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Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

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Omnipotent Government
by Ludwig von Mises



1. The Scope and Limitations of History

It is the function of historical research to trace historical events back to their sources. The historian has to demonstrate how any historical situation developed out of previously existing—natural and social—conditions and how the actions of men and occurrences beyond human control transformed any previous state of affairs into the subsequent state of affairs. This analytical retrospection cannot be carried out indefinitely. Sooner or later history reaches a point at which its methods of interpreta­tion are of no further use. Then the historian can do nothing more than establish that a factor was operative which brought to pass what resulted. The usual way of putting this into words is to speak of individuality or uniqueness.

The same is essentially true of the natural sciences. They too in­evitably sooner or later reach a point which they must simply take as a datum of experience, as the "given." Their scope is to interpret (or, as people once preferred to say, to explain) occurring changes as the outcome of forces working throughout the universe. They trace one fact back to previous facts; they show us that the a, the b, and the n are the outcome of the x. But there are x's which, at least in our day, cannot be traced back to other sources. Coming generations may succeed in pushing the limits of our knowledge further back. But there cannot be any doubt that there will always remain some items which cannot be traced back to others.

The human mind is not even capable of consistently grasping the meaning of such a concept as the ultimate cause of all things. Natural science will never go further than the establishment of some ultimate factors which cannot be analyzed and traced back to their sources, springs, or causes.

The term individuality as used by the historians means: here we are confronted with a factor which cannot be traced back to other factors. It does not provide an interpretation or explanation. It establishes, on the contrary, that we have to deal with an in­explicable datum of historical experience. Why did Caesar cross the Rubicon? The historians can provide us with various motives which might have influenced Caesar's decision, but they cannot deny that another decision would have been possible. Perhaps Cicero or Brutus, faced with a similar situation, would have be­haved differently. The only correct answer is: he crossed the Rubi­con because he was Caesar.

It is misleading to explain a man's or a group's behavior by referring to their character. The concept of character is tantamount to the concept of individuality. What we call a man's or a group's character is the totality of our knowledge about their conduct. If they had behaved otherwise than as they actually did, our notions of their character would be different. It is a mistake to explain the fact that Napoleon made himself emperor and tried in a rather foolish way to break into the circle of the old European dynasties as a result of his character. If he had not substituted emperorship for his lifelong consular dignity, and had not married an arch­duchess, we would, in the same way, have had to say that this was a peculiar mark of his character. The reference to character explains no more than does the famous explanation of the soporific effect of opium by its virtus dormitiva qui facit sensus assupire.

Therefore it is vain to expect any help from psychology, whether individual or mass psychology. Psychology does not lead us beyond the limits fixed in the concept of individuality. It does not explain why being crossed in love turns some people toward dipsomania, others to suicide, others to writing clumsy verses, while it inspired Petrarch and Goethe to immortal poems and Beethoven to divine music. The classification of men into various character types is not a very profitable expedient. Men are classified according to their conduct, and then people believe they have provided an explanation in deducing conduct from their classification. Moreover, every individual or group has traits which do not fit into the Procrustean bed of classification.

Neither can physiology solve the problem. Physiology cannot explain how external facts and circumstances bring about definite ideas and actions within human consciousness. Even if we were to know everything about the operation of brain cells and nerves, we should be at a loss to explain—otherwise than by referring to individuality—why identical environmental facts result with dif­ferent individuals, and with the same individuals at various times, in diverse ideas and actions. The sight of a falling apple led Newton to the laws of gravitation; why not other people before him? Why does one man succeed in the correct solution of an equation whereas other people do not? In what does the physi­ological process resulting in the mathematically correct solution of a problem differ from that leading to an incorrect solution? Why did the same problems of locomotion in snow‑covered moun­tains lead the Norwegians to the invention of skiing, while the inhabitants of the Alps did not have this inspiration?

No historical research can avoid reference to the concept of individuality. Neither biography, dealing with the life of only one personality, nor the history of peoples and nations can push its analysis further than a point where the last statement is: indi­viduality.

2. The Fallacy of the Concept of "National Character"

The main deficiency of the character concept when applied as an explanation is in the permanency attributed to it. The indi­vidual or the group is conceived as equipped with a stable character of which all its ideas and actions are the outcome. The criminal is not a criminal because he has committed a crime; he commits the crime because he is a criminal. Therefore, the fact that a man has once committed a crime is the proof that he is a criminal and makes it plausible that he is guilty of any other crime ascribed to him. This doctrine has deeply influenced penal procedure in con­tinental Europe. The state is eager to prove that the defendant has already committed other crimes in his previous career; the defense in the same way is eager to whitewash the defendant by demonstrat­ing that his past life was free from fault.[i]Yet a man who has already committed several murders may be guiltless of the murder for which he is standing trial, whereas a man after sixty years of impeccable behavior may have committed an abominable crime.

The concept of a nation's character is a generalization of features discovered in various individuals. It is mainly the result of pre­cipitate and ill-considered induction from an insufficient number of ill-assorted samples. In the old days the German citizens of Bo­hemia met few Czechs other than cooks and maids. Hence they concluded that the Czechs are servile, submissive, and cringing. A student of Czech political and religious history may rather qualify them as rebellious and lovers of freedom. But what entitles us to search for common characteristics of the various individuals of an aggregate which includes, on the one hand, John Huss and Zizka of Trocnov and, on the other, footmen and chambermaids? The criterion applied in the formation of the class concept "Czechs" is the use of the Czech language. To assume that all members of a linguistic group must have some other marks in common is a petitio principii.

The most popular interpretation of the ascendancy of Nazism explains it as an outcome of the German national character. The holders of this theory search German literature and history for texts, quotations, and deeds indicating aggressiveness, rapacity, and lust for conquest. From these scraps of knowledge they deduce the German national character, and from the character so established the rise of Nazism.

It is very easy indeed to assemble many facts of German history and many quotations from German authors that can be used to demonstrate an inherent German propensity toward aggression. But it is no less easy to discover the same characteristics in the history and literature of other linguistic groups, e.g., Italian, French, and English. Germany has never had more excellent and eloquent panegyrists of military heroism and war than Carlyle and Ruskin were, never a chauvinist poet and writer more eminent than Kipling, never more ruthless and Machiavellian conquerors than Warren Hastings and Lord Clive, never a more brutal sol­dier than Hodson of Hodson's Horse.

Very often the quotations are taken out of context and thus entirely distorted. In the first World War British propagandists used to cite over and over again a few lines from Goethe's Faust. But they omitted to mention that the character into whose mouth these words are put, Euphorion, is a counterpart of Lord Byron, whom Goethe admired more than any other contemporary poet (except for Schiller), although Byron's romanticism did not appeal to his own classicism. These verses do not at all express Goethe's own tenets. Faust concludes with a glorification of productive work; its guiding idea is that only the self‑satisfaction received from rendering useful services to his fellow men can make a man happy; it is a panegyric upon peace, freedom, and—as the Nazis scornfully call it, "bourgeois"—security. Euphorion‑Byron represents a dif­ferent ideal: the restless craving for ends inaccessible to human beings, the yearning for adventure, combat, and glory which results in failure and in premature death. It is nonsensical to quote as proof of Germany's innate militarism the verses in which Euphorion answers his parents' commendation of peace with passionate praise of war and victory.

There have been in Germany, as in all other nations, eulogists of aggression, war, and conquest. But there have been other Ger­mans too. The greatest are not to be found in the ranks of those glorifying tyranny and German world hegemony. Are Heinrich von Kleist, Richard Wagner, and Detlev von Liliencron more rep­resentative of the national character than Kant, Goethe, Schiller, Mozart, and Beethoven?

The idea of a nation's character is obviously arbitrary. It is derived from a judgment which omits all unpleasant facts con­tradicting the preconceived dogma.

It is not permissible to apply statistical procedures in the establish­ment of a nation's character. The question is not to find out how the Germans would have voted in the past if they had had to decide by plebiscites what course their country's policy should follow. Even if such an investigation could be successfully undertaken, its results would not provide us with any information helpful in our case. The political situation of each period has its unique form, its individuality. We are not justified in drawing from past events conclusions applicable to the present day. It would not clear up our problems if we knew whether the majority of the Goths approved of the invasion of the Roman Empire or whether the majority of the twelfth‑century Germans favored Barbarossa's treatment of the Milanese. The present situation has too little in common with those of the past.

The usual method applied is to pick out some famous personalities of a nation's past and present and to take their opinions and actions as representative of the whole nation. This would be a faulty method even if people were conscientious enough to con­front these arbitrarily chosen men with others who held contrary ideas and behaved in a different way. It is not permissible to attach the same representative importance to the tenets of Kant and to those of a dull professor of philosophy.

It is contradictory, on the one hand, to consider only famous men as representative while ignoring the rest, and, on the other hand, to treat even these, arbitrarily selected as famous, as con­stituting an undifferentiated group of equals. One man of this group may stand out as much from the rest as the whole group does from the entire nation. Hundreds of poetasters and rhymesters do not outweigh the unique Goethe.

It is correct to speak of a nation's mentality at a certain historical epoch if we conceive by this term the mentality of the majority. But it is subject to change. The German mentality has not been the same in the age of medieval feudalism, in the age of the Reforma­tion, in that of the Enlightenment, in the days of liberalism, and in our time.

It is probable that today about 80 per cent of all German-speaking Europeans are Nazis. If we leave out the Jews, the Austrians, and the German-speaking Swiss, we might say that more than 90 per cent of the Germans support Hitler's fight for world hegemony. But this cannot be explained by referring to the characterization of the contemporary Germans given by Tacitus. Such an explanation is no better than the Nazis' method of proving the alleged barbarism of the present‑day Anglo‑Saxons by citing the execution of Jeanne d'Arc, the wholesale extermination of the aborigines of Tasmania by the British settlers, and the cruelties described in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

There is no such thing as a stable national character. It is a vicious circle to explain Nazism by alleging that the Germans have an inherent tendency to adopt the tenets of Nazism.

3. Germany's Rubicon

This book has tried to clarify the rise of Nazism; to show how, out of the conditions of modern industrialism and of present‑day socio‑economic doctrines and policies, there developed a situation in which the immense majority of the German people saw no means to avoid disaster and to improve their lot but those indicated by the program of the Nazi party. On the one hand they saw in an age rapidly moving toward economic autarky a dark future for a nation which can neither feed nor clothe its citizens out of its domestic natural resources. On the other hand they believed that they were powerful enough to avoid this calamity by conquering a sufficient amount of Lebensraum.

This explanation of the ascendancy of Nazism goes as far as any historical investigation can possibly go. It must stop at the points which limit our endeavors to study historical events. It has to take recourse to the concepts of individuality and nonrepeatable unique­ness.

For Nazism was not the only conceivable means of dealing with the problems that concern present‑day Germany. There was and there is another solution: free trade. Of course, the adoption of free‑trade principles would require the abandonment of inter­ventionism and socialism and the establishment of an unhampered market economy. But why should this be brushed aside as out of the question? Why did the Germans fail to realize the futility of interventionism and the impracticability of socialism?

It is neither a sufficient explanation nor a valid excuse to say that all other nations also cling to etatism and to economic nationalism. Germany was threatened sooner, and in a worse way, by the effects of the trend toward autarky. The problem was first and for some time a German one, although it later concerned other great nations. Germany was forced to find a solution. Why did it choose Nazism and not liberalism, war and not peace?

If forty to sixty years ago Germany had adopted unconditional free trade, Great Britain, its crown colonies, British India, and some smaller European nations would not have abandoned free trade either. The cause of free trade would have received a mighty propulsion. The course of world affairs would have been different. The further progress of protectionism, monetary particularism, and discrimination against foreign labor and foreign capital would have been checked. The tide would have been stemmed. It is not unlikely that other countries would have imitated the example set by Germany. At any rate, Germany's prosperity would not have been menaced by the further advance of other nations toward autarky.

But the Germans did not even consider this alternative. The handful of men advocating unconditional freedom both in foreign and in domestic trade were laughed at as fools, despised as re­actionaries, silenced by threats. In the 1890s Germany was already almost unanimous in its support of policies which were designed as the preparation for the impending war for more space, the war for world hegemony.

The Nazis defeated all the other socialist, nationalist, and inter­ventionist parties within Germany because they were not afraid to follow their program to its ultimate logical conclusion. People were confident that they meant it seriously. They offered a radical solution for the problem of foreign trade; and they outdid by this radicalism the other parties which advocated essentially the same solution but with moderation and in a vacillating and half‑way manner. It was the same with other problems. There were, for instance, the territorial clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. All German parties, without exception, deplored these provisions as the most infamous inflicted on Germany, and as one of the main causes of its economic distress. The communists did not mention these clauses especially, but their disparagement of the whole treaty, this most shameful product of capitalist imperialism, as they said, included those clauses. It was no different with the pacifists. But only the Nazis were sincere and consistent enough to proclaim that there was no hope of reacquiring the lost provinces except by a victorious war. Thus they alone seemed to offer a remedy for an alleged evil that everyone decried.

But it is impossible to explain why, in all these critical years, the Germans never seriously considered the other alternative to nationalism: liberalism and free trade. The fateful decision against free trade and peace and in favor of nationalism and war is not open to explanation. In a unique, nonrepeatable historical situation the German nation chose war and rejected the peaceful solution. This was an individual historical event, which cannot be further analyzed or explained. They crossed their Rubicon.

We may say they acted in this way because they were Germans of the age of nationalism. But that explains nothing.

The American Civil War would have been avoided if the Northerners had acquiesced in the secession. The American Revolu­tion would not have occurred if the colonists had not been ready to wage a risky war for their independence. These characteristics of the Americans of 1776 and 1861 are ultimate facts, individual cases of historical events.

We cannot explain why some people, faced with an alternative, choose a and not b.

Of course, the method chosen by Germany hurts not only every other people but the Germans as well. The Germans will not attain the ends sought. The Lebensraum wars will prove disastrous for them. But we do not know why the Americans in the two cases mentioned above made of their option a use which later events proved to be beneficial to them and to Western civilization, while the Germans chose the road to catastrophe.

The same thing can be said about the conduct of the nations menaced by the German plans for aggression. The present state of world affairs is due not only to the malicious aspirations of German nationalists but no less to the failure of the rest of the world to thwart them by appropriate measures. If the victims had substituted a close political and military coöperation for their mutual rivalries, Germany would have been forced to abandon its plans. Everybody knew that there was but one means to stop the aggressors and to prevent war: collective security. Why did those menaced not adopt this scheme? Why did they prefer to cling to their policies of economic nationalism, which rendered vain all plans for the formation of a united front of all the peaceful nations? Why did they not abandon etatism in order to be able to abolish trade barriers? Why did they fail, like the Germans, to consider a return to laissez faire?

Etatism not only brought about a situation from which the German nationalists saw no way out but conquest, but also rendered futile all attempts to stop Germany in time. While the Germans were busy rearming for the "day," Great Britain's main concern was to injure the interests of the French and of all other nations by barring their exports to Great Britain. Every nation was eager to use its sovereignty for the establishment of govern­ment control of business. This attitude necessarily implied a policy of insulation and economic nationalism. Every nation was waging a continuous economic war against every other nation. Every citizen glowed when the latest statistical report showed an increase in exports or a drop in imports. The Belgians were jubilant when the imports from the Netherlands diminished; the Dutch rejoiced when they succeeded in reducing the number of Dutch tourists visiting Belgium. The Swiss Government subsidized French tourists traveling in Switzerland; the French Government subsidized Swiss tourists traveling in France. The Polish Government penalized its citizens for visiting foreign countries. If a Pole, a Czech, a Hungar­ian, or a Rumanian wanted to consult a Viennese doctor or to send his son to a Swiss school, he had to apply for a special permit from the office of foreign exchange control.

Everybody was convinced that this was lunacy—unless it was an act of his own government. Every day the newspapers reported examples of especially paradoxical measures of economic national­ism and criticized them severely. But no political party was prepared to demolish its own country's trade walls. Everybody was in favor of free trade for all other nations and of hyper‑protectionism for his own. It did not seem to occur to anyone that free trade begins at home. For nearly everyone favored government control of busi­ness within his own country.

For this attitude too history cannot provide any better explana­tion than recourse to the notion of individuality or uniqueness. Faced with a serious problem, the nations chose the way to disaster.

4. The Alternative

The reality of Nazism faces everybody else with an alternative: They must smash Nazism or renounce their self‑determination, i.e., their freedom and their very existence as human beings. If they yield, they will be slaves in a Nazi‑dominated world. Their civiliza­tions will perish; they will no longer have the freedom to choose, to act, and to live as they wish; they will simply have to obey. The Führer, the vicar of the "German God," will become their Supreme Lord. If they do not acquiesce in such a state of affairs, they must fight desperately until the Nazi power is completely broken. There is no escape from this alternative; no third solution is available. A negotiated peace, the outcome of a stalemate, would not mean more than a temporary armistice. The Nazis will not abandon their plans for world hegemony. They will renew their assault. Nothing can stop these wars but the decisive victory or the final defeat of Nazism.

It is a fatal mistake to look at this war as if it were one of the many wars fought in the last centuries between the countries of Western civilization. This is total war. It is not merely the destiny of a dynasty or a province or a country that is at stake, but the destiny of all nations and civilizations. Europe has not had to encounter a similar danger since the Tartar invasions in the thir­teenth century. The lot of the defeated would be worse than that of the Greeks and the Serbs under the Turkish yoke. The Turks did not attempt to wipe out the vanquished Greeks and Serbs, or to eradicate their language and their Christian creed. But the Nazis have other things in store for the conquered: extermination of those stubbornly resisting the master race, enslavement for those spontaneously yielding.

In such a war there cannot be any question of neutrality. The neutrals know very well what their fate will be if the Nazis conquer the United Nations. Their boasts that they are ready to fight for their independence if the Nazis attack them are vain. In the event of a defeat of the United Nations, military action on the part of Switzerland or Sweden would not be more than a symbolic gesture. Under present conditions neutrality is equal to a virtual support of Nazism.

The same holds true for German‑speaking men and women whether they are citizens of the Reich or not. There are citizens of the Reich who want to save face by asserting that they are not Nazis but that they cannot help fighting in the ranks of their fellow citizens. It is a man's duty, they say, to be unconditionally loyal to his own linguistic group whether its cause is right or wrong. It was this idea that turned some citizens of Austria, Switzerland, and various American countries either toward Nazism or toward what they believed to be an attitude of neutrality.

But this doctrine of the unlimited solidarity of all members of a linguistic group is one of the main vices of nationalism. Nobody would be prepared to maintain such a principle of solidarity with regard to other groups. If the majority of the inhabitants of a town or a province decided to fight against the rest of the country, few would admit that the minority had a moral obligation to stand with the majority and to support its action. The issue in the struggle between Nazism and the rest of mankind is whether the community of people speaking the same language is the only legitimate social collectivity, or whether the supremacy must be assigned to the great society embracing all human beings. It is the fight of humanity against the claims of the intransigent par­ticularism of a group. On better grounds than those on which the Nazis deny to the Austrians and the Swiss the rights of moral and political autonomy and of unrestricted sovereignty, the members of the human society must deny these rights to the various linguistic groups. No human coöperation and no lasting peace are conceivable if men put loyalty to any particular group above loyalty to hu­manity, moral law, and the principle of every individual's moral responsibility and autonomy. Renan was right in asserting that the problem is whether a man belongs to any particular group or to himself.[ii]

The Nazis themselves realize clearly that under the conditions brought about by the international division of labor and the present state of industrialism, the isolation of nations or countries has become impossible. They do not want to withdraw from the world and to live on their own soil in splendid isolation. They do not want to destroy the great world‑embracing society. They intend to organize it as an oligarchy. They alone are to rule in this oligarchy; the others are to obey and be their slaves. In such a struggle whoever does not take the part of those fighting against the Nazis furthers the cause of Nazism.

This is true today of many pacifists and conscientious objectors. We may admire their noble motives and their candid intentions. But there is no doubt that their attitudes result in complicity with Nazism. Nonresistance and passive obedience are precisely what the Nazis need for the realization of their plans. Kant was right in asserting that the proof of a principle's moral value is whether or not it could be accepted (the pragmatists would say, whether or not it would "work") as a universal rule of conduct. The general acceptance of the principle of nonresistance and of obedience by the non‑Nazis would destroy our civilization and reduce all non‑Germans to slavery.

There is but one means to save our civilization and to preserve the human dignity of man. It is to wipe out Nazism radically and pitilessly. Only after the total destruction of Nazism will the world be able to resume its endeavors to improve social organization and to build up the good society.

The alternative is humanity or bestiality, peaceful human coöperation or totalitarian despotism. All plans for a third solution are illusory.

[i]These statements do not apply to American penal procedure.