A Strategy for the War of Ideas

Dr. Petro has written The Labor Policy of the Free Society and numerous other scholarly books and articles. He Is Research Professor of Law, Baylor University, and Director of The Institute for Law and Policy Analysis, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Never before have there been so many persons and institutions engaged on the side of laissez-faire in the war of ideas over the proper role of government. And rarely before have socialism and interventionism enjoyed greater success in expanding the role of government while diminishing personal autonomy. Can it be that as the forces favoring laissez-faire grow, the role of government tends necessarily to increase?

Such a conclusion is unacceptable, for to accept it would imply that the proper course of action for every libertarian is to abandon his libertarianism.

The more acceptable interpretation is that while the number of libertarians may have grown absolutely, their influence has diminished relatively. This is the starting point of the present reflections on a strategy for spreading the truths of laissez-faire libertarianism: that statism is winning the war of ideas because the truths of libertarianism have not been published in sufficient quantity and quality to overcome the fallacies of statism.

Myths and Public Policy

It is not hard to establish that statism has been gaining ground throughout the 20th century simply because ideas and factual assumptions favorable to it have prevailed during this period. Today, most believe that the market economy abused consumers and exploited workers in the "bad old days." The free society will never have much of a chance as long as most people believe that it has been tried and has failed. It is no good saying that businessmen have learned to behave themselves better under the pressure of interventionist legislation and union disciplines. For people correctly ask themselves: if the free market could not protect workers and consumers from the predations of business and if it could not provide security against health and old-age hazards without the intervention of government before, why should it do so now?

Statism seems always to advance. Politicians and leftist ideologues daily blame businessmen and the market economy for the bad results of the treacherous villainy of government. Although inflation, unemployment, energy shortages, and their even more wretched consequences all trace to government interventionism, the people believe it when they are told that business is to blame. Why are they so prone to believe the worst of the best public servants the world has ever had—the business firms which feed, clothe, and otherwise provide for us so munificently while government only takes, and takes, and persons such as Ralph Nader have never succeeded in producing anything other than exploitation of the consumer in the name of "consumerism"?

People don’t think very well of government, either, it is true. But this fact serves only to emphasize how suspicious they are of the free market and of businessmen. Trusting government very little, they trust business even less and are therefore prone to believe the worst of it. Why? Let us examine one area of public policy which may provide a clue to the answer.

The Law of Labor Relations

Consider the law of labor relations. Scarcely a more destructive field of interventionist public policy exists. This policy, though dating back to the 1920s, rests on five still prevalent ideas: (1) that employers and employees are natural antagonists; (2) that in this antagonistic relationship the employers have all the advantages; (3) that in a market economy the employer is driven by competitive exigency to use his power-edge to abuse and exploit his employees; (4) that protection from such abuse lies in strong unionism and collective bargaining which the government can promote only by giving worker-organizations special legal privileges at the expense of the common-law rights of employers and anti-union employees; (5) that the common-law courts cannot be trusted to administer such a regime of special union privileges, so they must be replaced by administrative tribunals (such as the National Labor Relations Board), agencies which can be relied upon to implement the pro-union policies and not to be bothered by what Felix Frankfurter called the "pernicious abstractions" of liberty and property and the rule of law which tend to influence the decisions of the regular courts.

Widely Popularized

Practically everyone accepts as unshakeable truth one or more of these commonly held beliefs: university professors, preachers, high school and grammar school teachers, businessmen, journalists, "intellectuals at large," novelists, comic-strip creators, singers, dancers, actors, newspaper columnists, TV commentators. How then can the general public help taking these premises as gospel? And if they share the belief that the common law and the market economy, left unhampered, will abuse workers, how can they prefer free labor markets under the rule of common law? And if the general public does not want them, what response is to be expected from politicians, the turgid mirrors of muddy public opinion?

The big unions are today no longer as popular as they used to be. Still, no one is seriously proposing that the special privileges which account for their destructive social effects be repealed. No government, even today, with union popularity at a low, seriously considers repealing the existing pro-union legislation.

The situation is even worse. In fact, the moves in Washington are for more special privileges for unions. Each year lately the great political battle has been between those who wish to mulct the public with still more favorable laws for unions and those who say "thus far and no further." To repeat, proposals to repeal existing pro-union laws are rarely if ever made, and when made they are always ignored. Why is this so?

Ruling Ideas

There is an argument going on in libertarian circles between those who contend that ideas rule the political world and those who believe that interests rule. Probably the dispute here is basically a terminological one. Interests and ideas are, as Mises might have said (if he thought the dispute worth noticing), congeneric and concentric. Decisions about what interests to pursue are shaped by values and ideas, and values and ideas are interacting phenomena. Much more important than this,- while proposals may be made by interest groups largely out of base greed, with ideas secondary in their calculations, the big question for them and for the country lies in whether the demands for special subsidy and privilege will be granted. Interests may propose; but the ruling ideas of the country dispose.

So there can be only one answer. The five premises summarized above continue to prevail. These riling ideas preclude any possibility of repeal of the pro-union labor policies despite their pernicious effects.

With the country at large enthralled by these premises, not even sound scholars of libertarian bent are totally immune. Fritz Machlup, for example, has written that "there is no doubt that the use of the injunction against labor [sic] had been abused and it was in reaction to such abuse that the Federal Anti-Injunction Act was passed in 1932, severely restricting the use of the injunction." [The Political Economy of Monopoly 325 (1952).] But the first exhaustive study ever made of the use of the injunction in labor disputes from 1880 to 1932, only recently published,’ demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that during the period of so-called government by injunction the judges dealt with unions leniently and were already according them special privileges.

Sources of the Myths

A thoroughgoing, systematic process instilled these great labor myths into the minds of Europeans and Americans. The process began early in the 19th century in Europe, came to America toward the middle of the 19th century, and has been burgeoning ever since. A young libertarian scholar, Dr. Howard Dickman, is at work today on an exhaustive study of the English, European, and American scholars responsible for the gradual descent into the chaos of trade-union syndicalism which is threatening the survival of Great Britain and is tying the United States in knots. When Dickman’s work is published we shall be able to fix with precision the sources of the ideas which now rule almost all Americans, as well as the British and the Europeans, about the relations between employer and employee.

But we already know how their influence has spread from their lectures, articles, and books to our own university professors and from them to all the rest of us. Young American graduate students in the 19th century went to England and to Europe to complete their education, and they came back with the incoherent mess of guild socialism, pure socialism, syndicalism, and communism which has in most countries of the western world produced the atrocious paradoxes and incoherencies which we know as the "welfare state."

These young American scholars came back from Europe to become teachers and writers themselves, and, later, political activists—active in the service of syndicalism. Their students never quite knew what their teachers were for, because socialists and syndicalists tend to be confused and contradictory among themselves. But they all were equally and fervently convinced of one thing: the inhumanity and degradation of unhampered free enterprise. On this all their teachers were as one. And their students emerged with at least one clear idea: capitalism is ugly and hateful and hurtful.

And these students spread across the land, spanning all occupations, and became vocal thought-leaders everywhere. Some became themselves university professors, thus heightening the multiplicative effects of their teachers. Others became journalists, another socialist-multiplying activity. Many became preachers—more multipliers. And then there were those whose role it became to put the destructive ideas of syndicalism actually to work: lawyers, judges, legislators and other politicians.

One of the best examples was Felix Frankfurter, already mentioned as the author of the phrase, "the pernicious abstractions of liberty and property." Born an Austrian and already when he emigrated to America imbued with the Austrian statism which Mises has described, Felix Frankfurter was educated in this country by the epigoni of the European socialist syndicalists.

Moving to the Left

Some have thought Frankfurter a kind of conservative, but the facts are different. While a professor at Harvard Law School he became nationally known as an ardent supporter of leftist causes. For many years he published in the law journals articles decrying the common law and arguing for legislation granting unions special privileges. Not satisfied with mere scholarship he was also active politically. His masterwork, The Labor Injunction (1930), supplied the intellectual ammunition, just as his personal efforts provided the political stimulus, for the Norris-LaGuardia (anti-injunction) Act, easily one of the most effectively pernicious pieces of legislation ever passed.

During the New Deal, F. D. Roosevelt appointed Frankfurter to the United States Supreme Court. There Frankfurter completed the cycle from idea to action. His decisions, especially in the field of labor law, pushed the Norris-LaGuardia Act to extremes of pro-union privilege which even his own previous writing had disavowed. As a professor, he had written that the Norris Act did nothing more than prevent courts from enjoining aggressive union activity. On the Court he was to say that the Norris Act made such activity lawful for all purposes, so that aggressive union strikes and boycotts were freed of all legal control—actions for damages and criminal prosecutions, as well as petitions for injunctions.

Meanwhile the federal government and its bureaucracies also felt the Frankfurterian influence in the form of numerous of his Harvard Law School students. But that is by no means all. Great as his personal efforts and influence were, they were not so great as the influence of his major written work, The Labor Injunction. In exploring this fact, we shall come to a conclusion of perhaps considerable value.

The study mentioned above goes far to demonstrate that Frankfurter’s book was thoroughly meretricious: massively. and pretentiously documented though it appeared, the book was actually all show and no substance. Despite its mountainous footnotes, charts, and appendixes, the book was full of untruths, half-truths, and distortions; notwithstanding its scholarly appearance, in the end it was no more scholarly or cautious than the rabid editorials of the Communist Daily Worker or the CIO News. For example, Frankfurter repeatedly charged employers and judges with antiunion animus but never bothered to examine why such animus developed. He referred over and over again to the "pernicious abstractions of liberty and property" but nowhere showed how those ideas had brought about vicious results.

An Influential Book

Yet, with all its faults, The Labor Injunction has quite possibly been the most influential law book ever written in this country. Its main charges practically duplicate the five ruling myths of current labor policy mentioned earlier. Frankfurter said that in the antagonistic employer-employee relationship, employers were exploitative; unions were the only possible protective devices for the abused employees; but the common law judges, fired with anti-union passion and victimized by "pernicious abstractions," were making it impossible for the unions to do the great and good work that they alone could do.

If any person can be credited with a dominant role in fixing those ideas in the American mind, Felix Frankfurter was that person, and his book, The Labor Injunction, was the means. Even before it was published, courts cited it as authority for denying injunctions against vicious union conduct, in cases in which the obvious victims of such conduct were employees or members of rival unions. In the succeeding fifty years since it was first published, The Labor Injunction has been cited as authority for noxiously pro-union decisions literally thousands of times.

Its scholarly influence has been at least as great as its legal influence. I have never read any significant work dealing with the labor-injunction since 1930 which does not bow first to Frankfurter’s book. When the author of such a work blithely declares that the courts abused the labor-injunction in the "bad old days," he does not bother to cite a case as an example; still less does to try to demonstrate that such and such a case represented an abuse of the injunctive process. He merely cites The Labor Injunction—and proceeds from there to the most astoundingly outrageous legal proposals, confident that his premise is invincible because The Labor Injunction is his "authority."

The influence of The Labor Injunction spreads on and on. Since all the labor law teachers (and all the teachers of related subjects in economics, sociology, and politics) believe The Labor Injunction to be the gospel truth and say as much to their students, the students accept its wild accusations as gospel, too. They are in no position to check its accuracy. Till recently, they could find no fully and convincingly documented refutation on the library shelves. Hence The Labor Injunction was bound to fix their opinions on the subjects it treated. If they dared write a term-paper on unionism and the law without citing The Labor Injunction as an authority, doubtlessly their teachers would slash biting comments about "lack of standard authority" with their red marker pens across the offending pages. And if in class a student were to challenge the fullness and fairness of the Frankfurterian research, how could he defend his extraordinary temerity? The instructor would cut him to bits, and the other students would munch placidly at the pieces.

Write Books!

It has taken me a long time fully to absorb the meaning and implications of Mises’ frequent exhortation: "write books!" A solid scholarly work on an important subject has a much longer life and greater influence than any living person has. It is in some important ways better than speeches, better than panel discussions, better than articles in popular journals, better than pamphlets, better than thin monographs, better than politicking, better than any other activity measured only in the average human life-span. The only thing that comes close to sharing the advantages of a solid scholarly book is a comprehensive and detailed article published in a journal which is covered by one or more of the good periodical indexes.

This is not to say that people should quit writing brief articles, giving speeches, or engaging in politics, if that is their desire. It is only to bring attention to some of the advantages of solid scholarly work in the eternal war of ideas.

Any decent scholarly work will be purchased by all the great university and public libraries. If it is really good, it will find its way into smaller university, public, and private libraries. Its presence will be signaled for ages to come in the library’s card-catalogue, under author and subject and perhaps, if the cataloguer is good, under all the major topics it treats. Its silent and passive look on the shelves is deceptive, for no decent scholar will write a serious work without at least consulting the library card-catalogues available to him. If really serious, he will travel far and wide to find additional works on his subject. When he finds a work which he believes relevant, if he is honest he will bring it to life. It then no longer sits passively on the shelves, doing nothing. It enters his mind. It may have an electrifying impact. This has often happened to me. I first ran across Henry Hazlitt’s writing in a card-catalogue. I encountered Mises’ Human Action by chance in another card-catalogue. Life has never been the same for me. Books are not passive.

The Need for Exhaustive Research

The country and the world are in much worse shape than necessary. Since mankind is imperfect its condition will always leave something to be desired. But even so, things could be better than they are, despite our inherent limitations and flaws. The correctible aspects of mankind’s condition trace to faulty facts or faulty theory or both. As already mentioned, these faulty facts and theories have a long history, a monumental literature, and an almost universal influence.

Fortunately, since The Foundation for Economic Education was established in the 1940s (at about the same time as the Mont Pelerin Society was formed), a large number of institutions committed to the advancement of freedom and of the market economy have come into existence. These institutions are variously engaged. Some are conducting educational programs of an academic sort, some operate on the seminar or conference system, some publish journals, usually of a popular kind, some publish brief monographs and pamphlets, and some, essentially philanthropic institutions, provide support to the foregoing, as well as to individual authors for work which is at times quite ambitious from the scholarly point of view. All these libertarian programs are good. Doubtlessly, libertarianism would enjoy more success, if each were expanded. But I believe that what libertarianism must have now, if it is still to exist after the next dark generation has passed, is an extensive literature of heavyweight, exhaustive, thoroughly documented books demonstrating the fallacies and the destructive consequences of the anticapitalist policies which are now ruling the world and which are likely to bring it very close to destruction in the generation ahead.

For reasons stated above, seminars, conferences, brief articles, pamphlets, and other such ephemera will not suffice. They serve to inspire greater efforts by those they reach; they may even postpone the social destruction already so well on its way. But they cannot extirpate the queer mix of syndicalism and socialism that is now sweeping all before it. They cannot do this for largely the same reasons that you can’t sink a battleship with a popgun. The policies which are daily increasing the inanity and ugliness and insecurity of life are the products of the mountainous literature which has implanted the kinds of deeply imbedded myths listed earlier: the myths about the natural antagonisms between employer and employee, the abusive and exploitative character of the unhampered market, the necessity of more and ever more government in order to correct the alleged inhumanity and the inequities built into free markets.

All you can do in a brief article or speech or seminar is call these things "myths." You cannot definitively expose their mythic character, you cannot annihilate their credibility, you cannot strip them of every pretension—by anything less than exhaustive and definitive scholarly work. The myths are too deeply imbedded, too widely shared. Throwing pamphlets at the towering myths which rule our times is like trying to knock down the Empire State Building with a slingshot. It’s even less promising than that.

It will take generations of sound scholarship and teaching to eradicate the worst of the fallacies which now prevail. The only way to reach those generations is by planting on library shelves books that document definitively the theoretical blunders and the historical calamities associated with the syndicalist mess we are in. Let those powerful books sit on the shelves of libraries where scholars and students are bound to come across them.

The Truth Will Out—if Pushed

Those who participate in the war of ideas are constrained by psychic necessity to believe either in truth as an ultimate value, worth a total commitment; or, in any event, that discovered truth, cogently presented, will ultimately triumph; or probably in both, in varying proportions. Real engagement is otherwise unlikely, for there can be no such thing as sustained effort without strong conviction.

We posit a situation, such as the present, when drastically false conceptions of both theory and historical fact prevail. We posit also that education, particularly "higher education" at the university level, is the dominating vehicle for the propagation of ideas, good and bad.

Condensing a complex process to its essentials, we assert that education propagates ideas either orally or by the written word. If we eliminate that extremely rare person, the genuinely original teacher who confines his propagation to the spoken word, never committing his discoveries to permanent written form, the ultimate vehicle of propagation is the written word. This has to be true because the total sum of ruling ideas in all fields of systematic knowledge has been produced in a proportion of at least 99:1 by persons now dead. The expression "there is nothing new under the sun" probably overstates the case. But not by much.

Oral Transmission Limited

Many important ideas and factual assumptions are handed down across the generations by word of mouth. Still, one may doubt whether a single such idea or assumption is either confined to oral tradition or transmitted mainly by word of mouth. Complex theories or factual beliefs are hard to convey exclusively orally. The teacher commonly says at a certain point in every oral discussion: "for further development of this complicated matter, see so-and-so at chapter or pages so-and-so." Thus even orally propagated ideas and assumptions are at least complemented by published literature.

If there is in existence a substantial literature which controverts the theories or facts promulgated by a teacher, he ignores that literature at his peril. An enterprising student more than likely will run across the challenge and may take pleasure in embarrassing the teacher with the discovery. Or a colleague in the department or at another school will expose his violation of scholarly tradition.

The situation is different if there is no substantial literature which controverts the prevailing orthodoxy. Recent history is instructive for the strategist in the war of ideas. We have learned that there is no such thing as a truth settled once and for all, at least not in the field of social policy. That the case for laissez-faire capitalism may have been completed in the 150 years between Hume and Bohm-Bawerk obviously did not guarantee the dominance of laissez-faire in the 20th century. In the world of scholarship as in politics, apparently, the idea implied in the expression, "but what have you done for me lately," prevails.

Restate the Truth

The conclusion seems clear: upsetting a fallacious orthodoxy cannot be left to the literature produced by past generations. This does not mean that everything written as of 1900 is no longer of any value. It means that truths stated in 1900 must be restated in 1979 if a contrary fallacy then prevails. It is not enough to say that Keynes is "demolished by Say’s Law." It is not even enough to say that Nader’s consumerism was exposed as fallacious much earlier in this century by Professor Hutt’s description of free-market capitalism as the system ruled by consumer sovereignty.

The strategic rule, then, seems to be that current fallacy must be exposed by current exposition of the truth. More than that, to overthrow a current fallacy requires a powerful, thorough, exhaustive, definitive exposition of truth—for otherwise a strong and widespread orthodoxy finds it easy simply to ignore the truth. Think of how the works of Mises have been ignored, despite their compelling, diamond-like precision and lucidity.

The war of ideas like the war between good and evil goes on and on. Nothing is permanently settled. Each new-born child, each new generation, comes naked into the world, as bereft of the moral and intellectual virtues as it is of clothing. The child and its companions in each generation are endowed with a potential and little or nothing more. Those who wish to see that potential flower in truth and goodness must work at it.

If sound theory and accurate facts are to displace the ignorant nonsense now prevailing in the field of public policy a mountain of current literature must be raised, a mountain so high that even degenerate university teachers cannot risk ignoring it.

As Mises said "write books!"—or encourage others to do so.


‘Injunctions and Labor-Disputes 1880-1932: What the Courts Actually Did, and Why, available from The Institute for Law and Policy Analysis, Suite 305, First Center Bldg., Winston-Salem, N.C. 27104 ($6.00), 235 pp.

Further Reading