“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 cooperation 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.”
These words of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises were penned in 1944, as a reminder and admonition to a world increasingly shadowed by totalitarianism. His Omnipotent Government is a brilliant expose of the evils of socialism. Having escaped the Nazi regime, von Mises is bold and unapologetic in his denunciation of the socialist worldview. For von Mises, the emergence and rise of etatism – the assertion of the state over all else – presents mankind with a stark choice: humanity or bestiality. There is no other alternative. Democracy and socialism are irreconcilable enemies. Where democracy upholds the innate dignity of man and embraces his genius and individuality, socialism seeks to impose upon, override, and finally abolish man’s ability to choose his own happiness. It undertakes to mold man into the image determined by the dominant ideology. Socialist dictators seek to remake the earth in their own image. Von Mises acutely notes that “both force and money are impotent against ideas.” It is ideas that move modern man and it is for the very minds of the human race that socialism strives.
Von Mises does not claim capitalism to be a blameless system; it too has its weaknesses and vicissitudes. However, he does maintain that true peace and freedom can only be found in the free market system. Against the backdrop of world war von Mises illustrates that in a society where private property is valued war has no sway. It is only within the total state that war is profitable; the Nazis thrived on conflict. They sought to exploit faction and foster resentment, most notably against the Jews and Bolsheviks. The Nazis, through these means, were asserting their belief that Germany was the strongest and best nation, destined to lead the world.
The danger of this outlook was apparent to von Mises; though he recognized the trend in German militarism and aggression, he does not make all-encompassing statements regarding the German character. What von Mises concentrates upon is the growth of the total state and the trademark signs of its presence. He describes inflation as anti-democratic, asserts that subsidies are merely giving to some what is taken from others, and unmasks the reality of government “planning.” He recognizes the possibility for corruption in all government, knowing man to be fallible, but he also sees its immense capacity for good. The fight against totalitarianism must not be confused and unfocused, von Mises explains. He asserts that, “Freedom can only be won by men unconditionally committed to the principles of freedom.” The course must be set, and adhered to unwaveringly.
The road back from etatism is one fraught with difficulties, demanding sacrifice and, above all, a staunch faith in mankind. Von Mises calls for a return to the unimpeded free market economy. His predictions for the future are bleak, but not utterly without hope. A lone voice in his time, von Mises has recently gained renown as his observations have been proven correct. Despite the proximity of the socialist danger, von Mises feelingly asserts, “Liberty is not…a negative ideal.” It is a contest worth the most arduous effort.