Ludwig von Mises
Liberalism and the Political Parties
Representing Special Groups
Parliamentarism, as it has slowly developed in England and in some of her colonies since the seventeenth century, and on the European continent since the overthrow of Napoleon and the July and February Revolutions, presupposes the general acceptance of the ideology of liberalism. All who enter a parliament charged with the responsibility of there deciding how the country shall be governed must be imbued with the conviction that the rightly understood interests of all parts and members of society coincide and that every kind of special privilege for particular groups and classes of the population is detrimental to the common good and must be eliminated. The different parties in a parliament empowered to perform the functions assigned to it by all the constitutions of recent times may, of course, take different sides in regard to particular political questions, but they must consider themselves as the representatives of the whole nation, not as representatives of particular districts or social strata. Above all their differences of opinion there must prevail the conviction that, in the last analysis, they are united by a common purpose and an identical aim and that only the means to the attainment of the goal toward which they all aspire are in dispute. The parties are not separated by an unbridgeable gulf nor by conflicts of interests that they are prepared to carry on to the bitter end even if this means that the whole nation must suffer and the country be brought to ruin. What divides the parties is the position they take in regard to concrete problems of policy. There are, therefore, only two parties: the party in power and the one that wants to be in power. Even the opposition does not seek to obtain power in order to promote certain interests or to fill official posts with its party members, but in order to translate its ideas into legislation and to put them into effect in the administration of the country.
Only under these conditions are parliaments or parliamentary governments practicable. For a time they were realized in the Anglo-Saxon countries, and some traces of them can still be found there today. On the European continent, even during the period usually characterized as the golden age of liberalism, one could really speak only of a certain approximation to these conditions. For decades now, conditions in the popular assemblies of Europe have been something like their direct opposite. There are a great number of parties, and each particular party is itself divided into various subgroups, which generally present a united front to the outside world, but usually oppose one another within the party councils as vehemently as they oppose the other parties publicly. Each particular party and faction feels itself appointed to be the sole champion of certain special interests, which it undertakes to lead to victory at any cost. To allot as much as possible from the public coffers to "our own," to favor them by protective tariffs, immigration barriers, "social legislation," and privileges of all kinds, at the expense of the rest of society, is the whole sum and substance of their policy.
As their demands are, in principle, limitless, it is impossible for any one of these parties ever to achieve all the ends it envisages. It is unthinkable that what the agrarian or labor parties strive for could ever be entirely realized. Every party seeks, nevertheless, to attain to such influence as will permit it to satisfy its desires as far as possible, while also taking care always to be able to justify to its electors why all their wishes could not be fulfilled. This can be done either by seeking to give in public the appearance of being in the opposition, although the party is actually in power, or by striving to shift the blame to some force not answerable to its influence: the sovereign, in the monarchical state; or, under certain circumstances, foreign powers or the like. The Bolsheviks cannot make Russia happy nor the socialists Austria because "western capitalism" prevents it. For at least fifty years antiliberal parties have ruled in Germany and Austria, yet we still read in their manifestoes and public statements, even in those of their "scientific" champions, that all existing evils are to be blamed on the dominance of "liberal" principles.
A parliament composed of the supporters of the antiliberal parties of special interests is not capable of carrying on its business and must, in the long run, disappoint everyone. This is what people mean today and have meant for many years now when they speak of the crisis of parliamentarism.
As the solution for this crisis, some demand the abolition of democracy and the parliamentary system and the institution of a dictatorship. We do not propose to discuss once again the objections to dictatorship. This we have already done in sufficient detail.
A second suggestion is directed toward remedying the alleged deficiencies of a general assembly composed of members elected directly by all the citizens, by either supplementing or replacing it altogether with a diet composed of delegates chosen by autonomous corporative bodies or guilds formed by the different branches of trade, industry, and the professions. The members of a general popular assembly, it is said, lack the requisite objectivity and the knowledge of economic affairs. What is needed is not so much a general policy as an economic policy. The representatives of industrial and professional guilds would be able to come to an agreement on questions whose solution either eludes entirely the delegates of constituencies formed on a merely geographical basis or becomes apparent to them only after long delay.
In regard to an assembly composed of delegates representing different occupational associations, the crucial question about which one must be clear is how a vote is to be taken, or, if each member is to have one vote, how many representatives are to be granted to each guild. This is a problem that must be resolved before the diet convenes; but once this question is settled, one can spare oneself the trouble of calling the assembly into session, for the outcome of the voting is thereby already determined. To be sure, it is quite another question whether the distribution of power among the guilds, once established, can be maintained. It will always be?let us not cherish any delusions on this score?unacceptable to the majority of the people. In order to create a parliament acceptable to the majority, there is no need of an assembly divided along occupational lines. Everything will depend on whether the discontent aroused by the policies adopted by the deputies of the guilds is great enough to lead to the violent overthrow of the whole system. In contrast to the democratic system, this one offers no guarantee that a change in policy desired by the overwhelming majority of the population will take place. In saying this, we have said everything that needs to be said against the idea of an assembly constituted on the basis of occupational divisions. For the liberal, any system which does not exclude every violent interruption of peaceful development is, from the very outset, out of the question.
Many supporters of the idea of a diet composed of guild representatives think that conflicts should be settled, not by the submission of one faction to another, but by the mutual adjustment of differences. But what is supposed to happen if the parties cannot succeed in reaching agreement? Compromises come about only when the threatening specter of an unfavorable issue induces each party to the dispute to make some concession. No one prevents the different parties from coming to an agreement even in a parliament composed of delegates elected directly by the whole nation. No one will be able to compel agreement in a diet consisting of deputies chosen by the members of occupational associations.
Thus, an assembly so constituted cannot function like a parliament that serves as the organ of a democratic system. It cannot be the place where differences of political opinion are peacefully adjusted. It is not in a position to prevent the violent interruption of the peaceful progress of society by insurrection, revolution, and civil war. For the crucial decisions that determine the distribution of political power in the state are not made within its chambers or during the elections that decide its composition. The decisive factor in determining the distribution of power is the relative weight assigned by the constitution to the different corporate associations in the shaping of public policy. But this is a matter that is decided outside the chambers of the diet and without any organic relationship to the elections by which its members are chosen.
It is therefore quite correct to withhold the name "parliament" from an assembly consisting of representatives of corporate associations organized along occupational lines. Political terminology has been accustomed, in the last two centuries, to make a sharp distinction between a parliament and such an assembly. If one does not wish to confound all the concepts of political science, one does well to adhere to this distinction.
Sidney and Beatrice Webb, as well as a number of syndicalists and guild socialists, following in this respect recommendations already made in earlier days by many continental advocates of a reform in the upper chamber, have proposed letting two chambers exist side by side, one elected directly by the whole nation, and the other composed of deputies elected from constituencies divided along occupational lines. However, it is obvious that this suggestion in no way remedies the defects of the system of guild representation. In practice, the bicameral System can function only if one house has the upper hand and has the unconditional power to impose its will on the other, or if, when the two chambers take different positions on an issue, an attempt at a compromise solution must be made. In the absence of such an attempt, however, the conflict remains to be settled outside the chambers of parliament, in the last resort by force alone. Twist and turn the problem as one will, one always returns in the end to the same insurmountable difficulties. Such are the stumbling blocks on which all proposals of this and a similar kind must come to grief, whether they are called corporativism, guild socialism, or anything else. The impracticability of these schemes is admitted when people finally content themselves by recommending a completely inconsequential innovation: the establishment of an economic council empowered to serve solely in an advisory capacity.
The champions of the idea of an assembly composed of guild deputies labor under a serious delusion if they think that the antagonisms that today rend the fabric of national unity can be overcome by dividing the population and the popular assembly along occupational lines. One cannot get rid of these antagonisms by tinkering with technicalities in the constitution. They can be overcome only by the liberal ideology.