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Ludwig von Mises

C. The Roots of Imperialism

It is usual to seek the roots of modern imperialism in the desire for territories to settle and colonies to exploit. This interpretation represents imperialism as an economic necessity. We best recognize that this interpretation is inadequate if we consider how liberalism stands on the same problem. Its watchword is freedom of movement; at the same time, it is averse to all colonial undertakings. The proof that the liberal school has provided is irrefutable: that free trade and only free trade appears justified from the purely economic point of view, that only it guarantees the best provisioning of all persons, the greatest yield of labor with the smallest expenditure of costs.

This liberal dogma cannot be shaken, either, by the assertion?on whose correctness we offer no opinion?that there are peoples who are not ready for self-government and never will be ready. These lower races supposedly must be politically governed by the higher races, without economic freedom being in any way limited thereby. Thus have the English long interpreted their rule in India, thus was the Congo Free State conceived: the open door for economic activity of all nations in free competition both with the members of the ruling nation and with the natives. That the practice of colonial policy deviates from this ideal, that it again, as formerly, regards the natives only as a means, not as an end in their own right, that it?above all the French, with their trade-policy assimilation system?excludes from the colonial territories all who do not belong to the ruling nation, is only a consequence of imperialistic lines of thinking. But where do these come from?

An individualistic justification for imperialism can also be found. That is the one based on the conditions of territories with mixed population. There the consequences of the application of the democratic principle were bound by themselves alone to lead to militant aggressive nationalism. Things are no different in those territories to which the stream of immigration is directed today. There the problem of mixed languages arises ever anew, there imperialistic nationalism must also arise ever anew. Thus we see efforts growing in America and in Australia for limitation of undesired?foreign-nationality?immigration, efforts that were bound to arise out of the fear of being outnumbered by foreigners in one's own country at the same time that the fear arose that the immigrants of foreign national origin could no longer be fully assimilated.

Doubtless this was the point from which the rebirth of imperialistic thinking proceeded. From here the spirit of imperialism gradually undermined the entire thought structure of liberalism, until finally it could also replace the individualistic basis from which it had originated with a collectivistic one. The idea of liberalism starts with the freedom of the individual; it rejects all rule of some persons over others; it knows no master peoples and no subject peoples, just as within the nation itself it distinguishes between no masters and no serfs. For fully developed imperialism, the individual no longer has value. He is valuable to it only as a member of the whole, as a soldier of an army. For the liberal, the number of fellow members of his nationality is no unduly important matter. It is otherwise for imperialism. It strives for the numerical greatness of the nation. To make conquests and hold them, one must have the upper hand militarily, and military importance always depends on the number of combatants at one's disposal. Attaining and maintaining a large population thus becomes a special goal of policy. The democrat strives for the unified national state because he believes that this is the will of the nation. The imperialist wants a state as large as possible; he does not care whether that corresponds to the desire of the peoples.[44]

The imperialistic people's state scarcely differs from the old princely state in its interpretation of sovereignty and its boundaries. Like the latter, it knows no other limits to the expansion of its rule than those drawn by the opposition of an equally strong power. Even its lust for conquest is unlimited. It wants to hear nothing of the right of peoples. If it "needs" a territory, then it simply takes it and, where possible, demands further from the subjugated peoples that they find this just and reasonable. Foreign peoples are in its eyes not subjects but objects of policy. They are?quite as the princely state once thought?appurtenances of the country where they live. Expressions also recur in the modern imperialistic manner of speaking, therefore, that were believed to be already forgotten. People speak again of geographic boundaries,[45] of the necessity of using a piece of land as a "buffer zone"; territories are again rounded off; they are exchanged and sold for money.

These imperialistic doctrines are common to all peoples today. Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Americans who marched off to fight imperialism are no less imperialistic than the Germans. Of course, their imperialism differed from the German variety before November 1918 in one important point. While the other nations brought their imperialistic efforts to bear only against the peoples of the tropics and subtropics and treated the peoples of the white race in conformity with the principles of modern democracy, the Germans, precisely because of their position in the polyglot territories in Europe, directed their imperialistic policy against European peoples also.[46] The great colonial powers have held fast to the democratic-pacifistic nationality principle in Europe and America and have practiced imperialism only against the African and Asiatic peoples. They have therefore not come into conflict with the nationality principle of the white peoples, as has the German people, which even in Europe has sought to practice imperialism everywhere.

To justify the application of imperialistic principles in Europe, the German theory saw itself compelled to fight the nationality principle and replace it with the doctrine of the unified state. Small states are said no longer to have any justification for their existence nowadays. They are said to be too small and too weak to form an independent economic territory. They supposedly must therefore necessarily seek links with larger states in order to form an "economic and trench community" with them.[47]

If this means no more than that small states are scarcely able to mount sufficient resistance to the lust for conquest of their more powerful neighbors, well, one cannot contradict that. Small states cannot in fact compete with large ones on the battlefield; if it comes to war between them and a great power, then they must succumb unless help comes to them from outside. This help seldom is lacking. It is provided by large and small states, not from sympathy or on principle but in their own interest. In fact, we see that small states have maintained themselves for centuries just as well as the great powers. The course of the World War shows that even nowadays small states do not always prove weakest in the end. If one seeks to prod the small states by threats into association with a larger state or if one compels them into subjugation through force of arms, well, this is no proof of the assertion that "time is working against small state sovereignties."[48] This proposition is no less correct or false today than in the days of Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, or Napoleon. The political ideas of modern times allow the continued existence of a small state to appear rather more secure today than in earlier centuries. That the Central Powers won military victories over a number of small states during the World War in no way justifies our declaring that "running a state on a small scale" is just as out of date today as so running an ironworks. When Renner, with reference to military victories that German and Austrian troops won over the Serbs, thinks he can dispose of the nationality principle with the Marxist expression: "the material conditions of being a state rebel against its immaterial ones?a contradiction of concepts that in practice becomes a tragic fate for people and state,"[49] he is thereby overlooking the fact that military weakness could be fatal for small states thousands of years ago also.

The assertion that all small states have had their day is further supported by Naumann, Renner, and their followers by the remark that a state must at least possess enough territory for a self-sufficient economy. That this is not true is already clear from what was said earlier. There can be no question of a test of economic self-sufficiency in the formation of states at a time when the division of labor embraces broad stretches of land, whole continents, indeed the whole world. It does not matter whether the inhabitants of a state meet their needs directly or indirectly by production at home; what is important is only that they can meet them at all. When Renner confronted the individual Austrian nations striving for political independence with the question of where they then would obtain this or that article once they had been detached from the whole of the Austro-Hungarian state, well, that was absurd. Even at the time when the state structure was unified, they did not obtain these goods for nothing but only for value supplied in return, and this value in return does not become greater when the political community has fallen apart. This objection would have had some sense only if we were living at a time when trade between states was impossible.

The size of a state's territory therefore does not matter. It is another question whether a state is viable when its population is small. Now, it is to be noted that the costs of many state activities are greater in small states than in large ones. The dwarf states, of which we still have a number in Europe, like Liechtenstein, Andorra, and Monaco, can organize their court systems by levels of jurisdiction, for example, only if they link up with a neighboring state. It is clear that it would be financially quite impossible for such a state to set up as comprehensive a court system as that which a larger state makes available to its citizens, for example, by establishing courts of appeal. One can say that, seen from this point of view, states encompassing a smaller number of people than the administrative units of the larger states are viable only in exceptional cases, namely, only when they have especially rich populations. The smaller states for which this precondition does not hold will, for reasons of state finance, have to link their administrations with a larger neighboring state.[50] Nations so small in number of people that they do not satisfy these conditions do not exist at all and cannot exist at all, since the development of an independent standard language presupposes, after all, the existence of several hundred thousand speakers.

When Naumann, Renner, and their numerous disciples recommended to the small peoples of Europe an association with a Central Europe under German leadership, they completely misunderstood the essence of the protective-tariff policy. On political or military grounds, an alliance with the German nation assuring independence to all participants could be desirable for the small nations of Eastern and Southeastern Europe. In no case, however, could an alliance that would be serviceable exclusively to German interests appear welcome to them. That was the only kind, however, that the advocates of Central Europe had in view. They wanted an alliance that would enable Germany to compete militarily with the world's great powers for colonial possessions, possessions whose advantages could have benefited the German nation alone. They conceived of the Central European world empire, furthermore, as a protective-tariff community. Just that, however, is what all these smaller nations do not want. They do not want to be mere markets for German industrial products; they do not want to forgo developing at home those branches of industry that have their natural locations there and importing from outside Germany the goods produced more cheaply there. It was thought that the rise in prices of agricultural products that was infallibly bound to occur in consequence of incorporation into the Central European tariff territory would, even by itself alone, be attractive to the predominantly agrarian states whose incorporation into the Central European empire was being sought. It was overlooked, however, that this argument could make an impression only on economically untrained persons. It is not to be denied that Rumania, say, on joining a German-Austrian-Hungarian customs community, would have experienced a rise in the prices of agricultural products. It is overlooked, however, that industrial products would have risen in price, on the other hand, since then Rumania would have had to pay the higher German domestic prices, while if it is not joined in a customs community with Germany, it pays the lower world-market prices. What it would have lost from joining the German customs community would have been greater than what it would have gained thereby. At present Rumania is a relatively underpopulated or at least a not overpopulated country; that means that the bulk of its export goods can at present and in the foreseeable future be exported without any dumping. Rumania has no enterprises in primary production and only a few in industry whose location would not be natural. Things are different for Germany, which, precisely in the most important branches of production, works under more unfavorable conditions than foreign countries.

The imperialistic way of thinking, which comes forward with the claim to be helping modern economic development to its rightful condition, is in truth gripped by barter-economy and feudal preconceptions. In the age of the world economy it is downright nonsensical to represent the demand for creation of large autarkic economic territories as an economic demand. In peacetime it is a matter of indifference whether one produces foodstuffs and raw materials at home oneself or, if it seems more economic, obtains them from abroad in exchange for other products that one has produced. When a medieval prince acquired a piece of land where ore was mined, then he had a right to call this mine his own. But if a modern state annexes a mining property, these mines still have not thereby become those of its citizens. They must buy their products by transferring products of their own labor just as they did before, and that changes have occurred in the political order remains without significance for ownership of them. If the prince is happy about the annexation of a new province, if he is proud about the size of his realm, that is immediately understandable. If, however, the common man is happy that "our" realm has become larger, that "we" have acquired a new province, well, that is a joy that does not arise from the satisfaction of economic needs.

In economic policy, imperialism in no way suits the stage of world economic development reached in 1914. When the Huns slashed through Europe killing and burning, they harmed their enemies by the destruction that they left behind, but not themselves also. But when German troops destroyed coal mines and factories, then they also worsened the provisioning of the German consumer. That coal and various manufactured products can be produced in the future only in smaller quantities or only with higher costs will be felt by everyone involved in world economic transactions.

Once that has been recognized, however, then only the military argument can still be adduced in favor of the policy of national expansion. The nation must be populous to field many soldiers. Soldiers are needed, however, to acquire land on which soldiers can be raised. That is the circle that the imperialistic way of thinking does not escape.


[44] We have seen how the striving for the unified national state originates from the desire of the peoples. Imperialism interprets the matter otherwise. For it, the idea of the unified state is a legal title for annexations. Thus the Pan-Germans wanted to annex the German cantons of Switzerland and even the Netherlands against their will.

[45] The answer of the nationality principle to the theory of natural geographic boundaries was given by Arndt when he explained that "the single most valid natural boundary is made by language" (Der Rhein. Deutschlands Strom aber nicht Deutschlands Grenze, 1813, p. 7) and then was aptly formulated by J. Grimm when he speaks of the "natural law . . . that not rivers and not mountains form the boundary lines of peoples and that for a people that has moved over mountains and rivers, its own language alone can set the boundary" (loc. cit., p. 557). How one can manage to derive from the nationality principle the demand for annexation of the territories "of the small, unviable peoples, specifically, those incapable of having their own state" may be seen in Hasse, Deutsche Politik, vol. 1, third part (Munich: 1906), pp. 12 f.

[46] Only in impeding immigration does imperialism on the part of the Anglo-Saxons operate against the whites also.

[47] Cf. Naumann, Mitteleuropa (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1915), pp. 164 ff. (Central Europe, trans. by Christabel M. Meredith, New York: Knopf, 1917, pp. 179 ff.); Mitscherlich, Nationalstaat und Nationalwirtschaft und ihre Zukunft (Leipzig: 1916), pp. 26 ff; on other writers of the same orientation, cf. Zurlinden, Der Weltkrieg. Vorl?ufige 0rientierung von einem schweizerischen Standpunkt aus, vol. 1 (Zurich: 1917), pp. 393 ff.

[48] Cf. Renner, ?sterreichs Erneuerung, vol. 3 (Vienna: 1916), p. 65.

[49] Renner, ?sterreichs Erneuerung, vol. 3 (Vienna: 1916), p. 66.

[50] Cf. also the speech of Bismarck in the session of the Prussian House of Deputies of 11 December 1867 on Prussia's treaty of accession with the principality of Waldeck-Pyrmont. (F?rst Bismarcks Reden, edited by Stein, vol. 3, pp. 235 ff.)

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