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How Now Shall We Behave?

Mises Daily: Thursday, July 30, 2009 by

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"and they shall beat their swords into plowshares"
– Isaiah 2:4

[Faith & Freedom, March 1951]

With the advent of war, what means are available to those who wish to resist the progressive socialization of American society?

After every war, until the last one, the people took their liberty back. It was understood that they would; it was understood, in each case, that the government would surrender its extraordinary wartime powers and return to the form that was before. But during World War II, as we know, the planners at Washington were writing the enlarged design for a controlled world — enlarged, that is, from the New Deal design. They thought they had learned all they needed to know about controls, and they said, "You see that the economy has to be planned for war — prices, production, distribution and all. What is good for war is good also for peace. Unemployment can be planned away. Prosperity can be planned. The full life forever, with security and social justice — that can be planned."

And the people, remembering the unplanned depression, answered saying, "Why not?"

No Retreat

For the first time in our history, there was no intention on the part of government to return to the form that had been before, and from what followed we know that if a government is bent upon extending its power over the lives of the people, war is a wonderful occasion. During the war it can invoke the laws of necessity and appeal to the spirit of unity; and even while pretending to be tolerant of criticism, it can insist that criticism shall be constructive, not destructive, as if there could be any point in criticism that did not aim to destroy something. Then after the war it says, as it said the last time, that the problems of transition from war to peace are more than the people can solve for themselves; they need the aid and guidance of government much more than they need their liberty back.

These are not cynical reflections. They rest upon experience. One would have to be stupid, indeed, not to realize that with the political climate what it is, and has been for twenty years, you could almost as soon imagine putting the chicken back into the egg as to repack in a tight Constitutional box the powers of government that are released by total war.

A Question That May Fairly Tear You Apart

So it is war again, and the question comes, how now shall we behave?

We, of course, means those who have been fighting the rise of the Welfare State and, in its name, the progressive socialization of American society. Shall they go on with it? In war as in peace, shall they continue to say what they think of a government that tells the people socialism and liberty may dwell together amicably in the same house?

It is a question that may fairly tear you apart. Waiving the point as to whether they could if they would, some who are asking the question are not sure they would if they could. They know that the conditions of total war are so extreme and the perils so great that unity may be imperative. They know how easily going on with the fight could be construed as disaffection and how it might in fact implement disunity. Only in a war that calls for less than the utmost exertions of the whole people may disaffection be tolerated. In total war there arises almost at once a demand that disaffection shall be suppressed; and if it is too large to be suppressed, as for example in the case of powerful pressure groups like organized labor, it may have to be bribed, and public opinion will condone the bribing of it. This, of course, means nothing to those whose convictions might lead them to defy hostile public opinion and who could not at all be bribed. Nevertheless, under stress of common danger, herd compulsions are very strong. Divisive ideas may be forgotten. If the price of survival is solidarity, the feeling for solidarity will be almost irresistible.

To begin with, therefore, the degree of peril, according to each individual's estimate of it, must affect his decision about how to behave. He may say, "Of what avail are my private political principles if my country falls? Am I justified to insist upon them or to fight for them if thereby I tend to create disunity, which could be fatal?"

On the other hand lies the certainty that if the fight is broken off, the government, in default of opposition, will occupy new ground from which afterward perhaps it cannot be dislodged. So you have the terms of the dilemma.

An Ideological Truce

The decision would be easy to make if the government would say, "In all the fields of social controversy let there be truce for the duration of the war." It will not say that. On the contrary, it is already evident that totalitarian neo-liberalism is riding the war. Having promised that the government would practice extreme economy in nondefense spending, a staggering defense budget was brought on with, at the same time, further demands for the Welfare State; such as, increased unemployment compensation at a time when there are more jobs than men, greater subsidies to agriculture at a time when high farm prices are immunized by law from the effects of inflation, compulsory health insurance, federal aid to education, larger grants-in-aid to the states, and the distraction of a Fair Employment Practices Commission. A budget, said a responsible Senator, that was "the very height of fiscal irresponsibility."

The government, you see, cannot ever have thought to ask itself the question we discuss here; that is, whether for the duration of the war there should be a truce between, on the one hand, those who are resolved to extend much further the political regulation of our lives, and those, on the other hand, who very bitterly resist it.

The answer we seek must be found by each individual in himself alone. That also is freedom. A man must be free to surrender his freedom if he will, or to give it in hostage for any other value he may set above it — the survival of his country, for example. But for any whose minds may be in suspense it would certainly seem that the government's attitude should resolve the doubt.

Well then if you say, "Yes, the fight must go on," there is the next question: How?

Selective Targets

It is probably true that the fight cannot be continued in war as it was conducted in peace, if for no other reason than that the minds you want to reach are not the same. They will be inflamed by passion and slanted by propaganda, and above all they will be greatly distracted by many new cries of "Attention, people! Attention!"

The mind's capacity to give attention is very definitely limited, and as the demands upon it multiply in wartime it is bound in self-defense to become more selective and a little deaf. In this competition the normal disadvantage of the evangel for freedom is naturally worsened, since by its very nature it requires people to think attentively. Extremely few people like to do that. On first reflection this seems a discouraging fact, and yet it might turn out to be a gift if only it would cure the freedom-spokesmen of their principal weakness, which we may call the shotgun method. They sit in their towers writing many things in different ways, each on his own impulse, competing with one another for the people's attention — and they have no line. By contrast, look at the totalitarian neoliberals who are moving the Welfare State. They say the same things over and over, all as with one voice, and the cumulative effect of their reiterations is tremendous. They have a line. They got the idea from the Communists.

Is there not a lesson there?

To continue the fight successfully in wartime, it must be focused on relatively few points, such, for example, as to clarify the United Nations Covenant on Human Rights or the Genocide Convention, with intent to show the appalling danger of government by international treaty above the Constitution; or the fantastic nature of the federal budget; or the implications of any act of usurpation by the President, leading to government by executive discretion — and to do it in every case on level of ordinary understanding, in every man's language, even as the Daily Worker would do it.

An Ominous Sound

The scattered current literature of economic education, of free enterprise, of freedom's heritage, of Constitutional government, and so on, is in the aggregate enormous; but it is the work of many warriors discharging buckshot at many targets. If it could be organized and trained on a few selected targets — and targets in the news — its effect could be cannon-like. This would require collaboration, a liaison, a clearing intelligence somewhere, a board of strategy perhaps — but what of that? There now is a science of propaganda. The other side is using it. When will the conservatives learn it?

There will be something still for the individual to do. He cannot refuse to pay taxes, no matter how absurd the budget may be. He cannot attack the credit of the government — not in the wartime. He cannot conduct the war, nor can he refuse to risk his life for it if that is required of him. And though he may take to the soap box and lift his voice in the street, that will be only worse frustration.

But there are a few great voices left, and others not so great that are still telling the truth, and these the individual may amplify prodigiously. In his speech entitled, "Think It Over," and again in his startling speech calling for our own defense first, Mr. Hoover got several thousand letters and telegrams. Suppose he had got ten million, so that it had been in the news that the delivery of them blocked traffic in the neighborhood of Park Avenue and Forty-ninth Street. After a speech on the catastrophe to which the government's gaiety with billions is leading the country, Senator Byrd gets a few hundred letters, whereas if one-half of those who believe with him responded, the Senate Office Building would be swamped with them. Notable speeches by Senators and Representatives fighting against socialism are ill-reported in the news — often, in fact, omitted — yet it would be little enough for one who wished to do his part to find them in the Congressional Record and react in a manner to help boost their muzzle velocity. The running together of many voices, even yours and mine, makes a very ominous sound.

Garet Garrett: The Collection
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