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The Economists versus The Special Interests

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Tags Protectionism and Free TradePolitical TheoryValue and Exchange

[Advocates for tariffs and trade controls often claim that tariffs are good "for everyone" because they ultimately lead to more production and wealth creation for everyone in the economy. In Chapter 2 of Theory and History, Ludwig von Mises notes that interventionist policies designed to benefit a certain interest group (e.g., tariffs) fail to obtain the goals claimed, and thus are not good "for everyone" after all. -Ed.]

Economic policies are directed toward the attainment of definite ends. In dealing with them economics does not question the value attached to these ends by acting men. It merely investigates two points: First, whether or not the policies concerned are fit to attain the ends which those recommending and applying them want to attain. Secondly, whether these policies do not perhaps produce effects which, from the point of view of those recommending and applying them, are undesirable.

It is true that the terms in which many economists, especially those of the older generations, expressed the result of their inquiries could easily be misinterpreted. In dealing with a definite policy they adopted a manner of speech which would have been adequate from the point of view of those who considered resorting to it in order to attain definite ends. Precisely because the economists were not biased and did not venture to question the acting men's choice of ends, they presented the result of their deliberation in a mode of expression which took the valuations of the actors for granted. People aim at definite ends when resorting to a tariff or decreeing minimum wage rates. When the economists thought such policies would attain the ends sought by their supporters, they called them good—just as a physician calls a certain therapy good because he takes the end—curing his patient—for granted.

One of the most famous of the theorems developed by the Classical economists, Ricardo's theory of comparative costs, is safe against all criticism, if we may judge by the fact that hundreds of passionate adversaries over a period of a hundred and forty years have failed to advance any tenable argument against it. It is much more than merely a theory dealing with the effects of free trade and protection. It is a proposition about the fundamental principles of human cooperation under the division of labor and specialization and the integration of vocational groups, about the origin and further intensification of social bonds between men, and should as such be called the law of association. It is indispensable for understanding the origin of civilization and the course of history. Contrary to popular conceptions, it does not say that free trade is good and protection bad. It merely demonstrates that protection is not a means to increase the supply of goods produced. Thus it says nothing about protection's suitability or unsuitability to attain other ends, for instance to improve a nation's chance of defending its independence in war.

Those charging the economists with bias refer to their alleged eagerness to serve "the interests." In the context of their accusation this refers to selfish pursuit of the well-being of special groups to the prejudice of the common weal. Now it must be remembered that the idea of the common weal in the sense of a harmony of the interests of all members of society is a modern idea and that it owes its origin precisely to the teachings of the Classical economists. Older generations believed that there is an irreconcilable conflict of interests among men and among groups of men. The gain of one is invariably the damage of others; no man profits but by the loss of others. We may call this tenet the Montaigne dogma because in modern times it was first expounded by Montaigne. It was the essence of the teachings of Mercantilism and the main target of the Classical economists' critique of Mercantilism, to which they opposed their doctrine of the harmony of the rightly understood or long run interests of all members of a market society. The socialists and interventionists reject the doctrine of the harmony of interests. The socialists declare that there is irreconcilable conflict among the interests of the various social classes of a nation; while the interests of the proletarians demand the substitution of socialism for capitalism, those of the exploiters demand the preservation of capitalism. The nationalists declare that the interests of the various nations are irreconcilably in conflict.

It is obvious that the antagonism of such incompatible doctrines can be resolved only by logical reasoning. But the opponents of the harmony doctrine are not prepared to submit their views to such examination. As soon as somebody criticizes their arguments and tries to prove the harmony doctrine they cry out bias. The mere fact that only they and not their adversaries, the supporters of the harmony doctrine, raise this reproach of bias shows clearly that they are unable to reject their opponents' statements by ratiocination. They engage in the examination of the problems concerned with the prepossession that only biased apologists of sinister interests can possibly contest the correctness of their socialist or interventionist dogmas. In their eyes the mere fact that a man disagrees with their ideas is the proof of his bias.

When carried to its ultimate logical consequences this attitude implies the doctrine of polylogism. Polylogism denies the uniformity of the logical structure of the human mind. Every social class, every nation, race, or period of history is equipped with a logic that differs from the logic of other classes, nations, races, or ages. Hence bourgeois economics differs from proletarian economics, German physics from the physics of other nations, Aryan mathematics from Semitic mathematics. There is no need to examine here the essentials of the various brands of polylogism. For polylogism never went beyond the simple declaration that a diversity of the mind's logical structure exists. It never pointed out in what these differences consist, for instance how the logic of the proletarians differs from that of the bourgeois. All the champions of polylogism did was to reject definite statements by referring to unspecified peculiarities of their author's logic

Ludwig von Mises was the acknowledged leader of the Austrian School of economic thought, a prodigious originator in economic theory, and a prolific author. Mises's writings and lectures encompassed economic theory, history, epistemology, government, and political philosophy. His contributions to economic theory include important clarifications on the quantity theory of money, the theory of the trade cycle, the integration of monetary theory with economic theory in general, and a demonstration that socialism must fail because it cannot solve the problem of economic calculation. Mises was the first scholar to recognize that economics is part of a larger science in human action, a science that he called "praxeology."

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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