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The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

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Liberalism
Ludwig von Mises

Introduction

5. Liberalism and Capitalism

A society in which liberal principles are put into effect is usually called a capitalist society, and the condition of that society, capitalism. Since the economic policy of liberalism has everywhere been only more or less closely approximated in practice, conditions as they are in the world today provide us with but an imperfect idea of the meaning and possible accomplishments of capitalism in full flower. Nevertheless, one is altogether justified in calling our age the age of capitalism, because all that has created the wealth of our time can be traced back to capitalist institutions. It is thanks to those liberal ideas that still remain alive in our society, to what yet survives in it of the capitalist system, that the great mass of our contemporaries can enjoy a standard of living far above that which just a few generations ago was possible only to the rich and especially privileged.

To be sure, in the customary rhetoric of the demagogues these facts are represented quite differently. To listen to them, one would think that all progress in the techniques of production redounds to the exclusive benefit of a favored few, while the masses sink ever more deeply into misery. However, it requires only a moment's reflection to realize that the fruits of all technological and industrial innovations make for an improvement in the satisfaction of the wants of the great masses. All big industries that produce consumers' goods work directly for their benefit; all industries that produce machines and half-finished products work for them indirectly. The great industrial developments of the last decades, like those of the eighteenth century that are designated by the not altogether happily chosen phrase, "the Industrial Revolution," have resulted, above all, in a better satisfaction of the needs of the masses. The development of the clothing industry, the mechanization of shoe production, and improvements in the processing and distribution of foodstuffs have, by their very nature, benefited the widest public. It is thanks to these industries that the masses today are far better clothed and fed than ever before. However, mass production provides not only for food, shelter, and clothing, but also for other requirements of the multitude. The press serves the masses quite as much as the motion picture industry, and even the theater and similar strongholds of the arts are daily becoming more and more places of mass entertainment.

Nevertheless, as a result Of the zealous propaganda of the antiliberal parties, which twists the facts the other way round, people today have come to associate the ideas of liberalism and capitalism with the image of a world plunged into ever increasing misery and poverty. To be sure, no amount of deprecatory propaganda could ever succeed, as the demagogues had hoped, in giving the words "liberal" and "liberalism" a completely pejorative connotation. In the last analysis, it is not possible to brush aside the fact that, in spite of all the efforts of antiliberal propaganda, there is something in these expressions that suggests what every normal person feels when he hears the word "freedom." Antiliberal propaganda, therefore, avoids mentioning the word "liberalism" too often and prefers the infamies that it attributes to the liberal system to be associated with the term "capitalism." That word brings to mind a flint-hearted capitalist, who thinks of nothing but his own enrichment, even if that is possible only through the exploitation of his fellow men.

It hardly occurs to anyone, when he forms his notion of a capitalist, that a social order organized on genuinely liberal principles is so constituted as to leave the entrepreneurs and the capitalists only one way to wealth, viz., by better providing their fellow men with what they themselves think they need. Instead of speaking of capitalism in connection with the prodigious improvement in the standard of living of the masses, antiliberal propaganda mentions capitalism only in referring to those phenomena whose emergence was made possible solely because of the restraints that were imposed upon liberalism. No reference is made to the fact that capitalism has placed a delectable luxury as well as a food, in the form of sugar, at the disposal of the great masses. Capitalism is mentioned in connection with sugar only when the price of sugar in a country is raised above the world market price by a cartel. As if such a development were even conceivable in a social order in which liberal principles were put into effect In a country with a liberal regime, in which there are no tariffs, cartels capable of driving the price of a commodity above the world market price would be quite unthinkable.

The links in the chain of reasoning by which antiliberal demagogy succeeds in laying upon liberalism and capitalism the blame for all the excesses and evil consequences of antiliberal policies are as follows: One starts from the assumption that liberal principles aim at promoting the interests of the capitalists and entrepreneurs at the expense of the interests of the rest of the population and that liberalism is a policy that favors the rich over the poor. Then one observes that many entrepreneurs and capitalists, under certain conditions, advocate protective tariffs, and still others?the armaments manufacturers?support a policy of "national preparedness"; and, out of hand, one jumps to the conclusion that these must be "capitalistic" policies.

In fact, however, the case is quite otherwise. Liberalism is not a policy in the interest of any particular group, but a policy in the interest of all mankind. It is, therefore, incorrect to assert that the entrepreneurs and capitalists have any special interest in supporting liberalism. Their interest in championing the liberal program is exactly the same as that of everyone else. There may be individual cases in which some entrepreneurs or capitalists cloak their special interests in the program of liberalism; but opposed to these are always the special interests of other entrepreneurs or capitalists. The matter is not quite so simple as those who everywhere scent "interests" and "interested parties" imagine. That a nation imposes a tariff on iron, for example, cannot "simply" be explained by the fact that this benefits the iron magnates. There are also persons with opposing interests in the country, even among the entrepreneurs; and, in any case, the beneficiaries of the tariff on iron are a steadily diminishing minority. Nor can bribery be the explanation, for the people bribed can likewise be only a minority; and, besides, why does only one group, the protectionists, do the bribing, and not their opponents, the freetraders?

The fact is that the ideology that makes the protective tariff possible is created neither by the "interested parties" nor by those bribed by them, but by the ideologists, who give the world the ideas that direct the course of all human affairs. In our age, in which antiliberal ideas prevail, virtually everyone thinks accordingly, just as, a hundred years ago, most people thought in terms of the then prevailing liberal ideology. If many entrepreneurs today advocate protective tariffs, this is nothing more than the form that antiliberalism takes in their case. It has nothing to do with liberalism.

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