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Quotations about Liberty and Power

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A theme in Mises’ writings is his critique of “the worship of the state”, which he also called “etatism” or “statolatry.” By this he meant the belief that the rulers of the state and their bureaucrats were more knowledgeable than others, less prone than ordinary people to allow their personal interests to overshadow their civi duty, accountable to a higher moral order, justified in using force against others to achieve the goals of “society”, and so on. Hence, they should be treated as godlike in their powers and virtue. One can trace his use of the words from the Theory of Money and Credit (1912) and Socialism (1922) at the time of WW1, where “etatism” was the preferred term, to WW2 and its immediate aftermath when he introduced the word “statolatry” in Omnipotent Government (1944), Bureaucracy (1944), and Human Action (1949) as a harsher way of saying the same thing. The key point for Mises is the distinction between the State’s way of carrying out its affairs, and the the way things are done in the free market. The former “means coercion and compulsion”, the latter means cooperation and peaceful exchange. In the modern era, Mises points out, the presence of democratic governments does not alter the fundamental equation as “majorities are no less exposed to error and frustration than kings and dictators.” He concludes that we must not forget that, like monarchs who ruled by divine right, “The individuals who form the majority are not gods, and their joint conclusions are not necessarily godlike.”

4 March, 2013

MisesB300

Mises on the worship of the state or statolatry (1944)

Read the full quote in context here.

At the height of WW2 when states on both sides of the conflict had massively increased government intervention in the economy, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) warned against “worship of the state”, or statolatry as he also called it, seeing in it the cause of “the worst evils which mankind ever had to endure”:

It has been necessary to dwell upon these truisms because the mythologies and metaphysics of etatism have succeeded in wrapping them in mystery. The state is a human institution, not a superhuman being. He who says “state” means coercion and compulsion. He who says: There should be a law concerning this matter, means: The armed men of the government should force people to do what they do not want to do, or not to do what they like. He who says: This law should be better enforced, means: The police should force people to obey this law. He who says: The state is God, deifies arms and prisons. The worship of the state is the worship of force. There is no more dangerous menace to civilization than a government of incompetent, corrupt, or vile men. The worst evils which mankind ever had to endure were inflicted by bad governments. The state can be and has often been in the course of history the main source of mischief and disaster.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

With human nature as it is, the state is a necessary and indispensable institution. The state is, if properly administered, the foundation of society, of human coöperation and civilization. It is the most beneficial and most useful instrument in the endeavors of man to promote human happiness and welfare. But it is a tool and a means only, not the ultimate goal. It is not God. It is simply compulsion and coercion; it is the police power.

It has been necessary to dwell upon these truisms because the mythologies and metaphysics of etatism have succeeded in wrapping them in mystery. The state is a human institution, not a superhuman being. He who says “state” means coercion and compulsion. He who says: There should be a law concerning this matter, means: The armed men of the government should force people to do what they do not want to do, or not to do what they like. He who says: This law should be better enforced, means: The police should force people to obey this law. He who says: The state is God, deifies arms and prisons. The worship of the state is the worship of force. There is no more dangerous menace to civilization than a government of incompetent, corrupt, or vile men. The worst evils which mankind ever had to endure were inflicted by bad governments. The state can be and has often been in the course of history the main source of mischief and disaster.

The apparatus of compulsion and coercion is always operated by mortal men. It has happened time and again that rulers have excelled their contemporaries and fellow citizens both in competence and in fairness. But there is ample historical evidence to the contrary too. The thesis of etatism that the members of the government and its assistants are more intelligent than the people, and that they know better what is good for the individual than he himself knows, is pure nonsense. The Führers and the Duces are neither God nor God’s vicars.

The essential characteristic features of state and government do not depend on their particular structure and constitution. They are present both in despotic and in democratic governments. Democracy too is not divine. We shall later deal with the benefits that society derives from democratic government. But great as these advantages are, it should never be forgotten that majorities are no less exposed to error and frustration than kings and dictators. That a fact is deemed true by the majority does not prove its truth. That a policy is deemed expedient by the majority does not prove its expediency. The individuals who form the majority are not gods, and their joint conclusions are not necessarily godlike.

[More works by Ludwig von Mises (1881 – 1973) and on The Austrian School of Economics]