Politics and Ideas
In the Age of Enlightenment, in the years in which the North Americans founded their independence, and a few years later, when the Spanish and Portuguese colonies were transformed into independent nations, the prevailing mood in Western civilization was optimistic. At that time all philosophers and statesmen were fully convinced that we were living at the beginning of a new age of prosperity, progress, and freedom. In those days people expected that the new political institutions—the constitutional representative governments established in the free nations of Europe and America—would work in a very beneficial way, and that economic freedom would continuously improve the material conditions of mankind.
We know very well that some of these expectations were too optimistic. It is certainly true that we have experienced, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an unprecedented improvement in economic conditions, making it possible for a much larger population to live at a much higher standard of living. But we also know that many of the hopes of the eighteenth-century philosophers have been badly shattered—hopes that there would not be any more wars and that revolutions would become unnecessary. These expectations were not realized.
During the nineteenth century, there was a period when wars decreased in both number and severity. But the twentieth century brought a resurgence of the warlike spirit, and we can fairly well say that we may not yet be at the end of the trials through which mankind will have to go.
The constitutional system that began at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century has disappointed mankind. Most people—also most authors—who have dealt with this problem seem to think there has been no connection between the economic and the political side of the problem. Thus, they tend to deal at great length with the decay of parliamentarianism—government by the representatives of the people—as if this phenomenon were completely independent of the economic situation and of the economic ideas that determine the activities of people.
But such an independence does not exist. Man is not a being that, on the one hand, has an economic side and, on the other hand, a political side, with no connection between the two. In fact, what is called the decay of freedom, of constitutional government and representative institutions, is the consequence of the radical change in economic and political ideas. The political events are the inevitable consequence of the change in economic policies.
The ideas that guided the statesmen, philosophers, and lawyers who, in the eighteenth century and in the early nineteenth century, developed the fundamentals of the new political system started from the assumption that, within a nation, all honest citizens have the same ultimate goal. This ultimate goal, to which all decent men should be dedicated, is the welfare of the whole nation, and also the welfare of other nations—these moral and political leaders being fully convinced that a free nation is not interested in conquest. They conceived of party strife as only natural, that it was perfectly normal for there to be differences of opinion concerning the best way to conduct the affairs of state.
Those people who held similar ideas about a problem cooperated, and this cooperation was called a party. But a party structure was not permanent. It did not depend on the position of the individuals within the whole social structure. It could change if people learned that their original position was based on erroneous assumptions, on erroneous ideas. From this point of view, many regarded the discussions in the election campaigns and later in the legislative assemblies as an important political factor. The speeches of members of a legislature were not considered to be merely pronouncements telling the world what a political party wanted. They were regarded as attempts to convince opposing groups that the speaker’s own ideas were more correct, more beneficial to the common weal, than those which they had heard before.
Political speeches, editorials in newspapers, pamphlets, and books were written in order to persuade. There was little reason to believe that one could not convince the majority that one’s own position was absolutely correct if one’s ideas were sound. It was from this point of view that the constitutional rules were written in the legislative bodies of the early nineteenth century.
But this implied that the government would not interfere with the economic conditions of the market. It implied that all citizens had only one political aim: the welfare of the whole country and of the whole nation. And it is precisely this social and economic philosophy that interventionism has replaced. Interventionism has spawned a very different philosophy.
Under interventionist ideas, it is the duty of the government to support, to subsidize, to give privileges to special groups. The idea of the eighteenth-century statesmen was that the legislators had special ideas about the common good. But what we have today, what we see today in the reality of political life, practically without any exceptions, in all the countries of the world where there is not simply communist dictatorship, is a situation where there are no longer real political parties in the old classical sense, but merely pressure groups.
A pressure group is a group of people who want to attain for themselves a special privilege at the expense of the rest of the nation. This privilege may consist in a tariff on competing imports, it may consist in a subsidy, it may consist in laws that prevent other people from competing with the members of the pressure group. At any rate, it gives to the members of the pressure group a special position. It gives them something which is denied or ought to be denied—according to the ideas of the pressure group—to other groups.
In the United States, the two-party system of the old days is seemingly still preserved. But this is only a camouflage of the real situation. In fact, th
Article from Mises Wire