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The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School

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Nation, State, and Economy
Ludwig von Mises

Concluding Observations

Rationalist utilitarianism rules out neither socialism nor imperialism on principle. Accepting it provides only a standpoint from which one can compare and evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of the various possibilities of social order; one could conceivably become a socialist or even an imperialist from the utilitarian standpoint. But whoever has once adopted this standpoint is compelled to present his program rationally. All resentment, every policy prompted by sentiment, and all mysticism is thereby rejected, regardless of whether it appears in the garb of racial belief or of any other gospel of salvation. The fundamentals of policy can be disputed, pro and con, on rational grounds. If agreement cannot be reached both over the ultimate goals and also, although more seldom, over the choice of means by which they shall be pursued, since their evaluation depends on subjective feelings, one must still succeed in this manner in sharply narrowing the scope of the dispute. The hopes of many rationalists go still further, of course. They think that every dispute can be resolved by intellectual means, since all disagreements arise only from errors and from inadequacy of knowledge. Yet in assuming this they already presuppose the thesis of the harmony of the rightly understood interests of individuals, and this is indeed disputed precisely by imperialists and socialists.

The entire nineteenth century is characterized by the struggle against rationalism, whose dominion seemed undisputed at its beginning. Even its assumption of a fundamental similarity in the way of thinking of all people is attacked. The German must think otherwise than the Briton, the dolichocephalic person otherwise than the brachycephalic; "proletarian" logic is contrasted with "bourgeois" logic. Reason is denied the property of being able to decide all political questions; feeling and instinct must show men the path that they have to tread.

Rational policy and rational economic management have outwardly enriched beyond measure the lives of the individual and of nations. That could be overlooked, since attention was always paid only to the poverty of those still living outside the boundaries of the territories already won by the free economy and because the lot of the modern worker was always compared with that of the rich man of today, instead of the lots of both being compared with those of their ancestors. It is true that modern man is never content with his economic position, that he would like to have things still better. Yet precisely this incessant striving for more wealth is the driving force of our development; one cannot eliminate it without destroying the basis of our economic civilization. The contentment of the serf, who was happy when he did not suffer actual hunger and when his lord did not thrash him too badly, is no ideal state of affairs whose passing one could lament.

It is also true, however, that the rise of outward welfare corresponds to no increase of inner riches. The modern city dweller is richer than the citizen of Periclean Athens and than the knightly troubadour of Provence, but his inner life exhausts itself in mechanical functions at work and in superficial dissipations of his leisure hours. From the pine torch to the incandescent lamp is a great step forward, from the folk song to the popular song a sad step backward. Nothing is more comforting than that people are beginning to become conscious of this lack. In that alone lies hope for a culture of the future that will put everything earlier in the shade.

Yet the reaction against inner impoverishment should not impugn the rationalization of outward life. The romantic longing for wild adventures, for quarreling and freedom from external restraint, is itself only a sign of inner emptiness; it clings to the superficial and does not strive for depth. Relief is not to be hoped for from a farrago of external experience. The individual must seek by himself the way to find within himself the satisfaction that he expects in vain from outside. If we chose to deliver up politics and the economy to imperialism, to resentment, and to mystical feelings, then we would indeed become outwardly poorer but not inwardly richer.

Warlike activity assures a man of that deep satisfaction aroused by the highest straining of all forces in resistance to external dangers. That is no mere atavistic reawakening of impulses and instincts that have become pointless in changed circumstances. The inner feeling of happiness aroused not by victory and revenge but rather by struggle and danger originates in the vivid perception that exigency compels the person to the highest deployment of forces of which he is capable and that it makes everything that lies within him become effective.[1] It is characteristic of very great persons to move forward to highest accomplishment out of an inner drive; others require an external impulse to overcome deep-rooted inertia and to develop their own selves. The common man will never share the happiness that the creative person feels in devotion to his work unless extraordinary circumstances confront him, too, with tasks that demand and reward the commitment of the whole person. Here lies the source of all heroism. Not because the individual feels death and wounds as sweet but rather because, in the enrapturing experience of the deed, he puts them out of his mind does he assail the enemy. Bravery is an emanation of health and strength and is the rearing up of human nature against external adversity. Attack is the most primary initiative. In his feelings man is always an imperialists.[2]

But reason forbids giving free rein to feelings. To want to beat the world to ruins to let a romantic longing exhaust itself contradicts the simplest deliberation so much that no word need be wasted on it.

The rational policy that is commonly called the ideas of 1789 has been reproached for being unpatriotic?in Germany, un-German. It takes no regard of the special interests of the fatherland; beyond mankind and the individual, it forgets the nation. This reproach is understandable only if one accepts the view that there is an unbridgeable cleavage between the interest of the people as a whole on the one side and that of individuals and of all mankind on the other side. If one starts with the harmony of rightly understood interests, then one cannot comprehend this objection at all. The individualist will never be able to grasp how a nation can become great and rich and powerful at the expense of its members and how the welfare of mankind can obstruct that of individual peoples. In the hour of Germany's deepest degradation, may one raise the question whether the German nation would not have fared better by holding firm to the peaceful policy of much-reviled liberalism rather than to the war policy of the Hohenzollerns?

The utilitarian policy has further been reproached for aiming only at the satisfaction of material interests and neglecting the higher goals of human striving. The utilitarian supposedly thinks of coffee and cotton and on that account forgets the true values of life. Under the reign of such a policy all would have to be caught up in precipitous striving for the lower earthly pleasures, and the world would sink into crass materialism. Nothing is more absurd than this criticism. It is true that utilitarianism and liberalism postulate the attainment of the greatest possible productivity of labor as the first and most important goal of policy. But they in no way do this out of misunderstanding of the fact that human existence does not exhaust itself in material pleasures. They strive for welfare and for wealth not because they see the highest value in them but because they know that all higher and inner culture presupposes outward welfare. If they deny to the state the mission of furthering the realization of the values of life, they do so not out of want of esteem for true values but rather in the recognition that these values, as the most characteristic expression of inner life, are inaccessible to every influence by external forces. Not out of irreligiosity do they demand religious freedom but out of deepest intimacy of religious feeling, which wants to make inner experience free from every raw influence of outward power. They demand freedom of thought because they rank thought much too high to hand it over to the domination of magistrates and councils. They demand freedom of speech and of the press because they expect the triumph of truth only from the struggle of opposing opinions. They reject every authority because they believe in man.

Utilitarian policy is indeed policy for this earth. But that is inherent in all policy. The person who has a low opinion of the mind is not the one who wants to make it free from all external regulation but rather the one who wants to control it by penal laws and machine guns. The reproach of a materialistic way of thinking applies not to individualistic utilitarianism but to collectivistic imperialism.

With the World War mankind got into a crisis with which nothing that happened before in history can be compared. There were great wars before; flourishing states were annihilated, whole peoples exterminated. All that can in no way be compared with what is now occurring before our eyes. In the world crisis whose beginning we are experiencing, all peoples of the world are involved. None can stand aside; none can say that its cause too will not be decided along with the others. If in ancient times the destructive will of the more powerful met its limits in the inadequacy of the means of destruction and in the possibility available to the conquered of escaping persecution by moving away, then progress in the techniques of war and transportation and communication makes it impossible today for the defeated to evade the execution of the victor's sentence of annihilation.

War has become more fearful and destructive than ever before because it is now waged with all the means of the highly developed technique that the free economy has created. Bourgeois civilization has built railroads and electric power plants, has invented explosives and airplanes, in order to create wealth. Imperialism has placed the tools of peace in the service of destruction. With modern means it would be easy to wipe out humanity at one blow. In horrible madness Caligula wished that the entire Roman people had one head so that he could strike it off. The civilization of the twentieth century has made it possible for the raving madness of the modern imperialists to realize similar bloody dreams. By pressing a button one can expose thousands to destruction. It was the fate of civilization that it was unable to keep the external means that it had created out of the hands of those who had remained estranged from its spirit. Modern tyrants have things much easier than their predecessors. He who rules the means of exchange of ideas and of goods in the economy based on the division of labor has his rule more firmly grounded than ever an imperator before. The rotary press is easy to put into fetters, and whoever controls it need not fear the competition of the merely spoken or written word. Things were much more difficult for the Inquisition. No Phillip II could paralyze freedom of thought more severely than a modern censor. How much more efficient than the guillotine of Robespierre are the machine guns of Trotsky! Never was the individual more tyrannized, than since the outbreak of the World War and especially of the world revolution. One cannot escape the police and administrative technique of the present day.

Only one external limit is posed to this rage for destruction. In destroying the free cooperation of men, imperialism undercuts the material basis of its power. Economic civilization has forged the weapons for it. In using the weapons to blow up the forge and kill the smith, it makes itself defenseless in the future. The apparatus of the economy based on division of labor cannot be reproduced, let alone extended, if freedom and property have disappeared. It will die out, and the economy will sink back into primitive forms. Only then will mankind be able to breathe more freely. If the spirit of reflectiveness does not return sooner, imperialism and Bolshevism will be overcome at the latest when the means of power that they have wrested from liberalism will have been used up.

The unfortunate outcome of the war brings hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Germans under foreign rule and imposes tribute payments of unheard-of size on the rest of Germany. A legal order is being established in the world that permanently excludes the German people from possession of those parts of the earth that have the more favorable conditions of production. In the future, no German will be allowed to acquire ownership of land resources and means of production abroad; and millions of Germans, narrowly pushed together, will have to feed themselves badly on the niggardly soil of Germany, while, overseas, millions of square kilometers of the best land lie idle. Need and misery for the German people will emerge from this peace. The population will decline; and the German people, which before the war counted among the most numerous peoples of the earth, will in the future have to be numerically less significant than they once were.

All thinking and effort of the German people must be directed to getting out of this position. This goal can be reached in two ways. One is that of imperialistic policy. To grow strong militarily and to resume the war as soon as the opportunity for attack presents itself?that is the only means thought of today. Whether this way will be practicable at all is questionable. The nations that today have robbed and enslaved Germany are very many. The amount of power that they have exercised is so great that they will watch anxiously to prevent any strengthening of Germany again. A new war that Germany might wage could easily become a Third Punic War and end with the complete annihilation of the German people. But even if it should lead to victory, it would bring so much economic misery upon Germany that the success would not be worth the stakes; moreover, the danger would exist that the German people, in the ecstasy of victory, would fall again into that limitless and boundless madness of victory that has already repeatedly turned to misfortune for it, since it can finally lead again only to a great debacle.

The second course that the German people can take is that of completely turning away from imperialism. To strive for reconstruction only through productive labor, to make possible the development of all powers of the individual and of the nation as a whole by full freedom at home?that is the way that leads back to life. To set nothing against the efforts of imperialistic neighbor states to oppress and de-Germanize us other than productive labor, which makes one wealthy and thereby free, is a way that leads more quickly and surely to the goal than the policy of struggle and war. The Germans who have been subjugated to the Czechoslovak, Polish, Danish, French, Belgian, Italian, Rumanian, and Yugoslav states will better preserve their national character if they strive for democracy and self-government, which finally do lead to full national independence, than if they pin their hopes on a victory of weapons.

The policy that strived for the greatness of the German nation through outward means of force has broken down. It has not only diminished the German people as a whole but also brought the individual German into misery and need. Never has the German people sunk so low as today. If it is now to rise again, then it can no longer strive to make the whole great at the expense of individuals but rather must strive for a durable foundation of the well-being of the whole on the basis of the well-being of individuals. It must switch from the collectivistic policy that it has followed so far to an individualistic one.

Whether such a policy will be at all possible in the future, in view of the imperialism that is now asserting itself everywhere in the world, is another question. But if this should not be the case, then precisely all modern civilization faces downfall.

"The most virtuous person cannot live in peace if that does not please his evil neighbor." Imperialism presses weapons into the hands of all who do not want to be subjugated. To fight imperialism, the peaceful must employ all its means. If they then triumph in the struggle, they may indeed have crushed their opponent, yet themselves have been conquered by his methods and his way of thinking. They then do not lay down their weapons again; they themselves remain imperialists.

Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Americans had already shed all cravings for conquest in the nineteenth century and had made liberalism their first principle. To be sure, even in their liberal period their policy was not entirely free of imperialist deviations, and one cannot immediately chalk up every success of the imperialistic idea among them to the account of defense. But no doubt their imperialism drew its greatest strength from the necessity of warding off German and Russian imperialism. Now they stand as victors and are not willing to content themselves with what they indicated before their victory as their war aim. They have long since forgotten the fine programs with which they went to war. Now they have power and are not willing to let it get away. Perhaps they think that they will exercise power for the general good, but that is what all those with power have believed. Power is evil in itself, regardless of who exercises it.[3]

But if they now do want to adopt that policy with which we have suffered shipwreck, so much the worse for them; for us that can still be no reason for abstaining from what benefits us. We demand the policy of calm, peaceful development not indeed for their sake but for our own sake. It was the greatest error of German imperialists that they accused those who had advised a policy of moderation of having unpatriotic sympathy for foreigners; the course of history has shown how much they thereby deluded themselves. Today we know best where imperialism leads.

It would be the most terrible misfortune for Germany and for all humanity if the idea of revenge should dominate the German policy of the future. To become free of the fetters that have been forced upon German development by the peace of Versailles, to free our fellow nationals from servitude and need, that alone should be the goal of the new German policy. To retaliate for wrong suffered, to take revenge and to punish, does satisfy lower instincts, but in politics the avenger harms himself no less than the enemy. The world community of labor is based on the reciprocal advantage of all participants. Whoever wants to maintain and extend it must renounce all resentment in advance. What would he gain from quenching his thirst for revenge at the cost of his own welfare?

In the League of Nations of Versailles the ideas of 1914 are in truth triumphing over those of 1789; that it is not we who have helped them to victory, but rather our enemies, and that the oppression turns back against us is important for us but less decisive from the standpoint of world history. The chief point remains that nations are being "punished" and that the forfeiture theory comes to life again. If one admits exceptions to the right of self-determination of nations to the disadvantage of "evil" nations, one has overturned the first principle of the free community of nations. That Englishmen, North Americans, French, and Belgians, those chief exporters of capital, thereby help gain recognition for the principle that owning capital abroad represents a form of rule and that its expropriation is the natural consequence of political changes shows how blind rage and the desire for momentary enrichment repress rational considerations among them today. Cool reflection would be bound to lead precisely these peoples to quite other behavior in questions of international capital movements.

The way that leads us and all humanity out of the danger that world imperialism signifies for the productive and cultural community of nations and so for the fate of civilization is rejection of the policy of feeling and instinct and return to political rationalism. If we wanted to throw ourselves into the arms of Bolshevism merely for the purpose of annoying our enemies, the robbers of our freedom and our property, or to set their house on fire too, that would not help us in the least. It should not be the goal of our policy to drag our enemies into our destruction with us. We should try not to be destroyed ourselves and try to rise again out of servitude and misery. That, however, we can attain neither by warlike actions nor by revenge and the policy of despair. For us and for humanity there is only one salvation: return to the rationalistic liberalism of the ideas of 1789.

It may be that socialism represents a better form of organization of human labor. Let whoever asserts this try to prove it rationally. If the proof should succeed, then the world, democratically united by liberalism, will not hesitate to implement the communist community. In a democratic state, who could oppose a reform that would be bound to bring the greatest gain to by far the overwhelming majority? Political rationalism does not reject socialism on principle. But it does reject in advance the socialism that hinges not on cool understanding but rather on unclear feelings, that works not with logic but rather with the mysticism of a gospel of salvation, the socialism that does not proceed from the free will of the majority of the people but rather from the terrorism of wild fanatics.

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[1] . . .der Krieg l?sstt die Kraft erscheinen,
Alles erhebt er zum Ungemeinen,
Selber dem Feigen erzeugt er den Mut.
(Die Braut von Messina)
[. . . war makes strength appear,
It raises everything to the extraordinary,
Even in the coward it creates courage. (The Bride of Messina)]

[2] This does not refer to the glorification of war by weak-willed esthetes who admire in warlike activity the strength that they lack. This writing-table and coffeehouse imperialism has no significance. With its paper effusions, it is only a fellow-traveler.
Games and sport represent an attempt to react from natural, emotional imperialism. It is no accident that England, the home of modern utilitarianism, is also the fatherland of modern sport and that precisely the German?and among them, again, the strata most averse to the utilitarian philosophy, university youth?have shut themselves off the longest from the spread of sports activity.

[3] Cf. J. Burckhardt, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (Berlin, 1905), p. 96.

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