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Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

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Liberalism
Ludwig von Mises

Introduction

3. Rationalism

Liberalism is usually reproached, besides, for being rationalistic. It wants to regulate everything reasonably and thus fails to recognize that in human affairs great latitude is, and, indeed, must be, given to feelings and to the irrational generally?i.e., to what is unreasonable.

Now liberalism is by no means unaware of the fact that men sometimes act unreasonably. If men always acted reasonably, it would be superfluous to exhort them to be guided by reason. Liberalism does not say that men always act intelligently, but rather that they ought, in their own rightly understood interest, always to act intelligently. And the essence of liberalism is just this, that it wants to have conceded to reason in the sphere of social policy the acceptance that is conceded to it without dispute in all other spheres of human action.

If, having been recommended a reasonable?i.e., hygienic?mode of life by his doctor, someone were to reply: "I know that your advice is reasonable; my feelings, however, forbid me to follow it. I want to do what is harmful for my health even though it may be unreasonable," hardly anybody would regard his conduct as commendable. No matter what we undertake to do in life, in order to reach the goal that we have set for ourselves we endeavor to do it reasonably. The person who wants to cross a railroad track will not choose the very moment when a train is passing over the crossing. The person who wants to sew on a button will avoid pricking his finger with the needle. In every sphere of his practical activity man has developed a technique or a technology that indicates how one is to proceed if one does not want to behave in an unreasonable way. It is generally acknowledged that it is desirable for a man to acquire the techniques which he can make use of in life, and a person who enters a field whose techniques he has not mastered is derided as a bungler,

Only in the sphere of social policy, it is thought, should it be otherwise. Here, not reason, but feelings and impulses should decide. The question: How must things be arranged in order to provide good illumination during the hours of darkness? is generally discussed only with reasonable arguments. As soon, however, as the point in the discussion is reached when it is to be decided whether the lighting plant should be managed by private individuals or by the municipality, then reason is no longer considered valid. Here sentiment, world view?in short, unreason?should determine the result. We ask in vain: Why?

The organization of human society according to the pattern most suitable for the attainment of the ends in view is a quite prosaic and matter-of-fact question, not unlike, say, the construction of a railroad or the production of cloth or furniture. National and governmental affairs are, it is true, more important than all other practical questions of ' human conduct, since the social order furnishes the foundation for everything else, and it is possible for each individual to prosper in the pursuit of his ends only in a society propitious for their attainment. But however lofty may be the sphere in which political and social questions are placed, they still refer to matters that are subject to human control and must consequently be judged according to the canons of human reason. In such matters, no less than in all our other mundane affairs, mysticism is only an evil. Our powers of comprehension are very limited. We cannot hope ever to discover the ultimate and most profound secrets of the universe. But the fact that we can never fathom the meaning and purpose of our existence does not hinder us from taking precautions to avoid contagious diseases or from making use of the appropriate means to feed and clothe ourselves, nor should it deter us from organizing society in such a way that the earthly goals for which we strive can be most effectually attained. Even the state and the legal system, the government and its administration are not too lofty, too good, too grand, for us to bring them within the range of rational deliberation. Problems of social policy are problems of social technology, and their solution must be sought in the same ways and by the same means that are at our disposal in the solution of other technical problems: by rational reflection and by examination of the given conditions. All that man is and all that raises him above the animals he owes to his reason. Why should he forgo the use of reason just in the sphere of social policy and trust to vague and obscure feelings and impulses?

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