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The Egalitarian Program vs. Freedom

Mises Daily: Wednesday, December 22, 2010 by

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[Excerpted from chapter 16 of Theory and History (1957). An audio version of this article, excerpted from the forthcoming audiobook version, read by John Pruden, is available as a free MP3 download.]

From time immemorial, the living philosophy of the plain man has unquestioningly accepted the fact of status differences as well as the necessity of subordination to those in power. Man's primary need is protection against malicious onslaughts on the part of other men and groups of men. Only when safe from hostile attacks can he gather food, build a home, rear a family, in short, survive.

Life is the first of all goods, and no price to be paid for its preservation appeared too high to people harassed by predatory raids. To remain alive as a slave, they thought, is still better than to be killed. Lucky are those who enjoy the patronage of a benevolent master, but even a harsh overlord is to be preferred to no protection at all.

Men are born unequal. Some are stronger and smarter, some are weaker and clumsier. The latter had no choice but to surrender to the former and link their own destiny with that of a mighty suzerain. God, declared the priests, ordained it this way.

This was the ideology that animated the social organization which Ferguson, Saint-Simon, and Herbert Spencer called militaristic and which present-day American writers call feudal. Its prestige began to decline when the warriors who fought the warlord's battles became aware that the preservation of their chieftain's power depended on their own gallantry and, made self-reliant by this insight, asked a share in the conduct of the affairs of state. The conflicts resulting from this claim of the aristocrats engendered ideas which were bound to question and finally to demolish the doctrine of the social necessity of status and caste distinctions.

Why, asked the commoners, should the noblemen enjoy privileges and rights that are denied to us? Does not the flowering of the commonwealth depend on our toil and trouble? Do the affairs of state concern only the king and the barons and not the great majority of us? We pay the taxes and our sons bleed on the battlefields, but we have no voice in the councils in which the king and the representatives of the nobility determine our fate.

No tenable argument could be opposed to these pretensions of the tiers état. It was anachronistic to preserve status privileges that had originated from a type of military organization which had long since been abandoned. The discrimination practiced against commoners by the princely courts and "good society" was merely a nuisance. But the disdainful treatment, in the armies and in the diplomatic and civil service, of those who were not of noble extraction caused disasters. Led by aristocratic nincompoops, the French royal armies were routed; yet there were many commoners in France who later proved their brilliancy in the armies of the Revolution and the Empire.

England's diplomatic, military, and naval accomplishments were evidently due in part to the fact that it had opened virtually all careers to every citizen. The demolition of the Bastille and the abolition of the privileges of the French nobility were hailed all over the world by the elite, in Germany by Kant, Goethe, and Schiller, among others. In imperial Vienna, Beethoven wrote a symphony to honor the commander of the armies of the Revolution who had defeated the Austrian forces, and was deeply grieved when the news came that his hero had overthrown the republican form of government. The principles of freedom, equality of all men under the law, and constitutional government were with little opposition approved by public opinion in all Western countries. Guided by these principles, it was held, mankind was marching forward into a new age of justice and prosperity.

However, there was no unanimity in the interpretation of the concept of equality. For all of its champions it meant the abolition of status and caste privileges and the legal disabilities of the "lower" strata, and especially of slavery and serfdom. But there were some who advocated the leveling of differences in wealth and income.

To understand the origin and the power of this egalitarian ideology, one must realize that is was stimulated by the resumption of an idea which for thousands of years all over the world had inspired reform movements as well as the merely academic writings of utopian authors: the idea of equal ownership of land.

All the evils that plagued mankind were ascribed to the fact that some people had appropriated more land than they needed for the support of their families. The corollary of the abundance of the lord of the manor was the penury of the landless. This iniquity was seen as the cause of crime, robbery, conflict, and bloodshed. All these mischiefs would disappear in a society consisting exclusively of farmers who could produce in their own household what they needed for the support of their families, and neither more nor less.

In such a commonwealth there would be no temptations. Neither individuals nor nations would covet what by rights belongs to others. There would be neither tyrants nor conquerors, for neither aggression nor conquest would pay. There would be eternal peace.

Equal distribution of land was the program that prompted the Gracchi in ancient Rome, the peasant revolts which again and again disturbed all European countries, and the agrarian reforms aimed at by various Protestant sects and by the Jesuits in the organization of their famous Indian community in what is now Paraguay. The fascination of this utopia enticed many of the most noble minds, among them Thomas Jefferson. It influenced the program of the Social Revolutionaries, the party which recruited the immense majority of the people in Imperial Russia. It is the program today of hundreds of millions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America whose endeavors meet, paradoxically enough, with the support of the foreign policy of the United States.

"The sympathetic support with which schemes for land distribution meet today from people enjoying all the advantages of life under the division of labor is the outcome of romantic illusions."

Yet, the idea of equal distribution of land is a pernicious illusion. Its execution would plunge mankind into misery and starvation, and would in fact wipe out civilization itself.

There is no room in the context of this program for any kind of division of labor but regional specialization according to the particular geographical conditions of the various territories. The scheme, when consistently carried to its ultimate consequences, does not even provide for doctors and blacksmiths. It fails to take into account the fact that the present state of the productivity of land in the economically advanced countries is a result of the division of labor that supplies tools and machines, fertilizer, electric current, gasoline, and many other things that multiply the quantity and improve the quality of the produce.

Under the system of the division of labor the farmer does not grow what he can make direct use of for himself and his family, but concentrates upon those crops for which his piece of soil offers comparatively the most favorable opportunities. He sells the produce on the market and buys on the market what he and his family need. The optimum size of a farm no longer has any relation to the size of the farmer's family. It is determined by technological considerations: the highest possible output per unit of input. Like other entrepreneurs the farmer produces for profit, i.e., he grows what is most urgently needed by every member of society for his use, and not what he and his family alone can directly use for their own consumption.

But those who desire equal distribution of land stubbornly refuse to take notice of all these results of an evolution of many thousands of years, and dream of returning land utilization to a state long ago rendered obsolete. They would undo the whole of economic history, regardless of consequences. They disregard the fact that under the primitive methods of land tenure which they recommend our globe could not support more than a fraction of the population now inhabiting it, and even this fraction only at a much lower standard of living.

It is understandable that ignorant paupers in backward countries cannot think of any other way for the improvement of their conditions than the acquisition of a piece of land. But it is unpardonable that they are confirmed in their illusions by representatives of advanced nations who call themselves experts and should know very well what state of agriculture is required to make a people prosperous. The poverty of the backward countries can be eradicated only by industrialization and its agricultural corollary, the replacement of land utilization for the direct benefit of the farmer's household by land utilization to supply the market.

The sympathetic support with which schemes for land distribution meet today and have met in the past from people enjoying all the advantages of life under the division of labor has never been based in any realistic regard for the inexorable nature-given state of affairs. It is rather the outcome of romantic illusions.

The corrupt society of decaying Rome, deprived of any share in the conduct of public affairs, bored and frustrated, fell into reveries about the imagined happiness of the simple life of self-sufficient farmers and shepherds. The still more idle, corrupt, and bored aristocrats of the ancien régime in France found pleasure in a pastime they chose to call dairy farming. Present-day American millionaires pursue farming as a hobby that has the added advantage that its costs reduce the amount of income tax due. These people look upon farming less as a branch of production than as a distraction.

A seemingly plausible plea for expropriation of the landholdings of the aristocracy could be made out at the time the civil privileges of the nobility were revoked. Feudal estates were princely gifts to the ancestors of the aristocratic owners in compensation for military services rendered in the past and to be rendered in the future. They provided the means to support the king's armed retinue, and the size of the holding allotted to the individual liegeman was determined by his rank and position in the forces. But as military conditions changed and the armies were no longer composed of vassals called up, the prevailing system of land distribution became anachronistic. There seemed to be no reason to let the squires keep revenues accorded as compensation for services they no longer rendered. It seemed justifiable to take back the fiefs.

Such arguments could not be refuted form the point of view of the doctrine to which the aristocrats themselves resorted in defense of their status privileges. They stood on their traditional rights, pointing to the value of the services their forbears had rendered to the nation. But as it was obvious that they themselves no longer rendered such indispensable services, it was correct to infer that all the benefits received as reward for these services should be canceled. This included revocation of the land grants.

From the point of view of the liberal economists, however, such confiscation appeared an unnecessary and dangerous disruption of the continuity of economic evolution. What was needed was the abolition of all those legal institutions that sheltered the inefficient proprietor against the competition of more efficient people who could utilize the soil to produce better and more cheaply. The laws that withdrew the estates of the noblemen from the market and the supremacy of the consumers — such as entails and the legal inability of commoners to acquire ownership by purchase — had to be repealed. Then the supremacy of the market would shift control of land into the hands of those who know how to supply the consumers in the most efficient way with what they ask for most urgently.

Unimpressed by the dreams of the utopians, the economists looked upon the soil as a factor of production. The rightly understood interests of all the people demanded that the soil, like all other material factors of production, should be controlled by the most efficient entrepreneurs. The economists had no arbitrary preference for any special size of the farms: that size was best which secured the most efficient utilization.

They did not let themselves be fooled by the myth that it was in the interest of the nation to have as many of its members as possible employed in agriculture. On the contrary, they were fully aware that is was beneficial not only to the rest of the nation but also to those employed in agriculture if waste of manpower was avoided in this as in all other branches of production. The increase in material well-being was due to the fact that, thanks to technological progress, a continually shrinking percentage of the whole population was sufficient to turn out all the farm products needed.

"The egalitarian scheme, when consistently carried to its ultimate consequences, does not even provide for doctors and blacksmiths."

Attempts to meddle with this secular evolution which more and more reduced the ratio of the farm population as against the nonfarm population were bound to lower the average standard of living. Mankind is the more prosperous the smaller the percentage of its total numbers employed in producing all the quantities of food and raw materials required. If any sense can be attached to the term "reactionary," then the endeavors to preserve by special measures those small-size farms which cannot hold their own in the competition of the market are certainly to be called reactionary. They tend to substitute a lower degree of the division of labor for a higher degree and thus slow down or entirely stop economic improvement. Let the consumers determine what size of farm best suits their interests.

The economists' critique of the agrarian utopia was highly unpopular. Nevertheless the weight of their arguments succeeded for a time in checking the zeal of the reformers. Only after the end of the First World War did the ideal of an agriculture predominantly or even exclusively operated by small farmers again attain the role it plays today in world politics.

The great historical and political importance of the idea of equal distribution of land is to be seen in the fact that it paved the way for the acceptance of socialism and communism. The Marxian socialists were academically opposed to it and advocated the nationalization of agriculture. But they used the slogan "equal distribution of land ownership" as a lever to incite the masses in the economically underdeveloped countries.

For the illiterate rural population of these nations the nostrum "socialization of business" was meaningless. But all their instincts of envy and hatred were aroused when politicians promised them the land of the kulaks and the owners of big estates. When, during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration, procommunists in the United States government and the American press asserted that the Chinese "leftists" were not communists but "merely agrarian reformers," they were right insofar as the Chinese agents of the Soviets had adopted Lenin's clever trick of inaugurating the socialist revolution by resorting to the most popular slogans and concealing one's own real intentions. Today we see how in all economically underdeveloped countries the scheme of land confiscation and redistribution makes the most effective propaganda for the Soviets.

The scheme is manifestly inapplicable to the countries of Western civilization. The urban population of an industrialized nation cannot be lured by the prospect of such an agrarian reform. Its sinister effect upon the thinking of the masses in the capitalistic countries consists in its rendering sympathetic the program of wealth and income equality. It thus makes popular interventionist policies that must inevitably lead to full socialism. To stress this fact does not mean that any socialist or communist regime would ever really bring about equalization of income. It is merely to point out that what makes socialism and communism popular is not only the illusory belief that they will give enormous riches to everybody but the no-less-illusory expectation that nobody will get more than anybody else. Envy is of course one of the deepest human emotions.

The American "progressives" who are stirring up their countrymen as well as all foreigners to envy and hatred, and who are vehemently asking for the equalization of wealth and incomes, do not see how these ideas are interpreted by the rest of the world. Foreign nations look upon all Americans, including the workers, with the same jealousy and hostility with which the typical American union member looks upon those whose income exceeds his own.

In the eyes of foreigners, the American taxpayers have been motivated merely by bad conscience and fear when they spent billions to improve conditions abroad. Public opinion in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and many European countries views this system of foreign aid as socialist agitators do money laid out by the rich for charity: a pittance meant to bribe the poor and prevent them from taking what by rights belongs to them. Statesmen and writers who recommend that their nations should side with the United States against Russia are no less unpopular with their countrymen than those few Americans who have the courage to speak for capitalism and to reject socialism are with their fellow citizens.

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In Gerhard Hauptmann's play Die Weber, one of the most effective pieces of German anticapitalistic literature, the wife of a businessman is startled when she realizes that people behave as if it were a crime to be rich. Except for an insignificant minority, everyone today is prepared to take this condemnation of wealth for granted. This mentality spells the doom of American foreign policy. The United States is condemned and hated because it is prosperous.

The almost uncontested triumph of the egalitarian ideology has entirely obliterated all other political ideals. The envy-driven masses do not care a whit for what the demagogues call the "bourgeois" concern for freedom of conscience, of thought, of the press, for habeas corpus, trial by jury, and all the rest. They long for the earthly paradise that the socialist leaders promise them. Like these leaders, they are convinced that the "liquidation of the bourgeois" will bring them back into the Garden of Eden. The irony is that nowadays they are calling this program the liberal program.