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Libertarian Law by Democratic Means: The Power of Ideologies and Public Opinion

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05/03/2023
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Previously I explained Ludwig von Mises’s descriptive philosophy of the consent of individuals as the only thing that gives value to norms and authority. Individuals interpret norms and authority as useful—whether or not they are useful in reality for individuals’ purposes of coexistence. I continue with the explanation of how group consent originates and how it sustains norms and authorities with the help of ideologies and public opinion.

Ideologies and Ideological Entrepreneurs

In the first place, the consent of the governed refers to individual consent to ideas, more specifically to systems of ideas that Mises calls “ideologies.” From Misesian theory, the act of consenting to norms and authorities is influenced by an ideology that guides action. Ideologies are standardized sets of purposes and means that facilitate the creation of groups by simplifying individual choices. In Mises’s words:

What creates a group activity is a definite end sought by individuals and the belief of these individuals that cooperating in this group is a suitable means to attain the end sought. A group is a product of human wishes and the ideas about the means to realize these wishes. Its roots are in the value judgments of individuals and in the opinions held by individuals about the effects to be expected from definite means. To deal with social groups adequately and completely, one must start from the actions of the individuals. No group activity can be understood without analyzing the ideology that forms the group and makes it live and work.

Mises’s subjectivist-utilitarian individualism helps us to understand social phenomena on the basis of minimum certainties and by avoiding metaphysical speculations: only individuals exist in a real way, while groups exist only as the action of individuals who share the same ideologies.

In Misesian philosophical individualism, since individuals act, there are no “natural” forms of organization of society; all forms of organization are ideological, and ideologies are human inventions and choices. Therefore, ideologies are explained as immaterial products or social technologies created by concrete individuals and not by an anonymous mass or some metaphysical phantom. Groups are consumers of these products, and social phenomena are the result of these products. Mises explains ideologies as entrepreneurial creations:

There are pioneers who conceive new ideas and design new modes of thinking and acting; there are leaders who guide people along the way these people want to walk, and there are the anonymous masses who follow the leaders. There can be no question of writing history without the names of the pioneers and the leaders. . . . To ascribe the ideas producing historical change to the mass psyche is a manifestation of arbitrary metaphysical prepossession. . . . Mass movements are not inaugurated by anonymous nobodys but by individuals. We do not know the names of the men who in the early days of civilization accomplished the greatest exploits. But we are certain that also the technological and institutional innovations of those early ages were not the result of a sudden flash of inspiration that struck the masses but the work of some individuals who by far surpassed their fellow men.

There is no mass psyche and no mass mind but only ideas held and actions performed by the many in endorsing the opinions of the pioneers and leaders and imitating their conduct. Mobs and crowds too act only under the direction of ringleaders. The common men who constitute the masses are characterized by lack of initiative. They are not passive, they also act, but they act only at the instigation of abetters.

In short, ideologies are sets of standardized ends and means created by intellectuals—the ideological entrepreneur. When adopted by others, ideologies generate group actions, including the action of group consent to certain norms and authorities.

Public Opinion and Political Entrepreneurs

The consent of the governed is an individual phenomenon, something that each individual decides on his or her own; however, it is only functional for the support of norms and authorities if there is a sufficient “critical mass”—the minimum number of people necessary for a group phenomenon to take place—to allow governance. Mises calls “public opinion” a number of people who adopt the set of ends and means of an ideology and whose number, significant but not quantified, gives them the capacity to influence the adoption of norms and authorities.

In Misesian theory, all government is ultimately government of public opinion—regardless of the form of government a community formally has or whether its government tends toward freedom or slavery. Mises thus explains the theory of de facto government by public opinion in any community:

The way toward a realistic distinction between freedom and bondage was opened, two hundred years ago, by David Hume’s immortal essay, On the First Principles of Government. Government, taught Hume, is always government of the many by the few. Power is therefore always ultimately on the side of the governed, and the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. This cognition, logically followed to its conclusion, completely changed the discussion concerning liberty. The mechanical and arithmetical point of view was abandoned. If public opinion is ultimately responsible for the structure of government, it is also the agency that determines whether there is freedom or bondage. There is virtually only one factor that has the power to make people unfree—tyrannical public opinion. The struggle for freedom is ultimately not resistance to autocrats or oligarchs but resistance to the despotism of public opinion. It is not the struggle of the many against the few but of minorities—sometimes of a minority of but one man—against the majority. The worst and most dangerous form of absolutist rule is that of an intolerant majority.

While the government is ruled by public opinion, it is exercised by the few in any society. So what is the dynamic between the de facto government of public opinion and the rule of the few? Mises explains that in a business mode, the rulers—the political entrepreneurs—operate as providers of the “service of governing” by satisfying the ideological preferences of public opinion. Unlike intellectuals, or ideological entrepreneurs, who guide public opinion, rulers or political entrepreneurs please it:

A statesman can succeed only insofar as his plans are adjusted to the climate of opinion of his time, that is to the ideas that have got hold of his fellows’ minds. He can become a leader only if he is prepared to guide people along the paths they want to walk and toward the goal they want to attain. A statesman who antagonizes public opinion is doomed to failure. No matter whether he is an autocrat or an officer of a democracy, the politician must give the people what they wish to get, very much as a businessman must supply the customers with the things they wish to acquire.

Conclusion

Mises—using the subjectivist-utilitarian method of analyzing society: subjective value, entrepreneurial innovation, consumer sovereignty, and action guided by ideas about ends and means—argues that in reality all de jure government is ultimately de facto government by public opinion, which is guided by ideologies.

From a Misesian perspective, the establishment of a representative democracy is a quest for a de jure government of public opinion. This could deal both with the social fact of the power of ideologies and public opinion and with the regulative ideal of a peacefully adapting to changes in the ideological preferences of the population.

Author:

Fabricio Terán

Fabricio Terán is the Spanish translator for mises.org and founder of the Mises Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics (Hispanic Mises Institute). He is a PhD candidate in economics at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, and he holds a master in Austrian economics from the same university. He is also a lawyer certified in alternative dispute resolution.

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