Mises Daily

Liberty versus Democracy

Introduction by Jörg Guido Hülsmann

The war years had brought economic hardship to Mises, and if he ever had any illusions about the state of the American mind before he came to the United States in 1940, he had certainly lost them by the end of the war. American public opinion was already entirely under the sway of statism. And as a consequence the old American liberties were at an all-time low.

But the forces of resistance were slowly emerging. There was a seedbed of libertarian opposition, a network of leaders — thinkers and organizers, sometimes in personal union — who were preparing the counterattack. One historian has called these years “the nadir of individualistic, Jeffersonian thought in the United States.”1 Yet the nadir was only in political practice. The thinking was no longer in disarray, but in the initial phase of a long-term resurgence. It is true that these thinkers and organizers were still scattered. They had only to find one another.

With the NYU seminar, FEE, and individual organizers and publishers such as Frederick Nymeyer, Mises enjoyed for the very first time in his life a truly congenial network of students and supporters. He had always been a respected scholar, but few of his readers and associates really appreciated the radical anti-statist gist of his theories. This held true in particular in the case of the neo-liberals, who prided themselves on their pragmatic positions and on their good sense for wanting the government in charge of creating competition.

Things were completely different in the circle of his new friends. Many of the new people that came to Mises through his NYU seminar and FEE were even more libertarian than he was. Suddenly it was Mises who on several occasions turned out to represent the more statist position in his seminar. American libertarians such as Leonard Read and R.C. Hoiles placed great emphasis on the definition of political liberty in terms of non-initiation of force.

This perspective was entirely outside Mises’s utilitarian approach to political problems. He believed that the question of who initiated force was politically irrelevant because one could hardly ever reach agreement on it. The only relevant question was whether the initiation of force was suitable to attain the end of the acting person, even if his action was somehow wrong from an ethical point of view.

Another, even more substantial point of disagreement between Mises and many American libertarians was the question of democracy. Mises would come to taste the particular American flavor of hostility to democracy in a 1947 exchange of letters with Rose Wilder Lane. Apparently they had met for lunch, and Lane had the impression that Mises believed they shared the same outlook on fundamentals. At the meeting she did not feel it was the right moment to start a discussion on the subject, but later wrote him to set the record straight:

[ …] as an American I am of course fundamentally opposed to democracy and to anyone advocating or defending democracy, which in theory and practice is the basis of socialism.

It is precisely democracy which is destroying the American political structure, American law, and the American economy, as Madison said it would, and as Macauley prophesied that it would do in fact in the 20th century.2

Mises did not even bother to address the issue, but observed that he never addressed people who called his writings “stuff” and “nonsense” — as Lane had done in a book review. And that was that for more than two years, after which the debate resumed on more civilized terms, probably because of Lane’s friendship with Howard Pew. Mises’s basic objection to Lane was that she had misunderstood him. He had never advocated any concrete regime of parliamentary democracy. He merely stressed the fact that all political systems ultimately hinge on mass opinion.3

Mises’s American friends disagreed and the discussions and correspondence between them remained without conclusion. But the confrontation between the Austrian scholar and his American readers and disciples would be a driving force in the development of libertarian theory.

Mises’s take on the importance of liberal democracy can be found in his book Liberalism.

Rose Wilder Lane summarizes her objections to democracy in her book The Discovery of Freedom:

“Democracy” by Rose Wilder Lane

Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, Madison, and Monroe feared democracy.

They were educated men. Excepting Franklin (self-educated), each one had the education of an English gentleman. That is, the philosophy and the history of the whole European past had been pounded into his head before he was twelve years old. Therefore, when he was old enough to think for himself, he had thousands of years of human experience with every form of Government, to think about.

This knowledge was then regarded as necessary to every man whose birth entitled him to take any part in the government of his country.

They also knew the meaning of every word they used; they knew its Greek, Latin, or Anglo-Saxon root. Until forty years ago, this knowledge was still considered of first importance in American schools. Every pupil, at thirteen and fourteen, learned etymology as he had learned spelling since the age of six, by dogged repetition until the facts were fixed in his mind.

Today the confusion of the meaning of words in these United States is a danger to the whole world. Few American schools any longer require a pupil to dissect his words to their roots, and to know what he means when he speaks. And for twenty years the disciplined members of the Communist Party in these States have been deliberately following Lenin’s instruction, “First confuse the vocabulary.”

Thinking can be done only in words. Accurate thinking requires words of precise meaning. Communication between human beings is impossible without words whose precise meaning is generally understood.

Confuse the vocabulary, and people do not know what is happening; they can not communicate an alarm; they can not achieve any common purpose. Confuse the vocabulary, and millions are helpless against a small, disciplined number who know what they mean when they speak. Lenin had brains.

Today, when you hear the word “democracy,” what does it mean?

These United States, of course; and England, the British Commonwealth, the British Empire, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium, part of France, Finland when Russians attack the Finns but not when Finns attack Russia; Russia when Russians fight Germans but not when Stalin signs a pact with Hitler; the kingdoms and dictatorships of the Balkans; and economic security and compulsory insurance and the check-off system of collecting labor union dues; and friendliness and neighborliness and the unique American sense of human equality, and a vote for everybody, and socialism and communism and the Spanish cause for which republicans, democrats, socialists, syndicalists, anarchists and Russian and American communists fought, and freedom and human rights and human dignity and common decency.

That is, the word has no meaning. Its meaning has been destroyed.

It was once a sound word. It is a necessary word, because no other has its real meaning. Demo-cracy means, rule by The People; as precisely as monarchy means, rule by one (person).

Demos, The People, was a fantasy imagined by the ancient Greeks, in their search for The Authority that (they imagined) controlled men. To this fantasy they attached the meaning of God, which always attaches to every form of Authority, and there are still persons who believe that “the voice of The People is the voice of God.”

The People does not exist. Individual persons compose any group of persons.

So in practice, any attempt to establish democracy is an attempt to make a majority of persons in a group act as the ruler of that group.

Consider this for one moment, not in fantasy, but as applied to your own experience in groups of living persons whom you know, and you will understand why every attempt to establish democracy has failed.

Of course there is no reason to suppose that majority-rule would be desirable, even if it were possible. There is no morality or efficiency in mere numbers. Ninety-nine persons are no more likely to be right than one person is.

In the Federalist Papers, Madison stated the reason why every attempt to establish a democracy quickly creates a tyrant:

“A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. Hence it is, that democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

The gentlemen who took responsibility for saving the American Revolution were fearful that democracy would end it. The unknown Americans, the Ebenezer Foxes, for years had been fighting Authority; each was determined “to do what was right in my own eyes.” But they had no Latin or Greek, they knew nothing about all the previous efforts to make democracy work, and they were shouting for democracy.

On the other hand, the large landholders, bankers, rich merchants, and a thick-springing crop of rapacious grafters and land-speculators, led by Alexander Hamilton, the illegitimate adventurer from the West Indies who was also a genius, were demanding an American monarchy.

The real revolutionists, when they signed the Declaration of Independence and of individual freedom, were undertaking not only to win a war against impossible odds, but to create an entirely new kind of Government.

They faced the armed power of the British Empire, with thirteen disorganized, quarreling colonies at their backs, and two dangers threatening them: monarchy, and democracy.

They said nothing about The People. They repeated no nonsense about Science and Natural Law and the Age of Reason. They did not gush about the noble nature of Natural Man. They knew men. They were realists. They had no illusions about men, but they did know that all men are free.

They stood against both monarchy and democracy, because they knew that when men set up an imaginary Authority armed with force, they destroy all opportunity to exercise their natural freedom.

Educated men, they had studied the many attempts to establish democracy. The results were known twenty-five hundred years ago in Greece. Democracy does not work. It can not work, because every man is free. He cannot transfer his inalienable life and liberty to anyone or anything outside himself. When he tries to do this, he tries to obey an Authority that does not exist.

It makes no difference what he imagines this Authority to be — Ra or Baal or Zeus or Jupiter; Cleopatra or the Mikado; or Economic Necessity or the Will of the Masses or the Voice of The People; the stubborn fact is that there is no Authority, of any kind, that controls individuals. They control themselves.

Anyone in a free group can decide to give up his own idea and go along with the majority. If he does not want to do this, he can get out of the group. This is a use of freedom, an exercise of self-controlling responsibility.

But when a large number of individuals falsely believe that the majority is an Authority that has a right to control individuals, they must let a majority choose one man (or a few men) to act as Government. They will believe that the majority has transferred to those men the Majority-Right to control all individuals living under that Government. But Government is not a controlling Authority; Government is a use of force, it is the police, the army; it cannot control anyone, it can only hinder, restrict, or stop anyone’s use of his energy.

As Madison says, some common passion or interest will sway a majority. And because a majority supports the ruler whom a majority chooses, nothing checks his use of force against the minority. So the ruler of a democracy quickly becomes a tyrant. And that is the swift and violent death of the democracy.

This always occurs, invariably. It is as certain as death and taxes. It occurred in Athens twenty-five centuries ago. It occurred in France in 1804, when an overwhelming majority elected the Emperor Napoleon. It occurred in Germany in 1932, when a majority of Germans — swayed by a common passion for food and social order — elected Hitler.

Madison stated the historic fact: in democracy there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. There is no protection for liberty. Hence it is, that democracies always destroy personal security (the Gestapo, the concentration camps) and the rights of property (what rights of property ownership are there in Europe, now?) and are as short in their lives as they are violent in their deaths.

  • 1Robert M. Crunden, The Mind and Art of Albert Jay Nock (Chicago, 1964), p. 179.
  • 2Lane to Mises, letter dated 5 July 1947; Grove City Archive: Lane files.
  • 3See the fall 1949 and fall 1950 correspondence in Grove City Archive: Lane files.
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