Thoughts on Liberalism

I checked one more book off my reading list on Monday: Liberalism by Ludwig von Mises.  It’s a relatively short read, albeit a little difficult since it was originally written in German and then translated and also because its written in the more complex grammatical structure of the earlier half of the 20th century (side note: I am continually amazed when reading “standard” texts from the late 19th and early 20th century how much we’ve lost in terms of language and reading – I’m no dummy and this stuff can be hard to comprehend).
First off let’s be clear on the title: Liberalism.  In a realworld example of Orwellian newspeak , the term liberal has been co-opted by a group that has fundamentally different philosophies and objectives than those (like von Mises) that originally labeled themselves that way.  This is not a book about global warming, gun control or health care.  Rather, it describes what would be called today a fundamentally libertarian world view.  The label libertarian (after this book was written) seems to have been invented precisely because the term liberal was co-opted.  This same thing is happening now with the term ‘conservative’ to the point that we now have neo-cons (really Trotskyism) and paleo-cons (the ‘real’ conservatives).  Von Mises addresses this war of language and labels directly in an appendix written decades after the original publication but before Libertarian was a widely accepted label, where he argues that the term Liberal shouldn’t be given up so easily.  I think that battle has since been lost.
As I said it’s a short read, but if you only have time / interest to read a bit of it, the big payoff for me was Chapter 4, titled Liberalism and Political Parties.  In 33 pages, von Mises lays waste to the idea that “parties of special interest” (i.e. political parties that seek to get benefits for special groups – at the expense of other groups) can ever result in a workable system.  Von Mises doesn’t make a moral argument, but rather a very practical, almost utilitarian view of why it just won’t work – or at least won’t accomplish the stated objectives of providing an organizational system for a peaceful, productive society.  The whole chapter is full of gold, but here’s one nugget:

This is one of the two fundamental weaknesses of all parties aiming at privileges on behalf of special interests. On the one hand, they are obliged to rely on only a small group, because privileges cease to be privileges when they are granted to the majority; but, on the other hand, it is only in their guise as the champions and representatives of the majority that they have any prospect of realizing their demands. The fact that many parties in different countries have sometimes succeeded in overcoming this difficulty in carrying on their propaganda and have managed to imbue each social stratum or group with the conviction that its members may expect special advantages from the triumph of the party speaks only for the diplomatic and tactical skill of the leadership and for the want of judgment and the political immaturity of the voting masses. It by no means proves that a real solution of the problem is, in fact, possible. Of course, one can simultaneously promise city-dwellers cheaper bread and farmers higher prices for grain, but one cannot keep both promises at the same time. It is easy enough to promise one group that one will support an increase in certain government expenditures without a corresponding reduction in other government expenditures, and at the same time hold out to another group the prospect of lower taxes; but one cannot keep both these promises at the same time either. The technique of these parties is based on the division of society into producers and consumers. They are also wont to make use of the usual hypostasis of the state in questions of fiscal policy that enables them to advocate new expenditures to be paid out of the public treasury without any particular concern on their part over how such expenses are to be defrayed, and at the same time to complain about the heavy burden of taxes.

In all honesty after reading and contemplating this material, its amazing that the current system – which is comprised entirely of special interests – has been able to keep things together for so long.  The swelling interests in the ideas of liberalism libertarian-ism may be an indication that a real change for the better may be underway.






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