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The Aristocratic Doctrine

Mises Daily: Monday, September 05, 2011 by

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"No proletarian contributed anything to the construction of antiliberal teachings."

Among the infinity of fallacious statements and factual errors that go to form the structure of Marxian philosophy there are two that are especially objectionable. Marx asserts that capitalism causes increasing pauperization of the masses, and blithely contends that the proletarians are intellectually and morally superior to the narrow-minded, corrupt, and selfish bourgeoisie. It is not worthwhile to waste time in a refutation of these fables.

The champions of a return to oligarchic government see things from a quite different angle. It is a fact, they say, that capitalism has poured a horn of plenty for the masses, who do not know why they become more prosperous from day to day. The proletarians have done everything they could to hinder or slow down the pace of technical innovations — they have even destroyed newly invented machines. Their unions today still oppose every improvement in methods of production. The entrepreneurs and capitalists have had to push the reluctant and unwilling masses toward a system of production that renders their lives more comfortable.

Within an unhampered market society, these advocates of aristocracy go on to say, there prevails a tendency toward a diminution of the inequality of incomes. While the average citizen becomes wealthier, the successful entrepreneurs seldom attain wealth that raises them far above the average level. There is but a small group of high incomes, and the total consumption of this group is too insignificant to play any role in the market. The members of the upper middle class enjoy a higher standard of living than the masses but their demands also are unimportant in the market. They live more comfortably than the majority of their fellow citizens but they are not rich enough to afford a style of life substantially different. Their dress is more expensive than that of the lower strata but it is of the same pattern and is adjusted to the same fashions. Their bathrooms and their cars are more elegant but the service they render is substantially the same. The old discrepancies in standards have shrunk to differences that are mostly but a matter of ornament. The private life of a modern entrepreneur or executive differs much less from that of his employees than, centuries ago, the life of a feudal landlord differed from that of his serfs.

It is, in the eyes of these pro-aristocratic critics, a deplorable consequence of this trend toward equalization and a rise in mass standards that the masses take a more active part in the nation's mental and political activities. They not only set artistic and literary standards; they are supreme in politics also. They now have comfort and leisure enough to play a decisive role in communal matters. But they are too narrow-minded to grasp the sense in sound policies. They judge all economic problems from the point of view of their own position in the process of production. For them the entrepreneurs and capitalists, indeed most of the executives, are simply idle people whose services could easily be rendered by "anyone able to read and write."[1] The masses are full of envy and resentment; they want to expropriate the capitalists and entrepreneurs whose fault is to have served them too well. They are absolutely unfit to conceive the remoter consequences of the measures they are advocating.

Thus they are bent on destroying the sources from which their prosperity stems. The policy of democracies is suicidal. Turbulent mobs demand acts that are contrary to society's and their own best interests. They return to Parliament corrupt demagogues, adventurers, and quacks who praise patent medicines and idiotic remedies. Democracy has resulted in an upheaval of the domestic barbarians against reason, sound policies, and civilization. The masses have firmly established the dictators in many European countries. They may succeed very soon in America too. The great experiment of liberalism and democracy has proved to be self-liquidating. It has brought about the worst of all tyrannies.

"If the supremacy of these modern doctrines is a proof of intellectual decay, it does not demonstrate that the lower strata have conquered the upper ones. It demonstrates rather the decay of the intellectuals and of the bourgeoisie."

Not for the sake of the elite but for the salvation of civilization and for the benefit of the masses a radical reform is needed. The incomes of the proletarians, say the advocates of an aristocratic revolution, have to be cut down; their work must be made harder and more tedious. The laborer should be so tired after his daily task is fulfilled that he cannot find leisure for dangerous thoughts and activities. He must be deprived of the franchise. All political power must be vested in the upper classes. Then the populace will be rendered harmless. They will be serfs, but as such happy, grateful, and subservient. What the masses need is to be held under tight control. If they are left free they will fall an easy prey to the dictatorial aspirations of scoundrels. Save them by establishing in time the oligarchic paternal rule of the best, of the elite, of the aristocracy.

These are the ideas that many of our contemporaries have derived from the writings of Burke, Dostoievsky, Nietzsche, Pareto, and Michels, and from the historical experience of the last decades. You have the choice, they say, between the tyranny of men from the scum and the benevolent rule of wise kings and aristocracies. There has never been in history a lasting democratic system. The ancient and medieval republics were not genuine democracies; the masses — slaves and metics — never took part in government. Anyway, these republics too ended in demagogy and decay. If the rule of a Grand Inquisitor is inevitable, let him rather be a Roman cardinal, a Bourbon prince, or a British lord than a sadistic adventurer of low breeding.

The main shortcoming of this reasoning is that it greatly exaggerates the role played by the lower strata of society in the evolution toward the detrimental present-day policies. It is paradoxical to assume that the masses whom the friends of oligarchy describe as riffraff should have been able to overpower the upper classes, the elite of entrepreneurs, capitalists, and intellectuals, and to impose on them their own mentality.

Who is responsible for the deplorable events of the last decades? Did perhaps the lower classes, the proletarians, evolve the new doctrines? Not at all. No proletarian contributed anything to the construction of antiliberal teachings. At the root of the genealogical tree of modern socialism we meet the name of the depraved scion of one of the most eminent aristocratic families of royal France. Almost all the fathers of socialism were members of the upper middle class or of the professions. The Belgian Henri de Man, once a radical left-wing socialist, today a no less radical pro-Nazi socialist, was quite right in asserting, "If one accepted the misleading Marxist expression which attaches every social ideology to a definite class, one would have to say that socialism as a doctrine, even Marxism, is of bourgeois origin."[2] Neither did interventionism and nationalism come from the "scum." They also are products of the well-to-do.

The overwhelming success of these doctrines that have proved so detrimental to peaceful social cooperation and now shake the foundations of our civilization is not an outcome of lower-class activities. The proletarians, the workers, and the farmers are certainly not guilty. Members of the upper classes were the authors of these destructive ideas. The intellectuals converted the masses to this ideology; they did not get it from them. If the supremacy of these modern doctrines is a proof of intellectual decay, it does not demonstrate that the lower strata have conquered the upper ones. It demonstrates rather the decay of the intellectuals and of the bourgeoisie. The masses, precisely because they are dull and mentally inert, have never created new ideologies. This has always been the prerogative of the elite.

"What the world needs is not constitutional reform but sound ideologies."

The truth is that we face a degeneration of a whole society and not an evil limited to some parts of it.

When liberals recommend democratic government as the only means of safeguarding permanent peace both at home and in international relations, they do not advocate the rule of the mean, of the lowbred, of the stupid, and of the domestic barbarians, as some critics of democracy believe. They are liberals and democrats precisely because they desire government by the men best fitted for the task. They maintain that those best qualified to rule must prove their abilities by convincing their fellow citizens, so that they will voluntarily entrust them with office. They do not cling to the militarist doctrine, common to all revolutionaries, that the proof of qualification is the seizure of office by acts of violence or fraud. No ruler who lacks the gift of persuasion can stay in office long; it is the indispensable condition of government. It would be an idle illusion to assume that any government, no matter how good, could lastingly do without public consent. If our community does not beget men who have the power to make sound social principles generally acceptable, civilization is lost, whatever the system of government may be.

It is not true that the dangers to the maintenance of peace, democracy, freedom, and capitalism are a result of a "revolt of the masses." They are an achievement of scholars and intellectuals, of sons of the well-to-do, of writers and artists pampered by the best society. In every country of the world dynasties and aristocrats have worked with the socialists and interventionists against freedom. Virtually all the Christian churches and sects have espoused the principles of socialism and interventionism. In almost every country the clergy favor nationalism. In spite of the fact that Catholicism is world embracing, even the Roman Church offers no exception. The nationalism of the Irish, the Poles, and the Slovaks is to a great extent an achievement of the clergy. French nationalism found most effective support in the Church.

It would be vain to attempt to cure this evil by a return to the rule of autocrats and noblemen. The autocracy of the czars in Russia or that of the Bourbons in France, Spain, and Naples was not an assurance of sound administration. The Hohenzollerns and the Prussian Junkers in Germany and the British ruling groups have clearly proved their unfitness to run a country.

If worthless and ignoble men control the governments of many countries, it is because eminent intellectuals have recommended their rule; the principles according to which they exercise their powers have been framed by upper-class doctrinaires and meet with the approval of intellectuals. What the world needs is not constitutional reform but sound ideologies. It is obvious that every constitutional system can be made to work satisfactorily when the rulers are equal to their task. The problem is to find the men fit for office.

Neither a priori reasoning nor historical experience has disproved the basic idea of liberalism and democracy that the consent of those ruled is the main requisite of government. Neither benevolent kings nor enlightened aristocracies nor unselfish priests or philosophers can succeed when lacking this consent. Whoever wants lastingly to establish good government must start by trying to persuade his fellow citizens and offering them sound ideologies. He is only demonstrating his own incapacity when he resorts to violence, coercion, and compulsion instead of persuasion. In the long run force and threat cannot be successfully applied against majorities. There is no hope left for a civilization when the masses favor harmful policies. The elite should be supreme by virtue of persuasion, not by the assistance of firing squads.

Notes

[1] See the characteristic ideas of Lenin about the problems of entrepreneurship and management in his pamphlet State and Revolution (New York, 1917), pp. 83–84.

[2] De Man, Die Psychologie des Sozialismus (rev. ed. Jena, 1927), pp. 16–17. Man wrote this at a time when he was a favorite of German left-wing socialism.