Ludwig von Mises
Liberalism and the Political Parties
Classical liberalism has been reproached with being too obstinate and not ready enough to compromise. It was because of its inflexibility that it was defeated in its struggle with the nascent anticapitalist parties of all kinds. If it had realized, as these other parties did, the importance of compromise and concession to popular slogans in winning the favor of the masses, it would have been able to preserve at least some of its influence. But it has never bothered to build for itself a party organization and a party machine as the anticapitalist parties have done. It has never attached any importance to political tactics in electoral campaigns and parliamentary proceedings. It has never gone in for scheming opportunism or political bargaining. This unyielding doctrinairism necessarily brought about the decline of liberalism.
The factual assertions contained in these statements are entirely in accordance with the truth, but to believe that they constitute a reproach against liberalism is to reveal a complete misunderstanding of its essential spirit. The ultimate and most profound of the fundamental insights of liberal thought is that it is ideas that constitute the foundation on which the whole edifice of human social cooperation is constructed and sustained and that a lasting social structure cannot be built on the basis of false and mistaken ideas. Nothing can serve as a substitute for an ideology that enhances human life by fostering social cooperation?least of all lies, whether they be called "tactics," "diplomacy," or "compromise." If men will not, from a recognition of social necessity, voluntarily do what must be done if society is to be maintained and general well-being advanced, no one can lead them to the right path by any cunning stratagem or artifice. If they err and go astray, then one must endeavor to enlighten them by instruction. But if they cannot be enlightened, if they persist in error, then nothing can be done to prevent catastrophe. All the tricks and lies of demagogic politicians may well be suited to promote the cause of those who, whether in good faith or bad, work for the destruction of society. But the cause of social progress, the cause of the further development and intensification of social bonds, cannot be advanced by lies and demagogy. No power on earth, no crafty stratagem or clever deception could succeed in duping mankind into accepting a social doctrine that it not only does not acknowledge, but openly spurns.
The only way open to anyone who wishes to lead the world back to liberalism is to convince his fellow citizens of the necessity of adopting the liberal program. This work of enlightenment is the sole task that the liberal can and must perform in order to avert as much as lies within his power the destruction toward which society is rapidly heading today. There is no place here for concessions to any of the favorite or customary prejudices and errors. In regard to questions that will decide whether or not society is to continue to exist at all, whether millions of people are to prosper or perish, there is no room for compromise either from weakness or from misplaced deference for the sensibilities of others.
If liberal principles once again are allowed to guide the policies of great nations, if a revolution in public opinion could once more give capitalism free rein, the world will be able gradually to raise itself from the condition into which the policies of the combined anticapitalist factions have plunged it. There is no other way out of the political and social chaos of the present age.
The most serious illusion under which classical liberalism labored was its optimism in regard to the direction that the evolution of society was bound to take. To the champions of liberalism?the sociologists and economists of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century and their supporters?it seemed certain that mankind would advance to ever higher stages of perfection and that nothing would be able to arrest this process. They were firmly convinced that rational cognition of the fundamental laws of social cooperation and interdependence, which they had discovered, would soon become common and that thereafter the social bonds peacefully uniting mankind would become ever closer, there would be a progressive improvement in general well-being, and civilization would rise to ever higher levels of culture. Nothing could shake their optimism. As the attack on liberalism began to grow steadily fiercer, as the ascendancy of liberal ideas in politics was challenged from all sides, they thought that what they had to contend with was only the last volleys fired in retreat by a moribund system that did not require serious study and counterattack because it would in any case soon collapse of itself.
The liberals were of the opinion that all men have the intellectual capacity to reason correctly about the difficult problems of social cooperation and to act accordingly. They were so impressed with the clarity and self-evidence of the reasoning by which they had arrived at their political ideas that they were quite unable to understand how anyone could fail to comprehend it. They never grasped two facts: first, that the masses lack the capacity to think logically and secondly, that in the eyes of most people, even when they are able to recognize the truth, a momentary, special advantage that may be enjoyed immediately appears more important than a lasting greater gain that must be deferred. Most people do not have even the intellectual endowments required to think through the?after all very complicated?problems of social cooperation, and they certainly do not have the will power necessary to make those provisional sacrifices that all social action demands. The slogans of interventionism and of socialism, especially proposals for the partial expropriation of private property, always find ready and enthusiastic approval with the masses, who expect to profit directly and immediately from them.