The Bob Murphy Show

Economic Nationalism Is a Philosophy of War

Ludwig von Mises

[This article is excerpted from “The Conflicts of Our Age” in chapter 24 of Human Action, the Scholar’s Edition.]

Popular opinion sees the source of the conflicts which bring about the civil wars and international wars of our age in the collision of “economic” interests inherent in the market economy. Civil war is the rebellion of the “exploited” masses against the “exploiting” classes. Foreign war is the revolt of the “have-not” nations against those nations who have appropriated to themselves an unfair share of the earth’s natural resources and, with insatiable greed, want to snatch even more of this wealth destined for the use of all. He who in face of these facts speaks of the harmony of the rightly understood interests is either a moron or an infamous apologist of a manifestly unjust social order. No intelligent and honest man could fail to realize that there prevail today irreconcilable conflicts of material interests which can be settled only by recourse to arms.

It is certainly true that our age is full of conflicts which generate war. However, these conflicts do not spring from the operation of the unhampered market society. It may be permissible to call them economic conflicts because they concern that sphere of human life which is, in common speech, known as the sphere of economic activities. But it is a serious blunder to infer from this appellation that the source of these conflicts are conditions which develop within the frame of a market society. It is not capitalism that produces them, but precisely the anticapitalistic policies designed to check the functioning of capitalism. They are an outgrowth of the various governments’ interference with business, of trade and migration barriers and discrimination against foreign labor, foreign products, and foreign capital.

None of these conflicts could have emerged in an unhampered market economy. Imagine a world in which everybody were free to live and work as entrepreneur or as employee where he wanted and how he chose, and ask which of these conflicts could still exist. Imagine a world in which the principle of private ownership of the means of production is fully realized, in which there are no institutions hindering the mobility of capital, labor, and commodities, in which the laws, the courts, and the administrative officers do not discriminate against any individual or group of individuals, whether native or alien. Imagine a state of affairs in which governments are devoted exclusively to the task of protecting the individual’s life, health, and property against violent and fraudulent aggression. In such a world the frontiers are drawn on the maps, but they do not hinder anybody from the pursuit of what he thinks will make him more prosperous. No individual is interested in the expansion of the size of his nation’s territory, as he cannot derive any gain from such an aggrandizement. Conquest does not pay and war becomes obsolete.

In the ages preceding the rise of liberalism and the evolution of modern capitalism, people for the most part consumed only what could be produced out of raw materials available in their own neighborhood. The development of the international division of labor has radically altered this state of affairs. Food and raw materials imported from distant countries are articles of mass consumption. The most advanced European nations could do without these imports only at the price of a very considerable lowering of their standard of living. They must pay for the badly needed purchase of minerals, lumber, oil, cereals, fat, coffee, tea, cocoa, fruit, wool, and cotton by exporting manufactures, most of them processed out of imported raw materials. Their vital interests are hurt by the protectionist trade policies of the countries producing these primary products.

Two hundred years ago it was of little concern to the Swedes or the Swiss whether or not a non-European country was efficient in utilizing its natural resources. But today economic backwardness in a foreign country, endowed by rich natural resources, hurts the interests of all those whose standard of living could be raised if a more appropriate mode of utilizing this natural wealth were adopted. The principle of each nation’s unrestricted sovereignty is in a world of government interference with business a challenge to all other nations. The conflict between the have-nots and the haves is a real conflict. But it is present only in a world in which any sovereign government is free to hurt the interests of all peoples — its own included — by depriving the consumers of the advantages a better exploitation of this country’s resources would give them. It is not sovereignty as such that makes for war but sovereignty of governments not entirely committed to the principles of the market economy.

Liberalism did not and does not build its hopes upon abolition of the sovereignty of the various national governments, a venture which would result in endless wars. It aims at a general recognition of the idea of economic freedom. If all peoples become liberal and conceive that economic freedom best serves their own interests, national sovereignty will no longer engender conflict and war. What is needed to make peace durable is neither international treaties and covenants nor international tribunals and organizations like the defunct League of Nations or its successor, the United Nations. If the principle of the market economy is universally accepted, such makeshifts are unnecessary; if it is not accepted, they are futile. Durable peace can only be the outgrowth of a change in ideologies. As long as the peoples cling to the Montaigne dogma and think that they cannot prosper economically except at the expense of other nations, peace will never be anything other than a period of preparation for the next war.

Economic nationalism is incompatible with durable peace. Yet economic nationalism is unavoidable where there is government interference with business. Protectionism is indispensable where there is no domestic free trade. Where there is government interference with business, free trade even in the short run would frustrate the aims sought by the various interventionist measures.

It is an illusion to believe that a nation would lastingly tolerate other nations’ policies which harm the vital interest of its own citizens. Let us assume that the United Nations had been established in the year 1600 and that the Indian tribes of North America had been admitted as members of this organization. Then the sovereignty of these Indians would have been recognized as inviolable. They would have been given the right to exclude all aliens from entering their territory and from exploiting its rich natural resources which they themselves did not know how to utilize. Does anybody really believe that any international covenant or charter could have prevented the Europeans from invading these countries?

Many of the richest deposits of various mineral substances are located in areas whose inhabitants are too ignorant, too inert, or too dull to take advantage of the riches nature has bestowed upon them. If the governments of these countries prevent aliens from exploiting these deposits, or if their conduct of public affairs is so arbitrary that no foreign investments are safe, serious harm is inflicted upon all those foreign peoples whose material well-being could be improved by a more adequate utilization of the deposits concerned. It does not matter whether the policies of these governments are the outcome of a general cultural backwardness or of the adoption of the now fashionable ideas of interventionism and economic nationalism. The result is the same in both cases.

There is no use in conjuring away these conflicts by wishful thinking. What is needed to make peace durable is a change in ideologies. What generates war is the economic philosophy almost universally espoused today by governments and political parties. As this philosophy sees it, there prevail within the unhampered market economy irreconcilable conflicts between the interests of various nations. Free trade harms a nation; it brings about impoverishment. It is the duty of government to prevent the evils of free trade by trade barriers. We may, for the sake of argument, disregard the fact that protectionism also hurts the interests of the nations which resort to it. But there can be no doubt that protectionism aims at damaging the interests of foreign peoples and really does damage them. It is an illusion to assume that those injured will tolerate other nations’ protectionism if they believe that they are strong enough to brush it away by the use of arms. The philosophy of protectionism is a philosophy of war. The wars of our age are not at variance with popular economic doctrines; they are, on the contrary, the inescapable result of a consistent application of these doctrines.

The League of Nations did not fail because its organization was deficient. It failed because it lacked the spirit of genuine liberalism. It was a convention of governments imbued with the spirit of economic nationalism and entirely committed to the principles of economic warfare. While the delegates indulged in mere academic talk about good will among the nations, the governments whom they represented inflicted a good deal of evil upon all other nations. The two decades of the League’s functioning were marked by each nation’s adamant economic warfare against all other nations. The tariff protectionism of the years before 1914 was mild indeed when compared with what developed in the 1920s and ‘30s — viz., embargoes, quantitative trade control, foreign-exchange control, monetary devaluation, and so on.

The prospects for the United Nations are not better, but rather worse. Every nation looks upon imports, especially upon imports of manufactured goods, as upon a disaster. It is the avowed goal of almost all countries to bar foreign manufactures as much as possible from access to their domestic markets.

Almost all nations are fighting against the specter of an unfavorable balance of trade. They do not want to cooperate; they want to protect themselves against the alleged dangers of cooperation.