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Trends Can Change

April 1, 2009

Tags Free MarketsOther Schools of ThoughtPhilosophy and Methodology

[From Planning for Freedom. Originally published in The Freeman, February 12, 1951. An MP3 audio version of this essay, read by Floy Lilley, is available as a free download.]

"Today the doctrine of the irreversibility of prevailing trends has supplanted the Marxian doctrine concerning the inevitability of progressive impoverishment."

One of the cherished dogmas implied in contemporary fashionable doctrines is the belief that tendencies of social evolution, as manifested in the recent past, will prevail in the future too. Study of the past, it is assumed, discloses the shape of things to come. Any attempt to reverse or even to stop a trend is doomed to failure. Man must submit to the irresistible power of historical destiny.

To this dogma is added the Hegelian idea of progressive improvement in human conditions. Every later stage of history, Hegel taught, is of necessity a higher and more perfect state than the preceding one, is progress toward the ultimate goal which God in his infinite goodness set for mankind. Thus any doubt with regard to the excellence of what is bound to come is unwarranted, unscientific, and blasphemous. Those fighting "progress" are not only committed to a hopeless venture; they are also morally wicked, reactionary, for they want to prevent the emergence of conditions that will benefit the immense majority.

From the point of view of this philosophy, its adepts — the self-styled "progressives" — deal with the fundamental issues of economic policies. They do not examine the merits and demerits of suggested measures and reforms. This would, in their eyes, be unscientific. As they see it, the only question that has to be answered is whether such proposed innovations do or do not agree with the spirit of our age and follow the direction which destiny has ordained for the course of human affairs. The drift of the policies of the recent past teaches us what is both inescapable and beneficial. The only legitimate source for the cognition of what is salutary and has to be accomplished today is the knowledge of what was accomplished yesterday.

In the last decades there prevailed a trend toward more and more government interference with business. The sphere of the private citizen's initiative was narrowed down. Laws and administrative decrees restricted the field in which entrepreneurs and capitalists were free to conduct their activities in compliance with the wishes of the consumers as manifested in the structure of the market. From year to year an ever-increasing portion of profits and interest on capital invested was confiscated by taxation of corporation earnings and individual incomes and estates.

"Social" control, i.e., government control, of business is step by step substituted for private control. The "progressives" are certain that this trend toward wresting "economic" power from the parasitic "leisure class" and its transfer to "the people" will go on until the "welfare state" will have supplanted the nefarious capitalistic system which history has doomed forever. Notwithstanding sinister machinations on the part of "the interests," mankind — led by government economists and other bureaucrats, politicians, and union bosses — marches steadily toward the bliss of an earthly paradise.

The prestige of this myth is so enormous that it quells any opposition. It spreads defeatism among those who do not share the opinion that everything which comes later is better than what preceded, and are fully aware of the disastrous effects of all-around planning, i.e., totalitarian socialism. They, too, meekly submit to what, the pseudoscholars tell them, is inevitable. It is this mentality of passively accepting defeat that has made socialism triumph in many European countries and may very soon make it conquer in this country too.

"It is this mentality of passively accepting defeat that has made socialism triumph in many European countries and may very soon make it conquer in this country too."

The Marxian dogma of the inevitability of socialism was based on the thesis that capitalism necessarily results in progressive impoverishment of the immense majority of people. All the advantages of technological progress benefit exclusively the small minority of exploiters. The masses are condemned to increasing "misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation." No action on the part of governments or labor unions can succeed in stopping this evolution. Only socialism, which is bound to come "with the inexorability of a law of nature," will bring salvation by "the expropriation of the few usurpers by the mass of people."

Facts have belied this prognosis no less than all other Marxian forecasts. In the capitalist countries, the common man's standard of living is today incomparably higher than it was in the days of Marx. It is simply not true that the fruits of technological improvement are enjoyed exclusively by the capitalists while the laborer, as the Communist Manifesto says, "instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper." Not a minority of "rugged individualists," but the masses, are the main consumers of the products turned out by large-scale production. Only morons can still cling to the fable that capitalism "is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery."

Today the doctrine of the irreversibility of prevailing trends has supplanted the Marxian doctrine concerning the inevitability of progressive impoverishment.

Now, this doctrine is devoid of any logical or experimental verification. Historical trends do not necessarily go on forever. No practical man is so foolish as to assume that prices will keep rising because the price curves of the past show an upward tendency. On the contrary, the more prices soar, the more alarmed cautious businessmen become about a possible reversal. Almost all prognostications which our government statisticians made on the basis of their study of the figures available — which necessarily always refer to the past — have proved faulty. What is called extrapolation of trend lines is viewed by sound statistical theory with the utmost suspicion.

The same refers also to developments in fields which are not open to description by statistical figures. There was, for instance, in the course of ancient Greco-Roman civilization a tendency toward an interregional division of labor. The trade between the various parts of the vast Roman Empire intensified more and more. But then came a turning point. Commerce declined and there finally emerged the medieval manor system, with almost complete autarky of every landowner's household.

Or, to quote another example, there prevailed in the 18th century a tendency toward reducing the severity and the horrors of war. In 1770, the Comte de Guibert could write, "Today the whole of Europe is civilized. Wars have become less cruel. Except in combat no blood is shed; prisoners are respected; towns are no longer destroyed; the country is no more ravaged."

Can anybody maintain that this trend has not been changed?

But even if it were true that a historical trend must go on forever, and that therefore the coming of socialism is inevitable, it would still not be permissible to infer that socialism will be a better — or even more than that, the most perfect — state of society's economic organization. There is nothing to support such a conclusion other than the arbitrary pseudotheological surmises of Hegel, Comte, and Marx, according to which every later stage of the historical process must necessarily be a better state.

It is not true that human conditions must always improve, and that a relapse into very unsatisfactory modes of life, penury, and barbarism is impossible. The comparatively high standard of living which the common man enjoys today in the capitalist countries is an achievement of laissez-faire capitalism. Neither theoretical reasoning nor historical experience allows the inference that it could be preserved still less be improved under socialism.

In the last decades, in many countries, the number of divorces and of suicides has increased from year to year. Yet hardly anybody will have the temerity to contend that this trend means progress toward more satisfactory conditions.

The typical graduate of colleges and high schools very soon forgets most of the things he has learned. But there is one piece of indoctrination which makes a lasting impression on his mind, viz., the dogma of the irreversibility of the trend toward all-around planning and regimentation. He does not doubt the thesis that mankind will never return to capitalism, the dismal system of an age gone forever, and that the "wave of the future" carries us toward the promised land of Cockaigne. If he had any doubts, what he reads in newspapers and what he hears from the politicians would dispel them. For even the candidates nominated by the parties of opposition, although critical of the measures of the party in power, protest that they are not "reactionary," and do not venture to stop the march toward progress.

Thus the average man is predisposed in favor of socialism. Of course, he does not approve of everything that the Soviets have done. He thinks that the Russians have blundered in many respects, and he excuses these errors as being caused by their unfamiliarity with freedom. He blames the leaders, especially Stalin, for the corruption of the lofty ideal of all-around planning. His sympathies go rather to Tito, the upright rebel, who refuses to surrender to Russia. Not so long ago he displayed the same friendly feelings for Benes, and until only a few months ago for Mao Tse-tung, the "agrarian reformer."


At any rate, a good part of American public opinion believes that this country is in essential matters backward, as it has not yet, like the Russians, wiped out production for profit and unemployment and has not yet attained stability. Practically nobody thinks that he could learn something important about these problems from a serious occupation with economics. The dogmas of the irreversibility of prevailing tendencies and of their unfailingly beneficial effects render such studies supererogatory. If economics confirms these dogmas, it is superfluous; if it is at variance with them, it is illusory and deceptive.

Now trends of evolution can change, and hitherto they almost always have changed. But they changed only because they met firm opposition. The prevailing trend toward what Hilaire Belloc called the servile state will certainly not be reversed if nobody has the courage to attack its underlying dogmas.

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