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Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

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Bureaucracy


by Ludwig von Mises

Preface to the 1944 Edition

The main issue in present-day social and political conflicts is whether or not man should give away freedom, private initiative, and individual responsibility and surrender to the guardianship of a gigantic apparatus of compulsion and coercion, the socialist state. Should authoritarian totalitarianism be substituted for individualism and democracy? Should the citizen be transformed into a subject, a subordinate in an all-embracing army of conscripted labor, bound to obey unconditionally the orders of his superiors? Should he be deprived of his most precious privilege to choose means and ends and to shape his own life?

Our age has witnessed a triumphal advance of the socialist cause. As much as half a century ago an eminent British statesman, Sir William Harcourt, asserted: “We are all socialists now.”[1] At that time this statement was premature as far as Great Britain was concerned, but today it is almost literally true for that country, once the cradle of modern liberty. It is no less true with regard to continental Europe. America alone is still free to choose. And the decision of the American people will determine the outcome for the whole of mankind.

The problems involved in the antagonism between socialism and capitalism can be attacked from various viewpoints. At present it seems as if an investigation of the expansion of bureaucratic agencies is the most expedient avenue of approach. An analysis of bureaucratism offers an excellent opportunity to recognize the fundamental problems of the controversy.

Although the evolution of bureaucratism has been very rapid in these last years, America is still, compared with the rest of the world, only superficially afflicted. It shows only a few of the characteristic features of bureaucratic management. A scrutiny of bureaucratism in this country would be incomplete therefore if it did not deal with some aspects and results of the movement which became visible only in countries with an older bureaucratic tradition. Such a study must analyze the experiences of the classical countries of bureaucratism—France, Germany, and Russia.

However it is not the object of such occasional references to European conditions to obscure the radical difference which exists, with regard to bureaucratism, between the political and social mentality of America and that of continental Europe. To the American mind the notion of an Obrigkeit, a government the authority of which is not derived from the people, was and is unknown. It is even extremely difficult to explain to a man for whom the writings of Milton and Paine, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address are the fountain springs of political education, what this German term Obrigkeit implies and what an Obrigkeits‑Staat is. Perhaps the two following quotations will help to elucidate the matter.

On January 15, 1838, the Prussian Minister of the Interior, G. A. R. von Rochow, declared in reply to a petition of citizens of a Prussian city: “It is not seemly for a subject to apply the yardstick of his wretched intellect to the acts of the Chief of the State and to arrogate to himself, in haughty insolence, a public judgment about their fairness.” This was in the days in which German liberalism challenged absolutism, and public opinion vehemently resented this piece of overbearing bureaucratic pretension.

Half a century later German liberalism was stone dead. The Kaiser’s Sozialpolitik, the Statist system of government interference with business and of aggressive nationalism, had supplanted it. Nobody minded when the Rector of the Imperial University of Strassburg quietly characterized the German system of government thus: “Our officials . . . will never tolerate anybody’s wresting the power from their hands, certainly not parliamentary majorities whom we know how to deal with in a masterly way. No kind of rule is endured so easily or accepted so gratefully as that of high-minded and highly educated civil servants. The German State is a State of the supremacy of officialdom—let us hope that it will remain so.”[2]

Such aphorisms could not be enunciated by any American. It could not happen here.



[1]Cf. G. M. Trevelyan, A Shortened History of England (London, 1942), p. 510.

[2]Georg Friedrich Knapp in his Presidential Address, delivered on May 1, 1891. This speech was published in many reprints. The words quoted are to be found on p. 86 of the 1909 edition of Die Landarbeiter in Knechtschaft und Freiheit.


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