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News Link • Philosophy: Liberalism

The Case for Optimism


Recently, I wrote an article on lost causes on the Left. I began it with this quotation from a civil rights activist in the mid-1960's: Mel Leventhal.

Everything meaningful that's ever happened in the world, any change, any improvement comes about because of optimism. The pessimists don't get anything done. They're naysayers. You have to see the potential for change. And you've got to see it not in terms of the moment but in terms of the long view, the long haul.

Two days later, the president of the Mises Institute, Jeff Deist, published an article on the optimism of libertarian economist Murray Rothbard. He quoted this from Rothbard:

The clock cannot be turned back to a preindustrial age. Not only would the masses not permit such a drastic reversal of their expectations for a rising standard of living, but return to an agrarian world would mean the starvation and death of the great bulk of the current population. We are stuck with the industrial age, whether we like it or not. … But if that is true, then the cause of liberty is secured. For economic science has shown, as we have partially demonstrated in this book, that only freedom  and a free market can run an industrial economy. I

In short, while a free economy and a free society would be desirable and just in a preindustrial world, in an industrial world it is also a vital necessity. For, as Ludwig von Mises and other economists have shown, in an industrial economy statism simply does not work. Hence, given a universal commitment to an industrial world, it will eventually — and a much sooner "eventually" than the simple emergence of truth — become clear that the world will have to adopt freedom and the free market as the requisite for industry to survive and flourish.

Back in 1922, the mentor of Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, wrote this of socialism.

Nothing has helped the spread of socialist ideas more than this belief that Socialism is inevitable. Even the opponents of Socialism are for the most part bewitched by it: it takes the heart out of their resistance. The educated person is afraid of appearing unmodern if he does not show that he is actuated by the social spirit, for already the age of Socialism, the historic day of the fourth estate, is supposed to have dawned and everyone who still clings to Liberalism is in consequence a reactionary. Every triumph of the socialist idea which brings us nearer to the socialist way of production is counted as progress; every measure which protects private property is a setback. The one side looks on with sadness or an even deeper emotion, the other side with the light, as the age of private property passes with the changing times, but all are convinced that history has destined it to irrevocable destruction (Socialism, pp. 282-83).

 More than anyone in the 20th century, he believed that socialism would fail. In 1920, he wrote his classic essay, "Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth," in which he showed that socialism is inherently irrational and blind with respect to economic planning. Socialism allows no free market in consumer goods and capital goods. Therefore, socialist planners are completely blind with respect to what the prices of anything should be. His book on socialism, published in 1922, is a 600-page extension of this idea. Here is how he ended his book: "Not mythical 'material productive forces', but reason and ideas determine the course of human affairs. What is needed to stop the trend towards socialism and despotism is common sense and moral courage." (p. 586).

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