The Idea of Liberty is Western
[This article is excerpted from Chapter 21 of Money, Method, and the Market Process, a collection of essays selected by Margit von Mises and edited with an introduction by Richard M. Ebeling.]
The history of civilization is the record of a ceaseless struggle for liberty.
Social cooperation under the division of labor is the ultimate and sole source of man's success in his struggle for survival and his endeavors to improve as much as possible the material conditions of his well-being. But as human nature is, society cannot exist if there is no provision for preventing unruly people from actions incompatible with community life. In order to preserve peaceful cooperation, one must be ready to resort to violent suppression of those disturbing the peace. Society cannot do without a social apparatus of coercion and compulsion, i.e., without state and government. Then a further problem emerges: to restrain the men who are in charge of the governmental functions lest they abuse their power and convert all other people into virtual slaves. The aim of all struggles for liberty is to keep in bounds the armed defenders of peace, the governors and their constables. Freedom always means: freedom from arbitrary action on the part of the police power.
The idea of liberty is and has always been peculiar to the West. What separates East and West is first of all the fact that the peoples of the East never conceived the idea of liberty. The imperishable glory of the ancient Greeks was that they were the first to grasp the meaning and significance of institutions warranting liberty. Recent historical research has traced back to Oriental sources the origin of some of the scientific achievements previously credited to the Hellenes. But nobody has ever contested that the idea of liberty was created in the cities of ancient Greece. The writings of Greek philosophers and historians transmitted it to the Romans and later to modern Europe and America. It became the essential concern of all Western plans for the establishment of the good society. It begot the laissez-faire philosophy to which mankind owes all the unprecedented achievements of the age of capitalism.
The meaning of all modern political and judicial institutions is to safeguard the individuals' freedom against encroachments on the part of the government. Representative government and the rule of law, the independence of courts and tribunals from interference on the part of administrative agencies, habeas corpus, judicial examination and redress of acts of the administration, freedom of speech and the press, separation of state and church, and many other institutions aimed at one end only: to restrain the discretion of the officeholders and to render the individuals free from their arbitrariness.
The age of capitalism has abolished all vestiges of slavery and serfdom. It has put an end to cruel punishments and has reduced the penalty for crimes to the minimum indispensable for discouraging offenders. It has done away with torture and other objectionable methods of dealing with suspects and lawbreakers. It has repealed all privileges and promulgated equality of all men under the law. It has transformed the subjects of tyranny into free citizens.
The material improvements were the fruit of these reforms and innovations in the conduct of government affairs. As all privileges disappeared and everybody was granted the right to challenge the vested interests of all other people, a free hand was given to those who had the ingenuity to develop all the new industries which today render the material conditions of people more satisfactory. Population figures multiplied and yet the increased population could enjoy a better life than their ancestors.
Also in the countries of Western civilization there have always been advocates of tyranny — the absolute arbitrary rule of an autocrat or an aristocracy on the one hand and the subjection of all other people on the other hand. But in the Age of Enlightenment the voices of these opponents became thinner and thinner. The cause of liberty prevailed. In the first part of the nineteenth century the victorious advance of the principle of freedom seemed to be irresistible. The most eminent philosophers and historians got the conviction that historical evolution tends toward the establishment of institutions warranting freedom and that no intrigues and machinations on the part of the champions could stop the trend toward liberalism.
In dealing with the preponderance of the liberal social philosophy there is a disposition to overlook the power of an important factor that worked in favor of the idea of liberty, viz., the eminent role assigned to the literature of ancient Greece in the education of the elite. There were among the Greek authors also champions of government omnipotence, such as Plato. But the essential tenor of Greek ideology was the pursuit of liberty. Judged by the standards of modern liberal and democratic institutions, the Greek city-states must be called oligarchies. The liberty which the Greek statesmen, philosophers and historians glorified as the most precious good of man was a privilege reserved to a minority. In denying it to metics and slaves they virtually advocated the despotic rule of an hereditary caste of oligarchs. Yet it would be a grave error to dismiss their hymns to liberty as mendacious. They were no less sincere in their praise and quest of freedom than were, two thousand years later, the slaveholders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It was the political literature of the ancient Greeks that begot the ideas of the Monarchomachs, the philosophy of the Whigs, the doctrines of Althusius, Grotius, and John Locke, and the ideology of the fathers of modern constitutions and bills of rights. It was the classical studies, the essential feature of a liberal education, that kept awake the spirit of freedom in England of the Stuarts and George III, in France of the Bourbons, and in Italy, subject to the despotism of a galaxy of princes.
No less a man than Bismarck, among the nineteenth-century statesmen the foremost foe of liberty, bears witness to the fact that even in the Prussia of Frederick William III the Gymnasium was a stronghold of republicanism. The passionate endeavors to eliminate the classical studies from the curriculum of the liberal education and thus virtually to destroy its very character were one of the major manifestations of the revival of the servile ideology.
It is a fact that a hundred years ago only a few people anticipated the overpowering momentum which the antiliberal ideas were destined to acquire in a very short time. The ideal of liberty seemed to be so firmly rooted that everybody thought that no reactionary movement could ever succeed in eradicating it. It is true, it would have been a hopeless venture to attack freedom openly and to advocate unfeignedly a return to subjection and bondage. But antiliberalism got hold of people's minds camouflaged as superliberalism, as the fulfillment and consummation of the very ideas of freedom and liberty. It came disguised as socialism, communism, and planning.
No intelligent man could fail to recognize that what the socialists, communists, and planners were aiming at was the most radical abolition of the individual's freedom and the establishment of government omnipotence. Yet the immense majority of the socialist intellectuals were convinced that in fighting for socialism they were fighting for freedom. They called themselves left-wingers and democrats, and nowadays they are even claiming for themselves the epithet liberals.
These intellectuals and the masses who followed their lead were in their subconsciousness fully aware of the fact that their failure to attain the far-flung goals which their ambition impelled them to aim at was due to deficiencies of their own. They were either not bright enough or not industrious enough. But they were eager not to avow their inferiority both to themselves and to their fellow men and to search for a scapegoat. They consoled themselves and tried to convince other people that the cause of their failure was not their own inferiority but the injustice of society's economic organization. Under capitalism, they declared, self-realization is only possible for the few. "Liberty in a laissez-faire society is attainable only by those who have the wealth or opportunity to purchase it." Hence, they concluded, the state must interfere in order to realize "social justice." What they really meant is, in order to give to the frustrated mediocrity "according to his needs."
As long as the problems of socialism were merely a matter of debates people who lack clear judgment and understanding could fall prey to the illusion that freedom could be preserved even under a socialist regime. Such self-deceit can no longer be nurtured since the Soviet experience has shown to everybody what conditions are in a socialist commonwealth. Today the apologists of socialism are forced to distort facts and to misrepresent the manifest meaning of words when they want to make people believe in the compatibility of socialism and freedom.
The late Professor Laski — a self-styled noncommunist or even anticommunist — told us that "no doubt in Soviet Russia a Communist has a full sense of liberty; no doubt also he has a keen sense that liberty is denied him in Fascist Italy." The truth is that a Russian is free to obey all the orders issued by the great dictator. But as soon as he deviates a hundredth of an inch from the correct way of thinking as laid down by the authorities, he is mercilessly liquidated. All those politicians, office-holders, authors, musicians, and scientists who were "purged" were — to be sure — not anticommunists. They were, on the contrary, fanatical communists, party members in good standing, whom the supreme authorities, in due recognition of their loyalty to the Soviet creed, had promoted to high positions. The only offense they had committed was that they were not quick enough in adjusting their ideas, policies, books or compositions to the latest changes in the ideas and tastes of Stalin. It is difficult to believe that these people had "a full sense of liberty" if one does not attach to the word liberty a sense which is precisely the contrary of the sense which all people always used to attach to it.
Fascist Italy was certainly a country in which there was no liberty. It had adopted the notorious Soviet pattern of the "one party principle" and accordingly suppressed all dissenting views. Yet there was still a conspicuous difference between the Bolshevik and the Fascist application of this principle. For instance, there lived in Fascist Italy a former member of the parliamentary group of communist deputies, who remained loyal unto death to his communist tenets, Professor Antonio Graziadei. He regularly received the pension which he was entitled to claim as professor emeritus, and he was free to write and to publish, with the most eminent Italian publishing firms, books which were orthodox Marxian. His lack of liberty was certainly less rigid than that of the Russian communists who, as Professor Laski chose to say, "no doubt" have "a full sense of liberty."
Professor Laski took pleasure in repeating the truism that liberty in practice always means liberty within law. He went on saying that the law always aims at "the conference of security upon a way of life which is deemed satisfactory by those who dominate the machinery of state." This is a correct description of the laws of a free country if it means that the law aims at protecting society against conspiracies intent upon kindling civil war and upon overthrowing the government by violence. But it is a serious misstatement when Professor Laski adds that in a capitalistic society "an effort on the part of the poor to alter in a radical way the property rights of the rich at once throws the whole scheme of liberties into jeopardy."
Take the case of the great idol of Professor Laski and all his friends, Karl Marx. When in 1848 and 1849 he took an active part in the organization and the conduct of the revolution, first in Prussia and later also in other German states, he was — being legally an alien — expelled and moved, with his wife, his children, and his maid, first to Paris and then to London. Later, when peace returned and the abettors of the abortive revolution were amnestied, he was free to return to all parts of Germany and often made use of this opportunity. He was no longer an exile, and he chose of his own account to make his home in London. Nobody molested him when he founded, in 1864, the International Working Men's Association, a body whose avowed sole purpose it was to prepare the great world revolution. He was not stopped when on behalf of this association he visited various Continental countries. He was free to write and to publish books and articles which, to use the words of Professor Laski, were certainly an effort "to alter in a radical way the property rights of the rich." And he died quietly in his home, 41, Maitland Park Road, on March 14, 1883.
Or take the case of the British Labor Party. Their effort "to alter in a radical way the property rights of the rich" was, as professor Laski knew very well, not hindered by any action incompatible with the principle of liberty.
Marx, the dissenter, could at ease live, write and advocate revolution in Victorian England just as the Labor Party could at ease engage in all political activities in post-Victorian England. In Soviet Russia not the slightest opposition is tolerated. This is what the difference between liberty and slavery means.
The critics of the legal and constitutional concept of liberty and the institutions devised for its practical realization are right in their assertion that freedom from arbitrary action on the part of the officeholders is in itself not yet sufficient to make an individual free. But in emphasizing this indisputable truth they are running against open doors. For no advocate of liberty ever contended that to restrain the arbitrariness of officialdom is all that is needed to make the citizens free. What gives to the individuals as much freedom as is compatible with life in society is the operation of the market system. The constitutions and bills of rights do not create freedom. They merely protect the freedom that the competitive economic system grants to the individuals against encroachments on the part of the police power.
In the market economy people have the opportunity to strive after the station they want to attain in the structure of the social division of labor. They are free to choose the vocation in which they plan to serve their fellow men. In a planned economy they lack this right. Here the authorities determine each man's occupation. The discretion of the superiors promotes a man to a better position or denies him such promotion. The individual entirely depends on the good graces of those in power. But under capitalism everybody is free to challenge the vested interests of everybody else. If he thinks that he has the ability to supply the public better or more cheaply than other people do, he may try to demonstrate his efficiency. Lack of funds cannot frustrate his projects. For the capitalists are always in search of men who can utilize their funds in the most profitable way. The outcome of his business activities depends alone on the conduct of the consumers who buy what fits them best.
Neither does the wage earner depend on the employer's arbitrariness. An entrepreneur who fails to hire those workers who are best fitted for the job concerned and to pay them enough to prevent them from taking another job is penalized by a reduction of net revenue. The employer does not grant to his employees a favor. He hires them as an indispensable means for the success of his business in the same way in which he buys raw materials and factory equipment. The worker is free to find the employment which suits him best.
The process of social selection that determines each individual's position and income is continuously going on in the capitalist society. Great fortunes are shrinking and finally melting away completely while other people, born in poverty, ascend to eminent positions and considerable incomes. Where there are no privileges and governments do not grant protection to vested interests threatened by the superior efficiency of newcomers, those who have acquired wealth in the past are forced to acquire it every day anew in competition with all other people.
Within the framework of social cooperation under the division of labor everybody depends on the recognition of his services on the part of the buying public of which he himself is a member. Everybody in buying or abstaining from buying is a member of the supreme court which assigns to all people — and thereby also to himself — a definite place in society. Everybody is instrumental in the process that assigns to some people a higher and to others a smaller income. Everybody is free to make a contribution which his fellow men are prepared to reward by the allocation of a higher income. Freedom under capitalism means: not to depend more on other people's discretion than these others depend on one's own. No other freedom is conceivable where production is performed under the division of labor and there is no perfect economic autarky of everybody.
There is need to stress the point that the essential argument advanced in favor of capitalism and against socialism is not the fact that socialism must necessarily abolish all vestiges of freedom and convert all people into slaves of those in power. Socialism is unrealizable as an economic system because a socialist society would not have any possibility of resorting to economic calculation. This is why it cannot be considered as a system of society's economic organization. It is a means to disintegrate social cooperation and to bring about poverty and chaos.
In dealing with the liberty issue one does not refer to the essential economic problem of the antagonism between capitalism and socialism. One rather points out that Western man as different from the Asiatics is entirely a being adjusted to life in freedom and formed by life in freedom. The civilizations of China, Japan, India, and the Mohammedan countries of the Near East as they existed before these nations became acquainted with Western ways of life certainly cannot be dismissed as barbarism. These peoples already many hundreds, even thousands of years ago brought about marvelous achievements in the industrial arts, in architecture, in literature and philosophy and in the development of educational institutions. They founded and organized powerful empires. But then their effort was arrested, their cultures became numb and torpid, and they lost the ability to cope successfully with economic problems. Their intellectual and artistic genius withered away. Their artists and authors bluntly copied traditional patterns. Their theologians, philosophers, and lawyers indulged in unvarying exegesis of old works. The monuments erected by their ancestors crumbled. Their empires disintegrated. Their citizens lost vigor and energy and became apathetic in the face of progressing decay and impoverishment.
The ancient works of Oriental philosophy and poetry can compare with the most valuable works of the West. But for many centuries the East has not generated any book of importance. The intellectual and literary history of modern ages hardly records any name of an Oriental author. The East has no longer contributed anything to the intellectual effort of mankind. The problems and controversies that agitated the West remained unknown to the East. In Europe there was commotion; in the East there was stagnation, indolence, and indifference.
The reason is obvious. The East lacked the primordial thing, the idea of freedom from the state. The East never raised the banner of freedom, it never tried to stress the rights of the individual against the power of the rulers. It never called into question the arbitrariness of the despots. And, first of all, it never established the legal framework that would protect the private citizens' wealth against confiscation on the part of the tyrants. On the contrary, deluded by the idea that the wealth of the rich is the cause of the poverty of the poor, all people approved of the practice of the governors of expropriating successful businessmen. Thus big scale capital accumulation was prevented, and the nations had to miss all those improvements that require considerable investment of capital. No "bourgeoisie" could develop, and consequently there was no public to encourage and to patronize authors, artists, and inventors.
To the sons of the people all roads toward personal distinction were closed but one. They could try to make their way in serving the princes. Western society was a community of individuals who could compete for the highest prizes. Eastern society was an agglomeration of subjects entirely depending on the good graces of the sovereigns. The alert youth of the West looks upon the world as a field of action in which he can win fame, eminence, honors, and wealth; nothing appears too difficult for his ambition. The meek progeny of Eastern parents know of nothing else than to follow the routine of their environment. The noble self-reliance of Western man found triumphant expression in such dithyrambs as Sophocles's choric Antigone hymn upon man and his enterprising effort and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Nothing of the kind has ever been heard in the Orient.
Is it possible that the scions of the builders of the white man's civilization should renounce their freedom and voluntarily surrender to the suzerainty of omnipotent government? That they should seek contentment in a system in which their only task will be to serve as cogs in a vast machine designed and operated by an almighty planmaker? Should the mentality of the arrested civilizations sweep the ideals for the ascendancy of which thousands and thousands have sacrificed their lives?
Ruere in servitium, they plunged into slavery, Tacitus sadly observed in speaking of the Romans of the age of Tiberius.
Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) was dean of the Austrian School.
This article was originally published in American Affairs (October 1950), and is excerpted from Money, Method, and the Market Process, a collection of essays by Ludwig von Mises, selected by Margit von Mises, and edited with an introduction by Richard Ebeling. Comment on the blog.
 Cf. Otto von Bismarck, Gedanken und Erinnerungen, vol. 1 (New York: Cotta, 1898), p. 1.
 Cf. H. Laski, "Liberty" in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 9 (New York: Macmillan, 1930), p. 448.
 Cf. Ibid., p. 445-46.
 Cf. Ibid., p. 446.
 Cf. Ibid., p. 446.
 About Marx's activities in the years 1848 and 1849 see: Karl Marx, "Chronikseines Lebens in Einzeldaten" (Moscow: Marx-Engels-Lenin-Institute, 1934), pp. 48-81.
 In 1845 Marx voluntarily renounced his Prussian citizenship. When later, in the early 1860's, he considered a political career in Prussia, the ministry denied his application for restoring his citizenship. Thus a political career was closed to him. Perhaps this fact decided him to remain in London.