1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School

Search Mises.org

Patriotism as a Threat to Capitalism

Mises Daily: Monday, September 13, 2010 by

A
A

[From The Case for Legalizing Capitalism]

Having learned that the government acts in ways detrimental to its citizens economically, and by causing wars, we should ask exactly why we support our politicians, why we support most of our military operations, and why we support our very national identity. In short, we should ask ourselves why we are patriotic.

What is patriotism? What exactly are we supporting when we are patriotic? If the answer is "our country," does that mean a geographical region that our government has artificially and arbitrarily identified as its own? If so, does our patriotism change when the boundaries change? Should we not have been patriotic toward the southwestern states before we stole them from Mexico? Should the residents there have been patriotic toward the United States once they were forced to be citizens? Should the citizens of the various countries of the Soviet republic have been patriotic to the USSR after they were forced at gunpoint to be countrymen? Should the citizens of Czechoslovakia — who were forced together by Woodrow Wilson — have been patriotic toward the Czech republic or to Slovakia after the nation split up? Geographical borders are only imaginary, temporary, lines.

Is patriotism instead the act of being loyal to the land itself, specifically the land upon which one grew up? If so, should someone who grows up in Nevada but moves to Connecticut for their career be patriotic toward Nevada or Connecticut? One might reply that the answer is both, because one lived in and identified with both regions.

If that's the case, what if one grew up in the United States, but had a career overseas in South Korea teaching school or working for a multinational corporation? Is it bad if such a person is also patriotic toward South Korea? What if I have lived in France and learned to love the people and the land and actually prefer France to the United States? To whom should I be patriotic, to France or to the United States? Am I unpatriotic to favor France?

If so, were our forefathers unpatriotic to want independence from their native Britain and make America their new home? We Americans don't seem to think so now. But if the Latinos of Miami wanted to make Miami their own new Cuba by seceding, or if the southwestern states wanted to secede from the nation as a separate country or once again become part of Mexico, we would call them traitors.

Or is patriotism based on a connection to the people of a nation, to our fellow citizens? If so, should I be loyal to Americans because they are my compatriots? Why should I? It is my very patriotic neighbors who democratically vote to take my property and give it to someone else against my will. It is my neighbors who vote for regulation and government intervention that makes my life worse. It is my fellow citizens who vote for politicians that create wars and send millions of their own citizens to die.

Naturally, our government leaders call stealing from our neighbors patriotic. In 2008, Joe Biden said, "it's time [for the rich] to be patriotic … time to jump in … time to be part of the deal … time to get America out of the rut." Many people in fact do believe that the rich need to pitch in and help us innocent workers who are in this rut — a rut created by Biden and other government officials by their policies of printing money, spending more than they can steal from citizens, and in many other ways destroying our wealth and bringing on economic crises. It is a rut that was created because we voted yet again for the same bad policies of the last 100 years.

Biden implicitly says the wealthy are using too much of their money to provide us with goods and jobs. They should instead turn their assets into cash and give it to us to consume. Thus, according to Biden, it's unpatriotic to provide the things that improve our lives. Conversely, it's patriotic to squander all our wealth.

If this is patriotism, we should all be anti-American. Most Americans support these terrible ideas and support terrible politicians like Biden who cause this harm. The same applies to politicians and citizens in every country. Why should one be loyal to such people?

The people of Argentina — and other Latin American countries — face massive economic crises caused by their thieving politicians every decade, crises that involve hyperinflation that wipes out their life's savings, creates banking crises, mass unemployment, massive national debt, and general suffering. They have endured human-rights abuses, political persecution, subservient judiciaries, lack of accountability, widespread corruption, virulent demagoguery, social upheaval, and the absence of individual economic rights for centuries. Yet Argentineans are incredibly patriotic and proud of their nation.

Citizens of Mexico and Cuba risk life and limb to escape to the United States in order to find work and survival, because their fellow citizens and government offer them few opportunities at home for prosperity. Yet both of these peoples proudly display their native flags while in exile.

Citizens of Germany and Austria have been led into war over and over with millions of fathers and brothers killed, yet they are historically always patriotic and ready for the next war (though since World War II they have been largely antiwar). Why should any of these people be patriotic? Exactly what are they supporting by being devoted to their country?

"National borders mean nothing."

Patriotism is an abstract notion with no real substance. It means nothing; it's just a façade, a fake, imaginary glue that keeps a people naively devoted to causes, countries, governments, and neighbors who usually bring them harm (the phrase "come together" is similarly ambiguous and empty). National borders mean nothing. They would not exist without government force, and they are usually laid out for reasons of politics and power, not in accordance with the religions, identities, culture, or preferences of individuals.

Time and again, decade after decade, borders change. The people on each side of a new border are supposed to be loyal to people within their new border, and to the new government forced upon them. They often resist and want their previous identities back. It is for this reason, and for reasons of freedom and self-rule, that regions such as Chechnya, Georgia, Palestine, Quebec, Northern Tibet, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and Kosovo, among many others, often fight for independence. More often than not, those who fight for freedom (and for socialism, incidentally) are called freedom fighters, but they are labeled terrorists by those who oppose their separation.

In today's America, patriotism, effectively, is the act of aggressing upon other nations; it is the act of stealing from our fellow man in the name of furthering our prosperity, while in fact destroying our prosperity. It is under the name of patriotism and supposed freedom that it is justifiable for the United States to attack citizens of any country, including its own.

Patriotism is usually the cause of many of our problems, not the solution to them. And as time passes, we become more obsessed with it. Now, a government official, or even football players and referees, cannot appear in public without an American flag on their lapel or jersey. Soon, it will be required that each of our cars have the red-white-and-blue ribbon plastered on it (for the few left that don't already) — and such things have certainly happened in this country previously. We must all show that we are, as Biden said, "part of the deal." It is reminiscent of Nazism, where all citizens swore allegiance to their ruler and proudly saluted and waved the Nazi flag in the name of nationalism; they lived and died for the glorious fatherland. We are only several steps behind them.

The right-wing radio hosts further this cause by obsessing about why we need to protect ourselves from aggressors and terrorists and fight for our freedom. In truth, there would be little to no protection needed if we would just leave the rest of the world alone. And not only do Republicans not offer us freedom through the economic and social policies they propose, but they cause us to lose freedom at rapid rates during the wars they sucker us into.

The patriotism charade is now at the point that these talk show hosts tell each caller (that they agree with) that they "are great Americans," and each caller, in return, tells the host that he, too, "is a great American." One wonders how they don't feel just a bit silly with such melodramatic antics.

And when all of "our boys," our "heroes," are at war, willingly taking money to go and kill other people around the world, many of us blindly "support our troops." It does not matter whether our troops are actually helping or harming us, or saving people or destroying them: because they are American troops, we should support them … just as the German people blindly supported their Nazi troops simply because they were German.

Patriotism leads people in each country to think that their country is superior to others, and that their country must survive and prosper at all costs — even if it means death to people in other countries. Patriotism breeds an "us-versus-them" attitude. Without the notion of patriotism and national borders, people would live wherever and however they prefer, practice the religions they want, marry whomever they desire, and produce, exchange, and prosper in whatever way they see fit. (There does need to be, and there would be, a governing body, just not a single one with monopoly powers of enforcement and control.) We would not see ourselves so much as members of particular groups (nationalities), but as various people of the world. And yet we are forced by law to "celebrate" diversity in our government-controlled world.

"No one should be loyal and patriotic to someone who allows them to be mostly free."

In absence of government borders, people would more easily mix and mingle in the world and not look at each other as "those other people" but instead naturally look at them as their neighbors. Those who wanted to be racist or simply to keep to their own kind would be able to do that, too, on as much property as they could peacefully acquire through exchange.

People could quickly rush to judge me as unthankful. They could say that I should be grateful that my country has permitted me the level of freedom that it has, which is in fact far in excess of most countries, even if it diminishes by the month. Indeed, I am grateful to be lucky enough to live in a place that offers relative freedom. But this is not a reason to be loyal. If it were, we could also argue that a wife who gets beaten up periodically by her husband who threatens to bring much greater harm to her if she tries to leave him, but is otherwise treated well and quasi lovingly by him, should also be loyal to him. She should in this case be thankful that he allows her a relatively normal life, even if he threatens to use force against her and periodically does.

This thinking is wrong. No one should be loyal and patriotic to someone who allows them to be mostly free but still treats them unfairly. Freedom from harm and coercion should be a natural right, not something granted by those good enough not to kill us or keep us as slaves. This is why, for example, it is still illegal and unacceptable to forcefully hold women against their will or to strike a fellow man as an initiating aggressive act. Aggression is aggression, even in a free society.

The Ills of Democracy and Political Parties

Political parties in every country have their shticks, and each one usually entails some form of socialism. In the United States, the Republicans' agenda consists of imposing their hypocritical and extreme religious beliefs on our country and causing wars, killing, and setting up dictators in other countries. The Democrats' agenda involves deliberately trying to destroy our means of increasing our standards of living, and trying to equalize everyone by dragging us all down to the lowest economic common denominator. These issues are the things each party merely focuses on; but, in fact, both parties promote most of the same policies. Both of these groups, along with every other form of government, engage in the use of force to make people live and act differently from what they would otherwise choose, and to make them hand over much of their personal property once it's been fairly earned.

Regardless of the fact that Republicans (and Democrats to a lesser degree) claim to be about free markets and capitalism, they are not. Republicans are socialist and totalitarian just like the Democrats. Individuals fervently support their respective Republican and Democratic parties, and see the other party, which they detest, as supporting reprehensible views. In the bigger picture, Republicans and Democrats are virtually side by side on the political spectrum that runs from communism (full socialism) on one side, to free-market capitalism (complete freedom) on the other. Both parties, for example, recently had their respective plans for government bailouts, and for nationalizing our healthcare system.

Our society is always proud to support "democracy" as though it automatically equates to freedom. But freedom is not necessarily related to democracy and may or may not coincide with it. A dictator, such as Pinochet in Chile, can create largely free markets, and a democracy can create near or complete totalitarianism, as was the case with the democratic election of Adolf Hitler and more recently with that of Hugo Chavez. Democracy can really be reduced simply to a method of voting, one that allows the expropriation of the property of others — "the tyranny of the majority."

Though it is socialists of one stripe or another, be they fascists, dictators, communists, or Democrats who have begun every war in the last century, killing hundreds of millions, who have strictly and often violently controlled and directed individuals in their respective countries, and who have caused starvation, unemployment, and suffering of millions for decades, it is socialism that most people in the world cling to as something that will help them. Mild socialists (your average Democrat or environmentalist), curiously, think that extreme socialists (communists) are bad, even though communism is just an advanced state of the policies socialists adamantly support.

After World War II, our economists and government officials were impressed with the socialist system that destroyed Germany's economy, and they wanted to replicate it for the economy of the new West Germany. Thankfully, West German leaders, aware of this, and aware of the destruction that Nazi economic policies had caused, through twists and turns, set up a system of relatively free markets that brought dramatic economic growth for the next 30 years (overcoming the negative effects of the Marshall Plan[1]).

People support the evil of socialism because, ironically, they fear that individual companies — which have rarely, if ever, had anyone killed, and which, absent government regulation, have never taken anything forcefully from anyone, and could not only not bring harm, but provide improvements for our lives — can somehow hurt them. All because they don't understand what capitalism is and how it works.

The Patriotism of Politicians

While politicians claim to be patriotic and to do what's best for America, they do the opposite. How could they know what would truly help or hurt American citizens? Have they spent years studying economic cause and effect? Have they learned production techniques that could result in greater output? Have they read numerous books on organizational behavior, so that they can "plan" the economy? Of course not!

They have spent their days kissing babies, polling to find out what voters want, learning to be actors, and making emotional, passionate speeches that appeal to the masses who will be suckered into such antics. In short, politicians are equivalent to game-show hosts. If they were really patriotic, they would spend their time figuring out how truly to help people, instead of simply figuring out how to win votes.

We naively believe politicians are there to "lead us." We believe that the president, in "running the country," has the toughest job on earth. This is partly because people who do not understand economics believe that a country cannot "run" on its own. But it can.

It is the individual people and businesses that progress our lives. The president does not get up in the morning and turn on the factory lights or start the machines. He does not determine how much should be produced that day. He does not decide who should work where. Individuals, capital, and market prices run the country.

"The president does not get up in the morning and turn on the factory lights or start the machines."

President Obama is not "leading" us through this crisis — he's simply manipulating the economy further than it was already manipulated. Had he not done so, the market (i.e., individuals) could have already fixed itself.

We have seen that the government's planning does not help an economy. We have seen that regulation does not protect citizens from companies, and that military actions do not protect citizens from foreign aggressors (except in special circumstances). Of course, some of the actions the president engages in involve setting or adjusting laws pertaining to protecting our legal rights and our legal property. But most of his actions involve just the opposite — taking our property or preventing our free-will choices.

For example, there are laws that prevent gangs from barging into our homes and kicking us out of them; but, at the same time, there are many more laws linked to how our homes will be taken from us by the government if we fail to pay one of the myriad taxes forced upon us — taxes that legally allow our property, our paychecks, to be given to others, including these very gangs, via wealth redistribution.

The same type of "work on behalf of the people" is done by all members of Congress and the Senate, and to a lesser degree by state and local government. The country would get along quite fine in any given year if Congress and the president ignored all of the "work" it would otherwise do, except for focusing on the 1 percent or so of the decisions that involve truly protecting citizens and providing basic services that we want and need. Most of the other 99 percent of their work involves imposing implied or actual government force for the purpose of benefiting one group at the expense of another. The government is simply an institution — an instrument — that is used to bring about these iniquitous actions.

Politicians' "work" involves doing what is needed to please their constituents. Their constituents, in turn, usually want government subsidies, regulation, wealth transfers, or some other government force imposed, so that they can benefit from the suppression of others when they otherwise could not.

Almost everything we see government doing today consists of this: bankers, car companies, airlines, and steel companies are subsidized at the expense of taxpayers so that they don't have to go out of business; workers are protected from having to receive market wages; poor workers are protected with a minimum wage; companies are regulated so that they don't harm consumers; government forces the negation of contracts such that borrowers can benefit at the expense of lenders; inflation is generated so that more money can be taken from taxpayers and given to others; environmental legislation is imposed in order to let environmentalists "protect our environment" at the expense of the rest of us; one industry is prevented from producing a particular product so that another industry's profits will not be affected. The list literally goes on and on for tens of thousands of pages (in the national register).

Though all of these actions are detrimental to society, politicians don't care. What they care about is getting votes. They care about getting re-elected. They will therefore do what appears to help voters, even though their actions usually harm voters. The long-term health of the country is not in their interest; the short-term success of their career is. They do not know exactly what would help or what would harm, but they need not be concerned with such immaterial matters.

This is why it is so vitally important for voters themselves to understand what helps and harms them. If voters would demand of politicians the things that would truly benefit them, politicians would give it to them, for they will pass or not pass whatever laws will get them votes.

If people demanded that government quit printing money, quit regulating businesses, quit taxing, and stopped stealing from the rich, the government would cease these operations. Then, all members of society would see a dramatic increase in their standards of living, with jobs available to everyone and prices falling by the day.

But there is a catch: those of us who earn less than the average — those who are net beneficiaries of wealth redistribution — would have to clearly understand how they would benefit from refusing to vote for free money. They would have to understand that, instead of having money handed to them, they would instead earn money in the form of a salary. But this change in structure would result in significantly increased wealth for this group. This issue is likely the biggest challenge free markets face, for it is very difficult to convince someone that if they refuse free money they will be better off.

Notes

[1] To understand the myth of the Marshall Plan, see Jeffrey Tucker, "The Marshall Plan Myth."