by Ludwig von Mises
From the very beginnings of the socialist movement and the endeavors to revive the interventionist policies of the precapitalistic ages, both socialism and interventionism were utterly discredited in the eyes of those conversant with economic theory. But the ideas of the revolutionaries and reformers found approval with the immense majority of ignorant people exclusively driven by the most powerful human passions of envy and hatred.
The social philosophy of the Enlightenment that paved the way for the realization of the liberal program—economic freedom, consummated in the market economy (capitalism), and its constitutional corollary, representative government—did not suggest the annihilation of the three old powers: the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the churches. The European liberals aimed at the substitution of the parliamentary monarchy for royal absolutism, not at the establishment of republican government. They wanted to abolish the privileges of the aristocrats, but not to deprive them of their titles, their escutcheons, and their estates. They were eager to grant to everybody freedom of conscience and to put an end to the persecution of dissenters and heretics, but they were anxious to give to all churches and denominations perfect freedom in the pursuit of their spiritual objectives. Thus the three great powers of the ancien régime were preserved. One might have expected that princes, aristocrats, and clergymen who indefatigably professed their conservatism would be prepared to oppose the socialist attack upon the essentials of Western civilization. After all, the harbingers of socialism did not shrink from disclosing that under socialist totalitarianism no room would be left for what they called the remnants of tyranny, privilege, and superstition.
However, even with these privileged groups resentment and envy were more intense than cool reasoning. They virtually joined hands with the socialists, disregarding the fact that socialism aimed also at the confiscation of their holdings and that there cannot be any religious freedom under a totalitarian system. The Hohenzollern in Germany inaugurated a policy that an American observer called monarchical socialism.1 The autocratic Romanoffs of Russia toyed with labor unionism as a weapon to fight the “bourgeois” endeavors to establish representative government.2 In every European country the aristocrats were virtually cooperating with the enemies of capitalism. Everywhere eminent theologians tried to discredit the free enterprise system and thus, by implication, to support either socialism or radical interventionism. Some of the outstanding leaders of present-day Protestantism—Barth and Brunner in Switzerland, Niebuhr and Tillich in the United States, and the late Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple—openly condemn capitalism and even charge the alleged failures of capitalism with the responsibility for all the excesses of Russian Bolshevism.
One may wonder whether Sir William Harcourt was right when, more than sixty years ago, he proclaimed: We are all socialists now. But today governments, political parties, teachers and writers, militant antitheists as well as Christian theologians are almost unanimous in passionately rejecting the market economy and praising the alleged benefits of state omnipotence. The rising generation is brought up in an environment that is engrossed in socialist ideas.
The influence of the prosocialist ideology comes to light in the way in which public opinion, almost without any exception, explains the reasons that induce people to join the socialist or communist parties. In dealing with domestic politics, one assumes that, “naturally and necessarily,” those who are not rich favor the radical programs—planning, socialism, communism—while only the rich have reason to vote for the preservation of the market economy. This assumption takes for granted the fundamental socialist idea that the economic interests of the masses are hurt by the operation of capitalism for the sole benefit of the “exploiters” and that socialism will improve the common man’s standard of living.
However, people do not ask for socialism because they know that socialism will improve their conditions, and they do not reject capitalism because they know that it is a system prejudicial to their interests. They are socialists because they believe that socialism will improve their conditions, and they hate capitalism because they believe that it harms them. They are socialists because they are blinded by envy and ignorance. They stubbornly refuse to study economics and spurn the economists’ devastating critique of the socialist plans because, in their eyes, economics, being an abstract theory, is simply nonsense. They pretend to trust only in experience. But they no less stubbornly refuse to take cognizance of the undeniable facts of experience, viz., that the common man’s standard of living is incomparably higher in capitalistic America than in the socialist paradise of the Soviets.
In dealing with conditions in the economically backward countries people display the same faulty reasoning. They think that these peoples must “naturally” sympathize with communism because they are poverty stricken. Now it is obvious that the poor nations want to get rid of their penury. Aiming at an improvement of their unsatisfactory conditions, they ought therefore to adopt that system of society’s economic organization which best warrants the attainment of this end; they ought to decide in favor of capitalism. But, deluded by spurious anti-capitalistic ideas, they are favorably disposed to communism. It is paradoxical indeed that the leaders of these Oriental peoples, while casting longing glances at the prosperity of the Western nations, reject the methods that made the West prosperous and are enraptured by Russian communism that is instrumental in keeping the Russians and their satellites poor. It is still more paradoxical that Americans, enjoying the products of capitalistic big business, exalt the Soviet system and consider it quite “natural” that the poor nations of Asia and Africa should prefer communism to capitalism.
People may disagree on the question of whether everybody ought to study economics seriously. But one thing is certain. A man who publicly talks or writes about the opposition between capitalism and socialism without having fully familiarized himself with all that economics has to say about these issues is an irresponsible babbler.
[Excerpted from The Anti-Capitalist Mentality]
Ludwig von Mises was a recognized leader of the Austrian school of economic thought, a prodigious creator of economic theory and a prolific author.