Mises on Liberty and the State

A key point of my series, “The Meaning of Liberty,” is that liberty is not so much a rigid abstraction as it is a social phenomenon. It is the best “deal” we can make with those around us — the set of compromises that defines acceptable behavior, which is the boundary of liberty. Those compromises are not made by a philosopher-king but through an evolving consensus about harms — a consensus that flows from reason, experience, persuasion, and necessity.

Here to buttress my point — on a grand scale — is none other than Ludwig von Mises, writing in “The Idea of Liberty Is Western“:

The idea of liberty is and has always been peculiar to the West. What separates East and West is first of all the fact that the peoples of the East never conceived the idea of liberty. The imperishable glory of the ancient Greeks was that they were the first to grasp the meaning and significance of institutions warranting liberty. Recent historical research has traced back to Oriental sources the origin of some of the scientific achievements previously credited to the Hellenes. But nobody has ever contested that the idea of liberty was created in the cities of ancient Greece. The writings of Greek philosophers and historians transmitted it to the Romans and later to modern Europe and America. It became the essential concern of all Western plans for the establishment of the good society. It begot the laissez-faire philosophy to which mankind owes all the unprecedented achievements of the age of capitalism.

Another way to put it is this: Easterners (even when left to their own devices) prefer a set of compromises about acceptable behavior that Westerners generally (though not always) would reject as being too constraining. That is not to argue for cultural relativism, however, because there are demonstrable differences in outcomes that favor the West. And it is only a deluded minority of cosseted Westerners who seek to follow Eastern ways, whereas Eastern authorities have long (and sometimes futilely) sought to prevent their subjects from becoming Westernized.

In the same essay, Mises also buttresses my belief in the inevitability of a state, whatever it may be called (see this, for example), when he writes:

Social cooperation under the division of labor is the ultimate and sole source of man’s success in his struggle for survival and his endeavors to improve as much as possible the material conditions of his well-being. But as human nature is, society cannot exist if there is no provision for preventing unruly people from actions incompatible with community life. In order to preserve peaceful cooperation, one must be ready to resort to violent suppression of those disturbing the peace. Society cannot do without a social apparatus of coercion and compulsion, i.e., without state and government. Then a further problem emerges: to restrain the men who are in charge of the governmental functions lest they abuse their power and convert all other people into virtual slaves. The aim of all struggles for liberty is to keep in bounds the armed defenders of peace, the governors and their constables. Freedom always means: freedom from arbitrary action on the part of the police power.

Liberty therefore amounts to the operation of socially evolved norms (with voice and exit) under the aegis of a “night watchman” state.