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Mises on liberalism, Introduction continues

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Following the first three parts of the Introduction, the following sections are:

4. The Aim of Liberalism.

5. Liberalism and Capitalism.

6. The Psychological Roots of Antiliberalism.

It is interesting to note that section 2 on Material Welfare provided a counter-argument to the people who claim that indicators of happiness call into question the value of the market liberal program. Mises pointed out that liberalism does not promise happiness, just release from poverty and servitude. People have to find happiness in themselves and their human relations. It is not a valid criticism of liberalism that it fails to make people happy, although we know that anti-liberal policies can result in death and suffering on a massive scale.

Section 3 on Rationalism covers much the same ground as the chapter in Popper’s Open Society (posted in summary on this site) where he defended rationality. It is interesting to note that Mises and Popper were founding members of the Mont Pelerin Society but they never referrred to each other in their books and no synergy has been developed thus far between their two massive bodies of work. A crucial task for liberalism is to get these two great scrimmagers for freedom and rationality packed into the same scrum and pointing in the same direction. If they were batting together in a game of cricket they would be stealing the strike or even trying to run the other man out.

4. The Aim of Liberalism

There is a widespread opinion that liberalism is distinguished from other political movements by the fact that it places the interests of a part of society-the propertied classes, the capitalists, the entrepreneurs-above the interests of the other classes. This assertion is completely mistaken. Liberalism has always had in view the good of the whole, not that of any special group. It was this that the English utilitarians meant to express-although, it is true, not very aptly-in their famous formula, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Historically, liberalism was the first political movement that aimed at promoting the welfare of all, not that of special groups. Liberalism is distinguished from socialism, which likewise professes to strive for the good of all, not by the goal at which it aims, but by the means that it chooses to attain that goal.

If it is maintained that the consequence of a liberal policy is or must be to favor the special interests of certain strata of society, this is still a question that allows of discussion. It is one of the tasks of the present work to show that such a reproach is in no way justified. But one cannot, from the very outset, impute unfairness to the person who raises it-, though we consider his opinion incorrect, it could very well be advanced in the best of faith. In any case, whoever attacks liberalism in this way concedes that its intentions are disinterested and that it wants nothing but what it says it wants.

Quite different are those critics of liberalism who reproach it for wanting to promote, not the general welfare, but only the special interests of certain classes. Such critics are both unfair and ignorant. By choosing this mode of attack, they show that they are inwardly well aware of the weakness of their own case. They snatch at poisoned weapons because they cannot otherwise hope for success.

If a doctor shows a patient, who craves food detrimental to his health the perversity of his desire, no one will be so foolish as to say: “The doctor does not care for the good of the patient; whoever wishes the patient well must not grudge him the enjoyment of relishing such delicious food.” Everyone will understand that the doctor advises the patient to forgo the pleasure that the enjoyment of the harmful food affords solely in order to avoid injuring his health. But as soon as the matter concerns social policy, one is prone to consider it quite differently. When the liberal advises against certain popular measures because he expects harmful consequences from them, he is censured as an enemy of the people, and praise is heaped on the demagogues who, without consideration of the harm that will follow, recommend what seems to be expedient for the moment.

Reasonable action is distinguished from unreasonable action by the fact that it involves provisional sacrifices. The latter are only apparent sacrifices, since they are outweighed by the favorable consequences that later ensue. The person who avoids tasty but unwholesome food makes merely a provisional, a seeming sacrifice. The outcome—the nonoccurrence of injury to his health—shows that he has not lost, but gained. To act in this way, however, requires insight into the consequences of one’s action. The demagogue takes advantage of this fact. He opposes the liberal, who calls for provisional and merely apparent sacrifices, and denounces him as a hard-hearted enemy of the people, meanwhile setting himself up as a friend of humanity. In supporting the measures he advocates, he knows well how to touch the hearts of his hearers and to move them to tears with allusions to want and misery.

Antiliberal policy is a policy of capital consumption. It recommends that the present be more abundantly provided for at the expense of the future. It is in exactly the same case as the patient of whom we have spoken. In both instances a relatively grievous disadvantage in the future stands in opposition to a relatively abundant momentary gratification. To talk, in such a case, as if the question were one of hard-heartedness versus philanthropy is downright dishonest and untruthful. It is not only the common run of politicians and the press of the antiliberal parties that are open to such a reproach. Almost all the writers of the school of Sozialpolitik have made use of this underhanded mode of combat.

That there is want and misery in the world is not, as the average newspaper reader, in his dullness, is only too prone to believe, an argument against liberalism. It is precisely want and misery that liberalism seeks to abolish, and it considers the means that it proposes the only suitable ones for the achievement of this end. Let whoever thinks that he knows a better, or even a different, means to this end adduce the proof. The assertion that the liberals do not strive for the good of all members of society, but only for that of special groups, is in no way a substitute for this proof.

The fact that there is want and misery would not constitute an argument against liberalism even if the world today followed a liberal policy. It would always be an open question whether still more want and misery might not prevail if other policies had been followed. In view of all the ways in which the functioning of the institution of private property is curbed and hindered in every quarter today by antiliberal policies, it is manifestly quite absurd to seek to infer anything against the correctness of liberal principles from the fact that economic conditions are not, at present, all that one could wish. In order to appreciate what liberalism and capitalism have accomplished, one should compare conditions as they are at present with those of the Middle Ages or of the first centuries of the modern era. What liberalism and capitalism could have accomplished had they been allowed free rein can be inferred only from theoretical considerations.

5. Liberalism and Capitalism

A society in which liberal principles are put into effect is usually called a capitalist society, and the condition of that society, capitalism. Since the economic policy of liberalism has everywhere been only more or less closely approximated in practice, conditions as they are in the world today provide us with but an imperfect idea of the meaning and possible accomplishments of capitalism in full flower. Nevertheless, one is altogether justified in calling our age the age of capitalism, because all that has created the wealth of our time can be traced back to capitalist institutions. It is thanks to those liberal ideas that still remain alive in our society, to what yet survives in it of the capitalist system, that the great mass of our contemporaries can enjoy a standard of living far above that which just a few generations ago was possible only to the rich and especially privileged.

To be sure, in the customary rhetoric of the demagogues these facts are represented quite differently. To listen to them, one would think that all progress in the techniques of production redounds to the exclusive benefit of a favored few, while the masses sink ever more deeply into misery. However, it requires only a moment’s reflection to realize that the fruits of all technological and industrial innovations make for an improvement in the satisfaction of the wants of the great masses. All big industries that produce consumers’ goods work directly for their benefit; all industries that produce machines and half-finished products work for them indirectly. The great industrial developments of the last decades, like those of the eighteenth century that are designated by the not altogether happily chosen phrase, “the Industrial Revolution,” have resulted, above all, in a better satisfaction of the needs of the masses. The development of the clothing industry, the mechanization of shoe production, and improvements in the processing and distribution of foodstuffs have, by their very nature, benefited the widest public. It is thanks to these industries that the masses today are far better clothed and fed than ever before. However, mass production provides not only for food, shelter, and clothing, but also for other requirements of the multitude. The press serves the masses quite as much as the motion picture industry, and even the theater and similar strongholds of the arts are daily becoming more and more places of mass entertainment.

Nevertheless, as a result of the zealous propaganda of the antiliberal parties, which twists the facts the other way round, people today have come to associate the ideas of liberalism and capitalism with the image of a world plunged into ever increasing misery and poverty. To be sure, no amount of deprecatory propaganda could ever succeed, as the demagogues had hoped, in giving the words “liberal” and “liberalism” a completely pejorative connotation. In the last analysis, it is not possible to brush aside the fact that, in spite of all the efforts of antiliberal propaganda, there is something in these expressions that suggests what every normal person feels when he hears the word “freedom.” Antiliberal propaganda, therefore, avoids mentioning the word “liberalism” too often and prefers the infamies that it attributes to the liberal system to be associated with the term “capitalism.” That word brings to mind a flint-hearted capitalist, who thinks of nothing but his own enrichment, even if that is possible only through the exploitation of his fellow men.

It hardly occurs to anyone, when he forms his notion of a capitalist, that a social order organized on genuinely liberal principles is so constituted as to leave the entrepreneurs and the capitalists only one way to wealth, viz., by better providing their fellow men with what they themselves think they need. Instead of speaking of capitalism in connection with the prodigious improvement in the standard of living of the masses, antiliberal propaganda mentions capitalism only in referring to those phenomena whose emergence was made possible solely because of the restraints that were imposed upon liberalism. No reference is made to the fact that capitalism has placed a delectable luxury as well as a food, in the form of sugar, at the disposal of the great masses. Capitalism is mentioned in connection with sugar only when the price of sugar in a country is raised above the world market price by a cartel. As if such a development were even conceivable in a social order in which liberal principles were put into effect In a country with a liberal regime, in which there are no tariffs, cartels capable of driving the price of a commodity above the world market price would be quite unthinkable.

The links in the chain of reasoning by which antiliberal demagogy succeeds in laying upon liberalism and capitalism the blame for all the excesses and evil consequences of antiliberal policies are as follows: One starts from the assumption that liberal principles aim at promoting the interests of the capitalists and entrepreneurs at the expense of the interests of the rest of the population and that liberalism is a policy that favors the rich over the poor. Then one observes that many entrepreneurs and capitalists, under certain conditions, advocate protective tariffs, and still others—the armaments manufacturers—support a policy of “national preparedness”; and, out of hand, one jumps to the conclusion that these must be “capitalistic” policies.

In fact, however, the case is quite otherwise. Liberalism is not a policy in the interest of any particular group, but a policy in the interest of all mankind. It is, therefore, incorrect to assert that the entrepreneurs and capitalists have any special interest in supporting liberalism. Their interest in championing the liberal program is exactly the same as that of everyone else. There may be individual cases in which some entrepreneurs or capitalists cloak their special interests in the program of liberalism; but opposed to these are always the special interests of other entrepreneurs or capitalists. The matter is not quite so simple as those who everywhere scent “interests” and “interested parties” imagine. That a nation imposes a tariff on iron, for example, cannot “simply” be explained by the fact that this benefits the iron magnates. There are also persons with opposing interests in the country, even among the entrepreneurs; and, in any case, the beneficiaries of the tariff on iron are a steadily diminishing minority. Nor can bribery be the explanation, for the people bribed can likewise be only a minority; and, besides, why does only one group, the protectionists, do the bribing, and not their opponents, the freetraders?

The fact is that the ideology that makes the protective tariff possible is created neither by the “interested parties” nor by those bribed by them, but by the ideologists, who give the world the ideas that direct the course of all human affairs. In our age, in which antiliberal ideas prevail, virtually everyone thinks accordingly, just as, a hundred years ago, most people thought in terms of the then prevailing liberal ideology. If many entrepreneurs today advocate protective tariffs, this is nothing more than the form that antiliberalism takes in their case. It has nothing to do with liberalism.

6. The Psychological Roots of Antiliberalism

It cannot be the task of this book to discuss the problem of social cooperation otherwise than with rational arguments. But the root of the opposition to liberalism cannot be reached by resort to the method of reason. This opposition does not stem from the reason, but from a pathological mental attitude—from resentment and from a neurasthenic condition that one might call a Fourier complex, after the French socialist of that name.

Concerning resentment and envious malevolence little need be said. Resentment is at work when one so hates somebody for his more favorable circumstances that one is prepared to bear heavy losses if only the hated one might also come to harm. Many of those who attack capitalism know very well that their situation under any other economic system will be less favorable. Nevertheless, with full knowledge of this fact, they advocate a reform, e.g., socialism, because they hope that the rich, whom they envy, will also suffer under it. Time and again one hears socialists say that even material want will be easier to bear in a socialist society because people will realize that no one is better off than his neighbor.

At all events, resentment can still be dealt with by rational arguments. It is, after all, not too difficult to make clear to a person who is filled with resentment that the important thing for him cannot be to worsen the position of his better situated fellow men, but to improve his own.

The Fourier complex is much harder to combat. What is involved in this case is a serious disease of the nervous system, a neurosis, which is more properly the concern of the psychologist than of the legislator. Yet it cannot be neglected in investigating the problems of modern society. Unfortunately, medical men have hitherto scarcely concerned themselves with the problems presented by the Fourier complex. Indeed, they have hardly been noticed even by Freud, the great master of psychology, or by his followers in their theory of neurosis, though it is to psychoanalysis that we are indebted for having opened up the path that alone leads to a coherent and systematic understanding of mental disorders of this kind.

Scarcely one person in a million succeeds in fulfilling his life’s ambition. The upshot of one’s labors, even if one is favored by fortune, remains far inferior to what the wistful daydreams of youth allowed one to hope for. Plans and desires are shattered on a thousand obstacles, and one’s powers prove too weak to achieve the goals on which one has set one’s heart. The failure of his hopes, the frustration of his schemes, his own inadequacy in the face of the tasks that he has set himself-these constitute every man’s most deeply painful experience, They are, indeed, the common lot of man.

There are two ways in which man can react to this experience. One way is indicated by the practical wisdom of Goethe:

Dost thou fancy that I should hate life,
Should flee to the wilderness,
Because not all my budding dreams have blossomed?
his Prometheus cries. And Faust recognizes at the “highest moment” that “the last word of wisdom” is:
No man deserves his freedom or his life
Who does not daily win them anew.

Such a will and such a spirit cannot be vanquished by any earthly misfortune. He who accepts life for what it is and never allows himself to be overwhelmed by it does not need to seek refuge for his crushed self-confidence in the solace of a “saving lie.” If the longed-for success is not forthcoming, if the vicissitudes of fate destroy in the twinkling of an eye what had to be painstakingly built up by years of hard work, then he simply multiplies his exertions. He can look disaster in the eye without despairing.

The neurotic cannot endure life in its real form. It is too raw for him, too coarse, too common. To render it bearable he does not, like the healthy man, have the heart to “carry on in spite of everything.” That would not be in keeping with his weakness. Instead, he takes refuge in a delusion. A delusion is, according to Freud, “itself something desired, a kind of consolation”; it is characterized by its “resistance to attack by logic and reality.” It by no means suffices, therefore, to seek to talk the patient out of his delusion by conclusive demonstrations of its absurdity. In order to recuperate, the patient himself must overcome it. He must learn to understand why he does not want to face the truth and why he takes refuge in delusions.

Only the theory of neurosis can explain the success enjoyed by Fourierism, the mad product of a seriously deranged brain. This is not the place to adduce evidence of Fourier’s psychosis by quoting passages from his writings. Such descriptions are of interest only to the psychiatrist and, perhaps, also to people who derive a certain pleasure from reading the productions of a lewd phantasy. But the fact is that Marxism, when it is obliged to leave the field of pompous dialectical rhetoric and the derision and defamation of its opponents and to make a few meager remarks pertinent to the issue, never has anything different to advance from what Fourier, the “utopian,” had to offer. Marxism is likewise unable to construct a picture of a socialist society without making two assumptions already made by Fourier that contradict all experience and all reason. On the one hand, it assumes that the “material substratum” of production, which is “already present in nature without the need of productive effort on the part of man,” stands at our disposal in such abundance that it need not be economized; hence the faith of Marxism in a “practically limitless increase in production.” On the other hand, it assumes that in a socialist community work will change from “a burden into a pleasure”—indeed, that it will become “the primary necessity of life.” Where a superfluity of all goods abounds and work is a pleasure, it is, doubtless, an easy matter to establish a land of Cockaigne.

Marxism believes that from the height of its “scientific socialism” it is entitled to look down with contempt on romanticism and romantics. But in reality its own procedure is no different from theirs. Instead of removing the impediments that stand in the way of the realization of its desires, it too prefers to let all obstacles simply fade away in the mists of phantasy.

In the life of the neurotic the “saving lie” has a double function. It not only consoles him for past failure, but holds out the prospect of future success. In the case of social failure, which alone concerns us here, the consolation consists in the belief that one’s inability to attain the lofty goals to which one has aspired is not to be ascribed to one’s own inadequacy, but to the defectiveness of the social order. The malcontent expects from the overthrow of the latter the success that the existing system has withheld from him. Consequently, it is entirely futile to try to make clear to him that the utopia he dreams of is not feasible and that the only foundation possible for a society organized on the principle of the division of labor is private ownership of the means of production. The neurotic clings to his “saving lie,” and when he must make the choice of renouncing either it or logic, he prefers to sacrifice logic. For life would be unbearable for him without the consolation that he finds in the idea of socialism. It tells him that not he himself, but the world, is at fault for having caused his failure; and this conviction raises his depressed self-confidence and liberates him from a tormenting feeling of inferiority.

Just as the devout Christian could more easily endure the misfortune that befell him on earth because he hoped for a continuation of personal existence in another, better world, where those who on earth had been first would be last and the last would be first; so, for modern man, socialism has become an elixir against earthly adversity. But whereas the belief in immortality, in a recompense in the hereafter, and in resurrection formed an incentive to virtuous conduct in this life, the effect of the socialist promise is quite different. It imposes no other duty than that of giving political support to the party of socialism; but at the same time it raises expectations and demands.

This being the character of the socialist dream, it is understandable that every one of the partisans of socialism expects from it precisely what has so far been denied to him. Socialist authors promise not only wealth for all, but also happiness in love for everybody, the full physical and spiritual development of each individual, the unfolding of great artistic and scientific talents in all men, etc. Only recently Trotsky stated in one of his writings that in the socialist society “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”[1] The socialist paradise will be the kingdom of perfection, populated by completely happy supermen. All socialist literature is full of such nonsense. But it is just this nonsense that wins it the most supporters.

One cannot send every person suffering from a Fourier complex to the doctor for psychoanalytic treatment; the number of those afflicted with it is far too great. No other remedy is possible in this case than the treatment of the illness by the patient himself. Through self-knowledge he must learn to endure his lot in life without looking for a scapegoat on which he can lay all the blame, and he must endeavor to grasp the fundamental laws of social cooperation.

———

[1] Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, trans. by R. Strunsky (London, 1925), p. 256.

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November 23, 2006 at 8:29 pm

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