Liberalism and Capitalism

Liberalism and Capitalism
Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

[This article is excerpted from Liberalism, the introduction.]

3. Rationalism

Liberalism is usually reproached, besides, for being rationalistic. It wants to regulate everything reasonably and thus fails to recognize that in human affairs great latitude is, and, indeed, must be, given to feelings and to the irrational generally?i.e., to what is unreasonable.

Now liberalism is by no means unaware of the fact that men sometimes act unreasonably. If men always acted reasonably, it would be superfluous to exhort them to be guided by reason. Liberalism does not say that men always act intelligently, but rather that they ought, in their own rightly understood interest, always to act intelligently. And the essence of liberalism is just this, that it wants to have conceded to reason in the sphere of social policy the acceptance that is conceded to it without dispute in all other spheres of human action.

If, having been recommended a reasonable?i.e., hygienic?mode of life by his doctor, someone were to reply: “I know that your advice is reasonable; my feelings, however, forbid me to follow it. I want to do what is harmful for my health even though it may be unreasonable,” hardly anybody would regard his conduct as commendable. No matter what we undertake to do in life, in order to reach the goal that we have set for ourselves we endeavor to do it reasonably. The person who wants to cross a railroad track will not choose the very moment when a train is passing over the crossing. The person who wants to sew on a button will avoid pricking his finger with the needle. In every sphere of his practical activity man has developed a technique or a technology that indicates how one is to proceed if one does not want to behave in an unreasonable way. It is generally acknowledged that it is desirable for a man to acquire the techniques which he can make use of in life, and a person who enters a field whose techniques he has not mastered is derided as a bungler,

Only in the sphere of social policy, it is thought, should it be otherwise. Here, not reason, but feelings and impulses should decide. The question: How must things be arranged in order to provide good illumination during the hours of darkness? is generally discussed only with reasonable arguments. As soon, however, as the point in the discussion is reached when it is to be decided whether the lighting plant should be managed by private individuals or by the municipality, then reason is no longer considered valid. Here sentiment, world view?in short, unreason?should determine the result. We ask in vain: Why?

The organization of human society according to the pattern most suitable for the attainment of the ends in view is a quite prosaic and matter-of-fact question, not unlike, say, the construction of a railroad or the production of cloth or furniture. National and governmental affairs are, it is true, more important than all other practical questions of ‘ human conduct, since the social order furnishes the foundation for everything else, and it is possible for each individual to prosper in the pursuit of his ends only in a society propitious for their attainment. But however lofty may be the sphere in which political and social questions are placed, they still refer to matters that are subject to human control and must consequently be judged according to the canons of human reason. In such matters, no less than in all our other mundane affairs, mysticism is only an evil. Our powers of comprehension are very limited. We cannot hope ever to discover the ultimate and most profound secrets of the universe. But the fact that we can never fathom the meaning and purpose of our existence does not hinder us from taking precautions to avoid contagious diseases or from making use of the appropriate means to feed and clothe ourselves, nor should it deter us from organizing society in such a way that the earthly goals for which we strive can be most effectually attained. Even the state and the legal system, the government and its administration are not too lofty, too good, too grand, for us to bring them within the range of rational deliberation. Problems of social policy are problems of social technology, and their solution must be sought in the same ways and by the same means that are at our disposal in the solution of other technical problems: by rational reflection and by examination of the given conditions. All that man is and all that raises him above the animals he owes to his reason. Why should he forgo the use of reason just in the sphere of social policy and trust to vague and obscure feelings and impulses?

4. The Aim of Liberalism

There is a widespread opinion that liberalism is distinguished from other political movements by the fact that it places the interests of a part of society-the propertied classes, the capitalists, the entrepreneurs-above the interests of the other classes. This assertion is completely mistaken. Liberalism has always had in view the good of the whole, not that of any special group. It was this that the English utilitarians meant to express-although, it is true, not very aptly-in their famous formula, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Historically, liberalism was the first political movement that aimed at promoting the welfare of all, not that of special groups. Liberalism is distinguished from socialism, which likewise professes to strive for the good of all, not by the goal at which it aims, but by the means that it chooses to attain that goal.

If it is maintained that the consequence of a liberal policy is or must be to favor the special interests of certain strata of society, this is still a question that allows of discussion. It is one of the tasks of the present work to show that such a reproach is in no way justified. But one cannot, from the very outset, impute unfairness to the person who raises it-, though we consider his opinion incorrect, it could very well be advanced in the best of faith. In any case, whoever attacks liberalism in this way concedes that its intentions are disinterested and that it wants nothing but what it says it wants.

Quite different are those critics of liberalism who reproach it for wanting to promote, not the general welfare, but only the special interests of certain classes. Such critics are both unfair and ignorant. By choosing this mode of attack, they show that they are inwardly well aware of the weakness of their own case. They snatch at poisoned weapons because they cannot otherwise hope for success.

If a doctor shows a patient, who craves food detrimental to his health the perversity of his desire, no one will be so foolish as to say: “The doctor does not care for the good of the patient; whoever wishes the patient well must not grudge him the enjoyment of relishing such delicious food.” Everyone will understand that the doctor advises the patient to forgo the pleasure that the enjoyment of the harmful food affords solely in order to avoid injuring his health. But as soon as the matter concerns social policy, one is prone to consider it quite differently. When the liberal advises against certain popular measures because he expects harmful consequences from them, he is censured as an enemy of the people, and praise is heaped on the demagogues who, without consideration of the harm that will follow, recommend what seems to be expedient for the moment.

Reasonable action is distinguished from unreasonable action by the fact that it involves provisional sacrifices. The latter are only apparent sacrifices, since they are outweighed by the favorable consequences that later ensue. The person who avoids tasty but unwholesome food makes merely a provisional, a seeming sacrifice. The outcome?the nonoccurrence of injury to his health?shows that he has not lost, but gained. To act in this way, however, requires insight into the consequences of one’s action. The demagogue takes advantage of this fact. He opposes the liberal, who calls for provisional and merely apparent sacrifices, and denounces him as a hard-hearted enemy of the people, meanwhile setting himself up as a friend of humanity. In supporting the measures he advocates, he knows well how to touch the hearts of his hearers and to move them to tears with allusions to want and misery.

Antiliberal policy is a policy of capital consumption. It recommends that the present be more abundantly provided for at the expense of the future. It is in exactly the same case as the patient of whom we have spoken. In both instances a relatively grievous disadvantage in the future stands in opposition to a relatively abundant momentary gratification. To talk, in such a case, as if the question were one of hard-heartedness versus philanthropy is downright dishonest and untruthful. It is not only the common run of politicians and the press of the antiliberal parties that are open to such a reproach. Almost all the writers of the school of Sozialpolitik have made use of this underhanded mode of combat.

That there is want and misery in the world is not, as the average newspaper reader, in his dullness, is only too prone to believe, an argument against liberalism. It is precisely want and misery that liberalism seeks to abolish, and it considers the means that it proposes the only suitable ones for the achievement of this end. Let whoever thinks that he knows a better, or even a different, means to this end adduce the proof. The assertion that the liberals do not strive for the good of all members of society, but only for that of special groups, is in no way a substitute for this proof.

The fact that there is want and misery would not constitute an argument against liberalism even if the world today followed a liberal policy. It would always be an open question whether still more want and misery might not prevail if other policies had been followed. In view of all the ways in which the functioning of the institution of private property is curbed and hindered in every quarter today by antiliberal policies, it is manifestly quite absurd to seek to infer anything against the correctness of liberal principles from the fact that economic conditions are not, at present, all that one could wish. In order to appreciate what liberalism and capitalism have accomplished, one should compare conditions as they are at present with those of the Middle Ages or of the first centuries of the modern era. What liberalism and capitalism could have accomplished had they been allowed free rein can be inferred only from theoretical considerations.

5. Liberalism and Capitalism

A society in which liberal principles are put into effect is usually called a capitalist society, and the condition of that society, capitalism. Since the economic policy of liberalism has everywhere been only more or less closely approximated in practice, conditions as they are in the world today provide us with but an imperfect idea of the meaning and possible accomplishments of capitalism in full flower. Nevertheless, one is altogether justified in calling our age the age of capitalism, because all that has created the wealth of our time can be traced back to capitalist institutions. It is thanks to those liberal ideas that still remain alive in our society, to what yet survives in it of the capitalist system, that the great mass of our contemporaries can enjoy a standard of living far above that which just a few generations ago was possible only to the rich and especially privileged.

To be sure, in the customary rhetoric of the demagogues these facts are represented quite differently. To listen to them, one would think that all progress in the techniques of production redounds to the exclusive benefit of a favored few, while the masses sink ever more deeply into misery. However, it requires only a moment’s reflection to realize that the fruits of all technological and industrial innovations make for an improvement in the satisfaction of the wants of the great masses. All big industries that produce consumers’ goods work directly for their benefit; all industries that produce machines and half-finished products work for them indirectly. The great industrial developments of the last decades, like those of the eighteenth century that are designated by the not altogether happily chosen phrase, “the Industrial Revolution,” have resulted, above all, in a better satisfaction of the needs of the masses. The development of the clothing industry, the mechanization of shoe production, and improvements in the processing and distribution of foodstuffs have, by their very nature, benefited the widest public. It is thanks to these industries that the masses today are far better clothed and fed than ever before. However, mass production provides not only for food, shelter, and clothing, but also for other requirements of the multitude. The press serves the masses quite as much as the motion picture industry, and even the theater and similar strongholds of the arts are daily becoming more and more places of mass entertainment.

Nevertheless, as a result Of the zealous propaganda of the antiliberal parties, which twists the facts the other way round, people today have come to associate the ideas of liberalism and capitalism with the image of a world plunged into ever increasing misery and poverty. To be sure, no amount of deprecatory propaganda could ever succeed, as the demagogues had hoped, in giving the words “liberal” and “liberalism” a completely pejorative connotation. In the last analysis, it is not possible to brush aside the fact that, in spite of all the efforts of antiliberal propaganda, there is something in these expressions that suggests what every normal person feels when he hears the word “freedom.” Antiliberal propaganda, therefore, avoids mentioning the word “liberalism” too often and prefers the infamies that it attributes to the liberal system to be associated with the term “capitalism.” That word brings to mind a flint-hearted capitalist, who thinks of nothing but his own enrichment, even if that is possible only through the exploitation of his fellow men.

It hardly occurs to anyone, when he forms his notion of a capitalist, that a social order organized on genuinely liberal principles is so constituted as to leave the entrepreneurs and the capitalists only one way to wealth, viz., by better providing their fellow men with what they themselves think they need. Instead of speaking of capitalism in connection with the prodigious improvement in the standard of living of the masses, antiliberal propaganda mentions capitalism only in referring to those phenomena whose emergence was made possible solely because of the restraints that were imposed upon liberalism. No reference is made to the fact that capitalism has placed a delectable luxury as well as a food, in the form of sugar, at the disposal of the great masses. Capitalism is mentioned in connection with sugar only when the price of sugar in a country is raised above the world market price by a cartel. As if such a development were even conceivable in a social order in which liberal principles were put into effect In a country with a liberal regime, in which there are no tariffs, cartels capable of driving the price of a commodity above the world market price would be quite unthinkable.

The links in the chain of reasoning by which antiliberal demagogy succeeds in laying upon liberalism and capitalism the blame for all the excesses and evil consequences of antiliberal policies are as follows: One starts from the assumption that liberal principles aim at promoting the interests of the capitalists and entrepreneurs at the expense of the interests of the rest of the population and that liberalism is a policy that favors the rich over the poor. Then one observes that many entrepreneurs and capitalists, under certain conditions, advocate protective tariffs, and still others?the armaments manufacturers?support a policy of “national preparedness”; and, out of hand, one jumps to the conclusion that these must be “capitalistic” policies.

In fact, however, the case is quite otherwise. Liberalism is not a policy in the interest of any particular group, but a policy in the interest of all mankind. It is, therefore, incorrect to assert that the entrepreneurs and capitalists have any special interest in supporting liberalism. Their interest in championing the liberal program is exactly the same as that of everyone else. There may be individual cases in which some entrepreneurs or capitalists cloak their special interests in the program of liberalism; but opposed to these are always the special interests of other entrepreneurs or capitalists. The matter is not quite so simple as those who everywhere scent “interests” and “interested parties” imagine. That a nation imposes a tariff on iron, for example, cannot “simply” be explained by the fact that this benefits the iron magnates. There are also persons with opposing interests in the country, even among the entrepreneurs; and, in any case, the beneficiaries of the tariff on iron are a steadily diminishing minority. Nor can bribery be the explanation, for the people bribed can likewise be only a minority; and, besides, why does only one group, the protectionists, do the bribing, and not their opponents, the freetraders?

The fact is that the ideology that makes the protective tariff possible is created neither by the “interested parties” nor by those bribed by them, but by the ideologists, who give the world the ideas that direct the course of all human affairs. In our age, in which antiliberal ideas prevail, virtually everyone thinks accordingly, just as, a hundred years ago, most people thought in terms of the then prevailing liberal ideology. If many entrepreneurs today advocate protective tariffs, this is nothing more than the form that antiliberalism takes in their case. It has nothing to do with liberalism.

  • Nick


    As a student of sociology, your ignorance of the massive poverty issue sweeping the globe in the age of globalization, transnational corporations, and military/banking powerhouses, is shocking.
    I have not read much into liberalism, but you did not defend it well. Private property is key, yes, but capitalism has led Western society into a state of perilous bliss. While the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Central America, and urban culture slink into wage slavery, a small portion of Americans are thriving in record-breaking profits.

    I advise you fix this article or better prove your point. Reference an article, a book, or a professor (not a blogger or a politician) to expand your reasoning.

    By the way, rationality is not what holds society together. Trust and love is.

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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