The Theory of Liberalism

The Theory of Liberalism
Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

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

1. Liberalism

The philosophers, sociologists, and economists of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth century formulated a political program that served as a guide to social policy first in England and the United States, then on the European continent, and finally in the other parts of the inhabited world as well. Nowhere was this program ever completely carried out. Even in England, which has been called the homeland of liberalism and the model liberal country, the proponents of liberal policies never succeeded in winning all their demands. In the rest of the world only parts of the liberal program were adopted, while others, no less important, were either rejected from the very first or discarded after a short time. Only with some exaggeration can one say that the world once lived through a liberal era. Liberalism was never permitted to come to full fruition.

Nevertheless, brief and all too limited as the supremacy of liberal ideas was, it sufficed to change the face of the earth. A magnificent economic development took place. The release of man’s productive powers multiplied the means of subsistence many times over. On the eve of the World War (which was itself the result of a long and bitter struggle against the liberal spirit and which ushered in a period of still more bitter attacks on liberal principles), the world was incomparably more densely populated than it had ever been, and each inhabitant could live incomparably better than had been possible in earlier centuries. The prosperity that liberalism had created reduced considerably infant mortality, which had been the pitiless scourge of earlier ages, and, as a result of the improvement in living conditions, lengthened the average span of life.

Nor did this prosperity flow only to a select class of privileged persons. On the eve of the World War the worker in the industrial nations of Europe, in the United States, and in the overseas dominions of England lived better and more graciously than the nobleman of not too long before. Not only could he eat and drink according to his desire; he could give his children a better education; he could, if he wished, take part in the intellectual and cultural life of his nation; and, if he possessed enough talent and energy, he could, without difficulty, raise his social position. It was precisely in the countries that had gone the farthest in adopting the liberal program that the top of the social pyramid was composed, in the main, not of those who had, from their very birth, enjoyed a privileged position by virtue of the wealth or high rank of their parents, but of those who, under favorable conditions, had worked their way up from straitened circumstances by their own power. The barriers that had in earlier ages separated lords and serfs had fallen. Now there were only citizens with equal rights. No one was handicapped or persecuted on account of his nationality, his opinions, or his faith. Domestic Political and religious persecutions had ceased, and international wars began to become less frequent. Optimists were already hailing the dawn of the age of eternal peace.

But events have turned out otherwise. In the nineteenth century strong and violent opponents of liberalism sprang up who succeeded in wiping out a great part of what had been gained by the liberals. The world today wants to hear no more of liberalism. Outside England the term “liberalism” is frankly proscribed. In England, there are, to be sure, still “liberals,” but most of them are so in name only. In fact, they are rather moderate socialists. Everywhere today political power is in the hands of the antiliberal parties. The program of antiliberalism unleashed the forces that gave rise to the great World War and, by virtue of import and export quotas, tariffs, migration barriers, and similar measures, has brought the nations of the world to the point of mutual isolation. Within each nation it has led to socialist experiments whose result has been a reduction in the productivity of labor and a concomitant increase in want and misery. Whoever does not deliberately close his eyes to the facts must recognize everywhere the signs of an approaching catastrophe in world economy. Antiliberalism is heading toward a general collapse of civilization.

If one wants to know what liberalism is and what it aims at, one cannot simply turn to history for the information and inquire what the liberal politicians stood for and what they accomplished. For liberalism nowhere succeeded in carrying out its program as it had intended.

Nor can the programs and actions of those parties that today call themselves liberal provide us with any enlightenment concerning the nature of true liberalism. It has already been mentioned that even in England what is understood as liberalism today bears a much greater resemblance to Toryism and socialism than to the old program of the freetraders. If there are liberals who find it compatible with their liberalism to endorse the nationalization of railroads, of mines, and of other enterprises, and even to support protective tariffs, one can easily see that nowadays nothing is left of liberalism but the name.

Nor does it any longer suffice today to form one’s idea of liberalism from a study of the writings of its great founders. Liberalism is not a completed doctrine or a fixed dogma. On the contrary: it is the application of the teachings of science to the social life of man. And just as economics, sociology, and philosophy have not stood still since the days of David Hume, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jeremy Bentham, and Wilhelm Humboldt, so the doctrine of liberalism is different today from what it was in their day, even though its fundamental principles have remained unchanged. For many years now no one has undertaken to present a concise statement of the essential meaning of that doctrine. This may serve to justify our present attempt at providing just such a work.

2. Material Welfare

Liberalism is a doctrine directed entirely towards the conduct of men in this world. In the last analysis, it has nothing else in view than the advancement of their outward, material welfare and does not concern itself directly with their inner, spiritual and metaphysical needs. It does not promise men happiness and contentment, but only the most abundant possible satisfaction of all those desires that can be satisfied by the things of the outer world.

Liberalism has often been reproached for this purely external and materialistic attitude toward what is earthly and transitory. The life of man, it is said, does not consist in eating and drinking. There are higher and more important needs than food and drink, shelter and clothing. Even the greatest earthly riches cannot give man happiness; they leave his inner self, his soul, unsatisfied and empty. The most serious error of liberalism has been that it has had nothing to offer man’s deeper and nobler aspirations.

But the critics who speak in this vein show only that they have a very imperfect and materialistic conception of these higher and nobler needs. Social policy, with the means that are at its disposal, can make men rich or poor, but it can never succeed in making them happy or in satisfying their inmost yearnings. Here all external expedients fail. All that social policy can do is to remove the outer causes of pain and suffering; it can further a system that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and houses the homeless. Happiness and contentment do not depend on food, clothing, and shelter, but, above all, on what a man cherishes within himself It is not from a disdain of spiritual goods that liberalism concerns itself exclusively with man’s material well-being, but from a conviction that what is highest and deepest in man cannot be touched by any outward regulation. It seeks to produce only outer well-being because it knows that inner, spiritual riches cannot come to man from without, but only from within his own heart. It does not aim at creating anything but the outward preconditions for the development of the inner life. And there can be no doubt that the relatively prosperous individual of the twentieth century can more readily satisfy his spiritual needs than, say, the individual of the tenth century, who was given no respite from anxiety over the problem of eking out barely enough for survival or from the dangers that threatened him from his enemies.

To be sure, to those who, like the followers of many Asiatic and medieval Christian sects, accept the doctrine of complete asceticism and who take as the ideal of human life the poverty and freedom from want of the birds of the forest and the fish of the sea, we can make no reply when they reproach liberalism for its materialistic attitude. We can only ask them to let us go our way undisturbed, just as we do not hinder them from getting to heaven in their own fashion. Let them shut themselves up in their cells, away from men and the world, in peace.

The overwhelming majority of our contemporaries cannot understand the ascetic ideal. But once one rejects the principle of the ascetic conduct of life; one cannot reproach liberalism for aiming at outer well-being.

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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