Ludwig von Mises
Liberalism and the Political Parties
There can be no more grievous misunderstanding of the meaning and nature of liberalism than to think that it would be possible to secure the victory of liberal ideas by resorting to the methods employed today by the other political parties.
In a caste and status society, constituted not of citizens with equal rights, but divided into ranks vested with different duties and prerogatives, there are no political parties in the modern sense. As long as the special privileges and immunities of the different castes are not called into question, peace reigns among them. But once the privileges of caste and status are contested, the issue is joined, and civil war can be avoided only if one side or the other, recognizing its weakness, yields without an appeal to arms. In all such conflicts, the position of each individual is determined from the outset by his status as a member of one caste or another. To be sure, there can be renegades who, in the expectation of being better able to provide for their personal advantage on the side of the enemy, fight against the members of their own caste and are consequently viewed by them as traitors. But, apart from such exceptional cases, the individual is not confronted with the question of which of the opposing groups he ought to join. He stands by the members of his own caste and shares their fate. The caste or castes that are dissatisfied with their position rebel against the prevailing order and have to win their demands against the opposition of the others. The ultimate outcome of the conflict is?if everything does not, in fact, remain as it was because the rebels have been worsted?that the old order is replaced by a new one in which the rights of the various castes are different from what they were before.
With the advent of liberalism came the demand for the abolition of all special privileges. The society of caste and status had to make way for a new order in which there were to be only citizens with equal rights. What was under attack was no longer only the particular privileges of the different castes, but the very existence of all privileges. Liberalism tore down the barriers of rank and status and liberated man from the restrictions with which the old order had surrounded him. It was in capitalist society, under a system of government founded on liberal principles, that the individual was first granted the opportunity to participate directly in political life and was first called upon to make a personal decision in regard to political goals and ideals. In the caste and status society of earlier days, the only political conflicts had been those among the different castes, each of which had formed a solid front in opposition to the others; or, in the absence of such conflicts, there were, within those castes that were permitted a share in political life, factional conflicts among coteries and cliques for influence, power, and a place at the helm. Only under a polity in which all citizens enjoy equal rights?corresponding to the liberal ideal, which has nowhere ever been fully achieved?can there be political parties consisting of associations of persons who want to see their ideas on legislation and administration put into effect. For there can very well be differences of opinion concerning the best way to achieve the liberal aim of assuring peaceful social cooperation, and these differences of opinion must join issue as conflicts of ideas.
Thus, in a liberal society there could be socialist parties too. Even parties that seek to have a special legal position conceded to particular groups would not be impossible under a liberal system. But all these parties must acknowledge liberalism (at least temporarily, until they emerge victorious) so far as to make use in their political struggles solely of the weapons of the intellect, which liberalism views as the only ones permissible in such contests, even though, in the last analysis, as socialists or as champions of special privileges, the members of the antiliberal parties reject the liberal philosophy. Thus, some of the pre-Marxist "utopian" socialists fought for socialism within the framework of liberalism, and in the golden age of liberalism in western Europe, the clergy and the nobility tried to achieve their ends within the framework of a modern constitutional state.
The parties that we see at work today are of an entirely different kind. To be sure, some part of their program is concerned with the whole of society and purports to address itself to the problem of how social cooperation is to be achieved. But what this part of their program says is only a concession wrung from them by the liberal ideology. What they aim at in reality is set forth in another part of their program, which is the only part that they pay any attention to and which stands in irreconcilable contradiction to the part that is couched in terms of the general welfare. Present-day political parties are the champions not only of certain of the privileged orders of earlier days that desire to see preserved and extended traditional prerogatives that liberalism had to allow them to keep because its victory was not complete, but also of certain groups that strive for special privileges, that is to say, that desire to attain the status of a caste. Liberalism addresses itself to all and proposes a program acceptable to all alike. It promises no one privileges. By calling for the renunciation of the pursuit of special interests, it even demands sacrifices, though, of course, only provisional ones, involving the giving up of a relatively small advantage in order to attain a greater one. But the parties of special interests address themselves only to a part of society. To this part, for which alone they intend to work, they promise special advantages at the expense of the rest of society.
All modern political parties and all modern party ideologies originated as a reaction on the part of special group interests fighting for a privileged status against liberalism. Before the rise of liberalism, there were, of course, privileged orders with their special interests and prerogatives and their mutual conflicts, but at that time the ideology of the status society could still express itself in a completely naive and unembarrassed way. In the conflicts that occurred in those days between the champions and the opponents of special privilege, there was never any question of the antisocial character of the whole system nor any need of maintaining the pretense of justifying it on social grounds. One cannot, therefore, draw any direct comparison between the old system of privileged orders and the activities and propaganda of the present-day parties of special interests.
To understand the true character of all these parties, one must keep in mind the fact that they were originally formed solely as a defense of special privileges against the teachings of liberalism. Their party doctrines are not, like those of liberalism, the political application of a comprehensive, carefully thought-out theory of society. The political ideology of liberalism was derived from a fundamental system of ideas that had first been developed as a scientific theory without any thought of its political significance. In contradistinction to this, the special rights and privileges sought by the antiliberal parties were, from the very outset, already realized in existing social institutions, and it was in justification of the latter that one undertook subsequently to elaborate an ideology, a task that was generally treated as a matter of little moment that could easily be disposed of with a few brief words. Farm groups think it sufficient to point out the indispensability of agriculture. The trade unions appeal to the indispensability of labor. The parties of the middle class cite the importance of the existence of a social stratum that represents the golden mean. It seems to trouble them little that such appeals contribute nothing to province the necessity or even the advantageousness to the general public of the special privileges they are striving for, The groups that they desire to win over will follow them in any case, and as for the others, every attempt at recruiting supporters from their ranks would be futile.
Thus, all these modern parties of special interests, no matter how far apart their goals may diverge or how violently they may contend against one another, form a united front in the battle against liberalism. In the eyes of all of them, the principle of liberalism that the rightly understood interests of all men are, in the long run, compatible is like a red cloth waved in front of a bull. As they see it, there are irreconcilable conflicts of interests that can be settled only by the victory of one faction over the others, to the advantage of the former and the disadvantage of the latter. Liberalism, these parties assert, is not what it pretends to be. It too is nothing but a party program seeking to champion the special interests of a particular group, the bourgeoisie, i.e., the capitalists and entrepreneurs, against the interests of all other groups.
The fact that this allegation forms part of the propaganda of Marxism accounts for much of the latter's success. If the doctrine of the irreconcilable conflict between the interests of different classes within a society based on private ownership of the means of production is taken as the essential dogma of Marxism, then all the parties active today on the European continent would have to be considered as Marxist. The doctrine of class antagonisms and of class conflict is also accepted by the nationalist parties in so far as they share the opinion that these antagonisms do exist in capitalist society and that the conflicts to which they give rise must run their course. What distinguishes them from the Marxist parties is only that they wish to overcome class conflict by reverting to a status society constituted along the lines that they recommend and by shifting the battlefront to the international arena, where they believe it should be. They do not dispute the statement that conflicts of this kind occur in a society based on private ownership of the means of production. They merely contend that such antagonisms ought not to arise, and in order to eliminate them, they want to guide and regulate private property by acts of government interference; they want interventionism in place of capitalism. But, in the last analysis, this is in no way different from what the Marxists say. They too promise to lead the world to a new social order in which there will be no more classes, class antagonisms, or class conflicts.
In order to grasp the meaning of the doctrine of the class war, one must bear in mind that it is directed against the liberal doctrine of the harmony of the rightly understood interests of all members of a free society founded on the principle of private ownership of the means of production. The liberals maintained that with the elimination of all the artificial distinctions of caste and status, the abolition of all privileges, and the establishment of equality before the law, nothing else stands in the way of the peaceful cooperation of all members of society, because then their rightly understood, long-run interests coincide. All the objections that the champions of feudalism, of special privileges, and of distinctions of caste and status sought to advance against this doctrine soon proved quite unjustified and were unable to gain any notable support. But in Ricardo's system of catallactics one may find the point of departure for a new theory of the conflict of interests within the capitalist system. Ricardo believed that he could show how, in the course of progressive economic development, a shift takes place in the relations among the three forms of income in his system, viz., profit, rent, and wages. It was this that impelled a few English writers in the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century to speak of the three classes of capitalists, landowners, and wage-laborers and to maintain that an irreconcilable antagonism exists among these groups. This line of thought was later taken up by Marx.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx still did not distinguish between caste and class. Only later, when he became acquainted in London with the writings of the forgotten pamphleteers of the twenties and thirties and, under their influence, began the study of Ricardo's system, did he realize that the problem in this case was to show that even in a society without caste distinctions and privileges irreconcilable conflicts still exist. This antagonism of interests he deduced from Ricardo's system by distinguishing among the three classes of capitalists, landowners, and workers. But he by no means adhered firmly to this distinction. Sometimes he asserts that there are only two classes, the propertied and the propertyless; at other times he distinguishes among more classes than just the two or three great ones. At no time, however, did Marx or any one of his many followers attempt in any way to define the concept and nature of the classes. It is significant that the chapter entitled "The Classes" in the third volume of Capital breaks off after a few sentences. More than a generation elapsed from the appearance of the Communist Manifesto, in which Marx first makes class antagonism and class war the keystone of his entire doctrine, to the time of his death. During this entire period Marx wrote volume after volume, but he never came to the point of explaining what is to be understood by a "class." In his treatment of the problem of classes Marx never went beyond the mere statement ' without any proof, of a dogma or, let us rather say, of a slogan.
In order to prove that the doctrine of class warfare is true, one would have to be able to establish two facts: on the one hand, that there is an identity of interests among the members of each class; and, on the other hand, that what benefits one class injures the other. This, however, has never been accomplished. Indeed, it has never even been attempted. Precisely because "class comrades" are all in the same "social situation," there is no identity of interests among them, but rather competition. The worker, for example, who is employed under better-than-average conditions has an interest in excluding competitors who could reduce his income to the average level. In the decades when the doctrine of the international solidarity of the proletariat was proclaimed time and time again in verbose resolutions adopted at the international Marxist congresses, the workers of the United States and Australia set up the greatest obstacles to immigration. By means of a complex network of petty regulations, the English trade unions made impossible the entrance of outsiders into their branches of labor. What has been done by the labor parties in this regard in every country during the last few years is well known. Of course, one can say that this ought not to have happened; the workers ought to have acted differently; what they did was wrong. But one cannot deny that it directly served their interests?at least for the moment.
Liberalism has demonstrated that the antagonism of interests, which, according to a widely prevalent opinion, is supposed to exist among different persons, groups, and strata within a society based on private ownership of the means of production, does not, in fact, occur. Any increase in total capital raises the income of capitalists and landowners absolutely and that of workers both absolutely and relatively. As regards their income, any shifts in the various interests of the different groups and strata of society?the entrepreneurs, capitalists, landowners, and workers?occur together and move in the same direction as they pass through different phases in their fluctuations; what varies is only the ratio of their shares of the social product. The interests of the landowners oppose those of the members of the other groups only in the one case of a genuine monopoly of a certain mineral. The interests of the entrepreneurs can never diverge from those of the consumers. The entrepreneur prospers the better, the better he is able to anticipate the desires of the consumers.
Conflicts of interests can occur only in so far as restrictions on the owners' free disposal of the means of production are imposed by the interventionist policy of the government or by interference on the part of other social forces armed with coercive power. For example, the price of a certain article can be artificially raised by a protective tariff, or the wages of a certain group of workers can be increased by excluding all competitors for their jobs. The famous line of reasoning of the free-trade school, never refuted and forever irrefutable, applies to cases of this kind. Such special privileges can, of course, benefit the particular group on whose behalf they were instituted only if other groups have been unable to win similar privileges for themselves. But it cannot be assumed that it would be possible, in the longrun, to deceive the majority of the people about the real significance of such special privileges so that they will tolerate them willingly. Yet if one undertakes to use force to compel their acceptance, one will provoke violent rebellion?in short, a disturbance of the peaceful course of social cooperation, the preservation of which is in the interest of everyone. If one seeks to solve the problem by making these special privileges, not exceptions on behalf of just one or a few persons, groups, or strata of society, but the general rule, as, for example, by resorting to import duties to protect most of the articles sold on the home market or by using similar measures to bar access to the majority of occupations, the advantages gained by each particular group are counterbalanced by the disadvantages that they must suffer, and the end result is only that all are injured by the consequent lowering of the productivity of labor.
If one rejects this doctrine of liberalism, if one heaps ridicule on the controversial theory of the "harmony of interests of all men," then it is not true, either, as is wrongly assumed by all schools of antiliberal thought, that there could still be a solidarity of interests within narrower circles, as, for instance, among members of the same nation (as against other nations) or among members of the same "class" (as against other classes). In order to demonstrate the existence of such an alleged solidarity, a special line of reasoning would be necessary that no one has followed or has even attempted to follow. For all the arguments that could be employed to prove the existence of a solidarity of interests among the members of any of these groups prove much more besides, viz., the universal solidarity of interests within ecumenical society. How those apparent conflicts of interest that seem at first sight to be irreconcilable are in fact resolved can be shown only by means of a line of reasoning that treats all mankind as an essentially harmonious community and allows no room for the demonstration of any irreconcilable antagonisms among nations, classes, races, and the like.
The antiliberal parties do not, as they believe, prove that there is any solidarity of interests within nations, classes, races, etc. All that they actually do is to recommend to the members of these particular groups alliances for a common struggle against all other groups. When they speak of a solidarity of interests within these groups, they are not so much affirming a fact as stating a postulate. In reality, they are not saying, "The interests are identical," but rather, "The interests ought to be made identical by an alliance for united action."
The modern parties of special interests declare quite frankly and unequivocally, from the very outset, that the aim of their policy is the creation of special privileges for a particular group. Agrarian parties strive for protective tariffs and other advantages (e.g., subsidies) for farmers; civil service parties aim at securing privileges for bureaucrats; regional parties are dedicated to gaining special advantages for the inhabitants of a certain region. All these parties evidently seek nothing but the advantage of a single group in society, without consideration of the whole of society or of all other groups, however much they may seek to palliate their procedure by declaring that the welfare of the whole of society can be achieved only by furthering the interests of agriculture, the civil service, etc. Indeed, their exclusive concern with but a single segment of society and their labors and endeavors on its behalf alone have become increasingly obvious and more cynical with the passage of the years. When the modern antiliberal movements were still in their infancy, they had to be more circumspect in regard to such matters, because the Generation that had been reared on the liberal philosophy had learned to look upon the undisguised advocacy of the special interests of various groups as antisocial.
The champions of special interests can form great parties only by composing a single combat unit out of the combined forces of various groups whose special interests are in conflict. Privileges granted to a particular group, however, have practical value only when they accrue to a minority and are not outweighed by the privileges granted to another group. But unless circumstances are exceptionally favorable, a small group cannot hope at present, while the liberal condemnation of the privileges of the nobility still retains some traces of its earlier influence, to be able to have their claim to be treated as a privileged class prevail against all other groups. The problem of all the parties of special interests, therefore, is to form great parties out of relatively small groups with differing and, indeed, directly conflicting interests. But in view of the mentality that leads these smaller parties to put forth and defend their demands for special privileges, it is quite impracticable to achieve this end by way of an open alliance among the various groups. No provisional sacrifice can be asked of the man who strives for the acquisition of a privileged position for his own group or even for himself alone; if he were capable of understanding the reason for making, the provisional sacrifice, then he would certainly think along liberal lines and not in terms of the demands of those engaged in the scramble for special privileges. Nor can one openly tell him that he will gain more from the privilege intended for him than he will lose from the privileges that he will have to concede to others, for any speeches and writings to this effect could not, in the long run, remain hidden from the others and would impel them to raise their demands even higher.
Thus, the parties of special interests are obliged to be cautious. In speaking of this most important point in their endeavors, they must resort to ambiguous expressions intended to obscure the true state of affairs. Protectionist parties are the best example of this kind of equivocation. They must always be careful to represent the interest in the protective tariffs they recommend as that of a wider group. When associations of manufacturers advocate protective tariffs, the party leaders generally take care not to mention that the interests of individual groups and often even of individual concerns are by no means identical and harmonious. The weaver is injured by tariffs on machines and yarn and will promote the protectionist movement only in the expectation that textile tariffs will be high enough to compensate him for the loss that he suffers from the other tariffs. The farmer who grows fodder demands tariffs on fodder which the cattle raisers oppose; the winegrower demands a tariff on wine, which is just as disadvantageous to the farmer who does not happen to cultivate a vineyard as it is to the urban consumer. Nevertheless, the protectionists appear as a single party united behind a common program. This is made possible only by throwing a veil of obscurity over the truth of the matter.
Any attempt to found a party of special interests on the basis of an equal apportionment of privileges among the majority of the population would be utterly senseless. A privilege accruing to the majority ceases to be such. In a predominantly agricultural country, which exports farm products, an agrarian party working for special favors for farmers would be, in the long run, impossible. What should it demand? Protective tariffs could not benefit these farmers, who must export; and subsidies could not be paid to the majority of producers, because the minority could not provide them. The minority, on the other hand, which demands privileges for itself must induce the illusion that great masses stand behind it. When the agrarian parties in the industrial countries present their demands, they include in what they call the "farm population" landless workers, cottagers, and owners of small plots of land, who have no interest in a protective tariff on agricultural products. When the labor parties make some demand on behalf of a group of workers, they always talk of the great mass of the working people and gloss over the fact that the interests of trade-unionists employed in different branches of production are not identical, but, on the contrary, actually antagonistic, and that even within individual industries and concerns there are sharp conflicts of interest.
This is one of the two fundamental weaknesses of all parties aiming at privileges on behalf of special interests. On the one hand, they are obliged to rely on only a small group, because privileges cease to be privileges when they are granted to the majority; but, on the other hand, it is only in their guise as the champions and representatives of the majority that they have any prospect of realizing their demands. The fact that many parties in different countries have sometimes succeeded in overcoming this difficulty in carrying on their propaganda and have managed to imbue each social stratum or group with the conviction that its members may expect special advantages from the triumph of the party speaks only for the diplomatic and tactical skill of the leadership and for the want of judgment and the political immaturity of the voting masses. It by no means proves that a real solution of the problem is, in fact, possible. Of course, one can simultaneously promise city-dwellers cheaper bread and farmers higher prices for grain, but one cannot keep both promises at the same time. It is easy enough to promise one group that one will support an increase in certain government expenditures without a corresponding reduction in other government expenditures, and at the same time hold out to another group the prospect of lower taxes; but one cannot keep both these promises at the same time either. The technique of these parties is based on the division of society into producers and consumers. They are also wont to make use of the usual hypostasis of the state in questions of fiscal policy that enables them to advocate new expenditures to be paid out of the public treasury without any particular concern on their part over how such expenses are to be defrayed, and at the same time to complain about the heavy burden of taxes.
The other basic defect of these parties is that the demands they raise for each particular group are limitless. There is, in their eyes, only one limit to the quantity to be demanded: the resistance put up by the other side. This is entirely in keeping with their character as parties striving for privileges on behalf of special interests. Yet parties that follow no definite program, but come into conflict in the pursuit of unlimited desires for privileges on behalf of some and for legal disabilities for others, must bring about the destruction of every political system. People have been coming to recognize this ever more clearly and have begun to speak of a crisis of the modern state and of a crisis of the parliamentary system. In reality, what is involved is a crisis of the ideologies of the modern parties of special interests.