The Political Foundations of Peace

The Political Foundations of Peace
Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

[This article is excerpted from Liberalism, Chapter 3]

One would think that after the experience of the World War the realization of the necessity of perpetual peace would have become increasingly common. However, it is still not appreciated that everlasting peace can be achieved only by putting the liberal program into effect generally and holding to it constantly and consistently and that the World War was nothing but the natural and necessary consequence of the antiliberal policies of the last decades.

A senseless and thoughtless slogan makes capitalism responsible for the origin of the war. The connection between the latter and the policy of protectionism is clearly evident, and, as a result of what is certainly a grievous ignorance of the facts, the protective tariff is identified outright with capitalism. People forget that only a short time ago all the nationalistic publications were filled with violent diatribes against international capital (“finance capital” and the “international gold trust”) for being without a country, for opposing protective tariffs, for being averse to war and inclined toward peace. It is altogether absurd to hold the armaments industry responsible for the outbreak of the war. The armaments industry has arisen and grown to a considerable size because governments and peoples bent on war demanded weapons. It would be really preposterous to suppose that the nations turned to imperialistic policies as a favor to the ordnance manufacturers. The armaments industry, like every other, arose in order to satisfy a demand. If the nations had preferred other things to bullets and explosives, then the factory-owners would have produced the former instead of the materials of war.

One can assume that the desire for peace is today universal. But the peoples of the world are not at all clear as to what conditions would have to be fulfilled in order to secure peace.

If the peace is not to be disturbed, all incentive for aggression must be eliminated. A world order must be established in which nations and national groups are so satisfied with living conditions that they will not feel impelled to resort to the desperate expedient of war. The liberal does not expect to abolish war by preaching and moralizing. He seeks to create the social conditions that will eliminate the causes of war.

The first requirement in this regard is private property. When private property must be respected even in time of war, when the victor is not entitled to appropriate to himself the property of private persons, and the appropriation of public property has no great significance because private ownership of the means of production prevails everywhere, an important motive for waging war has already been excluded. However, this is far from being enough to guarantee peace. So that the exercise of the right of self-determination may not be reduced to a farce, political institutions must be such as to render the transference of sovereignty over a territory from one government to another a matter of the least possible significance, involving no advantage or disadvantage for anyone. People do not have a correct conception of what this requires. It is therefore necessary to make it clear by a few examples.

Examine a map of linguistic and national groups in Central or Eastern Europe and notice how often, for example, in northern and western Bohemia, boundaries between them are crossed by railway lines. Here, under conditions of interventionism and etatism, there is no way of making the borders of the state correspond to the linguistic frontier. It will not do to operate a Czech state railroad on the soil of the German state, and it will do even less to run a railroad line that is under a different management every few miles. It would be just as unthinkable after every few minutes or quarter of an hour on a railroad trip to have to face a tariff barrier with all its formalities. It is thus easy to understand why etatists and interventionists reach the conclusion that the “geographic” or “economic” unity of such areas must not be “ruptured” and that the territory in question must therefore be placed under the sovereignty of a single “ruler.” (Obviously, every nation seeks to prove that it alone is entitled and competent to play the role of ruler under such circumstances.) For liberalism there is no problem here at all. Private railroads, if quite free of government interference, can traverse the territory of many states without any trouble. If there are no tariff boundaries and no limitations on the movement of persons, animals, or goods, then it is of no consequence whether a train ride in a few hours crosses over the borders of the state more or less often.

The linguistic map also reveals the existence of national enclaves. Without any land connection of the same nationality with the main body of their people, compatriots dwell together in closed-off settlements or linguistic islands. Under present political conditions, they cannot be incorporated into the mother country. The fact that the area encompassed by the state is today protected by tariff walls makes unbroken territorial continuity a political necessity. A small “foreign possession,” in being isolated from the immediately adjacent territory by tariffs and other measures of protectionism, would be exposed to economic strangulation. But once there is free trade and the state restricts itself to the preservation of private property, nothing is simpler than the solution of this problem. No linguistic island then has to acquiesce in the infringement of its rights as a nation merely because it is not connected to the main body of its own people by a territorial bridge inhabited by its fellow nationals.

The notorious “problem of the corridor” also arises only in an imperialist-etatist-interventionist system. An inland country believes that it needs a “corridor” to the sea in order to keep its foreign trade free of the influence of the interventionist and etatist policies of the countries whose territories separate it from the sea. If free trade were the rule, it would be hard to see what advantage an inland country could expect from the possession of a “corridor.”

Transfer from one “economic zone” (in the etatist sense) to another has serious economic consequences. One need only think, for instance, of the cotton industry of upper Alsatia, which has twice had to undergo this experience, or the Polish textile industry of Upper Silesia, etc. If a change in the political affiliation of a territory involves advantages or disadvantages for its inhabitants, then their freedom to vote for the state to which they really wish to belong is essentially limited. One can speak of genuine self-determination only if the decision of each individual stems from his own free will, and not from fear of loss or hope of profit. A capitalist world organized on liberal principles knows no separate “economic” zones. In such a world, the whole of the earth’s surface forms a single economic territory.

The right of self-determination works to the advantage only of those who comprise the majority. In order to protect minorities as well, domestic measures are required, of which we shall first consider those involving the national policy in regard to education.

In most countries today school attendance, or at least private instruction, is compulsory. Parents are obliged to send their children to school for a certain number of years or, in lieu of this public instruction at school, to have them given equivalent instruction at home. It is pointless to go into the reasons that were advanced for and against compulsory education when the matter was still a live issue. They do not have the slightest relevance to the problem as it exists today. There is only one argument that has any bearing at all on this question, viz., that continued adherence to a policy of compulsory education is utterly incompatible with efforts to establish lasting peace.

The inhabitants of London, Paris, and Berlin will no doubt find such a statement completely incredible. What in the world does compulsory education have to do with war and peace? One must not, however, judge this question, as one does so many others, exclusively from the point of view of the peoples of Western Europe. In London, Paris, and Berlin, the problem of compulsory education is, to be sure, easily solved. In these cities no doubt can arise as to which language is to be used in giving instruction. The population that lives in these cities and sends its children to school may be considered, by and large, of homogeneous nationality. But even the non-English-speaking people who live in London find it in the obvious interest of their children that instruction is given in English and in no other language, and things are not different in Paris and Berlin.

However, the problem of compulsory education has an entirely different significance in those extensive areas in which peoples speaking different languages live together side by side and intermingled in polyglot confusion. Here the question of which language is to be made the basis of instruction assumes crucial importance. A decision one way or the other can, over the years, determine the nationality of a whole area. The school can alienate children from the nationality to which their parents belong and can be used as a means of oppressing whole nationalities. Whoever controls the schools has the power to injure other nationalities and to benefit his own.

It is no solution of this problem to suggest that each child be sent to the school in which the language of his parents is spoken. First of all, even apart from the problem posed by children of mixed linguistic background, it is not always easy to decide what the language of the parents is. In polyglot areas many persons are required by their profession to make use of all the languages spoken in the country. Besides, it is often not possible for an individual?again out of regard for his means of livelihood?to declare himself openly for one or another nationality. Under a system of interventionism, it could cost him the patronage of customers belonging to other nationalities or a job with an entrepreneur of a different nationality. Then again, there are many parents who would even prefer to send their children to the schools of another nationality than their own because they value the advantages of bilingualism or assimilation to the other nationality more highly than loyalty to their own people. If one leaves to the parents the choice of the school to which they wish to send their children, then one exposes them to every conceivable form of political coercion. In all areas of mixed nationality, the school is a political prize of the highest importance. It cannot be deprived of its political character as long as it remains a public and compulsory institution. There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the government, the laws must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds must not be used for such purposes. The rearing and instruction of youth must be left entirely to parents and to private associations and institutions.

It is better that a number of boys grow up without formal education than that they enjoy the benefit of schooling only to run the risk, once they have grown up, of being killed or maimed. A healthy illiterate is always better than a literate cripple.

But even if we eliminate the spiritual coercion exercised by compulsory education, we should still be far from having done everything that is necessary in order to remove all the sources of friction between the nationalities living in polyglot territories. The school is one means of oppressing nationalities?perhaps the most dangerous, in our opinion?but it certainly is not the only means. Every interference on the part of the government in economic life can become a means of persecuting the members of nationalities speaking a language different from that of the ruling group. For this reason, in the interest of preserving peace, the activity of the government must be limited to the sphere in which it is, in the strictest sense of the word, indispensable.

We cannot do without the apparatus of government in protecting and preserving the life, liberty, property, and health of the individual. But even the judicial and police activities performed in the service of these ends can become dangerous in areas where any basis at all can be found for discriminating between one group and another in the conduct of official business. Only in countries where there is no particular incentive for partiality will there generally be no reason to fear that a magistrate who is supposed to apply the established laws for the protection of life, liberty, property, and health will act in a biased manner. Where, however, differences of religion, nationality, or the like have divided the population into groups separated by a gulf so deep as to exclude every impulse of fairness or humanity and to leave room for nothing but hate, the situation is quite different. Then the judge who acts consciously, or still more often unconsciously, in a biased manner thinks he is fulfilling a higher duty when he makes use of the prerogatives and powers of his office in the service of his own group.

To the extent that the apparatus of government has no other function than that of protecting life, liberty, property, and health, it is possible, at any rate, to draw up regulations that so strictly circumscribe the domain in which the administrative authorities and the courts are free to act as to leave little or no latitude for the exercise of their own discretion or arbitrary, subjective judgment. But once a share in the management of production is relinquished to the state, once the apparatus of government is called upon to determine the disposition of goods of higher order, it is impossible to hold administrative officials to a set of binding rules and regulations that would guarantee certain rights to every citizen. A penal law designed to punish murderers can, to some extent at least, draw a dividing line between what is and what is not to be considered murder and thus set certain limits to the area in which the magistrate is free to use his own judgment. Of course, every lawyer knows only too well that even the best law can be perverted, in concrete cases, in interpretation, application, and administration. But in the case of a government bureau charged with the management of transportation facilities, mines, or public lands, as much as one may restrain its freedom of action on other grounds (which have already been discussed in section 2), the most one can do to keep it impartial in regard to controversial questions of national policy is to give it directives couched in empty generalities. One must grant it a great deal of leeway in many respects because one cannot know beforehand under what circumstances it will have to act. Thus, the door is left wide open for arbitrariness, bias, and the abuse of official power.

Even in areas inhabited by people of various nationalities, there is need for a unified administration. One cannot place at every street-corner both a German and a Czech policeman, each of whom would have to protect only members of his own nationality. And even if this could be done, the question would still arise as to who is to intervene when members of both nationalities are involved in a situation that calls for intervention. The disadvantages that result from the necessity of a unified administration in these territories are unavoidable. But if difficulties already exist even in carrying out such indispensable functions of government as the protection of life, liberty, property, and health, one should not raise them to really monstrous proportions by extending the range of state activity to other fields in which, by their very nature, still greater latitude must be granted to arbitrary judgment.

Large areas of the world have been settled, not by the members of just one nationality, one race, or one religion, but by a motley mixture of many peoples. As a result of the migratory movements that necessarily follow shifts in the location of production, more new territories are continually being confronted with the problem of a mixed population. If one does not wish to aggravate artificially the friction that must arise from this living together of different groups, one must restrict the state to just those tasks that it alone can perform.

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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