Saturday, May 30, 2009

The State Will Control Even Your Respiration

"Totalitarianism is much more than mere bureaucracy. It is the subordination of every individual's whole life, work, and leisure, to the orders of those in power and office. It is the reduction of man to a cog in an all-embracing machine of compulsion and coercion. It forces the individual to renounce any activity of which the government does not approve. It tolerates no expression of dissent. It is the transformation of society into a strictly disciplined labor-army—as the advocates of socialism say—or into a penitentiary—as its opponents say. At any rates it is the radical break from the way of life to which the civilized nations clung in the past. It is not merely the return of mankind to the oriental despotism under which, as Hegel observed, one man alone was free and all the rest slaves, for those Asiatic kings did not interfere with the daily routine of their subjects. To the individual farmers, cattle breeders, and artisans a field of activities was left in the performance of which they were not troubled by the king and his satellites. They enjoyed some amount of autonomy within their own households and families. It is different with modern socialism. It is totalitarian in the strict sense of the term. It holds the individual in tight rein from the womb to the tomb. At every instant of his life the "comrade" is bound to obey implicitly the orders issued by the supreme authority. The State is both his guardian and his employer. The State determines his work, his diet, and his pleasures. The State tells him what to think and what to believe in."

—Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy

Pro-capitalist libertarians describe capitalism, and life under capitalism, in a way something like the Sufi story about the four blind men and the elephant. Libertarians know very well the head of the elephant, from drawings and sensation and books. They do not know anything about the elephant past the neck.


Alex said...

Here's one problem with v. Mises' argument:

"It is not merely the return of mankind to the oriental despotism under which, as Hegel observed, one man alone was free and all the rest slaves, for those Asiatic kings did not interfere with the daily routine of their subjects."

Essentially, Mises does not understand what freedom is.

But ancient democracies / republics were precisely states of the kind Mises seems so exercised about: politics was everything in these states, and everything was (or could be) regulated in ancient republics. Men were free in those tiny ancient republics because they could participate in ruling, not because the there were arbitrary limits to politics. Socrates, of course, was executed in democratic Athens. Rousseau flees from republican Geneva to royal France. Aristotle flees democratic Athens to join the royal court of Alexander. Etc.

Mises is taking Locke's version of liberty (which is primarily property rights and control of the private household) and pretending that Locke's liberty was the standard of civilized nations. (Or, put in another way, that Locke's liberty was the only concievable understanding of liberty).

But Locke's liberty not only wasn't the standard of civilized nations, it's much closer to what the old-time oriental despotisms offered. Locke's liberty is precisely the flaw in the social contract: the demos does not itself rule, and the demos instead is distracted and diverted from their political passions into pursuit of private gain.

That's why the social contract state resembles oriental despotisms in so many ways - because the demos does not directly rule, the social contract state can expand and contract its borders in infinite variations just like an oriental despotism. (If the demos rules directly, the demos must gather together in one place frequently - i.e. the true democracy is limited in geographic size to a very small area). The social contract state, of course, is completely the converse. As long as the small legislature of representatives can meet anywhere, it can control anyplace. The legislature rules, and the vast bulk of citizens are discouraged from politics and their passions diverted into pursuit of private gain.

In other words, Mises doesn't understand that the techne of the social contract is the same across all modern states.

ZC said...

More on despotism and freedom to come later, I think. But thanks for your thoughts, Alex.