.e., of those with whom they disagree. They dream of a perfect system of government that — as they think — would have already long since been realized if these "bad" men, guided by stupidity and selfishness, had not hindered its establishment.
A modern, allegedly scientific school of reformers rejects these violent measures and puts the blame for all that is found wanting in human conditions upon the alleged failure of what is called "political science." The natural sciences, they say, have advanced considerably in the last centuries, and technology provides us almost monthly with new instruments that render life more agreeable. But "political progress has been nil." The reason is that "political science stood still."¹ Political science ought to adopt the methods of the natural sciences; it should no longer waste its time in mere speculations, but should study the "facts." For, as in the natural sciences, the "facts are needed before the theory."2
One can hardly misconstrue more lamentably every aspect of human conditions. Restricting our criticism to the epistemological problems involved, we have to say: What is today called "political science" is that branch of history that deals with the history of political institutions and with the history of political thought as manifested in the writings of authors who disserted about political institutions and sketched plans for their alteration. It is history, and can as such never provide any "facts" in the sense in which this term is used in the experimental natural sciences. There is no need to urge the political scientists to assemble all facts from the remote past and from recent history, falsely labelled "present experience." Actually they do all that can be done in this regard. And it is nonsensical to tell them that conclusions derived from this material ought "to be tested by experiments."4 It is supererogatory to repeat that the sciences of human action cannot make any experiments….
That every human action has to be judged and is judged by its fruits or results is an old truism. It is a principle with regard to which the Gospels agree with the often badly misunderstood teachings of the utilitarian philosophy. But the crux is that people widely differ from one another in their appraisal of the results. What some consider as good or best is often passionately rejected by others as entirely bad. The utopians did not bother to tell us what arrangement of affairs of state would best satisfy their fellow citizens. They merely expounded what conditions of the rest of mankind would be most satisfactory to themselves. Neither to them nor to their adepts who tried to realize their schemes did it ever occur that there is a fundamental difference between these two things. The Soviet dictators and their retinue think that all is good in Russia as long as they themselves are satisfied.
But even if for the sake of argument we put aside this issue, we have to emphasize that the concept of the perfect system of government is fallacious and elf contradictory.
The Human Condition
What elevates man above all other animals is the cognition that peaceful cooperation under the principle of the division of labor is a better method to preserve life and to remove felt uneasiness than indulging in pitiless biological competition for a share in the scarce means of subsistence provided by nature. Guided by this insight, man alone among all living beings consciously aims at substituting social cooperation for what philosophers have called the state of nature or bellum omnium contra omnes or the law of the jungle. However, in order to preserve peace, it is, as human beings are, indispensable to be ready to repel by violence any aggression, be it on the part of domestic gangsters or on the part of external foes. Thus, peaceful human cooperation, the prerequisite of prosperity and civilization, cannot exist without a social apparatus of coercion and compulsion, i.e., without a government. The evils of violence, robbery, and murder can be prevented only by an institution that itself, whenever needed, resorts to the very methods of acting for the prevention of which it is established. There emerges a distinction between illegal employment of violence and the legitimate recourse to it. In cognizance of this fact some people have called government an evil, although admitting that it is a necessary evil. However, what is required to attain an end sought and considered as beneficial is not an evil in the moral connotation of this term, but a means, the price to be paid for it. Yet the fact remains that actions that are deemed highly objectionable and criminal when perpetrated by "unauthorized" individuals are approved when committed by the "authorities."
Government as such is not only not an evil, but the most necessary and beneficial institution, as without it no lasting social cooperation and no civilization could be developed and preserved. It is a means to cope with an inherent imperfection of many, perhaps of the majority of all people. If all men were able to realize that the alternative to peaceful social cooperation is the renunciation of all that distinguishes Homo sapiens from the beasts of prey, and if all had the moral strength always to act accordingly, there would not be any need for the establishment of a social apparatus of coercion and oppression. Not the state is an evil, but the shortcomings of the human mind and character that imperatively require the operation of a police power. Government and state can never be perfect because they owe their raison d’étre to the imperfection of man and can attain their end, the elimination of man’s innate impulse to violence, only by recourse to violence, the very thing they are called upon to prevent.
The Fight for Liberty
It is a double-edged makeshift to entrust an individual or a group of individuals with the authority to resort to violence. The enticement implied is too tempting for a human being. The men who are to protect the community against violent aggression easily turn into the most dangerous aggressors. They transgress their mandate. They misuse their power for the oppression of those whom they were expected to defend against oppression. The main political problem is how to prevent the police power from becoming tyrannical. This is the meaning of all the struggles for liberty. The essential characteristic of Western civilization that distinguishes it from the arrested and petrified civilizations of the East was and is its concern for freedom from the state. The history of the West, from the age of the Greek city state down to the present-day resistance to socialism, is essentially the history of the fight for liberty against the encroachments of the officeholders.
A shallow-minded school of social philosophers, the anarchists, chose to ignore the matter by suggesting a stateless organization of mankind. They simply passed over the fact that men are not angels. They were too dull to realize that in the short run an individual or a group of individuals can certainly further their own interests at the expense of their own and all other peoples’ long-run interests. A society that is not prepared to thwart the attacks of such asocial and short-sighted aggressors is helpless and at the mercy of its least intelligent and most brutal members. While Plato founded his utopia on the hope that a small group of perfectly wise and morally impeccable philosophers will be available for the supreme conduct of affairs, anarchists implied that all men without any exception will be endowed with perfect wisdom and moral impeccability. They failed to conceive that no system of social cooperation can remove the dilemma between a man’s or a group’s interests in the short run and those in the long run.
Man’s atavistic propensity to beat into submission all other people manifests itself clearly in the popularity enjoyed by the socialist scheme. Socialism is totalitarian. The autocrat or the board of autocrats alone is called upon to act. All other men will be deprived of any discretion to choose and to aim at the ends chosen; opponents will be liquidated. In approving of this plan, every socialist tacitly implies that the dictators, those entrusted with production management and all government functions, will precisely comply with his own ideas about what is desirable and what undesirable. In deifying the state — if he is an orthodox Marxian, he calls it society — and in assigning to it unlimited power, he deifies himself and aims at the violent suppression of all those with whom he disagrees. The socialist does not see any problem in the conduct of political affairs because he cares only for his own satisfaction and does not take into account the possibility that a socialist government would proceed in a way he does not like.
Lost in Details
The "political scientists" are free from the illusions and self-deception that mar the judgment of anarchists and socialists. But busy with the study of the immense historical material, they become preoccupied with detail, with the numberless instances of petty jealousy, envy, personal ambition, and covetousness displayed by the actors on the political scene. They ascribe the failure of all political systems heretofore tried to the moral and intellectual weakness of man. As they see it, these systems failed because their satisfactory functioning would have required men of moral and intellectual qualities only exceptionally present in reality. Starting from this doctrine, they tried to draft plans for a political order that could function automatically, as it were, and would not be embroiled by the ineptitude and vices of men. The ideal constitution ought to safeguard a blemishless conduct of public affairs in spite of the rulers’ and the people’s corruption and inefficiency. Those searching for such a legal system did not indulge in the illusions of the utopian authors who assumed that all men or at least a minority of superior men are blameless and efficient. They gloried in their realistic approach to the problem. But they never raised the question how men tainted by all the shortcomings inherent in the human character could be induced to submit voluntarily to an order that would prevent them from giving vent to their whims and fancies.
However, the main deficiency of this allegedly realistic approach to the problem is not this alone. It is to be seen in the illusion that government, an institution whose essential function is the employment of violence, could be operated according to the principles of morality that condemn peremptorily the recourse to violence. Government is beating into submission, imprisoning, and killing. People may be prone to forget it because the law-abiding citizen meekly submits to the orders of the authorities so as to avoid punishment. But the jurists are more realistic and call a law to which no sanction is attached an imperfect law. The authority of manmade law is entirely due to the weapons of the constables who enforce obedience to its provisions. Nothing of what is to be said about the necessity of governmental action and the benefits derived from it can remove or mitigate the suffering of those who are languishing in prisons. No reform can render perfectly satisfactory the operation of an institution the essential activity of which consists in inflicting pain.
Responsibility for the failure to discover a perfect system of government does not rest with the alleged backwardness of what is called political science. If men were perfect, there would not be any need for government. With imperfect men no system of government could function satisfactorily.
The eminence of man consists in his power to choose ends and to resort to means for the attainment of the ends chosen; the activities of government aim at restricting this discretion of the individuals. Every man aims at avoiding what causes him pain; the activities of government ultimately consist in the infliction of pain. All great achievements of mankind were the product of a spontaneous effort on the part of individuals; government substitutes coercion for voluntary action. It is true, government is indispensable because men are not faultless. But designed to cope with some aspects of human imperfection, it can never be perfect.