Democracy and Force

Democracy and Force
Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises
[This article is excerpted from Liberalism, Chapter 1]
9. Critique of the Doctrine of Force

The champions of democracy in the eighteenth century argued that only monarchs and their ministers are morally depraved, injudicious, and evil. The people, however, are altogether good, pure, and noble, and have, besides, the intellectual gifts needed in order always to know and to do what is right. This is, of course, all nonsense, no less so than the flattery of the courtiers who ascribed all good and noble qualities to their princes. The people are the sum of all individual citizens; and if some individuals are not intelligent and noble, then neither are all together.

Since mankind entered the age of democracy with such high-flown expectations, it is not surprising that disillusionment should soon have set in. It was quickly discovered that the democracies committed at least as many errors as the monarchies and aristocracies had. The comparison that people drew between the men whom the democracies placed at the head of the government and those whom the emperors and kings, in the exercise of their absolute power, had elevated to that position, proved by no means favorable to the new wielders of power. The French are wont to speak of “killing with ridicule.” And indeed, the statesmen representative of democracy soon rendered it everywhere ridiculous. Those of the old regime had displayed a certain aristocratic dignity, at least in their outward demeanor. The new ones, who replaced them, made themselves contemptible by their behavior. Nothing has done more harm to democracy in Germany and Austria than the hollow arrogance and impudent vanity with which the Social-Democratic leaders who rose to power after the collapse of the empire conducted themselves.

Thus, wherever democracy triumphed, an antidemocratic doctrine soon arose in fundamental opposition to it. There is no sense, it was said, in allowing the majority to rule. The best ought to govern, even if they are in the minority. This seems so obvious that the supporters of antidemocratic movements of all kinds have steadily increased in number. The more contemptible the men whom democracy has placed at the top have proved themselves to be, the greater has grown the number of the enemies of democracy.

There are, however, serious fallacies in the antidemocratic doctrine. What, after all, does it mean to speak of “the best man” or “the best men”? The Republic of Poland placed a piano virtuoso at its head because it considered him the best Pole of the age. But the qualities that the leader of a state must have are very different from those of a musician. The opponents of democracy, when they use the expression “the best,” can mean nothing else than the man or the men best fitted to conduct the affairs of the government, even if they understand little or nothing of music. But this leads to the same political question: Who is the best fitted? Was it Disraeli or Gladstone? The Tory saw the best man in the former; the Whig, in the latter. Who should decide this if not the majority?

And so we reach the decisive point of all antidemocratic doctrines, whether advanced by the descendants of the old aristocracy and the supporters of hereditary monarchy, or by the syndicalists, Bolsheviks, and socialists, viz., the doctrine of force. The opponents of democracy champion the right of a minority to seize control of the state by force and to rule over the majority. The moral justification of this procedure consists, it is thought, precisely in the power actually to seize the reins of government. One recognizes the best, those who alone are competent to govern and command, by virtue of their demonstrated ability to impose their rule on the majority against its will. Here the teaching of l’Action Fran?aise coincides with that of the syndicalists, and the doctrine of Ludendorff and Hitler, with that of Lenin and Trotzky.

Many arguments can be urged for and against these doctrines, depending on one’s religious and philosophical convictions, about which any agreement is scarcely to be expected. This is not the place to present and discuss the arguments pro and con, for they are not conclusive. The only consideration that can be decisive is one that bases itself on the fundamental argument in favor of democracy.

If every group that believes itself capable of imposing its rule on the rest is to be entitled to undertake the attempt, we must be prepared for an uninterrupted series of civil wars, But such a state of affairs is incompatible with the state of the division of labor that we have reached today. Modern society, based as it is on the division of labor, can be preserved only under conditions of lasting peace. It we had to prepare for the possibility of continual civil wars and internal struggles, we should have to retrogress to such a primitive stage of the division of labor that each province at least, if not each village, would become virtually autarkic, i.e., capable of feeding and maintaining itself for a time as a self-sufficient economic entity without importing anything from the outside. This would mean such an enormous decline in the productivity of labor that the earth could feed only a fraction of the population that it supports today. The antidemocratic ideal leads to the kind of economic order known to the Middle Ages and antiquity. Every city, every village, indeed, every individual dwelling was fortified and equipped for defense, and every province was as independent of the rest of the world as possible in its provision of commodities.

The democrat too is of the opinion that the best man ought to rule. But he believes that the fitness of a man or of a group of men to govern is better demonstrated if they succeed in convincing their fellow citizens of their qualifications for that position, so that they are voluntarily entrusted with the conduct of public affairs, than if they resort to force to compel others to acknowledge their claims. Whoever does not succeed in attaining to a position of leadership by virtue of the power of his arguments and the confidence that his person inspires has no reason to complain about the fact that his fellow citizens prefer others to him.

To be sure, it should not and need not be denied that there is one situation in which the temptation to deviate from the democratic principles of liberalism becomes very great indeed. If judicious men see their nation, or all the nations of the world, on the road to destruction, and if they find it impossible to induce their fellow citizens to heed their counsel, they may be inclined to think it only fair and just to resort to any means whatever, in so far as it is feasible and will lead to the desired goal, in order to save everyone from disaster. Then the idea of a dictatorship of the elite, of a government by the minority maintained in power by force and ruling in the interests of all, may arise and find supporters. But force is, never a means of overcoming these difficulties. The tyranny of a minority can never endure unless it succeeds in convincing the majority of the necessity or, at any rate, of the utility, of its rule. But then the minority no longer needs force to maintain itself in power.

History provides an abundance of striking examples to show that, in the long run, even the most ruthless policy of repression does not suffice to maintain a government in power. To cite but one, the most recent and the best known: when the Bolsheviks seized control in Russia, they were a small minority, and their program found scant support among the great masses of their countrymen. For the peasantry, who constitute the bulk of the Russian people, would have nothing to do with the Bolshevik policy of farm collectivization. What they wanted was the division of the land among the “landed poverty,” as the Bolsheviks call this part of the population. And it was this program of the peasantry, not that of the Marxist leaders, which was actually put into effect. In order to remain in power, Lenin and Trotzky not only accepted this agrarian reform, but even made it a part of their own program, which they undertook to defend against all attacks, domestic and foreign. Only thus were the Bolsheviks able to win the confidence of the great mass of the Russian people. Since they adopted this policy of land distribution, the Bolsheviks rule no longer against the will of the great mass of the people, but with their consent and support. There were only two possible alternatives open to them: either their program or their control of the government had to be sacrificed. They chose the first and remained in power. The third possibility, to carry out their program by force against the will of the great mass of the people, did not exist at all. Like every determined and well-led minority, the Bolsheviks were able to seize control by force and retain it for a short time. In the long run, however, they would have been no better able to keep it than any other minority. The various attempts of the Whites to dislodge the Bolsheviks all failed because the mass of the Russian people were against them. But even if they had succeeded, the victors too would have had to respect the desires of the overwhelming majority of the population. It would have been impossible for them to alter in any way after the event the already accomplished fact of the land distribution and to restore to the landowners what had been stolen from them.

Only a group that can count on the consent of the governed can establish a lasting regime. Whoever wants to see the world governed according to his own ideas must strive for dominion over men’s minds. It is impossible, in the long run, to subject men against their will to a regime that they reject. Whoever tries to do so by force will ultimately come to grief, and the struggles provoked by his attempt will do more harm than the worst government based on the consent of the governed could ever do. Men cannot be made happy against their will.

10. The Argument of Fascism

If liberalism nowhere found complete acceptance, its success in the nineteenth century went so far at least as that some of the most important of its principles were considered beyond dispute. Before 1914, even the most dogged and bitter enemies of liberalism had to resign themselves to allowing many liberal principles to pass unchallenged. Even in Russia, where only a few feeble rays of liberalism had penetrated, the supporters of the Czarist despotism, in persecuting their opponents, still had to take into consideration the liberal opinions of Europe; and during the World War, the war parties in the belligerent nations, with all their zeal, still had to practice a certain moderation in their struggle against internal opposition.

Only when the Marxist Social Democrats had gained the upper hand and taken power in the belief that the age of liberalism and capitalism had passed forever did the last concessions disappear that it had still been thought necessary to make to the liberal ideology. The parties of the Third International consider any means as permissible if it seems to give promise of helping them in their struggle to achieve their ends. Whoever does not unconditionally acknowledge all their teachings as the only correct ones and stand by them through thick and thin has, in their opinion, incurred the penalty of death; and they do not hesitate to exterminate him and his whole family, infants included, whenever and wherever it is physically possible.

The frank espousal of a policy of annihilating opponents and the murders committed in the pursuance of it have given rise to an opposition movement. All at once the scales fell from the eyes of the non-Communist enemies of liberalism. Until then they had believed that even in a struggle against a hateful opponent one still had to respect certain liberal principles. They had had, even though reluctantly, to exclude murder and assassination from the list of measures to be resorted to in political struggles. They had had to resign themselves to many limitations in persecuting the opposition press and in suppressing the spoken word. Now, all at once, they saw that opponents had risen up who gave no heed to such considerations and for whom any means was good enough to defeat an adversary. The militaristic and nationalistic enemies of the Third International felt themselves cheated by liberalism. Liberalism, they thought, stayed their hand when they desired to strike a blow against the revolutionary parties while it was still possible to do so. If liberalism had not hindered them, they would, so they believe, have bloodily nipped the revolutionary movements in the bud. Revolutionary ideas had been able to take root and flourish only because of the tolerance they had been accorded by their opponents, whose will power had been enfeebled by a regard for liberal principles that, as events subsequently proved, was overscrupulous. If the idea had occurred to them years ago that it is permissible to crush ruthlessly every revolutionary movement, the victories that the Third International has won since 1917 would never have been possible. For the militarists and nationalists believe that when it comes to shooting and fighting, they themselves are the most accurate marksmen and the most adroit fighters.

The fundamental idea of these movements – which, from the name of the most grandiose and tightly disciplined among them, the Italian, may, in general, be designated as Fascist – consists in the proposal to make use of the same unscrupulous methods in the struggle against the Third International as the latter employs against its opponents. The Third International seeks to exterminate its adversaries and their ideas in the same way that the hygienist strives to exterminate a pestilential bacillus; it considers itself in no way bound by the terms of any compact that it may conclude with opponents, and it deems any crime, any lie, and any calumny permissible in carrying on its struggle. The Fascists, at least in principle, profess the same intentions. That they have not yet succeeded as fully as the Russian Bolsheviks in freeing themselves from a certain regard for liberal notions and ideas and traditional ethical precepts is to be attributed solely to the fact that the Fascists carry on their work among nations in which the intellectual and moral heritage of some thousands of years of civilization cannot be destroyed at one blow, and not among the barbarian peoples on both sides of the Urals, whose relationship to civilization has never been any other than that of marauding denizens of forest and desert accustomed to engage, from time to time, in predatory raids on civilized lands in the hunt for booty. Because of this difference, Fascism will never succeed as completely as Russian Bolshevism in freeing itself from the power of liberal ideas. Only under the fresh impression of the murders and atrocities perpetrated by the supporters of the Soviets were Germans and Italians able to block out the remembrance of the traditional restraints of justice and morality and find the impulse to bloody counteraction. The deeds of the Fascists and of other parties corresponding to them were emotional reflex actions evoked by indignation at the deeds of the Bolsheviks and Communists. As soon as the first flush of anger had passed, their policy took a more moderate course and will probably become even more so with the passage of time.

This moderation is the result of the fact that traditional liberal views still continue to have an unconscious influence on the Fascists. But however far this may go, one must not fail to recognize that the conversion of the Rightist parties to the tactics of Fascism shows that the battle against liberalism has resulted in successes that, only a short time ago, would have been considered completely unthinkable. Many people approve of the methods of Fascism, even though its economic program is altogether antiliberal and its policy completely interventionist, because it is far from practicing the senseless and unrestrained destructionism that has stamped the Communists as the archenemies of civilization. Still others, in full knowledge of the evil that Fascist economic policy brings with it, view Fascism, in comparison with Bolshevism and Sovietism, as at least the lesser evil. For the majority of its public and secret supporters and admirers, however, its appeal consists precisely in the violence of its methods.

Now it cannot be denied that the only way one can offer effective resistance to violent assaults is by violence. Against the weapons of the Bolsheviks, weapons must be used in reprisal, and it would be a mistake to display weakness before murderers. No liberal has ever called this into question. What distinguishes liberal from Fascist political tactics is not a difference of opinion in regard to the necessity of using armed force to resist armed attackers, but a difference in the fundamental estimation of the role of violence in a struggle for power. The great danger threatening domestic policy from the side of Fascism lies in its complete faith in the decisive power of violence. In order to assure success, one must be imbued with the will to victory and always proceed violently. This is its highest principle. What happens, however, when one’s opponent, similarly animated by the will to be victorious, acts just as violently? The result must be a battle, a civil war. The ultimate victor to emerge from such conflicts will be the faction strongest in number. In the long run, a minority — even if it is composed of the most capable and energetic — cannot succeed in resisting the majority. The decisive question, therefore, always remains: How does one obtain a majority for one’s own party? This, however, is a purely intellectual matter. It is a victory that can be won only with the weapons of the intellect, never by force. The suppression of all opposition by sheer violence is a most unsuitable way to win adherents to one’s cause. Resort to naked force — that is, without justification in terms of intellectual arguments accepted by public opinion — merely gains new friends for those whom one is thereby trying to combat. In a battle between force and an idea, the latter always prevails.

Fascism can triumph today because universal indignation at the infamies committed by the socialists and communists has obtained for it the sympathies of wide circles. But when the fresh impression of the crimes of the Bolsheviks has paled, the socialist program will once again exercise its power of attraction on the masses. For Fascism does nothing to combat it except to suppress socialist ideas and to persecute the people who spread them. If it wanted really to combat socialism, it would have to oppose it with ideas. There is, however, only one idea that can be effectively opposed to socialism, viz., that of liberalism.

It has often been said that nothing furthers a cause more than creating, martyrs for it. This is only approximately correct. What strengthens the cause of the persecuted faction is not the martyrdom of its adherents, but the fact that they are being attacked by force, and not by intellectual weapons. Repression by brute force is always a confession of the inability to make use of the better weapons of the intellect — better because they alone give promise of final success. This is the fundamental error from which Fascism suffers and which will ultimately cause its downfall. The victory of Fascism in a number of countries is only an episode in the long series of struggles over the problem of property. The next episode will be the victory of Communism. The ultimate outcome of the struggle, however, will not be decided by arms, but by ideas. It is ideas that group men into fighting factions, that press the weapons into their hands, and that determine against whom and for whom the weapons shall be used. It is they alone, and not arms, that, in the last analysis, turn the scales.

So much for the domestic policy of Fascism. That its foreign policy, based as it is on the avowed principle of force in international relations, cannot fail to give rise to an endless series of wars that must destroy all of modern civilization requires no further discussion. To maintain and further raise our present level of economic development, peace among nations must be assured. But they cannot live together in peace if the basic tenet of the ideology by which they are governed is the belief that one’s own nation can secure its place in the community of nations by force alone.

It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history. But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error.

11. The Limits of Governmental Activity

As the liberal sees it, the task of the state consists solely and exclusively in guaranteeing the protection of life, health, liberty, and private property against violent attacks. Everything that goes beyond this is an evil. A government that, instead of fulfilling its task, sought to go so far as actually to infringe on personal security of life and health, freedom, and property would, of course, be altogether bad.

Still, as Jacob Burckhardt says, power is evil in itself, no matter who exercises it. It tends to corrupt those who wield it and leads to abuse. Not only absolute sovereigns and aristocrats, but the masses also, in whose hands democracy entrusts the supreme power of government, are only too easily inclined to excesses.

In the United States, the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages are prohibited. Other countries do not go so far, but nearly everywhere some restrictions are imposed on the sale of opium, cocaine, and similar narcotics. It is universally deemed one of the tasks of legislation and government to protect the individual from himself. Even those who otherwise generally have misgivings about extending the area of governmental activity consider it quite proper that the freedom of the individual should be curtailed in this respect, and they think that only a benighted doctrinairism could oppose such prohibitions. Indeed, so general is the acceptance of this kind of interference by the authorities in the life of the individual that those who, are opposed to liberalism on principle are prone to base their argument on the ostensibly undisputed acknowledgment of the necessity of such prohibitions and to draw from it the conclusion that complete freedom is an evil and that some measure of restriction must be imposed upon the freedom of the individual by the governmental authorities in their capacity as guardians of his welfare. The question cannot be whether the authorities ought to impose restrictions upon the freedom of the individual, but only how far they ought to go in this respect.

No words need be wasted over the fact that all these narcotics are harmful. The question whether even a small quantity of alcohol is harmful or whether the harm results only from the abuse of alcoholic beverages is not at issue here. It is an established fact that alcoholism, cocainism, and morphinism are deadly enemies of life, of health, and of the capacity for work and enjoyment; and a utilitarian must therefore consider them as vices. But this is far from demonstrating that the authorities must interpose to suppress these vices by commercial prohibitions, nor is it by any means evident that such intervention on the part of the government is really capable of suppressing them or that, even if this end could be attained, it might not therewith open up a Pandora’s box of other dangers, no less mischievous than alcoholism and morphinism.

Whoever is convinced that indulgence or excessive indulgence in these poisons is pernicious is not hindered from living abstemiously or temperately. This question cannot be treated exclusively in reference to alcoholism, morphinism, cocainism, etc., which all reasonable men acknowledge to be evils. For if the majority of citizens is, in principle, conceded the right to impose its way of life upon a minority, it is impossible to stop at prohibitions against indulgence in alcohol, morphine, cocaine, and similar poisons. Why should not what is valid for these poisons be valid also for nicotine, caffeine, and the like? Why should not the state generally prescribe which foods may be indulged in and which must be avoided because they are injurious? In sports too, many people are prone to carry their indulgence further than their strength will allow. Why should not the state interfere here as well? Few men know how to be temperate in their sexual life, and it seems especially difficult for aging persons to understand that they should cease entirely to indulge in such pleasures or, at least, do so in moderation. Should not the state intervene here too? More harmful still than all these pleasures, many will say, is the reading of evil literature. Should a press pandering to the lowest instincts of man be allowed to corrupt the soul? Should not the exhibition of pornographic pictures, of obscene plays, in short, of all allurements to immorality, be prohibited? And is not the dissemination of false sociological doctrines just as injurious to men and nations? Should men be permitted to incite others to civil war and to wars against foreign countries? And should scurrilous lampoons and blasphemous diatribes be allowed to undermine respect for God and the Church?

We see that as soon as we surrender the principle that the state should not interfere in any questions touching on the individual’s mode of life, we end by regulating and restricting the latter down to the smallest detail. The personal freedom of the individual is abrogated. He becomes a slave of the community, bound to obey the dictates of the majority. It is hardly necessary to expatiate on the ways in which such powers could be abused by malevolent persons in authority. The wielding, of powers of this kind even by men imbued with the best of intentions must needs reduce the world to a graveyard of the spirit. All mankind’s progress has been achieved as a result of the initiative of a small minority that began to deviate from the ideas and customs of the majority until their example finally moved the others to accept the innovation themselves. To give the majority the right to dictate to the minority what it is to think, to read, and to do is to put a stop to progress once and for all.

Let no one object that the struggle against morphinism and the struggle against “evil” literature are two quite different things. The only difference between them is that some of the same people who favor the prohibition of the former will not agree to the prohibition of the latter. In the United States, the Methodists and Fundamentalists, right after the passage of the law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, took up the struggle for the suppression of the theory of evolution, and they have already succeeded in ousting Darwinism from the schools in a number of states. In Soviet Russia, every free expression of opinion is suppressed. Whether or not permission is granted for a book to be published depends on the discretion of a number of uneducated and uncultivated fanatics who have been placed in charge of the arm of the government empowered to concern itself with such matters.

The propensity of our contemporaries to demand authoritarian prohibition as soon as something does not please them, and their readiness to submit to such prohibitions even when what is prohibited is quite agreeable to them shows how deeply ingrained the spirit of servility still remains within them. It will require many long years of self-education until the subject can turn himself into the citizen. A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.

Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

Ludwig von Mises was one of the most notable economists and social philosophers of the twentieth century. In the course of a long and highly productive life, developed an integrated, deduct­ive science of economics based on the fundamental axiom that in­dividual human beings act purposively to achieve desired goals. Even though his economic analysis itself was "value-free" — in the sense of being irrelevant to values held by economists — Mises concluded that the only viable economic policy for the human race was a policy of unrestricted laissez-faire, of free markets and the unhampered exercise of the right of private property, with government strictly limited to the defense of person and property within its territorial area.

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