All Commentary
Thursday, May 1, 1980

Politics and Ideas

In the Age of Enlightenment, in the years in which the North Americans founded their independence, and a few years later, when the Spanish and Portuguese colonies were transformed into independent nations, the prevailing mood in Western civilization was optimistic. At that time all philosophers and statesmen were fully convinced that we were living at the beginning of a new age of prosperity, progress, and freedom. In those days people expected that the new political institutions—the constitutional representative gov ernments established in the free nations of Europe and America—would work in a very beneficial way, and that economic freedom would continuously improve the material conditions of mankind.

We know very well that some of these expectations were too optimistic. It is certainly true that we have experienced, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an unprecedented improvement in economic conditions, making it possible for a much larger population to live at a much higher standard of living. But we also know that many of the hopes of the eighteenth century philosophers have been badly shattered—hopes that there would not be any more wars and that revolutions would become unnecessary. These expectations were not realized.

During the nineteenth century, there was a period when wars decreased in both number and severity. But the twentieth century brought a resurgence of the war-like spirit, and we can fairly well say that we may not yet be at the end of the trials through which mankind will have to go.

The constitutional system that began at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century has disappointed mankind. Most people—also most authors who have dealt with this problem seem to think there has been no connection between the economic and the political side of the problem. Thus, they tend to deal at great length with the decay of parliamentarianism—government by the representatives of the people—as if this phenomenon were completely independent of the economic situation and of the economic ideas that determine the activities of people.

But such an independence does not exist. Man is not a being that, on the one hand, has an economic side and, on the other hand, a political side, with no connection between the two. In fact, what is called the decay of freedom, of constitutional government and representative institutions, is the consequence of the radical change in economic and political ideas. The political events are the inevitable consequence of the change in economic policies.

A Common Goal—Different Ways to Reach It

The ideas that guided the statesmen, philosophers and lawyers who, in the eighteenth century and in the early nineteenth century developed the fundamentals of the new politi cal system, started from the assumption that, within a nation, all honest citizens have the same ultimate goal. This ultimate goal, to which all decent men should be dedicated, is the welfare of the whole nation and also the welfare of other nations—these moral and political leaders being fully convinced that a free nation is not interested in conquest. They conceived of party strife as only natural, that it was perfectly normal for there to be differences of opinion concerning the best way to conduct the affairs of state.

Those people who held similar ideas about a problem cooperated, and this cooperation was called a party. But a party structure was not permanent. It did not depend on the position of the individuals within the whole social structure. It could change if people learned that their original position was based on erroneous assumptions, on erroneous ideas. From this point of view, many regarded the discussions in the election campaigns and later in the legislative assemblies as an important political factor. The speeches of members of a legislature were not considered to be merely pronouncements telling the world what a political party wanted. They were re-gamed as attempts to convince op posing groups that the speaker’s own ideas were more correct, more beneficial to the common weal, than those which they had heard before.

Political speeches, editorials in newspapers, pamphlets, and books were written in order to persuade. There was little reason to believe that one could not convince the majority that one’s own position was absolutely correct if one’s ideas were sound. It was from this point of view that the constitutional rules were written in the legislative bodies of the early nineteenth century.

But this implied that the government would not interfere with the economic conditions of the market. It implied that all citizens had only one political aim: the welfare of the whole country and of the whole nation. And it is precisely this social and economic philosophy that interventionism has replaced. Interventionism has spawned a very different philosophy.

Under interventionist ideas, it is the duty of the government to support, to subsidize, to give privileges to special groups. The idea of the eighteenth century statesmen was that the legislators had special ideas about the common good. But what we have today, what we see today in the reality of political life, practically without any exceptions, in all the countries of the world where there is not simply communist dictatorship, is a situation where there are no longer real political parties in the old classical sense, but merely pressure groups.

A pressure group is a group of people who want to attain for themselves a special privilege at the expense of the rest of the nation. This privilege may consist in a tariff on competing imports, it may consist in a subsidy, it may consist in laws that prevent other people from competing with the members of the pressure group. At any rate, it gives to the members of the pressure group a special position. It gives them something which is denied or ought to be denied—according to the ideas of the pressure group—to other groups.

The Form Remains

In the United States, the two-party system of the old days is seemingly still preserved. But this is only a camouflage of the real situation. In fact, the political life of the United States—as well as the political life of all other countries—is determined by the struggle and aspirations of pressure groups. In the United States there is still a Republican party and a Democratic party, but in each of these parties there are pressure group representatives. These pressure group representatives are more interested in cooperation with representatives of the same pressure group in the opposing party than with the efforts of fellow members in their own party.

To give you an example, if you talk to people in the United States who really know the business of Congress, they will tell you: “This man, this member of Congress represents the interests of the silver groups.” Or they will tell you another man represents the wheat growers.

Of course, each of these pressure groups is necessarily a minority. In a system based on the division of labor, every special group that aims at privileges has to be a minority. And minorities never have the chance to attain success, if they do not cooperate with other similar minorities, similar pressure groups. In the legislative assemblies, they try to bring about a coalition between various pressure groups, so that they might become the majority. But, aider a time, this coalition may disintegrate, because there are problems on which it is impossible to reach agreement with other pressure groups, and new pressure group coalitions are formed.

That is what happened in France in 1871, a situation which historians deemed %he decay of the Third Republic.” It was not a decay of the Third Republic; it was simply an exemplification of the fact that the pressure group system is not a system that can be successfully applied to the government of a big nation.

You have, in the legislatures, representatives of wheat, of meat, of silver, and of oil, but first of all, of the various unions. Only one thing is not represented in the legislature: the nation as a whole. There are only a few who take the side of the nation as a whole. And all problems, even those of foreign policy, are seen from the point of view of the special pressure group interests.

In the United States, some of the less-populated states are interested in the price of silver. But not everybody in these states is interested in it. Nevertheless, the United States, for many decades, has spent a considerable sum of money, at the expense of the taxpayers, in order to buy silver above its market price. For another example, in the United States only a small proportion of the population is employed in agriculture; the remainder of the population is made up of consumers—but not producers—of agricultural products. The United States, nevertheless, has a policy of spending billions and billions in order to keep the prices of agricultural products above the potential market price.

One cannot say that this is a policy in favor of a small minority, because these agricultural interests are not uniform. The dairy farmer is not interested in a high price for cereals; on the contrary, he would prefer a lower price for this product. A chicken farmer wants a lower price for chicken feed. There are many incompatible special interests within this group. And yet, clever diplomacy in congressional politics makes it possible for small minority groups to get privileges at the expense of the majority.

The Sugar Lobby

One situation, especially interesting in the United States, concerns sugar. Perhaps only one out of 500 Americans is interested in a higher price for sugar. Probably 499 out of 500 want a lower price for sugar. Nevertheless, the policy of the United States is committed, by tariffs and other special measures, to a higher price for sugar. This policy is not only detrimental to the interests of those 499 who are consumers of sugar, it also creates a very severe problem of foreign policy for the United States. The aim of foreign policy is cooperation with all other American republics, some of which are interested in selling sugar to the United States. They would like to sell a greater quantity of it. This illustrates how pressure group interests may determine even the foreign policy of a nation.

For years, people throughout the world have been writing about democracy—about popular, representative government. They have been complaining about its inadequacies, but the democracy they criticize is only that democracy under which interventionism is the governing policy of the country.

Today one might hear people say: “In the early nineteenth century, in the legislatures of France, England, the United States, and other nations, there were speeches about the great problems of mankind. They fought against tyranny, for freedom, for cooperation with all other free nations. But now we are more practical in the legislature!”

Of course we are more practical; people today do not talk about freedom: they talk about a higher price for peanuts. If this is practical, then of course the legislatures have changed considerably, but not improved.

Representatives Shackled

These political changes, brought about by interventionism, have considerably weakened the power of nations and of representatives to resist the aspirations of dictators and the operations of tyrants. The legislative representatives whose only concern is to satisfy the voters who want, for instance, a high price for sugar, milk, and butter, and a low price for wheat (subsidized by the government) can represent the people only in a very weak way; they can never represent all their constituents.

The voters who are in favor of such privileges do not realize that there are also opponents who want the opposite thing and who prevent their representatives from achieving full success.

This system leads also to a constant increase of public expenditures, on the one hand, and makes it more difficult, on the other, to levy taxes. These pressure group repre sentatives want many special privileges for their pressure groups, but they do not want to burden their supporters with a too-heavy tax load.

It was not the idea of the eighteenth century founders of modern constitutional government that a legislator should represent not the whole nation but only the special interests of the district in which he was elected; that was one of the consequences of interventionism. The original idea was that every member of the legislature should represent the whole nation. He was elected in a special district only because there he was known and elected by people who had confidence in him.

But it was not intended that he go into government in order to procure something special for his constituency, that he ask for a new school or a new hospital or a new lunatic asylum thereby causing a considerable rise in government expenditures within his district. Pressure group politics explains why it is almost impossible, for all governments, to stop inflation. As soon as the elected officials try to restrict expenditures, to limit spending, those who support special interests, who derive advantages from special items in the budget, come and declare that this particular project cannot be undertaken, or that that one must be done.

Dictatorship, of course, is no solution to the problems of economics, just as it is not the answer to the problems of freedom. A dictator may start out by making promises of every sort but, being a dictator, he will not keep his promises. He will, instead, suppress free speech immediately, so that the newspapers and the legislative speech-makers will not be able to point out—days, months or years afterwards—that he said something different on the first day of his dictatorship than he did later on.

The terrible dictatorship which such a big country as Germany had to live through in the recent past comes to mind, as we look upon the decline of freedom in so many coun tries today. As a result, people speak now about the decay of freedom and about the decline of our civilization.

A Dubious Doctrine

People say that every civilization must finally fall into ruin and disintegrate. There are eminent supporters of this idea. One was a German teacher, Spengler, and another one, much better known, was the English historian Toynbee. They tell us that our civilization is now old. Spengler compared civilization to plants which grow and grow, but whose life finally comes to an end. The same, he says, is true for civilizations. The metaphorical likening of a civilization to a plant is completely arbitrary.

First of all, it is within the history of mankind very difficult to distinguish between different, independent civilizations. Civilizations are not independent; they are interdependent, they constantly influence each other. One cannot speak of the decline of a particular civilization, therefore, in the same way that one can speak of the death of a particular plant.

But even if you refute the doctrines of Spengler and Toynbee, a very popular comparison still remains: the comparison of decaying civilizations. It is certainly true that in the second century A.D., the Roman Empire nurtured a very flourishing civilization, that in those parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa in which the Roman Empire ruled, there was a very high civilization. There was also a very high economic civilization, based on a certain degree of division of labor. Although it appears quite primitive when compared with our conditions today, it certainly was remarkable. It reached the highest degree of the division of labor ever attained before modern capitalism. It is no less true that this civilization disintegrated, especially in the third century. This disintegration within the Roman Empire made it impossible for the Romans to resist aggression from without. Although the aggression was no worse than that which the Romans had resisted again and again in the preceding centuries, they could withstand it no longer aider what had taken place within the Roman Empire.

What had taken place? What was the problem? What was it that caused the disintegration of an empire which, in every regard, had attained the highest civilization ever achieved before the eighteenth century? The truth is that what destroyed this ancient civilization was something similar, almost identical to the dangers that threaten our civilization today: on the one hand it was interventionism, on the other hand, inflation. The interventionism of the Roman Empire consisted in the fact that the Roman Empire, following the preceding Greek policy, did not abstain from price control. This price control was mild, practically without any consequences, because for centuries it did not try to reduce prices below the market level.

But when inflation began in the third century, the poor Romans did not yet have our technical means for inflation—they could not print money. They had to debase the coin age, and this was a much inferior system of inflation compared to the present system, which—through the use of the modern printing press—can so easily destroy the value of money. But it was efficient enough, and it brought about the same result as price control. For the prices which the authorities tolerated were now below the potential price to which inflation had brought the prices of the various commodities.

Unseen Consequences

The result, of course, was that the supply of foodstuffs in the cities declined. The people in the cities were forced to go back to the country and to return to agricultural life. The Romans never realized what was happening. They did not understand it. They had not developed the mental tools to interpret the problems of the division of labor and the consequences of inflation upon market prices. That this currency inflation, currency debasement, was bad, this they knew of course very well.

Consequently, the emperors made laws against this movement. There were laws preventing the city dweller from moving to the country, but such laws were ineffective. As the people did not have anything to eat in the city, as they were starving, no law could keep them from leaving the city and going back into agriculture. The city dweller could no longer work in the processing industries of the cities as an artisan. And, with the loss of the markets in the cities, no one could buy anything there anymore.

Thus we see that, from the third century on, the cities of the Roman Empire were declining and that the division of labor became less intensive than it had been before. Finally, the medieval system of the self-sufficient household, of the “villa,” as it was called in later laws, emerged.

Therefore, if people compare our conditions with those of the Roman Empire and say: “We will go the same way,” they have some reasons for saying so. They can find some facts which are similar. But there are also enormous differences. These differences are not in the political structure which prevailed in the second part of the third century. Then, on the average of every three years, an emperor was assassinated, and the man who killed him or caused his death became his successor. After three years, on the average, the same happened to the new emperor. When Diocletian, in the year 284, became emperor, he tried for some time to oppose the decay, but without success.

Planned Chaos

There are enormous differences between present-day conditions and those that prevailed in Rome, in that the measures that caused the disintegration of the Roman Empire were not premeditated. They were not, I would say, the result of reprehensible formalized doctrines.

In contrast, however, the interventionist ideas, the socialist ideas, the inflationist ideas of our time, have been concocted and formalized by writers and professors. And they are taught at colleges and universities. You may say: “Today’s situation is much worse.” I will answer: “No, it is not worse.” It is better, in my opinion, because ideas can be defeated by other ideas. Nobody doubted, in the age of the Roman emperors, that the government had the right and that it was a good policy to determine maximum prices. Nobody disputed this.

But now that we have schools and professors and books that recommend this, we know very well that this is a problem for discussion. All these bad ideas from which we suffer today, which have made our policies so harmful, were developed by academic theorists.

A famous Spanish author spoke about “the revolt of the masses.” We have to be very cautious in using this term, because this revolt was not made by the masses: it was made by the intellectuals. And those intellectuals who developed these doctrines were not men from the masses. The Marxian doctrine pretends that it is only the proletarians that have the good ideas and that only the proletarian mind created socialism. All the socialist authors, without exception, were bourgeois in the sense in which the socialists use this term.

Karl Marx was not a man from the proletariat. He was the son of a lawyer. He did not have to work to go to the university. He studied at the university in the same way as do the sons of well-to-do people today. Later, and for the rest of his life, he was supported by his friend Friedrich Engels, who—being a manufacturer—was the worst type of “bourgeois,” according to socialist ideas. In the language of Marxism, he was an exploiter.

Everything that happens in the social world in our time is the result of ideas. Good things and bad things. What is needed is to fight bad ideas. We must fight all that we dislike in public life. We must substitute better ideas for wrong ideas. We must refute the doctrines that promote union violence. We must oppose the confiscation of property, the control of prices, inflation, and all those evils from which we suffer.

The Power of Better Ideas

Ideas and only ideas can light the darkness. These ideas must be brought to the public in such a way that they persuade people. We must convince them that these ideas are the right ideas and not the wrong ones. The great age of the nineteenth century, the great achievements of capitalism, were the result of the ideas of the classical economists, of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, of Bastiat and others.

What we need is nothing else than to substitute better ideas for bad ideas. This, I hope and am confident, will be done by the rising generation. Our civilization is not doomed, as Spengler and Toynbee tell us. Our civilization will not be conquered by the spirit of Moscow. Our civilization will and must survive. And it will survive through better ideas than those which now govern most of the world today, and these better ideas will be developed by the rising generation.

I consider it as a very good sign that, while fifty years ago, practically nobody in the world had the courage to say anything in favor of a free economy, we have now, at least in some of the advanced countries of the world, institutions that are centers for the propagation of a free economy, such as, for example, the “Centre” in your country which invited me to come to Buenos Aires, to say a few words in this great city.

I could not say much about these important matters. Six lectures may be very much for an audience, but they are not enough to develop the whole philosophy of a free economic system, and certainly not enough to refute all the nonsense that has been written in the last fifty years about the economic problems with which we are dealing.

I am very grateful to this center for giving me the opportunity to address such a distinguished audience, and I hope that in a few years the number of those who are supporting ideas for freedom in this country, and in other countries, will increase considerably. I myself have full confidence in the future of freedom, both political and economic. []

Ludwig von Mises, 1881-1973, was one of the great defenders of a rational economic science, and perhaps the single most creative mind at work in this field in our century.

Found among the papers of Dr. Mises were transcripts of lectures he delivered in Argentina in 1959. These have now been edited by his widow and are available as a Regnery/Gateway paper-backed book. This article, one of the lectures, is here reprinted by permission of the publishers. All rights reserved.

The book, Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow, also may be purchased at $4.95 from The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on- Hudson, N.Y. 10533.

  • Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) taught in Vienna and New York and served as a close adviser to the Foundation for Economic Education. He is considered the leading theorist of the Austrian School of the 20th century.