Mises Daily

The Road to Totalitarianism

[Day 18 of Robert Wenzel’s 30-day reading list that will lead you to become a knowledgeable libertarian, this article appears as chapter 6, “The Road to Totalitarianism,” in On Freedom and Free Enterprise: Essays in Honor of Ludwig von Mises (1956).]

In spite of the obvious ultimate objective of the masters of Russia to communize and conquer the world, and in spite of the frightful power which such weapons as guided missiles and atomic and hydrogen bombs may put in their hands, the greatest threat to American liberty today comes from within. It is the threat of a growing and spreading totalitarian ideology.

Totalitarianism in its final form is the doctrine that the government, the state, must exercise total control over the individual. The American College Dictionary, closely following Webster’s Collegiate, defines totalitarianism as “pertaining to a centralized form of government in which those in control grant neither recognition nor tolerance to parties of different opinion.”

Now I should describe this failure to grant tolerance to other parties not as the essence of totalitarianism, but rather as one of its consequences or corollaries. The essence of totalitarianism is that the group in power must exercise total control. Its original purpose (as in communism) may be merely to exercise total control over “the economy.” But “the state” (the imposing name for the clique in power) can exercise total control over the economy only if it exercises complete control over imports and exports, over prices and interest rates and wages, over production and consumption, over buying and selling, over the earning and spending of income, over jobs, over occupations, over workers — over what they do and what they get and where they go — and finally, over what they say and even what they think.

If total control over the economy must in the end mean total control over what people do, say, and think, then it is only spelling out details or pointing out corollaries to say that totalitarianism suppresses freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of immigration and emigration, freedom to form or to keep any political party in opposition, and freedom to vote against the government. These suppressions are merely the end-products of totalitarianism.

All that the totalitarians want is total control. This does not necessarily mean that they want total suppression. They suppress merely the ideas which they don’t agree with, or of which they are suspicious, or of which they have never heard before; and they suppress only the actions that they don’t like, or of which they cannot see the necessity. They leave the individual perfectly free to agree with them, and perfectly free to act in any way that serves their purposes — or to which they may happen at the moment to be indifferent. Of course, they sometimes also compel actions, such as positive denunciations of people who are against the government (or who the government says are against the government), or groveling adulation of the leader of the moment. That no individual in Russia today gets the constant groveling adulation that Stalin demanded chiefly means that no successor has yet succeeded in securing Stalin’s unchallenged power.

Once we understand “total” totalitarianism, we are in a better position to understand degrees of totalitarianism. Or rather — since totalitarianism is by definition total — it would probably be more accurate to say that we are in a better position to understand the steps on the road to totalitarianism.

We can either move, from where we are, toward totalitarianism on the one hand or toward freedom on the other. How do we ascertain just where we now are? How do we tell in what direction we have been moving? In this ideological sphere, what does our map look like? What is our compass? What are the landmarks or constellations to guide us?

It is a little difficult, as nebulous and conflicting usage shows, to agree on precisely what liberty means. But it isn’t too difficult to agree on precisely what slavery means. And it isn’t too difficult to recognize the totalitarian mind when we meet one. Its outstanding mark is a contempt for liberty. That is, its outstanding mark is a contempt for the liberty of others. As de Tocqueville remarked in the preface to his “France Before the Revolution of 1789,”

Despots themselves do not deny the excellence of freedom, but they wish to keep it all to themselves, and maintain that all other men are utterly unworthy of it. Thus it is not on the opinion which may be entertained of freedom that this difference subsists, but on the greater or the less esteem that we have for mankind; and it may be said with strict accuracy, that the taste a man may show for absolute government bears an exact ratio to the contempt he may profess for his countrymen.

The denial of freedom rests, in other words, on the assumption that the individual is incapable of managing his own affairs.

Three main tendencies or tenets mark the drift toward totalitarianism. The first and most important, because the other two derive from it, is the pressure for a constant increase in governmental powers, for a constant widening of the governmental sphere of intervention. It is the tendency toward more and more regulation of every sphere of economic life, toward more and more restriction of the liberties of the individual. The tendency toward more and more governmental spending is a part of this trend. It means in effect that the individual is able to spend less and less of the income he earns on the things he himself wants, while the government takes more and more of his income from him to spend it in the ways that it thinks wise. One of the basic assumptions of totalitarianism, in brief (and of such steps toward it as socialism, state paternalism, and Keynesianism), is that the citizen cannot be trusted to spend his own money. As government control becomes wider and wider, individual discretion, the individual’s control of his own affairs in all directions, necessarily becomes narrower and narrower. In sum, liberty is constantly diminished.

One of the great contributions of Ludwig von Mises has been to show through rigorous reasoning, and a hundred examples, how government intervention in the market economy always finally results in a worse situation than would otherwise have existed, even as judged by the original objectives of the advocates of the intervention.

I assume that other contributors to this symposium will explore this phase of interventionism and statism rather fully; and therefore I should like to devote particular attention here to the political consequences and accompaniments of government intervention in the economic sphere.

I have called these political accompaniments consequences, and to a large extent they are; but they are also, in turn, causes. Once the power of the state has been increased by some economic intervention, this increase in state power permits and encourages further interventions, which further increase state power, and so on.

The most powerful brief statement of this interaction with which I am acquainted occurs in a lecture delivered by the eminent Swedish economist, the late Gustav Cassel. This was published in a pamphlet with the descriptive but rather cumbersome title: From Protectionism Through Planned Economy to Dictatorship.1 I take the liberty of quoting an extensive passage from it:

The leadership of the state in economic affairs which advocates of Planned Economy want to establish is, as we have seen, necessarily connected with a bewildering mass of governmental interferences of a steadily cumulative nature. The arbitrariness, the mistakes and the inevitable contradictions of such policy will, as daily experience shows, only strengthen the demand for a more rational coordination of the different measures and, therefore, for unified leadership. For this reason Planned Economy will always tend to develop into Dictatorship.…

The existence of some sort of parliament is no guarantee against planned economy being developed into dictatorship. On the contrary, experience has shown that representative bodies are unable to fulfill all the multitudinous functions connected with economic leadership without becoming more and more involved in the struggle between competing interests, with the consequence of a moral decay ending in party — if not individual — corruption. Examples of such a degrading development are indeed in many countries accumulating at such a speed as must fill every honorable citizen with the gravest apprehensions as to the future of the representative system. But apart from that, this system cannot possibly be preserved, if parliaments are constantly over-worked by having to consider an infinite mass of the most intricate questions relating to private economy. The parliamentary system can be saved only by wise and deliberate restriction of the functions of parliaments.…

Economic dictatorship is much more dangerous than people believe. Once authoritative control has been established it will not always be possible to limit it to the economic domain. If we allow economic freedom and self-reliance to be destroyed, the powers standing for Liberty will have lost so much in strength that they will not be able to offer any effective resistance against a progressive extension of such destruction to constitutional and public life generally. And if this resistance is gradually given up — perhaps without people ever realizing what is actually going on — such fundamental values as personal liberty, freedom of thought and speech and independence of science are exposed to imminent danger. What stands to be lost is nothing less than the whole of that civilization that we have inherited from generations which once fought hard to lay its foundations and even gave their life for it.

Cassel has here pointed out very clearly some of the reasons why economic interventionism and government economic planning lead toward dictatorship. Let us now, however, looking at another aspect of the problem, see whether or not we can identify, in an unmistakable way, some of the main landmarks or guideposts that can tell us whether we are moving away from or nearer to totalitarianism.

I said a while back that three main tendencies mark the drift toward totalitarianism, and that the first and most important, because the other two derive from it, is the pressure for a constant increase in governmental intervention, in governmental spending, and in governmental power. Let us now consider the other two tendencies.

The second main tendency that marks the drift toward totalitarianism is that toward greater and greater concentration of power in the central government. This tendency is most easily recognizable here in the United States, because we have ostensibly a federal form of government and can readily see the growth of power in Washington at the expense of the states.

The concentration of power and the centralization of power, I may point out here, are merely two names for the same thing. This second tendency is a necessary consequence of the first. If the central government is to control more and more of our economic life, it cannot permit this to be done by the individual states. The pressure for uniformity, and the pressure for centralization of power, are two aspects of the same pressure.

It is not difficult to see why this is so. Obviously, if government is to intervene in business, there cannot be 48 different kinds of conflicting interventions. Obviously, if government is to impose an over-all “economic plan,” it cannot impose 48 different and conflicting plans. Planning from the center is possible only with centralization of governmental power. And so deep is the belief in the benevolence and necessity of uniform regulation and central planning that the federal government assumes more and more of the powers previously exercised by the states, or powers never exercised by any state; and the Supreme Court keeps steadily stretching the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution to authorize powers and federal interventions never dreamed of by the Founding Fathers. At the same time recent Supreme Court decisions treat the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution practically as if it did not exist.2

A notable example of this tendency exists with regard to labor legislation. Supreme Court decisions regarding the Wagner Act and its successor the Taft-Hartley Act (legally, and essentially, a mere amendment of the Wagner Act) have not only steadily widened the sphere of federal regulation to cover activities and labor relations that are primarily, if not almost wholly, intra-state, but have ruled that the states themselves have no power over these primarily internal activities and relations if Congress has chosen to “preempt” the field.

The third tendency that marks the drift toward totalitarianism is the increasing centralization and concentration of power in the hands of the president at the expense of the two coordinate branches of the government, Congress and the courts. In the United States this tendency is very marked today. To listen to our pro-totalitarians, the main duty of Congress is to follow the president’s “leadership” in all things; to be a set of yes-men; to act as a mere rubber-stamp.

The dangers of one-man rule have been so emphasized and dramatized in recent years — we have seen so many appalling examples, from Hitler and Stalin to their many pocket-sized editions, the Mossadeghs and Peróns — that any warning of this danger to Americans may seem needless. Yet most Americans, like the citizens of the countries already victimized by their native Mussolinis, may prove incapable of recognizing this evil until it has grown beyond the point of control. One invariable accompaniment of the growth of Caesarism is the growing contempt expressed for legislative bodies, and impatience with their “dilatoriness” in enacting the “Leader’s” program, or their actual “obstructionist tactics” or “crippling amendments.” Yet in recent years derision of Congress has become in America almost a national pastime. And a substantial part of the press never tires of reviling Congress for “doing nothing” — that is, for not piling more mountains of legislation on the existing mountains of legislation — or for failing to enact in full “the President’s program.”3

If we ask how it comes about that Congress and other legislative bodies throughout the contemporary world have tended to fall into public disrepute, we again find that the answer lies in the apparently unshakeable contemporary faith in the necessity and benevolence of a continually expanding government intervention. Congress and the planners can never agree among themselves on precisely what the government should do to remedy some supposed evil. They cannot agree on an unambiguous general law, whose application in specific cases could be safely left to the courts. All that they can agree upon is that “something should be done.” In other words, all they can agree upon is that the government must intervene, that the special area of economic activity under discussion must be “controlled.” So they frame a law setting forth a number of vague but high-sounding goals and create an agency or commission whose function it is to achieve these goals through its own omniscience and discretion. The National Labor Relations Law (the Wagner-Taft-Hartley Act) is a typical example. It sets up a National Labor Relations Board, which thereupon proceeds to become a prosecutor, court, and legislative body all rolled into one, and starts laying down a series of rulings and handing down a series of decisions, many of which surprise no one more than the congressional members who created the agency in the first place.

From then on, Congress in that particular sphere is treated mainly as a nuisance. The administrative bodies that it has set up resent its “interference” and “meddling” with their activities. These administrative bodies devote themselves in large part to extolling “administrative discretion” at the expense of the Rule of Law — that is, of any body of clear rules to be applied by the courts. Any subsequent effort of Congress to reduce the range of administrative discretion, arbitrariness, and caprice is denounced as “crippling” to administrative bodies, and as interfering with that “flexibility” of action so dear to the administrative heart.

Along with this growth of administrative agencies and administrative power, less and less controlled either by Congress or the courts, there has been a constantly widening interpretation of the president’s constitutional powers. This has occurred both in the foreign and in the domestic field.

It is especially marked in the sphere of foreign relations. The Constitution, contrary to the repeated assumptions of the champions of presidential omnipotence, nowhere specifically gives the president power to conduct foreign relations. Specifically, he has merely the formal power to “receive ambassadors and other public ministers.” Perhaps this implies power over the routine conduct of foreign affairs, which could hardly be carried on by Congress; but it certainly does not apply to any crucial decision. For the Founding Fathers gave Congress alone the power to declare war. And they specifically provided that no treaty could be made by the president without “the advice and consent of the Senate.” In practice, ever since George Washington, presidents have generally ignored the instruction to seek the advice of the Senate in treaty-making. And in recent years they have repeatedly tried to evade the requirement even for senatorial consent. They have done this by three extraconstitutional devices.

One of these is to frame and sign a complicated multilateral treaty and then argue that the Senate must ratify it without suggesting amendments because any attempt to introduce amendments would make the whole treaty impossible.

A second device, coming more and more into practice, has been to frame a treaty setting up an international agency which is authorized from then on to take its own actions or makes its own rulings by discretion. This applies to the United Nations, with its innumerable subagencies, to the International Monetary Fund, and to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Once the Senate has approved such an arrangement it loses any real say regarding the decisions of the agency it has set up, though the president can still have some partial control through his executive appointments to such a body.

The third extraconstitutional device is, of course, that of resorting to an “executive agreement” instead of a “treaty,” claiming that this is just as binding on Congress and the country as a treaty would have been, and thereby evading the Constitutional requirement for Senate ratification. When the Senate tried to pass a clarifying amendment (and missed only by a single vote the necessary two-thirds majority for doing so) to assure the supremacy of the Constitution over treaties, and to prevent back-door amendment of the Constitution through the treaty-making device, President Eisenhower and his advisers opposed it. In this debate, the pro-presidential press, in its news columns, constantly referred to this proposed amendment as an attempt to curb “the President’s treaty-making powers.” They used this phrase repeatedly in face of the fact that there are no exclusively presidential treaty-making powers in the Constitution. The president has no treaty-making powers whatever that do not require the advice and consent of the Senate, and the concurrence of two-thirds of the Senators present. The claim that there is a presidential power of making “executive agreements” with foreign nations binding on this country, which the Senate has no right to control, is completely without foundation.

In the domestic sphere, the president’s powers have grown chiefly through the steady multiplication of federal agencies. Many of these, through their rule-making and rule-enforcing powers, and their wide discretionary latitude, have become combined legislative and policing agencies to a large extent outside the control of the Congress.

The major wars in which the United States has engaged in the last 40 years have also led to an enormous growth in the president’s so-called war powers. Now there is no specific mention of “war powers,” or any listing of them, in the Constitution. This growth of war powers derives mainly from the precedents created by the unchallenged assumption or usurpation of such powers by presidents in the past. Hence their steadily cumulative nature.

Finally, the mere habit of huge presidential power has led to the assertion of still more power. An outstanding example of this was President Truman’s action in seizing the nation’s steel plants in 1952, in order to force the steel companies to accept the wage decision of the Wage Stabilization Board that he appointed. Attorneys for the government blandly argued, and Mr. Truman himself contended, that the president could do this under his “reserve powers” or “inherent powers” in the Constitution. This was again an assertion of powers that the Constitution itself nowhere mentions. And though this claim was finally rejected by the Supreme Court, it was only by a vote of six to three. Minority members argued that the president could seize anything he wished under these so-called inherent or reserve powers. Had this become the majority decision, no private property anywhere in the country would be safe from seizure. Presidential power would be unchecked and practically unlimited.

It should hardly be necessary to point out that this constant expansion of the claims for presidential powers has almost necessarily been accompanied by a constant reduction of the powers and prerogatives of Congress. Today we find increasing resentment even of the congressional power of investigation of the executive branch. This is surely a minimal power, without which Congress could not intelligently exercise its other functions. But congressional investigations have in late years been constantly denounced either on the ground that they prevent the executive agencies “from getting any work done,” or under the pretense that they undermine the morale of federal officials and are almost invariably unfair. It is ironic that Congress, whose ability to check presidential power has been steadily shrinking in the last forty years, should today be more often than ever before accused in the press of “usurping” the functions, powers, or prerogatives of the president.

One of the remarkable developments of the last decade, in fact, has been the frequency with which the president, on one excuse or another, has “forbidden” members of the executive branch to testify on certain executive activities before congressional committees. More and more of the activities of the federal government tend to become “top secret,” even in peacetime. Congress is said to be prying into something that is none of its business. People presuming to speak for the president have frequently come close to asserting what we may call the principle of executive irresponsibility or nonaccountability — that is, the principle that the president does not have to account to the elected representatives of the people for his official actions.

One would think that the horrible examples of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mossadegh, Perón, etc., would give pause to our own advocates of more and more executive power in the United States. Why haven’t they done so? Partly, no doubt, from the deep-rooted habit of putting one’s own country in a category by itself, as if what went on abroad could have no relation to anything going on at home. It is the old illusion that “It can’t happen here.”

Another reason why these dictatorial trends abroad are not related to our own domestic trends is that we are in the habit of using different vocabularies to describe similar developments, depending on whether they occur abroad or at home. We may call a foreign tendency a trend toward dictatorship, but argue for the same tendency at home on the ground that we need a “strong” executive.

Now there is, true enough, a possible danger of having an executive so weak, so incapable of maintaining law, order, and firmness and dependability of policy, that the executive weakness itself breeds a threat of revolutionary uprising followed by dictatorship. But this happens only under rare and special conditions, not a sign of which exists in present-day America. At the moment of writing, the nearest prominent example we have of a “weak” executive in the Western world is in France. But when we examine even that case closely we find that the real defect in the French system is less that the premier lacks sufficient legal powers as long as he remains in office, as that he lacks security of tenure. The French Assembly can irresponsibly vote him out of power at any time. He has no corresponding power of dissolution to force the French Parliament to exercise its removal powers responsibly. Having no security of tenure, he is too often paralyzed in action. Yet the French, instead of giving him the unequivocal power of dissolution possessed, for example, by the prime minister of Great Britain, have tried to solve the problem in the wrong way by often giving the premier in office “decree law powers” that he ought not to have. In other words, the French, instead of forcing the Assembly to exercise its powers of approval or disapproval responsibly, periodically give the premier powers that should be properly exercised only by a legislature.

Regardless of whether or not this analysis of the present French situation is accepted as correct, it is certainly clear that outside of France no major nation today suffers because of “too weak” an executive. Most of the so-called “free” nations, including ourselves, already suffer from dangerously excessive powers in the hands of the executive, and above all from a government that has acquired dangerously excessive powers.

In a federal government restricted to its proper sphere, the president might properly be given more powers than he has at present in some directions, and fewer powers in others. But any general argument for a “stronger” executive can seem plausible only as long as it remains ambiguous and vague in its specifications. If we must speak in broad general terms, then we are entitled to say in such general terms that the powers and the responsibilities of the president have grown far beyond those that either can or should be exercised by any one man.

We have now outlined what I have called the three main tendencies that mark a drift toward totalitarianism. They are (1) the tendency of the government to attempt more and more to intervene, and to control economic life; (2) the tendency toward greater and greater concentration of power in the central government at the expense of local governments; and (3) the tendency toward more and more concentration of power in the hands of the executive at the expense of the legislative and judiciary.

To these I am tempted to add a fourth tendency — the pressure for a world state.

The addition of this will doubtless come as a shock to many self-styled liberals and well-intentioned idealists who would regard the establishment of a world state as the crowning achievement of liberalism and internationalism. A little examination, however, will show us that the present pressure for a world state represents a false internationalism and a retreat from freedom. It is, on the contrary, merely the equivalent on a world scale of the pressure for centralized government on a national scale. It aims to set up the coercive machinery of a world state before the world is remotely prepared in sentiments or in ideology to accept a world state. The zealots for such machinery are too impatient to study the necessary preliminaries to a world state (even assuming that a world state, which would concentrate all world political powers in a few hands, is even ultimately desirable). Such zealots for a centralized world government with coercive powers fail to recognize that if international good-will and intellectual clear-sightedness existed on the part of national statesmen, practically all the reasonable objectives of a so-called world state could be achieved without setting up such a world state. And until this good-will and clear-sightedness are achieved within individual nations, the creation of a compulsive world state would be either futile or catastrophic.

The pressure for a world state, in fact, represents not true internationalism, but intergovernmentalism, interstatism. It would lead to the setting up of machinery for a universal and procrustean coercion. We seem to be moving, in the present era, toward more and more restriction of the liberties of individuals by governmental agencies. This is the tendency that has produced the pressure for international price-fixing; for the creation of “buffer stocks” of international commodities; the institution of international subsidies and handouts; the paternalistic governmental establishment of industries in “underdeveloped” nations without regard to their appropriateness, efficiency, or need; and finally the growth of an international inflationism, as represented by such institutions as the International Monetary Fund.

This whole tendency makes a travesty of international freedom for the individual, which is the essence of true internationalism. For true internationalism does not consist in compelling the taxpayers or citizens of one nation or the inhabitants of one part of the globe to subsidize, or give alms to, or even to do “business” with, the citizens of any other nation or the inhabitants of any other part of the globe. True internationalism, on the contrary, consists in permitting the individual citizen or firm in any nation to buy from, or sell to, or trade with, the individual citizen or firm of any other nation. It consists, in brief, in the freedom of trade advocated so eloquently by Adam Smith in the 18th century and practically achieved in the 19th — a freedom of trade that (notwithstanding scores of international agencies and multilateral treaties) has now been destroyed.

We are losing our freedoms today, in brief, through a false ideology — or, to use an older expression, because of intellectual confusion. Nothing is more typical of this contemporary intellectual confusion than the enunciation by the late President Roosevelt of the so-called Four Freedoms. As George Santayana points out in a footnote in his Dominations and Powers:

Of the “Four Freedoms” demanded by President Roosevelt in the name of mankind, two are negative, being freedoms from, not freedoms to. Had he chosen the word “liberty,” he would have stumbled on reaching these desired exemptions, because the phrase “freedom from” is idiomatic, but the phrase “liberty from” would have been impossible. “Liberty” thus seems to imply vital liberty, the exercise of powers and virtues native to oneself and to one’s country. But freedom from want or from fear is only a condition for the steady exercise of true liberty. On the other hand it is more than a demand for liberty; for it demands insurance and protection by provident institutions, which imply the dominance of a paternal government, with artificial privileges secured by law. This would be freedom from the dangers of a free life. It shows us liberty contracting its field and bargaining for safety first.

The contemporary world has gone astray, in sum, because it has sought freedom from the dangers and risks of liberty.

Day 18 of Robert Wenzel’s 30-day reading list that will lead you to become a knowledgeable libertarian, this article appears as chapter 6, “The Road to Totalitarianism,” in On Freedom and Free Enterprise: Essays in Honor of Ludwig von Mises (1956).

  • 1Cobden-Sanderson, London, 1934.
  • 2The Tenth Amendment reads: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
  • 3It is instructive to recall in this connection that the 80th Congress, which President Truman condemned as a “do-nothing” Congress, actually passed 457 private bills and 906 new public laws — a total of 1363. This record was typical of our modern legislative mills. The 79th Congress passed 892 private bills and 734 new public laws. And so on.
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